Jessica Schrock Ringenberg is pastor at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio.
It’s really hard to show love when your arms are tied behind your back.
I had never really thought about it before, until I watched my “baby” brother from a distance, arms cuffed behind his back, being escorted out of the courtroom after he was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison following the armed robbery of our hometown bank.
Knowing that it would be a long time before we saw each other again, tears in all of our eyes, my brother Jake, who we could not kiss, or touch, or hug, tried to motion a wave from behind his back, to which the deputies immediately responded by making him pull his arms down.
How do you express love with your arms tied behind your back? Somehow a nod just can’t do it.
Last Saturday night, I sat in front of the television half-heartedly looking at my sermon on John 3, but mostly watching the 2016 Summer Olympics.
John 3 is one of the most painful passages to preach on, at least for me.
What do you do with the most famous biblical passage in the world? Even those who know nothing, or barely know anything, or kind of know something, know John 3:16. Anyone who has watched a televised football game has seen John 3:16 boldly displayed at the end zone. And anyone who calls themselves Christian can tell you what it means, although the chance that we agree on what it means may be slim.
I was kind of stuck and bored: Not a good place to be at 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday night.
Just for fun I decided to read Numbers 21. It’s that bizarre passage briefly mentioned in John in which Jesus compares the Son of Man being raised to the bronze serpent raised on a pole. I usually skip over this part of John 3, its almost voodoo-esque nature makes me uncomfortable and I never quite know what to do with it.
It kind of reminds me of that TV commercial. I don’t even know what they are selling, but the commercial says something like, “What if you knew that one piece of broccoli a day could keep you healthy (or alive)? Or one push up was enough to save your life?”
I mean essentially that is kind of what Jesus is referring to in John 3 in his conversation with Nicodemus and it is what a lot of Christians have run away with ever since: “What if all we had to do is look to Jesus on the cross to save our lives?” Just like the Israelites who were bit by the poisonous snakes looked to the bronze serpent and were saved. What if that were enough?
And that’s when it hit me, when I wasn’t really even paying attention. Here the people of Israel are in the wilderness because they didn’t trust God enough to enter into the promised land. So for 40 years they had to wander the desert to learn what it means to trust in God.
And now they enter the land of Negeb and promise God that if only God would hand over these people to them, they would utterly destroy everything. And again, to our discomfort, the Bible says that God listens.
But immediately after their victory, the people begin to complain against God and Moses.
Now before we all get haughty about their unfaithfulness, imagine what it is for us to wait 5 minutes for anything and they had been waiting close to 40 years. So maybe we get the grumbling, but God doesn’t.
And so God sends snakes-poisonous snakes-who bite the people and they die, until they finally realize that they sinned against God and repent. They go to Moses and say to him, “We have sinned against God and against you. Pray to God and ask him to take away the snakes.”
And this is what hit me when I wasn’t looking:God hears Moses, and tells Moses to make an image of a poisonous serpent and whoever looks upon it will be saved. Let me say that again: God hears Moses, and tells Moses to make an image of a poisonous serpent and whoever looks upon it will be saved. God does not take away the snakes.
Interestingly enough, according to the New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, the gospel of John is the only place in the New Testament where this story of the snakes is ever actually mentioned. And interestingly enough, it is even kind of a sidenote in the conversation with this Pharisee and leader of the Jews who sneaks off to meet Jesus at night.
Now apparently we are led to believe, by the fact that Nicodemus is sneaking out to meet with Jesus in the first place, that his inquiry with this rogue teacher would have been controversial. Actually I find it kind of funny that he says, “Teacher, we know you come from God because no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God…“ I find it kind of funny and off-putting that if he recognizes the presence of God in Jesus, why is he sneaking around?
Alan Culpepper says that the Gospel of John is not simply a collection of random stories about Jesus, but it is actually written like an ancient Greek drama, in which Jesus, who is introduced in the first scene in John 1 as God’s Word made flesh. Through God’s word everything came into being.
God’s Word brings life. That is in Act One, Scene One: the prologue to the drama.
Everything after this scene, every story in the gospel of John from the beginning to the end is a story of whether or not the people recognize God’s Word made flesh. Each story builds upon the other stories, until in the very end we, the readers, are asked, Do we recognize God’s Word made flesh?
Nicodemus thinks he recognizes God’s presence in Jesus. Nicodemus says, “Teacher, we know you come from God because who can do these things apart from the presence of God.”
And Jesus’ cryptic response to Nicodemus’ goes into Nicodemus’ need to be born again, or born from above, to truly recognize who Jesus is. Jesus is implying that if you are truly born again, you know Jesus is not simply a teacher.
