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3/10/24 Sermon

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Psalm 136:1-16 – Nan C. Merrill, adapted

O sing praises to the Beloved, whose Love sustains us; 

Yes, give thanks to the Heart of all hearts, whose Love sustains us; 

And bow down before the Most High, whose Love sustains us!

To You, who spoke and Creation was founded, Your Love sustains us; 

To you, who by understanding created the heavens, Your Love sustains us; 

To You, who spread out the earth upon the waters, Your Love sustains us; 

To You, who set the planets upon their course, the sun to rule over the day, 

the moon and stars to rule over the night, Your Love sustains us. 

To You, who call us to repentance and rebirth, Your Love sustains us; 

To You who accompany us as we face our fears, 

with a strong arm to uphold us, Your Love sustains us. 

To You who liberate us to live into our birthright, Your Love sustains us. 

Who sends the Counselor to lead us on paths of peace, Your Love sustains us. 

Who comforts us in times of sorrow and loneliness, Your Love sustains us. 

To You, who give us a hunger for prayer, and a thirst for You, Your Love sustains us. 

O sing praises to the Beloved, whose Love sustains us. 

John 3:11-17 – Wilda C. Gafney

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen; yet you all do not receive our testimony. If I have told you all about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you all believe if I tell you about heavenly things? Now then, no one has ascended into the heavens except the one who descended from the heavens, the Son of Woman. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Woman be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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.” Our study groups often lead participants to a time of personal reflection and sharing. We speak of what we know. We offer our testimony. Those present are not of one mind, but we do respect what each individual shares. We respect the experiences of the others. We respect the beliefs of the others.

Who is speaking in our text from John’s Gospel? Who are the “we” that speak of what they know and testify to what they believe? Jesus and his disciples? Perhaps, but I think it is also about the prophets who have come before Jesus, and also about those who will come after him. Including us. Who are the “You all” that do not believe? The Jewish elders, the elite, the people in power. And, yes, perhaps, us. We all fit in these categories at one point or another. 

Jesus’ experience with Nicodemus is quite the opposite of those participating in our study groups. Jesus is speaking to an incredulous, disbelieving, disrespecting listener. Is he, Nicodemus, standing in for the status quo, there to protect and defend the privilege and power of the Jewish elite? Or there to illustrate the absurdity of clinging to that same privilege and power? I can see John’s Gospel using this example to help shed light on the way things are, and the way things could be, should be.  

Let us walk through these seven verses from the Gospel of John. As is often the case, our Christian ancestors looked to their Jewish faith to make sense out of the new teaching that Jesus was presenting. Our gospel calls to mind an image from the Hebrew Book of Numbers (21:9). Serpents in the wilderness were biting the Israelites and the people were dying in the desert. Moses prayed to God and was told to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole. The serpent on the pole was lifted up. Those who had been bitten by a serpent were told to look up to the bronze serpent, and they would be healed, they would be saved. Which is, of course, part of the backstory of the image that we see on our bulletin cover, adopted by the medical profession as a sign of healing and saving lives. 

Padraig O’Tuama, in his book, “Poetry Unbound,” writes: “Important to remember is that a myth is not something false, rather a myth is something with so much truth that it needs a fantastical container.”

The image of Jesus on the cross is powerful. And it is devastating. Why does John invoke Moses at this time? John is reminding his community, he is reminding us; look to Jesus. Look up to Jesus to be healed. Look up to Jesus to be saved. Through God’s promise to Moses, the staff and the bronze serpent were a healing, saving solution to the venomous snake bites. John is saying that if people look up to Jesus they too will be saved. Follow Jesus and they will be liberated from the evils of our venomous world.  

And then, perhaps the most cited scripture verse of our time, John 3:16 is ubiquitous. Those in the know, know. We see it on license plates and tee-shirts, on signs held up at sporting events. It is written about in Country music. Have you heard these lyrics by Keith Urban? “I learned everything I need to know from John Cougar, John Deere, and John 3:16.”

John 3:16 is probably the first – and one of the only – Bible verses I memorized as a child at our neighbor’s Vacation Bible School. I was bribed with a chocolate candy bar for my successful effort. Not surprisingly, when the candy rewards disappeared so did my Bible memorization. 

If there is a more loaded verse in our Bible, I cannot think of it. This verse is shorthand for an entire theology. A theology that too often is limited to, “Have you been saved?” 

It is easy for some of us to get stuck on the word “saved.” That word has been co-opted by some Christians who try to define what it means to all Christians. I have made my peace with it… made my peace with it in a sermon I wrote back in my first year of Seminary. 

As with most things I have learned in this life, my learning continues to evolve. This week as I pondered this scripture, I found myself employing a synonym for the word saved. That word is liberated. 

Liberation theology is younger than I am; the term was coined in the late 1960’s. I am just coming to be aware of it the past few years, beginning to embrace it as I learn about it. What liberation theologies bring to our discussions about God are not new themes, but new ways of looking at the ancient themes. In fact, liberation theologists would argue that they are being true to Christ and the communities that evolved around him, bringing theology full-circle, back to what Jesus was teaching. 

One could argue that Nicodemus was struggling with Jesus’ vision of liberation theology, as Jesus agitated for the inherent worth and dignity of all. Liberation from worldly distractions and injustices was the way forward; the way back to our beginning, the way back to God. 

What does this verse (John 3:16) mean to you? What it means to me is that God came to us in human form to show us the way that we had forgotten; the way back to our Source, our Creator, our God. God showed us that this life is not finite but is infinite, that we are eternal.

God came in the form of a human we know as Jesus. Jesus taught those who would listen, and then they taught others… and we continue to teach his ways to this day. 

Why did God do this? For Love. For God so loved the world. For God so loved all of Creation. God wanted to bring all things back into harmony with Godself. Love was the only way forward. 

It is all true. God’s love saves us. God’s love sustains us. God’s love liberates us. 

Jesus is of the spirit and of flesh, both of God and human. He came that we all might understand the same about ourselves and all others. 


Rev. TJ Mack – March 10, 2024

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