Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22,
Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
"For God so loved the world . . ."
I saw a bumper sticker a while back that said, “God loves you. No exceptions.” I believe this is so. And I believe just accepting that can be life-changing (see here). It makes a huge difference to understand that, when God looks upon you, it is with eyes of love. I know there are some among us who have mental tapes recorded deeply in their minds telling them that they are not lovable. And I appreciate that the sentiment of the bumper sticker is addressing the reality that there are groups of people who have been made to feel that they are somehow the exception to God’s love. So it is important to remember that when Jesus said, “God so loved the world,” that does not leave anyone out. “God so loved the world” - no exceptions.
But, I also need to say that the bumper sticker is inadequate. Wonderful as it is, God’s love is not enough.
Just before the justly famous line in John 3:16, Jesus says, "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.” What’s that about? Clearly, it is a reference to the passage from the book of Numbers that we heard read a moment ago:
From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "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 for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. – Numbers 21:4-9
It’s a strange passage in lots of ways. But, let’s start by reviewing the context. Israel was enslaved in Egypt. They were miserable. God heard their cry, called Moses to lead them, and through a series of miracles delivered them from their bondage, setting them on the path to the Promised Land. Soon after they became impatient and ungrateful and began to complain about how God was managing their deliverance. We have here an example of that complaining.
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?”
“Well, because you asked me to. And because I love you and desire your good.”
“To die in the wilderness?”
“So far I have provided for you at every turn, haven’t I?”
“There is no food and no water.” That is an outright lie – or willful forgetting. God has miraculously provided water. God has rained down upon them the wonder of manna, "the grain of heaven", for their nourishment and quail as well.
“We detest this miserable food." Now we’re getting a little closer to the truth. It’s not that they have no food, but that they are dissatisfied with the food God has provided. And so they declare their displeasure. I wonder if the serpents are not an outward and visible manifestation of the inward and spiritual impatience and ingratitude. But, God provides a means of healing through the bronze serpent attached to a pole for the people to look upon and be healed.
That is the story in Numbers. But, since Jesus suggests that we read this story metaphorically as a type or analogy of what he accomplishes on the cross, what might it be saying about us and about the Son of Man?
First of all, we can say that the attitude of the Hebrews in the wilderness is, as usual, representative of the attitude of each of us. Are we not impatient with God and one another? An early church theologian, Ephrem the Syrian, suggested that impatience might be the sin that started it all. He wrote that God all along intended us to have a share in his divinity. But, Adam and Eve, at the suggestion of the serpent, were impatient with God’s timing and seized the fruit the serpent promised would make them like God.
Are we not often ungrateful? Discontent with enough and more than enough? Are we not inclined to believe we are our own and what we own is ours alone? But, in a little while we will repeat these words that should always be on our hearts, “All things come of thee O Lord. And of Thine own have we given Thee.” All things. All that I am and all that I have, moment by moment, I receive from God – whether I receive it gratefully or not. All creation and every person I encounter is the gift of God to be received with gratitude. But much of the time I turn my heart from God and from most others. I detest this miserable food.
Like Adam and Eve we listen to the serpent in our impatience with God and the way our lives and others are unfolding and our ingratitude for all God has given us. And as with Israel, that turning of our hearts gives birth to the serpents of sin in our hearts, the poisonous serpents of our own impatience and ingratitude, our own envy and enmity. The serpents of our own hearts bite us and bite those around us. What’s more, we become addicted to the poison. Like an alcoholic, we are addicted to the very thing that causes us to perish. This might sound harsh, but that is because we take too lightly our own failure to attend to God and to one another, our failure to love, our lack of true generosity and hospitality. And when we turn our hearts from God, our hearts begin to breed the serpents of sin. And we perish.
And here’s the thing. We are beset by the serpents of our own making. And worse, we are addicted to the poison of our own serpents. Like alcoholics we are unable to help ourselves. That is why hearing that God loves us with no exceptions isn’t enough. If I am trapped at the bottom of a pit full of rattle snakes, having someone shout from the top, “I love you,” isn’t all I need. Even if that one jumps into the pit with me to tell me how much I am loved, that only does me so much good. No, I need someone who can extract the poison. I need an antidote. I need someone who will come into my heart and drive out the serpents like Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. We need God to “take away the serpents from us.”
And, my friends, as William Temple wrote,
This is the heart of the Gospel, not, ‘God is Love’ – a precious truth, but affirming no divine act for our redemption. God so loved that he gave; of course the words indicate the cost to the Father’s heart. He gave; it was an act, not only a continuing mood of generosity, it was an act at a particular time and place. - Readings in John's Gospel
"Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was the Son of Man lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” God has provided the means of our redemption, our deliverance, our healing, and our restoration. God does not love us and leave us as we are, beset by the serpents of our hearts. He has acted on our behalf to drive out the snakes and heal us of their venom. Crux Est Mundi Medicina – the cross is the medicine of the world. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”(Ephesians 2:4).
God loves you. No exceptions. But the really good news is, "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.”
You need only turn your heart to him and in trusting belief receive the gift of God.