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Handle With Care

Handle With Care

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Today we are going to talk about one of the most familiar verses in Christian scripture, the verse Martin Luther claimed was the gospel in miniature, the one verse -if you’re the sort of person who memorizes verses - you probably memorized first: John 3:16. Anyone want to say it with me? I will be reciting it in the King’s James version, but you do you…

For God so loved the world

that he gave his only begotten son

that whosoever believeth in him

should not perish but have eternal life.

Friends, John 3:16 is so central to our understanding and experience of Christianity that I think it only right to begin our exploration of this verse with a few wise words from… the Buddha. I was hoping that would get a laugh but you’ll soon see that I’m not just being cheeky.

In one of his most famous sutras, the Buddha offers a word of caution when it comes to handling the central truths of faith. “There are always some people,” he says,

“who do not understand the letter or the spirit of a teaching and, in fact, take it the opposite way of what was intended …people who study only to satisfy their curiosity or win arguments, and not for the sake of liberation. (Such people) can be compared to a man trying to catch a poisonous snake in the wild. If he reaches out his hand, the snake may bite (and he will) only create suffering. …an intelligent student (on the other hand) is like a man who uses a forked stick to catch a snake. When he sees a …snake in the wild, he places the stick right below the head …and grabs the snake’s neck with his hand. Even if the snake winds itself around the man’s hand, leg, or another part of his body, it will not bite him. This is the better way to catch a snake, and it will not lead to pain or exhaustion.

Friends, thanks in part to the verse before us today, I believe that God wants to save us from our sin not condemn us for it. And yet John 3:16, for all its talk of love and the explicit promise of the verse that immediately follows it - “for God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved” -  this verse, more often than not, gets wielded as a threat. Believe or else! Believe or you will perish.

Given the amount of argumentation, pain, and exhaustion this verse has caused, not to mention all the literal snakes that appear in both of these passages, I think it best that we heed the Buddha’s advice, walk softly into today’s readings, and carry a big stick.

You all with me? Good, because I think I know right where the neck is on this particular serpent. So go ahead and say John 3:16 with me one more time and let’s see if we can’t catch a hold of this varmint once and for all. You ready? Here we go…

“For God so…”. STOP! Right there. That’s where I want you to hold this verse.

Friends, when we use the word “so," what do we really mean?

When I say:

“I love you so much.”

“I am so thankful.”

“That was so good”

What do we mean?

We mean very. I love you very much. (And I do).

Which means that when we read: “For God so loved the world…” what we hear is: “For God loved the world so very much - such a great amount - that he gave up his only son for us.” Right? And although there’s truth in that reading, the emphasis on the quality or depth of God’s love opens us up to a level of emotional manipulation and misunderstanding that causes harm.

I need us to hold the verse right there because what hardly anyone knows anymore is that in the seventeenth century, when the King James Version was produced, “so” didn’t mean “very.” It meant “in this way,” or “like so.” Back then, when they rendered the verse this way, what the King’s translators really meant was, “God loved the world in this way.” “God loved the world like so…”

What this verse is laying out is the way God’s love took shape among us, the way it played out. And to understand what that was, well, we have to go back and take a closer look at some actual snakes, the one Jesus himself referred to and the rest of the nest we just heard about in the book of Numbers.

But first: a little back story for those of you who haven’t read the book of Numbers recently - which I’m assuming is …most of you. Anyone here in need of a recap? I figured as much. So here goes.

Previously, in the Bible, there is a story about Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. And all that wandering was  - how shall I say this? - not fun.  It was pretty miserable in fact. So miserable that they complained…a lot. Or, as it is says in the King James Version, they “murmured.” (Which is why, to this day, scholars refer to these as the murmuring stories.)

God brought the Israelites up from captivity but rather than give thanks for their new-found freedom, they accused Moses of bringing them out into the wilderness to die. “We were better off as slaves in Egypt,” they murmured, which was not a good start.

Then, in spite of the fact that they were out in the middle of a desert, they complained about the water. It was too bitter, they said (Exodus 15:22-25). So God showed Moses how to sweeten it.

Then they complained to Moses that they were hungry and God sent them… (come on, you can do this)… manna from heaven (Exodus 16:2-3).

Yeah, but nobody liked it and the portions were too small. Just kidding, they don’t say that till our reading this morning. The manna tasted like honey, at least at first, and God made sure there was enough for everyone, every single day. But that didn’t stop people from trying to hoard it, and let’s just say that didn’t end well.

Then they’re thirsty again (Exodus 17:3). Then they want meat so God sends Quail…. “You want meat," says God, “I’ll give you meat. I’m going to make you eat meat till it comes out your nose”(Numbers 11:4-6).  And folks, that’s a direct quote, not a paraphrase. So you can tell God’s patience is wearing thin.

Which was not good because this went on for 40 years! 40 years of wandering. 40 years of whining. And yet, when they finally arrive at the promised land the Israelites don’t want to go in because they are afraid of the people who already live there (Numbers 14).

