14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
My much beloved younger brother, the great Alex Nickel, has always been one for mischief. Case in point, when I was a teenager and he in 6th grade, he, by accident, nearly burned down our house as he was playing with a cigarette lighter. When he was realized what had happened, he had the good sense to call 911 and get the fire department out immediately. Fortunately, there was minimal damage done to the house, as a table on our back porch was the only real casualty. What was really interesting, however, was the discussion that ensued between the firemen and my younger brother as to cause of this fire. Like any person caught in a horrible situation, my brother’s first instinct was self-preservation. Rather than initially owning up to what had happened, he concocted any number of wild theories, including some man that he saw in the backyard who could have been responsible for the fire. You can better believe that once my mother got a hold of him, the truth came out, and quickly. Now the reason I bring this up is to not speak poorly of my younger brother; he is, in fact, one of the most incredible people I will ever have the good fortune to know and love, and I sort of beam with fraternal pride just thinking about him. Yes, what we are after is not something peculiar to my brother, but something that is universal about the human situation, and it is this: we just do not like to admit when we are wrong, when we have acted in a way that is contrary to who we believe ourselves to be. Is there anything more difficult than admitting that we are wrong? Yes, more often than not, we prefer to justify and rationalize, to explain to ourselves and to one another that what we have done or left undone, this really isn’t our fault. Especially in situations of conflict with other people, our preferred course is to blame them, to assign any number of ill intentions to their behavior towards us, indeed to think as uncharitably as possible about them, only that we may free ourselves from the guilt that may be ours in the situation. But in doing, we cost ourselves and one another a great deal. We build up years of resentment, years of denial, that keep us in bondage and that weigh us down. Though these coping strategies may help with the momentary guilt and pain of being wrong, they do way more damage than good in the long term. In the end, they generally tend to consume us.
We can, I suppose, take a small amount of comfort in the knowledge that this instinctive denial is as old as humanity itself. First exhibit: the Israelites wandering in the desert after having been freed from Egypt’s cruel hand of slavery. Enough time has passed for this crew to have forgotten the horrors of slavery, and against the monotonous offerings of manna from heaven, they begin waxing nostalgic about how good they had it back in Egypt, at least in regard to the food that they ate. To this sort of horrid faithlessness, God responds by sending snakes in their midst to bite them. When these Israelites recognize what is happening, some literally dying in their midst, they beg Moses to pray to God for mercy. The result is the creation of a bronze snake that heals those suffering with poisonous bites. Now this all might sound a bit strange, but rather than getting into what my friend Nadia called “God’s odd homeopathic regiment,” we would do well to focus on what is being asked of the Israelites here. Instead of being able to ignore the fact that they continued to question and grumble against both God and Moses, having quickly forgotten the mighty act of liberation that sprang them from unspeakable cruelty, they are going to need to look at their unfaithfulness, to confront the snakes that were the consequences of that unfaithfulness. There is no way to get to healing without confronting the source of the illness. For our ancestors in faith, healing could not mean denial of what they had done. Instead, they had to come to grips with it, to tell the truth about themselves and admit their hardness of heart, admit to their stubbornness and pain. Healing, then, cannot ever mean an attempt to step back-over the circumstances of human stubborn and fragility, nor can it ever mean a denial of these realities. Yes, genuine healing requires a confrontation, at the very root level, with those things that we have done to bring illness on ourselves.
And it is this confrontation that Jesus has in mind in this conversation with Nicodemus that we have picked up in mid-stream. While our attention will inevitably be drawn to John 3:16 and the various images and associations that this verse conjures up for us, to focus solely on that verse is robbing ourselves of the whole message that Christ is imparting. Indeed, though we often hear this passage as a message about the degree and amount of God’s love (God love the world sooooooooooo much . . .), that sort of reading actually misses the point. The really points lies in the specific action that God is taking in Jesus Christ, meaning that a more faithful reading of the text would be something like: “For God loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son . . .” And there is the confrontation, or the what Jesus will call the judgment, the crisis. God’s love for the whole of the world, for the entire cosmos, comes in the form of Christ crucified, of Christ lifted up upon the cross just as the serpent was lifted up in the desert. God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s healing, this will come to Nicodemus and to us in a such a way that our own darkness will invariably be confronted. There will be no way into this mercy, into this love, that does not go through our own darkness and fear, our own stubbornness and hard-heartenedness. In the words of the late David Foster Wallace, who harkens back to another passage of John’s Gospel, “the truth will set you free, but not until it is finished with you.” And this is the judgment, the crisis of which Jesus speaks, the two paths that diverge in front of us. One is dark and suffocating, full of self-deception, full of our own efforts to justify and rationalize away our own sin and darkness. This is the place of condemnation in which we would rather sit in the darkness of denial, protecting ourselves against the dangers of confessing just how vulnerable, just how deeply insecure and prideful we actually are.
But that, that is not this place, and that is not where the Holy Spirit has left you. For you have been drawn, drawn in that darkness and sin that we share with all humanity, yes, you have been drawn into the light of Christ’s love that emanates from the cross. You have been taken up into the light so that human sin may be confessed and forgiven and that your darkness may no longer hold and define you. All the petty resentments, all the mistrust, all the gossip, backstabbing and bullying, no matter if you are victim or perpetrator, none of these things hold you now. You are not your sin and your failings, rather you are a beloved child of God, you are the recipient of a love so very intent that it takes the form of Christ crucified. You need no longer pretend and justify, as though these were the only things left. Instead, you are free to look up this cross, look upon the Son of Man who has been lifted up and to know that, in him, you have sure knowledge of God’s mercy, of God’s forgiveness. Lay down your burdens; you are forgiven, you are free, freed to live more deeply into your humanity and love and care for the humanity of others; all of this done in and through the light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.