God so loved the cosmos, Jesus proclaims, that God came to heal, to save all things, through you and through all by the grace of the Spirit.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, year B
Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
What if the Israelites were wrong about the snakes?
A terrible plague of venomous serpents in the wilderness isn’t exactly an unexpected thing in that terrain. They’d been grousing about the bad food, saying that God and Moses led them out to die. So, they assumed God sent this plague as punishment.
They’re not the first or the last to experience tragedy and assume God was behind it. A year ago this week the world shut down for a global pandemic, and I’ve personally heard a number of people wonder if, or why, God sent COVID.
Israel’s logic falters with their healing. The attack of snakes could have been a natural event, or from God. But the healing absolutely could only come from God. Those who saw the bronze serpent God told Moses to make were healed. So, why would the same God both attack with snakes and provide healing from them?
The logic of God causing COVID also falters with the healing. Human brains, gifted with knowledge and imagination by God, have created multiple vaccines, and healing is happening, bringing hope for an end to this terrible period. Why would the same God plague the world with COVID and also inspire year-long efforts to end its effect on God’s beloved children?
We could argue both sides and never be sure we weren’t just idly speculating. If only God would come in person and answer the question definitively for us!
You know the Good News: God has actually done this.
If you struggle with what God is really about in the Bible or in the world or in your life, start with Jesus. If anyone knows what the Trinity is up to, it’s the person of the Trinity who took on human flesh among us, whom John’s Gospel says reveals to us God’s inner heart.
Today Jesus answers our very question unequivocally: the Holy and Triune God is on the side of healing, not punishment. God, living as one of us, will be lifted up on a cross to love all creation back into God’s life, raised on a pole like Moses’ serpent, but for the healing of the whole cosmos, not just a small part.
God’s love is a cosmic love, Jesus literally says, sent not to judge the creation but to save it.
This is the full gift Jesus offers in these verses, if you can learn to see it.
There’s a very restricted way to read John 3:16, and many Christians for many years have read it that way. In that interpretation, God’s love for the cosmos is to save individual people from hell and give them heaven when they die. But you have to believe in Jesus to get it, that interpretation says.
But that only misses most of God’s immense gift in coming in Christ into the world. Now, certainly in God’s cosmic love there’s life with God after death – Jesus clearly promises that he goes to prepare a place for us in that life.
But in everything Jesus says about eternal life, it’s a lot bigger, and it’s right now. Eternal life is life in God’s new age, begun in Jesus already, a whole new reality of life in God’s love, right now. Jesus calls it “abundant” life, and he came for all to know and live it.
Today Jesus uses a word we translate “save,” which means save, and it also means “heal.” There is healing in God’s Son for this world, this life, Jesus says today. Paul knows that, too, in Ephesians today. “By grace you have been saved,” or, “by grace you have been healed,” he says, and makes it clear that’s for this life, too, not just after death. Because you are healed by grace, Paul says, for the good works you can do in this world, this life.
God’s gift needs to be this massive because the healing the world needs is massive.
Seeing God’s coming in Christ as only to get people into heaven after they die means missing the abundant life God desires you to know now. But it also means God’s creation and beloved creatures of all kinds continue to suffer in chaos and destruction, against God’s will. So much evil is done by people who only care about their own status with God, and don’t grasp the cosmic love of God Jesus proclaims today.
If saving and healing means forgiveness, as Paul declares today, and if God intends to heal and save all things, as Jesus says, forgiveness can’t be just removing punishment for your sin. Forgiveness transforms you, Paul says, to do the good works that God has planned for you and for all before any of us were born. It is, Jesus says, to live in the light, doing actions that are of God, not evil. As more and more are so transformed by God’s grace, this world itself begins to heal, oppression gets broken down, justice happens.
And if saving and healing means your heart is brought into God’s, as the Scriptures say, then yes, you find peace and hope yourself, your true place in the universe. But you also become someone who spreads God’s peace and hope through your life in this world.
If saving and healing are knowing God’s abundant life now, as Jesus says, then yes, you are made whole now, alive now. But you also are changed to someone who spreads God’s abundant life to the world through your life in this world.
God so loved the cosmos, my friends. God’s healing is meant to heal the whole thing.
Because the Holy and Triune God is on the side of healing. Always. For everyone. Every thing.
We have this from Jesus himself, the face of the Trinity for us. God will clean up the mess of the world and heal the pain of the world’s creatures by transforming you, me, all, through God’s self-giving love lifted up on the cross, a love we are joined to in Christ’s resurrection life through the Holy Spirit. So that you, and I, and all, are “healed,” “saved,” our lives empowered to the same self-giving love Jesus showed God has for us, and in that self-giving love we, in turn, spread God’s love further into the cosmos God desperately wants to save. To heal. It’s a beautiful plan.
God is on the side of healing, and God wants the whole creation brought back into God’s life and justice and harmony. Trust that, Jesus says today. Trust that for you, for this life and for life after you die. And trust that as you are saved, healed, God will work through you for this healing eventually to reach all.
In the name of Jesus. Amen