Amid the reflective and penitential season of Lent, we must stubbornly cling to the truth that God is the main protagonist in history, and God loves us. I certainly have a lot of things I could do and work on to live my life as a city on a hill. But Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. God knows my potential to do good. But God chose to save me, also knowing my potential to do evil. This is the revolutionary good news that Christians proclaim—and also need to hear: God’s attitude toward us is love and desire. This week’s lectionary texts help us explore this idea.
At the very end of this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus, after a difficult teaching session with Nicodemus, reaffirms God’s commitment to humanity. God loves the world such that God gave up the Son, so that those who believe will not perish, but enjoy eternal life instead. Often, we stop after reading John 3:16, but I think verse 17 is even better news. God did not send God’s son to condemn the world, but to save it.
Certainly, the task of the prophet who critiques, and potentially condemns, her or his society is a holy one: to point out where we are failing to love God and our neighbor. And while Jesus takes up that mantle and points out hypocrisy and failure to fully implement heavenly community, his main task is not to condemn, but to save. God wants humanity to be reconciled to God, and is willing to keep trying, keep self-sacrificing, and keep enduring rejection because we are worth pursuing, no matter the cost. We need to keep this good news in our hearts now and always. God puts on flesh, pursues us, disrupts our lives and, frankly, begs us to see how much we are loved.
God loves the world such that God gave up the Son, so that those who believe will not perish, but enjoy eternal life instead.
As a response to God’s overwhelming, immodest and unquenchable love, we are asked simply to follow God on a journey where we don’t know the outcome. God told Abram to leave his land, people and family and go to a land that he would be shown. Without knowing the destination, or how he and his wife, both already advanced in years, would become a great nation, Abram went as the Lord had told him (Genesis 12:4). Hundreds of years later, Jesus told Nicodemus that those born of the Spirit will be called to move the same way as Abram. They don’t know the origin of God’s plans, and they don’t know the final destination. They only know when they hear the Spirit, and know that they must move along with her (John 3:12).
Jesus modeled this willingness to go where God led by saying that he would be lifted up, just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The Nehushtan, the bronze serpent from Numbers 21, had been lifted up to heal those who had suffered as a result of disparaging God. Seeing the bronze serpent canceled the punishment of those who had rejected God’s care for them. In the same way, beholding and believing in Jesus’ salvific death and resurrection cancels our punishment for all the times we have rejected God and the opportunities to love our neighbors who are all made in God’s image.
Even in his conversation with Nicodemus about what humans must do or believe about God in order to be saved, Jesus reorients the focus to what God is willing to do to reconcile humans with Godself. We must cling to Jesus’ testimony about God’s pursuing love. It is only once we know and trust in God’s faithful love toward us that we will be able to echo the actions of Abram and Jesus and go where God’s Spirit leads.