Snakes, Secretaries, and Saving the World

Adventures in Paradox.

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Or, what Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and modern-day political dramas have to do with one another.

Lent 4: Laetare Sunday

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Today is a day of paradoxes: it’s the fourth Sunday of Lent, the mid-point, when we’re called to rejoice in the midst of a somber season. Much like Gaudette Sunday in Advent, some churches go pink rather than purple for the day, and the first word of the ancient liturgy was “laetare” — “rejoice” — even as we continue along this somber wilderness road. It’s a day of paradoxes.

Keep that in mind.

My favorite professor in seminary was from New England and upstate New York. When I moved here, that sentence began to really make sense. People reflect the places that have formed them, and loving a place and loving its people go together well. I wish this had been true for all of history.

Gail R. O’Day is now the dean at Wake Forest Divinity in North Carolina. The most memorable course I took from her was the Gospel of John. She is single-handedly responsible for the fact that I sometimes forget that there are three other Gospels.

She was full of memorable, matter-of-fact quotes delivered with New England shortness and practicality. There’s kindness, too, but often the big translation problem between North and South is learning to read attention and dedication as kindness rather than, necessarily, overflowing warmth of manner. Dr. O’Day might seem cold to some, but to me, she was hilarious. It is a day of paradoxes.

Once while I was taking Dr. O’Day’s John class, Tim Tebow wrote John 16:33 on the two sides of his eye black. When people called her, knowing she was a John scholar, to ask what John 16:33 was, she responded, but also asked playfully at the end of the conversation, “So, wait, you don’t have a Bible [or Google]?”

She remarked after the game, “I don’t think that game went so well for Tim Tebow. Guess that’s what happens when you take an apocalyptic claim by the Son of God and wear it on your face.”

As part of a larger conversation about John references and football, she said, “I’ve noticed a lot of people [at football games and elsewhere] carrying signs with JOHN 3:16 on them. I always want to come behind with a marker and add “dash 17.”

John 3:16 is within the passage that we read today. I don’t know about you, but if you were raised any flavor of Christian and had to memorize scripture as part of your formation as a kid, chances are good that you at some point had to memorize John 3:16. I can’t remember exactly what Sunday school teacher had me memorize it, but I can still remember it in the King James translation, pronounced with a thick Southern accent.

So come with me for a quick and nerdy run through text and context in maybe the most popular passage in Christianity, would you? Remember: it’s a day of paradoxes.

Unlike me, most people don’t have to go to seminary to figure out that context matters and that 3:16 is entirely incomplete without 17. Jarringly so — at least to me. If you read and memorize only 16, you might think that this whole story was about us. That each of our lives stands alone as a love story with Jesus — our very own divine rom com — about us believing that Jesus came and saved us alone. Instead, our individual stories are part of a much bigger, more cosmic story. It’s not that our stories aren’t real — it’s just that we miss the beauty of the forest by falling in love with the first tree we saw.

But verse 17? “For God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Yeah. I want to take a magic marker to some signs now too.

Just like our stories get dragged out of the wider story that they belongs in, so did John 3:16. What we’re not being told even within this lectionary passage is that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who snuck in by night. Nicodemus sneaks in to see the teacher who had thrown a fit in the temple just a chapter before, knocking over all the tables and making an actual whip out of cords. To clarify: this is roughly equivalent to another local preacher, unaffiliated with any church, coming into this room on a Sunday, turning over Wayne’s chair, and knocking over the pulpit, yelling at all of us, and storming out. Then this is me, without informing any of you, having a secret meeting with him to ask him serious questions about his theology.

Nicodemus will spend the entirety of John 3 trying to understand, but failing spectacularly, and given this passage and the analogy above, I can’t really say that I blame him. What did you think would happen, Nicodemus? That you would suddenly understand this new, possibly-crazy teacher?

But sometimes appearances, even secret, controversial appearances, can be deceiving. It is a day, after all, of paradoxes.

One of my favorite TV shows is Madam Secretary, the tales of fictional Secretary of State and CIA veteran Elizabeth McCord. McCord is a powerful, charismatic, funny woman who runs the state department in a way that would make the vast majority of Americans proud. Social intelligence is her thing; her ability to read people and to get to the heart of a given matter is what made her career in the CIA, and it’s also what makes her excellent as the top diplomat of the United States. She’s idealistic, but not naive. She’s very aware of appearances, but she often clashes with those who put appearances over ideals.

