Jesus said 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.
“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.
Each Lent invariably leads us to and prepares us for Holy Week, for those most important 3 days of the church year: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. We do so by journeying with Jesus from Baptism to Wilderness and from Wilderness to Jerusalem. Along the way, we hear hints and signs of what is come. In other years, Lent is filled with stories about Jesus’ ministry. He meets the woman at the well and tells her of living water. He heals a blind man by spitting in the mud and putting the mud on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus feet are anointed by Mary and he is prepared for burial. Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb as a sign of what is coming on Easter Sunday.
But this Lent is more of a slog than usual. This liturgical year as we focus on the Gospel of Mark, we are dropped into the major themes of Mark’s gospel. No one ever knows who Jesus is the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus tries to keep his identity a secret. He constantly tells the people around him not to tell anyone of his miracles.
For the last 3 weeks of Lent, have been faced with the fact that we still do not truly know or understand who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing in the world. Jesus began 3 weeks ago by going into the wilderness. Into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. But also into the wilderness to find us… into a wilderness that we have been wandering in for much longer than this season of Lent. Into Pandemic wilderness, into the wilderness of the decline of Christianity, and the wilderness of change.
This year we went from wilderness beginning Lent, to Peter’s rebuking of Jesus for talking about dying. But Jesus told him to “Get behind me, Satan”. Jesus was reminding Peter, and reminding us, that God has very different plans. God is going to save the world in a way that we cannot comprehend or imagine.
Last week, Jesus overturned the market stalls in the temple. He told the animal vendors and money changers to get out. Jesus was furious that people were trying to sell a piece of God’s love. Jesus wouldn’t have it. Jesus reminded us that we cannot profit from God’s love, because God freely gives love and forgiveness away.
This week, we hear some very familiar words from the Bible. “For God so loved the world…”. Christians of all stripes are encouraged to learn these words by heart. Luther called John 3:16 the Gospel in a nutshell. Yet, as we delve into the verses around 3:16, we discover that this verse is so much more than a simple explanation of the gospel taken out of context.
This familiar verse is in fact Jesus’ answer to a question. A question posed to him by the Pharisee Nicodemus, who has come asking question. Nicodemus whose world has been rocked by Jesus’ coming onto the scene. Nicodemus thought he knew the path to salvation – follow of the law of Israel and you will be righteous. And yet he also sees that Jesus has been sent from God, and Jesus doesn’t seem to live by the same adage. Nicodemus wants to understand how all these things reconcile, he asks Jesus how one can be born again. He wants stability and certainty, he wants to move on from this disruption that Jesus has introduced.
Each week of Lent so far has felt like it is taking us from one wilderness to another, one moment of uncertainty to the next. A reminder that God’s promises can sometimes feel so very far from us, that stumbling from one uncertainty to another doesn’t always feel like we are getting somewhere. That our desire for answers and certainty are not usually met neatly and straightforwardly by God.
Nicodemus comes with his questions trying to figure out his own life, and Jesus gives an answer about God’s plan that include all humankind and all creation. Jesus answers from a perspective that Nicodemus… that we… might not be ready to hear an answer from.
So what does all of this mean? What is God up to? Where is God taking us? We want answers, we want to reconcile this messy confusing world that we are living in. Like Nicodemus we want to move on from the disruption. For him the disruption that Jesus brought to the religious order. For us the immediate and intense disruption of pandemic, the larger and slower disruption of decline, and the even larger and more pervasive disruption of a rapidly changing world.
Waiting for answers, waiting for things to make sense, waiting to be relieved of our inconvenience and discomfort… waiting for God to finally get us to the next thing… it can make us squirm with anxiety like waiting in a long line-up for the bathroom or for a rainy day to let up so that we can go outside or for a slow moving train to pass by us at a railway crossing when we are in a hurry.
In the midst of our waiting and discomfort God is working on us and it sucks. God is forming and shaping us, making us ready for the thing that is coming next, opening our perspective beyond ourselves and our inconvenience.
Today, on the 4th or 40th Sunday of our Lenten wilderness, God is preparing us for cross and for empty tomb… and it is hard to endure.
And God’s work on us can hurt at first. It can feel like that first ray of sun light that stings the eyes after being in dark building. It can feel like the pain of a deep tissue massage, working out the kinks and knots. It can feel like those first painful and sharp breaths that come into our lungs after being dunked under the waters of a cold lake.
This Lenten season, as God makes us ready for the salvation that is on its way, it can be hard to endure without the glimpses of Easter that we get in other Lenten seasons. We will not listen in as Jesus forgives the woman at the well. We won’t see with new eyes with the blindman. We won’t watch as Lazarus walks out of the tomb. Instead, we are reminded of where we are going. Of where we are going with Jesus.
Jesus is on his way to be lifted up. Jesus is on his way up a cross. And from that most terrible place of suffering and death, from that Roman cross meant to be the most humiliating way to die, God is using Jesus to save the whole world.
This is the promise that is made to us today, in the midst of our Lenten waiting for answers. Jesus has not come into the world to condemn it, but the world is condemned already. We are condemned already. We are dead already. Right from Adam and Eve we have chosen ourselves first and we have chosen death. We have chosen to be our own God’s. We have chosen to align ourselves with anything and anyone but God.
Yet we also hear that God so loves the world. God so loves the world that has chosen anything but God. The world that would rather die than let God be in charge. This is the world that God loves. Love is how God chooses to judge the world, rather than with what we justly deserve. Our discomfort with waiting, our desire for answers and certainty push us so often towards darkness and death that God should let us have, but instead God gives of Godself over to our death dealing ways. God in Christ is given over to be lifted up and then shows us something new.
God shows us life. Life instead of death. Light instead of darkness. Healing instead of suffering. And yes, it hurts to wait for that promise to be realized. It hurts to have those wounds and scars covered over. It hurts to look into that light when our eyes were accustomed to darkness. It hurts for our hearts to start beating when they have stopped and for breath to be forced back into our lungs when they are empty.
But this is the God of John chapter 3 verse 16. A God who so loves… so loves… the world that God gave the son. God’s only son to a world that wants to die, but that now, because of the cross and because of Christ, will find out that death is the path to life. God loves us so much that God will come and be wherever we are in order to save us.
God is going to save a world simply cannot wait through anymore discomfort or uncertainty. God is going to save the world by dying, no matter how much we protest with Peter. God is going to save the world freely no matter how many market stalls we set up in God’s house.. God is planning to save the world, even when we just cannot wait a moment more for salvation…
Even we cannot look beyond ourselves and our problems of the moment… Today, we are reminded that God’s salvation plan is for more than we can imagine. God’s salvation is given freely for us and for all.