by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” — John 3:16
This is one of the best-known texts in the Bible. If you watch professional football you might remember seeing it on banners behind the goal posts where all the television audience will see it at kicking time. It is the darling of a certain kind of Christianity, and all for good reason. It is a compact, pungent statement of the Christian faith. God does indeed love this world, aka, “Rattlesnake Flats” and does provide a way out of its thirsty, threatening mortality into eternal life.
The saying is a summary of the meaning of the story of Nicodemus. He was a rabbi who sneaked in to talk with Jesus late one night. He came secretly because speaking with Jesus would have cast a shadow on his reputation if it became known. So he came at the risk of his professional life, and therefore must have been powerfully drawn. He was drawn by the miracles Jesus did and decided that a man who could do such deeds must be from God; for this reason he believed that Jesus could tell him something about God that he did not yet know.
What Jesus told him is that God loves this world and all that is in it, and that when he, Nicodemus, really understood that it would be as if his life began all over again, as if he were born anew, as if he had been given the great second chance. He would become unpredictable like the wind, and no longer a solid, square something stored in a cabinet of law and custom. He would at last understand Moses, not the Moses of the rock tablets of “Thou shalt not,” which one has to lug around like a bag of stones on ones back, but the Moses of the Sign of the Serpent (The original caduceus, sign of the physician). When the Israelites trekked through “Rattlesnake Flats,” Moses fixed a bronze serpent on his staff and held it aloft, and those dying of poisonous bites would recover when thy looked on it believingly. This Moses is primarily the life giver not the lawgiver, Moses who lifts us up not Moses who loads us down. The serpent lifted high on the staff is Jesus lifted up on the Cross, and those who see him in this agonized glory finally understand the continuity of the Bible’s faith, Moses prophesies Christ, and the word of prophecy by the Sign of the Serpent appears for what it is, the word of life by the Sign of the Cross.
Now all of this is highly symbolic and I hope you are asking what its literal application might be. Let me suggest a few literal descriptions that flow from the symbols.
The first is that the image of rebirth means that we can undergo a change of orientation and self-understanding, away from this world and towards the world of God, away from the lies and murders that are the fundamental works of the “prince of this world,” towards the truth and eternal life that are the gifts of the true God. This change of direction is contingent on discovering and accepting and repenting the reciprocal violence that makes the human world go round. Vengeance and the Scapegoat, Pay-back and the Whipping boy – these are the signs of the past and the prophesies of the future. They are the snakes that poison us to death and the serpent that raises us to life.
Second, such a change of direction makes us unpredictable. To belong to this world is to be utterly predictable, to fit comfortably into its pattern of lying and murder, in all its forms, social – ethnic, nationalist, religious, class, – and personal – pride lust and greed – and therefore to behave predictably. People, especially religious people like Nicodemus, pay an especially high price for the freedom to live by the Spirit and not by the Letter. Religion is the primary but not the only institution for the enforcement of conformity, and literature is full of the tragedy of individuals whose consciences are raped by the custom of their clan and the accusation “traitor!” So, like many Germans in the Third Reich, we pretend that the pungent reek of burning flesh that poisons our village air is simple industrial pollution, and that we do not know and cannot imagine what is going on out there at the edge of our town. In such a village we are the unpredictable ones, who cry out: “We are murdering the Jews!” and will not shut up, until we too go up in smoke.
Thirdly it tells us, incredibly, that God loves such a world as this; “For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).” This love is the divine instance of the command in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies: ” You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, and thus you will be sons of your heavenly Father, who causes his sun to shine on the wicked and the good and his rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous.” In loving the world absolutely, even to the giving of himself over to the world’s violence, God actively loves His enemies to life. He is the Creator and he loves his Creation, and that love is indefeasible, therefore we can at last see the Serpent of Moses as a prophecy of the Cross of Christ, which is, in turn, a prophecy of the Resurrection of the Creation and New Birth in a New Creation.
To live like this you will have to be as wise as a serpent. You may have to move at night, keep nocturnal counsel, cover your tracks and keep a sense of humor. The secret of survival as this kind of a spy in the badlands of “Rattlesnake Flats” is, “Keep your eyes on the Serpent/Cross that leads the march of pilgrims across the rocky ground.” That sign will keep us alive and bring us home to eternity.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, thus must the Son of man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life (John 3:14).”