One thing I noticed recently involves the way that the fictional Secretary McCord often conducts secret meetings and back channel negotiations. Contrary to what you might have heard on the news, a back channel — that is, an unofficial secret communication with a foreign government or entity — is not in an of itself a bad thing. In fact, diplomacy wouldn’t happen without back channels, which often allow leaders to save face. It’s all about who and when and how.

Secretary McCord, I noticed, often conducts her secret diplomatic meetings in churches. She will enter a church under the appearance of prayer, happen to sit next to a foreign diplomat or other agent, have a quiet conversation, and then quietly leave. It only occurred to me recently that if she were our actual Secretary of State (and we should be so lucky), we would probably think of her as pious because of the number of times she appears to go and pray. It even sort of makes sense, as her husband is a fairly devout Catholic and a religious scholar.

What she’s actually doing is not praying, however — it’s saving the world. During these church meetings, in different episodes, she arranges the rescue of American hostages, averts wars between other nations, and averts wars for the United States itself.

I think that the same is likely true, in a way, of this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. We’re tempted to think it’s about Nicodemus’s personal salvation. In reality, Jesus is talking about saving the world.

The content of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is, not surprisingly, rooted in their Jewish faith. Jesus brings up the serpents in the wilderness in Numbers — the Old Testament passage for today.

About that Numbers story. The people complain about everything, and suddenly, snakes appear and start biting and killing people.

Well that, as they say, escalated quickly.

Then, in what reads like maybe something written by one of the Monty Python guys, God says, “Make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.”

You can almost hear Moses. “A snake? On a pole.”

“Yes.”

“And the people who get bitten will live?”

“Yep.”

And he does, and they do.

They look at what’s killing them, and live.

That’s a nice Hebrew Bible classic, but it doesn’t explain why Nicodemus and Jesus were talking about it. What do snakes on poles have to do with saving the world?

Remember: it is a day of paradoxes, and that’s good, because my experience is that the Gospel is full of them.

It begins in an obvious place for the season of Lent: we humans are pretty awful. Humans are often violent and broken and stubborn. Don’t believe me? Watch the news. Listen to your own thoughts. Watch people interact in traffic. We’re capable of a lot of good, but we’re all far from perfect; we can be downright awful and have been for the entirety of human history.

This past Wednesday, we had to cancel for the snowstorm. We were due to talk about Satan. We’ll likely come back to it this week, but since it connects, here’s a preview: “Satan” in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary” — the one who blocks the way.

Satan is the one who tells you that you are not beloved, that you are not good enough, that you cannot accomplish anything you set out to do. The accuser. The one who blocks the way. And we, in turn, rather than being like Jesus, more or less become little devils instead: those who tell others that they are not beloved, that they are not worthy, that they cannot be part of our club. We block their way: sometimes to the necessities of life or the recognition of their human dignity, sometimes into the church itself.

In the Garden, Satan appeared as a snake. When we’re at our most broken, we can be little snakes ourselves. Think Slytherin in Harry Potter, but without the redeeming qualities.

We are broken, so God became a human. God taught us to, as Rachel Held Evans says, “heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more” (46). As violent people who do not like to be told what to do, we accused God, condemned God, and violently nailed God to a tree.

I once heard a comedian remark about how odd it is that we celebrate and symbolize Jesus using the manner of his death, with little crosses, some even containing the image of his body. The comedian joked, if Jesus beamed down and saw that, you think he’d be like, “DUDE! What the heck?! That was a BAD DAY!”

I mean, if we celebrated those who died in car crashes by wearing cars around our necks or if we celebrated assassinated politicians using sniper rifles, that would be really, really messed up. But with Jesus, the method of his death actually has become the symbol of what he stands for — and how he heals.

Now, people look upon the violence of a Roman cross and see love. They look upon what was killing them: violence and oppression — and live.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Indeed, it is a day of paradoxes.

And that’s my best guess at what Jesus wanted to say to Nicodemus the Pharisee.

This whole thing is also much bigger than we’ve made it. We think it’s about saving us individually, about saving Nicodemus individually, but what Jesus is really doing is saving the world. Driving out the Satan in all of us that says that we and others are not worthy of love and life and happiness.

And that changes everything. It moves us from a posture of trying to convince our neighbors to loving them instead. It moves us from being little devils who accuse and judge and condemn into little Christs instead who forgive and love and rescue, in big ways and small. It moves us from a place of only mourning our shortcomings to rejoicing over what God has done. It moves us from despair to rejoicing.

And such a revelation just may give you the overwhelming urge to add “dash seventeen” to the next John 3:16 sign that you see at a football game.

Let me know. I’ll help you. Amen.

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