So, just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age. This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age. After all, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him. ‘Anyone who believes in him is not condemned. But anyone who doesn’t believe is condemned already, because they didn’t believe in the name of God’s only, special son. And this is the condemnation: that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because what they were doing was evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light; people like that don’t come to the light, in case their deeds get shown up and reproved. But people who do the truth come to the light, so that it can become clear that what they have done has been done in God.’
I sat for two hours with a young man who could not believe in God’s love.
When I say ‘could not’, that is quite literally how it seemed. He could not believe in God’s love in much the same way that he was physically incapable of running a mile in three minutes or lifting a car off the ground with his bare hands. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand what I was saying. Nor had he thought through a set of logical arguments that demonstrated to his mental satisfaction that either there wasn’t a God or, if there was, he couldn’t be a God of love. It was – with the distressing predictability that clergy and counsellors know only too well – that deep down in his memory and imagination there was a sense of unlovedness: of family and teachers telling him he was no good; of never being praised or cherished or celebrated. No doubt there was praise and celebration at various times. But the abiding, life-forming memories are of condemnation, criticism, put-downs. Being made to feel inferior, stupid, weak. So the capacity to receive love, to feel love, to understand love, had been covered over as though with a thick, calloused, leathery skin.
Perhaps we need to think into that sad, depressing frame of mind in order to hear again, with full force, words that have become so well known that they are in danger of forming part of a Christian’s mental wallpaper, the pattern so familiar that we no longer notice it. This is how much God loved the world, writes John, enough to give his only, special son. After all, he goes on, God didn’t send the son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved by him.
How difficult it is to get the balance right. ‘On the cross, when Jesus died,’ goes the hymn, ‘the wrath of God was satisfied.’ I used to say to my clergy that I would only let them sing that line if, every second time they sang the hymn (and some churches sing it an awful lot), they sang ‘the love of God was satisfied’. God’s wrath, properly, is an aspect of his love: it is because God loves human beings with a steady, unquenchable passion that he hated Apartheid, that he hates torture and cluster bombs, that he loathes slavery, that his wrath is relentless against the rich who oppress the poor. If God is not wrathful against these and so many other distortions of our human vocation, he is not loving. And it is his love, determining to deal with that nasty, insidious, vicious, soul-destroying evil, that causes him to send his only, special son.
But how does the sending of the son deal with evil? Isn’t it just a futile, grandiose gesture? John’s whole gospel is his large-scale answer to this question, and unless we read the entire book with this in mind we will miss the point. But in the present passage we are given a single, very cryptic clue. ‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age.’ The story is told in Numbers 21. The Israelites grumbled (as they were always doing), and God allowed a plague of poisonous snakes to come and attack them – a deep, evocative symbol of the scaly, slithering discontent of their minds and hearts. As people were dying from the snakebites, God commanded Moses to make a bronze replica of a serpent and put it on a pole, urging the people to look at this uplifted snake and live. (The snake on the pole, in turn, has become a symbol of healing to this day.)
No further explicit explanation is given, in Numbers or by John, as to (so to speak) ‘how this worked’. Enough to know that you were at death’s door, and that God had provided a remedy. The remedy. The present passage is not primarily an exposition of ‘atonement theology’, but of the faith that grasps, and so is healed by, the God-given, love-given solution to the urgent problem. ‘So that everyone who believes . . . everyone who believes . . . anyone who believes . . .’ That, clearly, is what John is emphasizing here.
Perhaps that is one of the most important lessons of the Lenten journey. The meaning of the cross will come upon us, like a great shadow into which we must walk, in the days to come. At the moment it is enough to know that we are travelling to the place where we will see Jesus lifted up so that we may escape the condemnation that so many find welling up within the darkness of their own hearts, and which, they fear, may one day be issued by God himself.
But it is God who is saying, in Jesus, ‘No! That’s not the point! I have sent my son to rescue you from that condemnation!’ Yes, it is true: people love darkness rather than light, and don’t want to come to the light. Again, every pastor knows that only too well. There’s a glorious, beautiful world out there, but some people turn in on themselves, bundling themselves up in darkness to avoid being dazzled. But the God who came into the world in the person of his son, the Word of life, can and will speak his gentle, powerful invitation once more. Come to the light. Look at the son of man, lifted up for you. Think the unthinkable: this is how much God loved the world. Believe; trust and share – already, in the present time! – the life of God’s new age.
Thank you, Father, for your boundless and lavish love.