John 3:16 – we see it at every major sporting event, and many other public events. Some even say that this is the summary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and all you really need to know for salvation.
[A member of the choir stands up, blows a whistle, and throws a yellow flag at me. Then he marches to the lectern and says, "Flag on the play. Cherry picking. Ignoring context. Relativizing the gospel for personal gain. Penalty – 7 verses. Second down."]
Um, thanks, Chuck. That’s kind of what I was thinking, too. In fact, you just illustrated something that we should all be feeling when we hear exclusive claims to grace and mercy – claims that describe who God will and will not love.
Now, stay with me on this, because the flip side of that coin is that we don’t know if or how God will be gracious or merciful at all. And we know that’s not right, because all of us have seen God’s love put into action in some way. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here, right?
That’s the rub of these passages today – living into an exclusive claim about God’s love for God’s people in a way that invites others and even expands and transforms our own understanding of God’s grace and mercy.
Grace and mercy – those are words we throw around a lot, so I want to be sure we know what we are talking about before we go any further. Grace means getting something good you do not deserve – something good that you did not earn. Mercy means that you are kept from receiving a penalty that you do deserve – some type of punishment or consequence.
Now, I admit that it’s hard to see either of these at work in our Old Testament reading. The Israelites have been harvesting this (as some have translated) light bread. We’re not talking about the type your grandmother bakes that smells like a hug and tastes like love. Nope. The manna was thin and wafer like, and if you took more than you needed it would just rot anyway. So, yeah, they complained a bit.
God’s response does seem a bit heavy handed, sending poisonous snakes to bite and kill them. And not just the ones that complained – these snakes were equal opportunity offenders. The point here is not that God is a meanie. The point is that God had promised to provide for them, and their rejection of manna was a rejection of God.
And while we have to be careful about relativizing death as a teaching tool, the reality is that they cried out to God and were saved by God’s grace. I say by God’s grace, because God provided a way for the very thing that has caused death to become the very thing that offered life. The snakes were lifted on a pole, not so much to “rub the Israelite’s noses in it” (which, by the way is not a good way to treat a dog either) but in order for them to see that God would always choose to love them, even if they rejected that love.
Of course, the simple, abstract connection that Jesus makes for us in John’s gospel is that he has become that symbol of hope and restoration for us. In the cross that we lift up, that we look to, that we think of as a symbol of life, there is yet the reminder of our limitations, of our selfishness, of our rejection of God.
As protestants we rarely look to the crucified Christ. We place our hope in the empty cross. I even once had a friend comment on a cross I used to wear by saying, “I’m glad to see that you don’t have a dead guy on your cross.” When I looked confused, she said, “My Christ is alive!”
That was really the only time we spoke of our faith, but just knowing that about her changed my attitude. It changed my perspective as I saw her young family struggle with the grueling pace and late hours of restaurant work, where we all three worked together. The cross of Jesus can do that.
Yet sometimes I think we are too quick to move past the ugliness of the cross, and the separation from God that it calls out and seeks to amend. The best example of this I can recall was something I experienced in Guatemala in 2009. I was there with a group of Doctors and Dentists as a chaplain on a trip with a group called Faith in Practice.
Attached to the hospital that was our base of operations (literally and figuratively), there was a home for those with special needs of all stripes. It was run by the Roman Catholic Church, and there were relics and statues here and there. One in particular caught my eye. It was a disfigured Christ on a cross. At first, I thought that – prior to being encased in a Plexiglas box – it had just been damaged by people grabbing on to pray. As I examined it I found that it had been made that way from the start. The wounds on this Christ were made to match the extreme woundedness of those who were there, in that place.
And while there can be no comparison between their sin and their affliction, I could not help but to reflect on my own sin. I could not help but to realize how uneasy I was when it came to interacting with those who were mentally and physically disabled, and I could not help but to seek transformation through those same interactions with those same people. I could not help but reflect on the larger patterns of sin that create poverty, limit the choices of others, and create conditions where life is limited by outside forces. And I could not help but to become more centrally motivated to call out that sin wherever I see it, and wherever I participate in it.
And that’s why the cross is such good news. It reminds us that there is another way. It reminds us that what comes down, must go back up – for faith pulls us like gravity toward God. And what is faith, but a gift from God in the first place?
And God has given us the manna of faith in the wilderness of our days, so that we might be held by something greater than wrath! God has given us the gift of faith so that we might be raised up from the darkness of the world around us – so that we might become symbols of hope and of the will of God!
But here’s where it gets a little tricky, and I want to be careful here to make sure no more penalty flags get thrown. I think I’m about third and goal, and I don’t want to mess that up.
Remember that snake on the pole. Yeah, they kept that sucker around for around 700 years – just in case – until King Hezekiah decided to clean up all the idols. You see, what started as a reminder of their rejection of God and God’s ongoing love for them had become an idol. They were even burning incense in front of it, and they gave it a name.
I throw that out as a caution flag for us, as a people of God, because I think all people have a tendency toward idolatry in some form or another. And sometimes – like when our focus moves from proclaiming grace to maintaining the institution – the church can even become its own idol.
It can, but it doesn’t have to. When we remember that the point of God’s exclusive claim upon us is made so that we can demonstrate another way to be alive together, we become something more than we are. When we remember that all that we are and all that we do is a response to God’s grace, we become a means of grace for those who suffer. When we remember that even Jesus did not come into the world to condemn but in truth to save us from ourselves, we become ever more interested in letting our own perfect imperfections be seen in the light of day.
In the end it comes down to whether or not we are willing to put our faith into action. Once we know the truth of God’s amazing love, are we going to do it? Are we going to love in the same way that we have been loved? Are we going to be a community of people that openly forgives each other’s offenses? Are we willing to see the ways in which we have rejected God’s love when we look upon the crucified Christ? Are we going to call out systems that we participate in that limit others, and are we willing to do something about them?
I would say that in my 8 years out of the 142 year history of this congregation, that the answer has been yes. Yet I would also say that these are the questions we must continue to ask, because our faith is not built solely upon the story these walls can tell. It is built upon the promise that judgement has come, and mercy has been given, and we have a story yet to be told. And central to that story is the fact that – out of God’s great love – God’s only begotten son was in mercy given to show us the way to love, to call us into the light and expose what is good and faithful and true, and to lift up even that which destroys life in order to demonstrate the power of God to save us, even from ourselves. And to God be the glory for that. Amen.