So they wander for another 40 years, which doesn’t make anybody happy and all this murmuring comes to a head in today’s story because today, rather than just murmuring against Moses and Aaron, the people murmured against God. They rebelled. With poison on their tongues they spoke ill of the God who had done nothing but try to save them.

And God, well, God has had enough.  God sends poisonous snakes amongst them. Many people are bitten. Some even die. How does this square with the God who “so loves the world?” Not well. I’ll be the first to admit this does not look good. At least not at first.

Which is why we need to hold these snakes very carefully - right by the throat, if you will - look them in the eye, and ask why they are even here in the first place. After all, God could have responded to their murmuring in any number of ways, so why snakes?

Well, no one knows for sure, but I think Rabbi R. Israel Meirha-Kohen is on to something when he points out that the serpent in the garden of Eden (remember him?) was actually the original murmurer. The serpent was the first to speak against God and sow dissent in the ranks of humanity when he talked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit.

If you know that about this serpent - and they all did - then I think it is possible to interpret these snakes not as a punishment sent by an angry God so much as a wake up call sent by a God who desperately wants them to see just how destructive their seditious murmuring really is.

The snakes were an obvious symbol of their particular sin. Snakes, in the words of Steve Garnaas Holmes, “were their betrayal come back to bite them;” a form of poetic justice if you will. God’s way of saying, “Look at what you have become! Your behavior is poisoning you!”

And it worked! The people cried out to Moses for mercy and admitted their fault: "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed and God devised a most peculiar plan.

One might even say that in spite of their destructive behavior, God loved the Israelites in this way: God had Moses make a poisonous serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten by a snake they had only to look up at the serpent and they would be healed. Whenever someone suffered the consequence of their sin against God, they had only to look up at their sin writ large, and they would be made well.

As I said, it worked. In fact, it worked so well, that years later Jesus recalled this story and said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”

Do you all know what he means by that? Jesus is not talking about being lifted up on the shoulders of an adoring crowd, he’s talking about the way he will die (…lifted up on a…?)

A cross, right. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (on a cross) that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way…”

In spite of our destructive behavior, God sent Jesus to get our attention.

God sent Jesus and allowed him to live and die amongst us to help us see what we could still be even and in spite of all we had become.

You see, back in Jesus day, (much like ours) people believed that the only realistic way to achieve peace and security was through domination and violence.

They believed the only way to achieve economic security was through the exploitation of resources, be they material or human.

They believed that a high standard of living for some could only be achieved at the expense of others. That the suffering of people at the bottom - however unfortunate - was an acceptable price to pay to keep those at the top where they thought they belonged.

But Jesus knew there was a better way to live and love. He knew that violence only ever begets more violence. That inequality is inherently unstable. That until we learn to truly love our neighbor and our enemy we will simply continue to harm one another and ourselves, world without end, amen.

And so he showed us with his life that there is another way to relate to our friends and our enemies - a way of self-giving and self-sacrifice - that is good news for all people right here, right now. Rather than wield his power over others he used it for the sake of others, healing, feeding, reconciling, and forgiving all in his path.

Some saw the way Jesus lived and gave away all they had to follow in his way of love and peace. And some were so threatened by his ethic of munificence and non-violence that they stripped him of the little he had and destroyed him in the most violent way possible.

Rome killed Jesus, a gentle innocent who had done no harm, in an effort to “keep the peace.”  Rome killed Jesus just to be safe. Jesus’ way was simply to destabilizing to the status quo.

And yet…even so….God loved the world in this way… God let them. God allowed them to lift him up on a cross so we could see our sin writ large, see what we had become, see how awful and futile and self-destructive our trust in violence and domination really is, in the hope that we would change.

I think that is why God chose snakes for the Israelites to gaze upon and why Christ himself would give his body over to his enemies to be lifted up on a cross. Not because there is anything salvific in snakes or suffering in and of themselves, but because honest confession requires an honest assessment.

In order to truly repent of all that is wrong in us and around us we need to see the wrong for what it is.

So what does that mean for us right here right now?

I think it means that we need to see the suffering in Gaza that our bombs have wrought.

I think it means that we don’t need to build a giant wall down at the border right now so much as we need to build a giant mirror, the better to see what kind of country we have become.

We need to open our eyes to the fields that are burning and the whales that our beaching and the trans children who are dying and feel the pain we are causing with our policies and our posturing and our politics which are all ultimately about power, that we might learn to use that power for the sake of one another rather than at the expense of one another.

We need to face it all and acknowledge our complicity so we can admit our fault and learn to do better. We need to look at what we have become because our behavior is killing us.

And yes, that kind of truth hurts… but it also heals.

Friends, There is a difference between accountability and condemnation. God calls us to account out of love. God calls us into the light out of a desire to set us free. God wants us to see what we’ve done wrong the better to love us into doing what is right.

For God, is spite of it all, still loves the world… loves it so much that God would die just to get our attention, just to wake us up, just to help us see that there is another way to live…a heavenly way we can step into right now if we would but believe in God the way God believes in us. Amen.

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