Part 3 of the sermon series “This We Believe”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 18, 2012—Lent IV
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-17
Numbers 21:4-9 ¶ From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
John 3:14-17 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ¶ “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. ¶ “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.
If you had to ask a person at random to name a Biblical citation, a verse of the Bible, chances are they’d say John 3:16. They might not know what John 3:16 says, but they’ve seen that citation in all different kinds of places. Mostly at major sporting events as a sign held up in a crowd or painted on highway overpasses.
A number of folks might even be able to quote the verse: “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”—but it would be interesting to ask further what it meant. I went to the source of all knowledge and wisdom–the Internet–to see what it was that people believed the text was saying. Many people liken this verse to being the central claim of the Bible. In effect, this verse is what the entire Bible is all about. If that’s the case, then most people’s understanding of their faith is depressing.
So many talked about this text as demonstrating which eternal fate you earn: heaven or hell. And yes, I said “earn”. The “love” mentioned at the beginning of the verse is merely God’s predisposition to send his Son to suffer and die as the payment on a debt or the punishment for the sinfulness of humanity. The love was the willingness to watch one’s own son suffer for the crimes of others.
After reading a bunch of answers from the internet, many of which spent a fair amount of time detailing the particular way in which the wicked would meet their end, I became someone skeptical that this was a complete understanding of what it means to talk about God’s love. It’s amazing how quickly a verse that begins “God so loved the world” becomes a verse about non-believers being thrown into hell.
II. THE TEXT
It is perhaps the most quoted verse in the Bible and probably one of the most misunderstood. The context of the verse makes all the difference in the world. The opening verses to the passage make reference to a story from Numbers. In that story, the Israelites were grumbling about, well, everything and as a consequence God sends poisonous snakes to bite them and many die. The Israelites plead for help and God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole and whenever the people look at it, they will be saved from their bites.
It is, to say the least, a curious story. Why doesn’t God just take away the serpents? Why do they have to look at a serpent on a pole? The meaning of this text owes a lot to various cultural contexts of the ancient Israelites, but we needn’t go too much into that to make one thing clear: in his Gospel, John is using the image of “lifting up” to make a point. Just as the Israelites were healed and saved from death by the serpent being lifted up, so too are we healed and saved from death by the Son of Man being lifted up–a reference to the cross. And it is with that reference to the cross that leads into the next verse: “For God so loved the world…” Behind the entire narrative, then, of both the Old and New Testaments, is a God of love.
In the First Letter of John, we read clearly that “God is love” and that those who do not know love, do not know God. Thus, both John’s gospel and the letters of John point toward a God understood as love. But what does that mean, given everything else we understand? How does it help us to understand the passage of scripture from John’s gospel?
III. FUZZY LOVE
Our former Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Cohen, used to tell a story about one sermon he gave at a synagogue in which he deliberately used some Christian phrases like “God loves you”, “God is love” and so on. It wasn’t until he said them in Hebrew—ahavat Yisrael—that people became comfortable with what he was saying. Now, it’s not just that a sentiment like “God is love” sounds so Christian that it was unpleasant, it’s that such a sentiment can sound, well, sentimental. The idea that God is love can sound kind of saccharine, as if God was a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Of course, that’s probably the function of the way that love in general is portrayed in our society. Love is the heady feeling portrayed in the movies. It’s John Cusack standing in the rain with a boom box playing Peter Gabriel music. It’s the Hallmark card. It’s the cute puppies and kittens snuggling with each other. It’s soft. It’s pleasant. It seems to lack substance. Perhaps sensing that, that’s how people are talked into buying things to demonstrate their love: show her you love her with a diamond this Christmas.
And so, “God is love” comes across as warm, fuzzy, vaguely hippie-ish.
IV. GOD’S LOVE
The real irony about all this is that love isn’t really that fuzzy after all. Love is not sentimental or light. Love is serious business and should not be entered into lightly. I think it’s why they call it “falling” in love, because like physical falling, very few people do it intentionally and it can result in a lot of bruising. As the U2 song says, “Only love can leave such a mark.” Quite the contrary to the warm, fuzzy love often portrayed, real love is difficult work. In his most recent book, at one point Brazilian author Paulo Coelho speaks of being filled “with peace and love”, which he goes on to note, are “two things that rarely come together.” 
He speaks the truth. Love is not something that brings peace–at least not right away. It brings a tempest.
A. Risk Taking & Vulnerability
Love is risk taking. In order to love, we need to become vulnerable, which is not something we are good at being. We tend to like control. We like predictability and order. We like to know what’s coming and love opens us up.
One of the profound differences between the religion of the people of Israel and all the other nations around them was in their portrait of God. In other religions, gods were powerful and occasionally just, but they were rarely seen as good. And they were never seen as vulnerable. But in God’s self-revelation to Moses before the Exodus, God is presented as one who knows the sufferings of the Israelites. God has become vulnerable in order to enter into relationship. When we say that ‘God is love’ we are making a claim that the God we are in relationship with has become vulnerable for our sake.
B. Sets the Other Free
Love seeks freedom. The old quote that “If you love someone, set them free; if they come back, they’re yours, if they don’t they never were”  speaks to the necessity of seeking the freedom of the other. To love without seeking freedom for one’s beloved is not to truly love. It is to control. In order to love, one must seek the freedom of the other. One has to be willing to let go.
I have long argued that this is proof of human free will. In order for God to love us, we must be free to love God back or not. Vulnerability and love require freedom of the beloved. When we say that ‘God is love’ we are making a claim that God seeks our freedom.
Love is self-sacrificing. Love is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the other. It is the very opposite of control, the very opposite of self-indulgent or self-centered. So many people look at love as what it gets them, how it makes them feel. Indeed, most of the romantic comedies are driven by the desire to get something from the beloved. As writer Peter Rollins notes, we desire the desire of the one we desire. That is, what most people want is the love of the one they love. But self-sacrificial love does not seek return on its investment. It sacrifices for the sake of the other. When we say that ‘God is love’ we are making a claim that God sacrifices for our sake without condition.
Which leads us to the final point: love is suffering. I think this is really what Paulo Coelho was talking about. We talk about peace and love, but love rarely brings peace. For if we love by taking risks, by being vulnerable, by setting the other free, and by self-sacrificing, we will very likely suffer. Even in mutually loving relationships, we suffer. When the beloved is hurt, we are hurt. When they are wronged, we are grieved. When they feel sorrow, we are sorrowful. Loving someone does not solve all our problems. It puts us in line for more of them.
When we say that ‘God is love’ we are making a claim that God suffers. Suffers our rejections. Suffers our sorrows. Suffers our pains. Suffers our death. Even to death on a cross.
Love is a powerful thing. As painful as love can be, it is also healing. A young woman in Coelho’s book says, “What hurts us is what heals us.” The same love that puts us at such risk is healing to the one who receives it. As is the love we receive from others. It’s why Jesus tells us to “love one another”, so that there is no shortage of those loving and being loved, risking hurt and being healed.
And then we understand how it is that we are healed. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so too is the Son of Man lifted up and in so doing demonstrates the love of God that is vulnerable, seeks our freedom, self-sacrifices, and suffers.
This we believe. God is Love. A love meant for us and for the whole world. A love so great, that God sent his son to demonstrate this love. And in our trusting in this love we come to know our healing and salvation.