God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
This verse, from ages old, perhaps the best-known in all of the New Testament, often is described as “the gospel in miniature.” For it is a singular, succinct declaration of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.
Today, I bid we take up the task, maybe a mad, even fool’s errand, to say something new.
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 – which call us to contemplate that strange story in the Book of Numbers.
The people Israel have embarked on a difficult and dangerous wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They fear for their survival. They complain about Moses. His quality of leadership or lack; having led them out into the wasteland to die. Even more, even most they complain about God; who, after all, called and sent Moses.
God, weary of the constant grumbling and brooking no dissent against the Divine will, sends poisonous serpents to bite the people. Realizing their sin of disbelief in God’s goodness, the people cry for relief. God tells Moses to set a serpent on a pole. 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, holding not the people’s sin against them, that brings life.
This, again, is a strange story with fantastical elements and a discomfiting image of a God of furious judgment. Nevertheless, it foreshadows the gospel; the good news proclaimed in that little word “so.” God so loved the world…
Not qualitatively, meaning that God truly, really saved the world (although that’s true!)…
Not quantitatively, meaning that God totally, completely saved the world (although that’s true, too!).
Rather God so loved the world not how much, but how; that is, in this way: Giving us Jesus, who, lifted up on a cross, through his mortal death gives us eternal life.
Therefore, today, this is the new thing (although it’s equally an old thing!): Let us never be chiefly concerned with our belief. Yes, our belief is important, yet never the most important thing. For if…when we, however penitentially well-intentioned we may be, focus first on the quality and quantity of our belief it usually (at least, in my experience of myself!) is an act of self-centered worry rooted in the idea, even fear that our belief is the standard, the source of our salvation. Nay! God so loved the world! God is who and God’s Love 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 defy and deny 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 is Love, who loves us, always pursues us to bring us home.
I recall some words of The Hound of Heaven; the English poet Francis Thompson’s imaginative portrayal of this truth. First, the opening confession 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!”
© 2021 PRA
Illustration: The Brazen Serpent, James Tissot (1836-1902)
 The Hound of Heaven (1893) by Francis Thompson (1859-1907)