John is writing to an older Christian community. These aren’t new Christians trying to figure out what it means to follow Christ. These are older, generational Christians whose parents were Christians and suddenly, for the first time in history, the writer of the gospel of John needs Christians to know how to pass along the faith to the next generation of cradle Christians who don’t know anything different than being a Christian.
Today, as generational Christians, who, like the community John was writing to, struggle with knowing how to pass along the faith from generation to generation, we shouldn’t miss this part of the story.
Nicodemus says “Teacher we know you come from God…” But Jesus ultimately responds, “Simply calling me a teacher who comes from God is not good enough. Do you even recognize who I am?”
And again, according to Culpepper, that is the plot of the drama in the gospel of John. Do we recognize who Jesus really is?
It’s like that commercial. What if you knew that looking upon the pole with a serpent crawling up it was enough to save you from dying? Now we wouldn’t buy that would we (even if it is the symbol for the medical profession)?
And I think this is the dilemma that we progressive Christians have: We are enough uncomfortable with the mystical simplicity of believing that looking to Jesus on the cross is enough to save our lives from destruction and so we don’t expect it for anyone else either.
And so we find ourselves struggling to articulate or imagine how it is exactly that Jesus is indeed our Savior, let alone why he should be anyone else’s. Which then, of course means, that we have become incredibly comfortable with him being just a good teacher who comes from God.
But when Nicodemus says that and believes that, Jesus says that’s not good enough, because if Jesus is simply a good teacher who comes from God, then what is it that makes Christianity any different than some sort of benevolent humanism? That seems to be the pop culture trend of our day. Hollywood stars are the poster children for benevolent humanism. They are the ultimate disciples of pop philanthropy and love for the sake of love. And they make it far more sexier than we Mennonites do, so why not just be like them?
When we take the Savior out of Jesus the one called Christ (which means Savior), we are ultimately tying one hand behind the gospel’s back.
N.T. Wright says that Jesus is telling Nicodemus that humanity has a disease in which only Christ can be the cure. For any of us who have watched 30 seconds of the news, we know there is something seriously wrong with our world today. Our sinful world is plagued and full of destruction and our world is in need of a Savior, the Word made flesh, the bringer of life.
And for those of us conservative Christians, we are saying, “YEAH! We’ve been telling you that for years! We need to hear more sermons about this! If only we preachers preached more about sin!”
We need preachers to be telling people that we’ve got to live right, and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. That’s the church’s problem. If we don’t tell people there is something wrong with the way they are living, they won’t know. Preachers need to preach about it so that people know how to be born again.
We need to know the error of our ways, repent, and call upon the name of Jesus and look upon Jesus on his cross to save us.
But while progressive Christians tie the arm called Savior behind Jesus’ back, conservative Christians have a tendency to tie up the arm called Lord behind his back.
Calling Jesus Lord is really the same as calling Jesus king, and we are tying that arm called king behind his back and everything his kingdom stands for is held back with it.
King Jesus, as N.T. Wright calls him, has sovereignty over every part of our lives which includes our money, our time, and our political allegiance (brothers and sisters I am positive that biblical witness can stand against both the Democratic and Republican parties). The Lordship of Jesus Christ must overshadow every other aspect of our lives, not just the simple easy aspects of our morality.
Brothers and sisters, while the church finds herself infighting over progressive vision versus conservative vision, the world finds itself overcome and plagued by venomous snakes, and we have neither arm in which to fully embrace it and witness to the loving grace of our king Jesus, the only One who saves us!
Like I said, it’s hard to show love with your arms tied behind your back. A nod just can’t do it.
Many of us can recite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life, eternal life, abundant life.” It is this verse that gives us the ability to even call ourselves Christian.
But it’s the next verse (v. 17) that pushes us to be disciples, because it says, “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world would be saved through him.”
And through the gospel of John, we would know that at the very end, when the Word is risen from the dead in John 20, Jesus the Christ breathes upon his disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit…the sins you forgive are forgiven and the sins you retain are retained.”
Ultimately Jesus commissions his disciples with his mission to love and forgive on his behalf—his disciples, who in this moment become the Church, are now to become his hands and feet in the world. Two thousand years since then and we have tied those hands up.
Brothers and sisters, we live in a broken world. Our world is full of the broken and the breakable, the redeemed and the redeemable, but regardless of which one we are, all of us are living with poisonous snakes. No matter how much we repent for ourselves and pray that God takes away the serpents, God will not.
God did not remove the snakes in Numbers 21 and God did not take away sin in John 3. But God did send the one in whom we are saved, if only we would look to him as the only hope for our lives to be transformed and made better and if only we accept both his ability to save us from ourselves as well as live under the fullness of his Lordship over all of our lives.