a sermon

It’s halfway through Lent, and I am running out of things to write about here in this daily discipline. Here’s this week’s sermon on John 3:14-21, which I preached for chapel at Bethany Seminary and, in a slightly different version, with my own congregation.

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For most of my life, I have been terrified of snakes.

Snakes are bad, right? There’s a serpent right there in the Garden of Eden, the avatar of all that is evil. Tricky, tempting, mysterious and fatally dangerous. Best to avoid them at all costs. Let the snakes exist in their realm of darkness and me exist in my realm of light.

But last summer, there was a rash of snake sitings here in my North Carolina neighborhood. It’s hard to say if the snakes were having a banner year or if we humans, stuck at home during a global pandemic, were just getting in their way more often than usual. I watched a six foot long black snake slither up the sidewalk and into my apartment building’s breezeway one afternoon, but when I called the emergency maintenance number, they told me “snakes are not an emergency.” “Not an emergency,” my FOOT.

But the worst part, by far, were the copperheads. Copperheads are native to North Carolina, a species of actual, bonafide PIT VIPER that make their homes in brush and weeds. The wooded walking trails through my neighborhood are, it turns out, highly hospitable to pit vipers. My daily walks included copperhead sitings one day out of every three. PIT VIPERS. In my neighborhood. On my walking trails. UGH.

What do you do when the thing you fear the most becomes a regular occurrence in your day-to-day life? I googled “copperheads,” and found the official position of the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission: “The best plan for citizens of North Carolina is to learn about snakes and alter habits to minimize negative interactions, and in the process, learn to coexist with snakes.”

LEARN TO COEXIST WITH SNAKES, huh? I decided to try. I turned to the internet to shed some light on the subject.

It turns out that copperheads ARE venomous and they DO bite people kind of a lot. But their venom isn’t super deadly, and they only bite people when people accidentally intrude on their activities. And, they also usually give a “dry” or “warning” bite at first, with very little or no venom, giving us blundering humans time to recognize that we have trespassed and to get out of the way. Copperheads also eat rodents and insects, which means they also take a ton of ticks out of the neighborhood. Copperhead venom has the potential to slow cancer growth AND Parkinson’s disease in humans.

And since copperheads aren’t naturally aggressive, it was easy to keep an eye out for them on the walking path and just…walk around them. Okay. I can do that.

I am still not looking forward to copperhead season returning this year, but at least I understand them as fellow neighborhood residents, coexisting with me and all the humans, even with some helpful traits. I dragged my fear into the light, examined it a bit, and look: now I’ve even shared some cool copperhead facts with all of you!

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Our text this morning begins with a snake reference. It is not usually the part of the text that we pay attention to when we get to the third chapter of John’s gospel: our ears and eyes are drawn immediately to verse 16, which could all recite in unison from memory: “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.”

But that famous one-liner isn’t without context, and when we rip it out of the chapter and slap it on bumper stickers and brochures, we mangle the gospel and do violence to the good news.

The verse comes in the middle of a long conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious leader. Nicodemus is highly learned and a power broker. He knows all about what the Torah has to say about a Messiah, and he tells Jesus that he believes he has come from God. But he’s come to talk to Jesus and ask his questions at night – in the dark. The text doesn’t explain why Nicodemus has chosen to approach Jesus at night, but Jesus’ responses to the religious leader help us to make some assumptions.

John doesn’t tell us explicitly that Nicodemus was ashamed of his curiosity about this powerful teacher and healer, but we can hear, in their conversation and in his choice to visit Jesus at an unspecified, unofficial location where he wouldn’t be easily seen and where he didn’t have to wear his Pharisee hat quite so obviously that Nicodemus is doing some serious internal wrestling.

“You have to be born again,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. But the religious scholar and teacher is just CONFUSED. “What do you MEAN?” he asks. “I don’t understand.” And this is when Jesus slides in the snake reference:

“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.”

Now, all the rest of us are just as confused as Nicodemus. Uh, what was that, Jesus? A SERPENT in the WILDERNESS? I thought this passage was about accepting you as my personal savior, not about SNAKES.

Jesus is throwing ol’ Nicodemus a bone, here. Nicodemus was a scholar. He would have recognized what Jesus was talking about immediately. In the book of Numbers, while the Israelites are out wandering in the wilderness, the people start to complain against God. In return, God sends poisonous serpents into their camp as punishment. The people begin to repent, and God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it high on a pole. Anyone who repented and looked on this bronze serpent would be saved from the snake bite and from their disobedience, and live. people had to face the truth of their own disobedience head on.

In order to be saved, the people had to face the truth of their own disobedience head on.

Nicodemus knew that story. He understood that it was a story about looking upon the very thing that brought death in order to receive life. He knew that the Israelites had been invited to face their own internal darkness in order to be saved.

We don’t hear from Nicodemus again in this scene. Instead, we hear Jesus continuing to explain that facing ourselves is a necessary part of salvation:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:16 is about salvation, yes. But salvation is not magic, and it is not divorced from the real, messy, complicated realities of our lives. Salvation requires taking a good, hard look at ourselves, shining a light into the places that we’d rather keep obscured, facing the truth of who we are and how we live. Being born again isn’t just a whitewashing of identity; it involves real, painful, vulnerable exposure and the kind of transformation that sometimes feels like being scrubbed raw.

In his commentary on this passage, scholar Lance Pape says that this is a story “about how any one of us might reject the light offered to us because of the way it exposes what is dark in us.”

Those of us who are part of the white Christian church in America should be intimately familiar with this dynamic of rejecting light for fear of being exposed.

We know that white evangelical and mainline Christians were overwhelmingly more likely to vote for Donald Trump and to support his persistently harmful policies. We know that statistics show that white Christians are far more likely to express anti-black racist attitudes than any other demographic group. We know that our own denomination persists, decade after decade, in harming and excluding LGBTQ siblings. We know all this, but we also choose, collectively, again and again, to ignore, avoid and reject the light of truth because we are terrified of what happens if and when our own darkness is exposed.

Again and again, we choose to save face instead of facing ourselves.

What would it mean to welcome the light of critique, correction and repentance when it comes? What would it mean to choose to be born again by willingly exposing our whole selves to Christ’s light?

One of my very favorite verses in all of scripture is the writer of Ephesians riffing on this theme of light and darkness:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

Everything exposed by the light becomes visible – and everything that is visible BECOMES LIGHT.

We don’t know exactly how Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ critique. One might imagine that Nicodemus left that conversation like a certain other man who encountered the light of Christ inviting him to be honest and work toward transformation – the rich man who heard Jesus tell him to sell everything and give it to the poor, who “became sad, for he was very rich.”

But we do hear about Nicodemus again, toward the end of John’s story. After Jesus’ death, Nicodemus shows up with myrrh and aloe and spices and linens and helps to prepare his body for burial. That is a humble act of someone who has faced themselves and been saved. For those of us who identify with

Nicodemus, the religious scholar, the church leader, the one struggling to make sense of Jesus’ call to be born again by living in the light – it is a redemptive possibility.

Moses held up the bronze snake in the wilderness as invitation for the unruly Israelites to face their own disobedience and, in so doing, be saved. Jesus says that he himself will be lifted on a cross so that we, too, can face our own darkness and, in the process of being humble, honest, vulnerable and transparent, be transformed; made into light itself.

Because God loves the world so much, she gave us her son, so that we could look upon his broken body there on the cross, be confronted with our own brokenness, allow Christ’s light to expose and transform it and be ushered into infinite, abundant, eternal life – in the light.

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