Written for Lent 4B (Lectionary Cycle)
How many of us memorized John 3: 16 as a child? It is amazing how many learned that verse. I wonder though, how many memorized the next verse? John 3:17:
“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.”
We get so caught up in the idea of our belief (whosoever believes in Him), that we miss out on the idea that God came as the Son to save us, not condemn us.
It will sound crazy to you, but I am going to state a theory and wonder if you will explore it with me.
God does not condemn us.
I wondered to myself then, what does God do? Well, God judges. But judgment and condemnation are not the same thing.
Judgment is a pronouncement of what is. Condemnation is the lived out consequence.
God does not punish us, in fact, I don’t believe God ever has. Scour the Bible and every time we try to make a story into God punishing us, in reality it is us living out the consequence of our choices and God is merely the agent of our choice being lived out. From the very beginning in the Garden, we chose to walk away from what was good and healthy. The Old Testament is full of stories of the people of God choosing self over relationship with God and suffering the consequence. Today’s reading from Numbers 21:4-9 is a perfect example, the serpents were sent because Israel was once again complaining that relationship with and provision from God was not enough to keep them happy.
So let’s expand the theory a tad.
God does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves.
Yes, God sent the serpents. Yes, it feels like God punishing us, but in the end, it is merely God being an agent in the condemnation we chose to risk. They chose rebellion, and the consequence of rebellion and living without God is death. When John states that those who do not believe are already condemned, it isn’t because God doesn’t want us to live, rather, because we choose not to choose life. And then it is simple math, When we don’t choose life, we choose death.
How the are we to be saved from this condemnation? To be saved from sin we must recognize it and examine it. God told Moses to lift up the symbol of death to be gazed upon in order to find life. The snake that was the way of death, was also the way of life.
God does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves. God comes to Save us.
If sin is rooted in our fleshly desires, then flesh needs to save us. And so it did. A human was sent to save us from our own humanity.
God slipped into skin with us, lived out sweat and tears, bodily functions of lust, love and anger. And then was lifted up on a stick to let us gaze upon and find life.
This is not condemnation. This is salvation. God WITH us. Suffering with us, living with us, like us, and then dying like us to bring us into eternal life together.
God came to shine a light on our sin, to declare what already existed and name it, and then because we condemned ourselves to separation, God came to be with us and be lifted up to save us from ourselves.
This week, our Lenten examine of our mission statement covers our mission
“to equip all saints for their life in the Christian Heritage and Lutheran Understanding of that Heritage”
Martin Luther lived his early life believing that God was cruel, vindictive and waiting to pounce on our every misstep. But it was not until he examined the Word closely, that he began to discover the truth I theorized earlier. God does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves. God comes to Save us.
Sadly, even our mission statement could be misconstrued for lifting up anger and hatred too. So today, I want to lift up the snake of our past to help us begin to heal for the future.
For generations, This same passage from John has been used, especially in Eurocentric denominations, to include Lutheranism for arguing a lesser value based on skin color because of the way light and dark are written about. Even among people of darker skin, there is a value on lighter skin because of this passage.
We are not talking about skin here folks. This passage has never been about shaming darkness or dark skin. It is about illumination.
Humans have use the dark for evil, but dark is not evil. It is good. It is the place that God dwelt before us. Light was made so that we might see, because we are the ones who were afraid of the dark, that sacred, spiritual, beautiful, velvety place where we are called to stillness, healing and rest. We are the ones who used and still abuse it for evil purposes. When my cousins teach their beautiful latina daughters to avoid the sun because they will look like field workers, they denigrate the beauty of the skin those girls were born with and they hurt themselves. And they know it. They take the ugly parts of our slavery and colonized past and continue the mental and spiritual slavery of our flesh because we wont let them stop.
And we have to stop. We have to lift up the beauty of God created bodies as perfect the way God made them and that the darkest of ebony skin is as lovely and valuable as peaches and cream unfreckled skin. The skin of field workers and laborers is as valued as a professors pale sun starved skin. Both bring life and light to our world.
We can try to hide all we want in the dark, but our sin will condemn us all without a single word of judgment from God or humanity. But we have to stop blaming the dark and we have to stop blaming creation and our bodies for the willful mind that we invoke when we decide we don’t need God in our lives.
So how do we equip the saints? How do we fulfill our mission in the midst of our own past and present circustance? We start with loving deeply and imperfectly. We start by lifting up our past, our sin, as Martin Luther did, and we continue by leaning into a relationship with God, by trusting that God loves us and that we are cleansed and made new by our baptismal promise. We make room for others to come to know Christ without shoving faith and scripture down their throats. We offer love and promise in Christ and invite into those same scriptures with curiosity and safety.
Fr Anthony Hutchinson said, “not all snakes are bad, and not all angels are good. We need discernment to sort out where God’s grace can apply, and where we imaginatively and joyously expand the scope of holiness and grace. We need discernment to distinguish between the divine and its near enemies as well. Jesus, lifted up on the cross like that snake on a pole, stands ready to help us.”
I leave my theory to you. Test it. See if it stands true.
God does not condemn us. We condemn ourselves. God comes to Save us. We just need to say yes.