Sunday March 11 2018


Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-21

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

Jesus said, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

When I was studying theology, training to be a priest, we attended lots of lectures and heard many wise things and just a few of those wise things struck me, stayed with me, influenced me, I guess. One lecturer taught us several New Testament topics. She taught us about the Greek language, taught us about Mark’s gospel and taught us about the Gospel of John. And when our lecturer was talking about the Gospel of John and she came to this very well known verse, John 3:16, she said that one word in the Greek meant something a little different from what we tend to think it means. It is the word “so”. She said that it is not that Jesus is saying that God loves the world “so much” that God gave his Son. That is true, of course, but that is not what the word means. Jesus is saying that God loved the world “so”, God loved the world in this way. It is in this way that God loves the world.

And that is something on which we might reflect. For the way in which God chooses to bring life to the world, God’s method, if you like, tells us a lot about who this God is.

God might have done any number of powerful things to redeem the world, to help creation thrive, but God chose a particular way. God gave God’s Son.

He gave us a human life in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus who lived and died a human death, a human death that God transformed.

Jesus is talking to Nicodemus. The third chapter of the Gospel according to St John gives an account of Nicodemus, a religious leader, coming to see Jesus at night. Dark and light are significant images in the gospel of John and the hint here is that Nicodemus, in coming by night, in the dark, is missing something, not understanding something, about the ways of God. This religious leader seeks Jesus out because he senses that Jesus is close to God, that Jesus knows the ways of God. Ironically, the religious leader seeks out the wandering preacher and healer. The scholar, Walter Brueggemann, who is guiding our Lent studies in the cathedral, reflects in one of the studies on the meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus and suggests that Nicodemus must have something gnawing, eating away at him. Brueggemann portrays Jesus speaking to Nicodemus in the following way: “You’ve got to start over! You’ve got to be reborn. You’ve got to be born again. You’ve got to be born from above. You’ve got to become vulnerable and innocent and dependent as a child. You’ve got to forgo your social position, your achievements, your wealth, your reputation. You’ve got to let go of all the things that make you self-sufficient and that alienate you from the wonder of the gift from God. Start over in vulnerability, in innocence, and in dependence. For the way you are living now keeps you cut off – in your arrogant security – from all the gifts of life for which you so much yearn.”

Bruggemann continues, “When the secret meeting is over, Nicodemus … leaves with these odd words pounding in his head: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” [1]

God loved the world so, in this way.

God gave us a human life, and a human death, a human death that God transformed.

Jesus talks about this death to Nicodemus.

“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.” (John 3:14)

Our Old Testament reading from the Book of Numbers tells the story of the Israelites in the wilderness struggling with hunger and thirst, complaining about that hunger and thirst, and then finding themselves attacked by serpents. The people then cried out to God who told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to hold it up. Those who looked upon this serpent would be healed. The serpent was a sign of God’s presence. God inhabits the thing that is terrifying the people, the serpent, and when the people of Israel looked upon and trusted the sign of God’s presence, they were blessed, in some way life was restored to them. The key is to trust and to look up.

Jesus refers to this story and connects it to his death. When Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the people knew God was present and they were healed by that presence. Jesus is saying that when he is lifted up, when he dies on the cross, that at that moment we know that God is present and we will find eternal life believing in that presence. In Jesus’ death, God inhabits the thing that most terrifies us, death, and when we look upon the cross, is it possible that even in death we are healed? When Jesus speaks of the Son of Man being lifted up he is not only talking about the way he will die, his crucifixion. He is also talking about the meaning of that death. The writer of John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus’ exaltation, of Jesus’ glory. The moment of God’s great revelation is Jesus’ death on the cross.

God loved the world so, in this way … that he gave his only Son … and the moment when God’s love and meaning is revealed is when that Son dies on the cross. Again, the key is to trust, to look up.

Walter Brueggemann portrays Jesus talking to Nicodemus, saying to Nicodemus, “You’ve got to become vulnerable and innocent and dependent as a child.” What is staggering is that the way in which God loved the world was that he gave his Son who came as a child, a baby in a manger, and died, vulnerable and innocent and dependent as a child.

That whoever believes in him might have eternal life.

This morning in our cathedral two families are bringing two children to be baptised. One family is woven into our cathedral life, one family has driven from another state to have their child baptised here because this place is so significant to them. Both families sense something of God, here, sense, like Nicodemus, that without Jesus’ life in their life something is missing, sense that love and thriving can be found here. And they bring these young children, children who are also vulnerable, innocent and dependent.

God gave God’s Son. This is the way in which God loves us. And so we gather to hear the stories of that Son’s life and to share one another’s company in the hearing of that story. We gather to witness the baptism of these two children. We gather to offer in prayer our gratitude for the gift of life, our longing for healing for those we love who are ill, our longing for peace and healing for our world. We gather to reach out our hands, surely a gesture of vulnerability, for a snippet of bread and a sip of wine that for us are the body and blood, the presence and the life, of that Son that God gave.

Is this what Jesus means by eternal life? Coming like Nicodemus, with something gnawing in us, something in us that knows we are incomplete, a longing in us for something more than we can make for ourselves. Our collect this morning is from Saint Augustine’s famous prayer that says that “Our hearts are restless until they are found in thee”. Is eternal life only found when we hold out our empty hands, remember ourselves as vulnerable, innocent and dependent? And strangely, reaching out to a God, who allowed himself to be so vulnerable that he endured death on a cross for us.

Eternal life might not be about life going on forever in time. It might be about a depth in life. It might be about coming before God with the truth and struggle of our life and finding there the one who holds us in love.

Walter Brueggemann, in another of the reflections that are nurturing our community this Lent, describes it in this way:

“Our proper way in the world [is] an alternative way, the waters of baptism, the Bread of the Eucharist, the wine of new covenant, the capacity to risk and trust and obey, and then to find ourselves safe and joyous, close to God, and enlisted for a very different life in the world.”[2]

This alternative way in the world to which we can only come, it seems, in vulnerability and innocence and dependence. As Nicodemus did that night long ago when Jesus spoke the words that have rung out in communities that gather in his name ever since. God loved the world, so, …in this way, … God gave his Son, that whoever believes in him, gathers in vulnerability in his presence, knows themselves dependent in his presence, will find themselves safe and joyous in that presence, will have eternal life.

[1] Walter Brueggemann A Way Other than our Own pp34-5.

[2] Walter Brueggemann A Way Other than our Own p43.