A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3: 14-21

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

They are some of the most well known words in scripture, the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus that night.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

The story is told in the third chapter of John’s Gospel. Nicodemus, a religious leader, has sensed from the things that Jesus is doing that he is from God but Nicodemus is wondering how this can be. In John’s Gospel, where light and dark are such powerful symbols, it matters that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. The idea is that he doesn’t understand. The gospel passage that we have heard read this morning is a strange one really, a snippet of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, coming after the part where Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born again and Nicodemus has no idea what he is talking about. Nicodemus is thinking in earthly terms, in physical terms. But Jesus is not talking about the physical life. He is talking about the spiritual life. He tries to explain this to Nicodemus.

‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.”’

Jesus has come from above. From the heart of the life of God.

He tries to explain this to Nicodemus, referring to himself as the Son of Man, what one spiritual thinker called “the emblem of our humanity”, the ultimate human being who is at home in earth as he is in heaven.

‘No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.’ Jesus keeps trying to explain. ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Nicodemus could be excused for being even more confused now. Jesus is referring to the Old Testament story that we heard read this morning. Travelling in the wilderness, the people led by Moses find themselves being attacked by poisonous serpents. God tells Moses to make a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bites someone, that person is to look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:9)

This is a very strange story. But there is something significant going on in it and it’s worth thinking about as Jesus is relating it to his being lifted up to his death on the cross.

God is, in the bronze serpent, in some sense inhabiting the deaths inflicted by the serpents. God is in solidarity with us when illness strikes. If the person who is bitten has the faith to look up, to look up at the serpent of bronze, healing will come. This is again about the spiritual life. About the praying life. About the people in the wilderness being encouraged to have faith in the context of illness and death. About God being present there, bringing life there.

Life is what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus and all of us into. The spiritual life. Eternal life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

When I was at theological college, our New Testament lecturer translated this verse from the Gospel according to St John in a way that surprised me and so I have not forgotten her words. She said that the writer is not having Jesus say that God loved the world SO much that he gave his son. The writer is saying something else entirely. The writer is saying that God loved the world “so” … in this way. This is the way in which God loved the world.

God longed to be known by us. Longs to be known by us. How best might God do this, might God be known? The best way for a human being to know God is through a human being. One who is so close to God, one who links earth and heaven, one who walks the earth and stands alongside the human beings in his time and place in all the aspects of their lives.  One who eats meals with us and teaches us. One who brings keeps company with frail and broken bodies, with troubled minds and spirits. One who inhabits the thing so many most dread. Death and the fear of the meaningless that we might think death brings. Jesus even dies with us, is lifted up on the cross – the Son of Man is lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

God loved the world so … in this way. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us … as the Prologue to John’s Gospel says. God gave us Jesus. That believing in him we might have life. Eternal life.

So we might reflect on that, on those words, eternal life. Being like Nicodemus, the one who comes at night, remember, we are prone to thinking in the realm of space and time. Of what we can see, of what we can measure. Eternal life is not about time going on, though. It is not about endless life. It about something different entirely. Rowan Williams in our Lent Book Candles in the Dark [1] put it this way:

Our identity as Christians is to be in the place where Jesus stands, the place from which we see into the boundless reality that is the outpouring of God’s life. Standing with Jesus, standing in the truth, is like standing under a waterfall: the life of God is around us, soaking and overwhelming us. We can’t grab it and hold on to it, we can’t contain it. The mystery of the Trinitarian life … is the mystery of just being immersed in this …

Standing with Jesus, standing in the truth is like standing under a waterfall. The life of God around us, soaking and overwhelming us.

I wonder how that resonates with us. For each one of us it will be different. We may have sensed this, this waterfall, or eternal life may have been almost like a whisper, something we have only just sensed, barely known, glimpsed in the distance. What do the words “eternal life” mean to us?

Today is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday. Traditionally it was a time for those who had moved away from home, to return home. To return to their family home or their family church. To return to their roots, as the saying goes. Mothering Sunday might be just the time to ponder what eternal life might mean for us. It is a time of refreshment from our Lenten disciplines. A time for remembering, wondering, what the word “home” means to us. A time to pause and reflect. Where were we most nurtured, where did we first glimpse the possibility of eternal life? Or where did we sense God’s presence? Love’s presence? The presence of forgiveness? With whom? A person, our family, a faith community? It might have been our school, or the group of people with whom we sang in a choir or played a most loved sport. It might have been in a book, in the words of a spiritual writer, or a wise novelist. Where were we at home? Where are we most at home? Eternal life has something to do with this place. And on Mothering Sunday we might ponder this.

This day is one on which we are encouraged to pause before we turn again and walk the final weeks of Lent, the days of Holy Week … before we face the sharp darkness of Good Friday, the day on which the Son of Man, Jesus, is lifted up, dies a criminal’s death, that we might have this precious thing, eternal life. Believing in him, may have eternal life.

The one who wrote John’s Gospel said that he did so that we might believe. And through believing have life. It’s not about some fierce intellectual effort this believing I don’t think. It’s not about understanding a set of complex ideas. Belief may well be woven with doubt. Belief may well ebb and flow. Belief may the clearest thing one day and yet a complete mystery on another. The thing is that we are not alone in it. This Son of man, this Jesus, accompanies us in it. As we accompany one another. It may be that it is just possible that we will notice that  …standing with Jesus, standing in the truth, is like standing under a waterfall: the life of God is around us, soaking and overwhelming us.

[1] Rowan Williams Candles in the Dark p33