Based on Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21
Good morning! May the blessing of an extra cup of coffee awaken you! Yes, we may be a bit sleepy. With Daylight Savings Time having begun at 2am this morning, we lost an hour of our lives. Every time I think about that, I remember going through two (!) daylight savings times in one eight-day week. There was a year when in London DST happened one early Sunday morning. I came home a couple of days later and then went through our DST the next Sunday. I lost two hours that spring. I got one back when the USA returned to standard time in the fall. But I had not returned to England the week before to get back that other hour. I still wonder. Can I get that hour back? If so, how? I know. I’m confusing quantity with quality. More to the point, I don’t always put the quality of which I am capable into the quantity that is given me.
This past Thursday we paused to remember the loss of over 530,000 lives, so much of it needlessly, to the pandemic over this past year. We’re mindful of the loss of a year in our own lives. The lockdown has revealed to us our worst and best impulses. Some of us, maybe most of us, haven’t even recognized the worst within ourselves—aside from impatience—that our quarantines and careful return to some sociality have stirred. The arduous work necessary for us in the weeks ahead will not get back all we had before, not even a lost hour. But our experience does remind how we identify in some respect with God’s people in the desert.
That, of course, is but a trivial comparison to the experience of the Israelites in the desert. God had freed them from slavery in Egypt, from destitution of food and drink in the desert, and now they had also just won their first military victory. But it wasn’t enough. They even accused God of bad faith. On later reflection, the writers of Numbers interpreted the snakes as God’s punishment for their sin of arrogant faithlessness, after which God still cared for them by ordering Moses to make an ironic sign of healing; a sign that stood outside them would be both the reminder of the sin that otherwise they would not acknowledge and the promise of their healing. Even that sign they would soon turn into a totem, an idol, by which they thought they could magically tell God what to do. But God would not be controlled. God would not let God’s way of love be tamed. God would be outside the human box. And God would do so by becoming the incarnate love soliloquy of Jesus.
John had this so clearly in mind in the writing of his gospel. God loves the world. God woos the world. God goes all the way in declaring love in the person of Jesus, whom no one would control, not even by death on a cross. Humankind responded to God not just by complaining. Humankind murdered God. Yet God would not be so controlled even by that. Love would win. And love would turn the sign of humanity’s arrogant hatred around as a symbol to the whole world of God’s love, a love that could and will never be tamed.
God wants us to believe that.
Here’s the rub. The way we’ve come to “understand” the word “belief” is all haywired. Since the Enlightenment, we’ve reduced the meaning of the word to being about something that can be cognitively known, analyzed, empirically verified, as if belief is only a matter of the head. Worse, so many purported Christians, especially among Protestants, have made the word part of a step-by-step mental act that one must perform so to be right with God. They’ve made it into a formula, a calculus, yet another step of works righteousness and not at all a matter of the heart’s response to God’s love. A closer look at the word, though, shows that it is intimately connected to life and love. Its German and Anglo-roots go back to “be-lieving” as “living” and “loving in the being and presence of another. To be-lieve is to live in and into, love in and into another!
Nicodemus was a wise man, respected among his high-leadership peers, who realized something was stirred in him by Jesus and needed to check it out. It was politically and socially dangerous for him to do that openly. But he just had to meet with Jesus to learn what was going on, while he only could speak it, however, in the rational terms he knew. Nicodemus wants to believe, and wants his doubts to be addressed. Jesus responds not to Nicodemus’ faculty of reason, but to the stirring of Nicodemus’ soul.
There will be those who be-love and be-live into God’s presence now here with us and all God’s creation. There will be those who are willfully skeptical. The latter are not truly living. They’re just acting without knowing it. But those who go to the Nth degree to keep their secrets as they plan and plot, they’re in even worse conditions, because they sense how ill-comported they are to what is really life-giving.
I often refer to the example of someone telling another “I love you.” The one who is so told, if they “get” it, responds without having to think about it, “I love you too.” If the one who was so told wonders, “Gee, what do I do now? If that one goes to consult a “how to” book or checks out some rules somewhere or starts negotiating with the one who first said love, well, we know in our heart of hearts that that one is as good as dead, which, of course, is not much good at all.
This exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is a love soliloquy. It is poetry. It is Jesus declaring God’s love. It is not a formula, like the shouting evangelists insist, that says God does that so you must do this. Belief is not something to check off one’s ample dirty laundry list. Be-lieving is to be-loving into and in God. Belief and love are not separable. Even more radically, Be-loving /Be-living into and in God is not even something you can do on your own. God gives the conditions. The wind blows your way. God says in the most elegant and known verse of scripture, “I, the creator of the cosmos, love you, with all your warts and idiosyncrasies and even your bad faith. I love you.”
The implication for Nicodemus was clearly there. It was as if Jesus then said, “now, what are you going to do about it, Nick?” Follow the subplot. Later Nicodemus keeps positive space and buys time for Jesus among the people. Distinct from his associates, Nicodemus leans into the light. When Jesus is murdered anyway, Nicodemus publicly and generously in an abundant sign of reciprocated love anoints Jesus’ body with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. Nicodemus’ faith had grown into a clear witness of faith, be-lieving/be-living/be-loving in the embrace of the God of the universe.
We are loved. Christ loves you. May we so also in love, love God in the neighbor, and, in so doing, even give up our life space and death space to be inhabited by a risen Lord who will not be contained. When we “get” it, be-loving in and into God, such love impels us even to sing, as we soon will, in words like these. “This is my ending; this my resurrection; into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit. This have I searched for; now I can possess it. This ground is holy!” (Eric Routley, There in God’s Garden. Amen.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, TX March 14, 2021