Few texts as clearly illustrate God’s relationship to the world – and the world’s refusal of God! – as this week’s Gospel text. Of course it contains John 3:16, the verse so famous it has escaped the scriptures to inhabit our sports stadiums and street corners. But the rest of the passage is as rich, and illuminates exactly how God’s love for the world is meant to rescue us.
John draws on the Old Testament reading, the strange story in Numbers of the venomous snakes who attack a rebellious Israel. In typical ancient interprative fashion, John doesn’t dwell on an historical interpretation of Numbers. Rather, he uses the story as a type anticipating Jesus’ crucifixion. Unless you plan to incorporate the Numbers passage in your message this week, you may be wise simply to call attention to the story rather than fully exegete it.
Jesus-as-serpent is a powerful symbol in John’s Gospel that gets too little attention, for precisely the same reason John employs it: it rubs us the wrong way. Throughout John’s Gospel story, Jesus anticipates the moment of his ‘glory’ when he will be ‘raised up’. To those listening in the text, it sounds like typical Messianic expectation.
But insiders know that Jesus ‘moment of glory’, the moment when he will be ‘raised up’ will be on the Cross. This is more significant than we typically allow for. Glory is roughly synonymous with fame. When ancient kings claimed they were glorious, they were claiming they were well-known in the world, that other kings and kingdoms knew and respected – maybe even feared them. For Jesus to claim the Cross is his moment of glory is to claim that this is the moment his reputation will be established. This is the moment that the Father – whom, according to John’s prologue, no one has seen – will be revealed most fully to the world.
It’s a moment of weakness. A moment of defeat. A moment not of conquest but of being conquered by another nation and their gods. Crucifixion was seen as a curse by both Romans and Jews. It was the lowest place to which one could descend. No wonder then, Jesus compares himself to a snake. Whatever the snake meant in its original context (a symbol of royalty and divine authority in Egypt, and a symbol of divine wisdom in Babylon), by Jesus’ day, the snake was the lowest of the low, eating the dust of the ground and being trod under heel by God’s faithful people.
Yet God will become the snake – the low thing, the despicable, the trodden-upon. God will become the lowest thing not in secret, but in public. God-the-snake will allow himself to be raised up and become famous as the God Who Lost, the God Who Died, the God Who Was Defeated.
And then, once this God Who Dies is revealed to the world, we of the world have a choice to make. Will we look to this Snake God and be saved? Will we embrace this upside down Way of Weakness?
God came into the world not to judge us, but to save us. The Greek word for judge (krinos) comes from the word for ‘to cut’. It’s a separating. God didn’t come into the world to separate us from God. Rather, as John insists, we are the ones who separate. As he says, “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
Having been raised up, Jesus shines the light of God’s Way. His fame has made the Way to life visible: it is the way of the Snake, the way of being trodden upon, the way of eating dust, the way of death. Plenty of people refuse to follow this God. We would prefer the way of Rome, the way of power, the way of acclaim, the way of safety and security. We see the way of this Dying God and we refuse to follow him to his Cross. Is God judging us? No, we are judging ourselves. We are choosing not to walk the way of life made so clear by Jesus.
Since this is the middle of Lent, hold up the Crucified Jesus. Marvel at his sacrifice, and marvel at his invitation. Share stories of those who have followed his way of self-sacrifice, saints old and new who help us imagine what it looks like for us to follow Jesus. Share stories from your own congregation of those who have been faithful to this Trodden-Upon God. Help your people to see the glory of this Dying God, and shape their imaginations to follow him to find crosses of their own.