“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
This verse, perhaps the best-known in all of the New Testament corpus, oft is described as “the gospel in miniature”; a singular, succinct declaration of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Today, I bid we embark on a madcap mission, maybe a fool’s errand seeking to say something new about this verse.
But first, the immediately preceding verses – As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life – call us to contemplate that strange story in the Book of Numbers. The people Israel, on their hazardous wilderness trek from Egyptian captivity to the Promised Land, with little food and water fearing for their survival (a reasonable concern!), complain about Moses and God (not so reasonable!). God sends poisonous serpents to bite the people. Realizing their sin of disbelief in God’s goodness, they cry for relief. God tells Moses to set a serpent on a pole so that anyone who looks at it will live.
The serpent, an emissary of God’s wrath that brought death, becomes a sign of God’s mercy that brings life…
This story foreshadows the gospel, the good news proclaimed in that little word “so”. God so loved the world, not qualitatively, meaning really (though that’s true!), nor quantitatively, meaning completely (though that’s true, too!). God so loved the world – not how much, but rather how – by giving us Jesus through his mortal death that we may have eternal life. (This matter of Jesus’ death is so fundamental and long an aspect of Christian theology and proclamation that, sometimes, I think, we fail to grasp how nearly unutterably amazing a thing it is that God employs the instrumentality of death to bring life!)
Therefore, today, this is the new thing I say (though it’s probably an old thing and, perhaps, even heretical!): Let us never be concerned about how much or even whether we believe. For whenever we are concerned, however humbly well-intentioned we may be, it usually, nay, always (and I say this after nearly forty years of the pastoral ministry of being with people and listening with care to their spiritual concerns) is an act of our self-focused, self-conscious worry, perhaps fear that our belief is the standard, aye, the source of our saving. No! God so loved! God alone is who and God’s Love alone is what saves.
So, in this Lenten season of self-examination, in our journeys into the wilderness of our souls, in our rediscovery of aspects of our lives that deny and defy God, in our renewed acknowledgement of those parts of us that stray from the path of God’s righteousness, that continue to walk, run, stumble in the other direction, here’s some good news. God who loves…God who is Love always pursues us to bring us home.
I recall some words of The Hound of Heaven; the English poet Francis Thompson’s(1) imaginative portrayal of this truth. First, the opening words of humanity running away from God:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter…
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Finally, at the close of the chase, God speaks:
…Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms.
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home;
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!”
This is our God. A heavenly hound dog who unconditionally lovingly, persistently pursues us to save us. Thanks be to God and to God alone!
Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)
Crucifixion (c. 1618-1620), Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
(1) The Hound of Heaven (1893), Francis Thompson (1859-1907)