I hate snakes. I know some love them…but I am not in that group.

Once back in the days of seminary a dear colleague held out her hand to offer me a chance to pet/touch/hold/enjoy Kenny the snake. I tried. I really tried to do all of those wonderful things, but try as I might I couldn’t manage to get over my terrific fear of being bitten. Kenny might have been (and might still be) the all high holy emissary of snakes sent to cure anxious human hearts who run over others and do harm as they careen insanely forth in tactical snake evasion maneuvers, but no matter, I lacked (and still lack) the believing trust to receive the gift that is Kenny. I confess that I am my own worst enemy in this affair and Kenny is none the better nor the worse for it. He is simply Kenny the snake.

I hate snakes…the egg laying kind, the babes-in-a-sack-kind, but especially the vipers—those who largely comprise the live-birthing kind.

Throughout my life I have never really had a good interaction with snakes—except maybe for Kenny.

My snake issues started when I was small. I was always told, “don’t touch that,” it might be a snake, especially if, “it looks like a stick and no trees are around.” I have found (and ran in a vomiting terror from) contorted snakes eating eggs from hen nests—hideously terrifying. I have shoveled up (quite unknowingly) a timber rattler in a large grain shovel and accidentally tossed it over my head and into a truck. I freaked out and threw the shovel high up into the air and ran off when the snake (no doubt equally freaked out) whizzed by, inches from my skull,one long hissing, rattling horror. But let’s be real….I am my own worst enemy—after all, I was ambling into the snake’s habitat, and I was doing what I pleased with little regard for the snake. The snake is simply the snake.

And speaking of snakes, Dad, whose birthday was a few days past, used to use an expression for people who he thought might turn around and figuratively bite him. He would see such a person and say, “Son, watch out for ole so-and-so, he’s a real snake in the grass.”  Again, one might wonder if the snake-in-the-grass is really at fault. Did Dad trespass into the habitat of the snake? Was it the snake’s fault that Dad did what Dad pleased with little if any regard for the alleged snake?

Yet I wonder….beyond me, beyond Dad….there’s all of us…all humans. Do we do any better? I ask you. Shall we explore?

John 3:13-17 is the Revised Common Lectionary gospel text on Holy Cross Day 2014.  It’s a grand text save for it’s need to be understood within the larger framework of John 3. The text segment, vv .13-17 has to be kept together with Nicodemus and the matter of snakes. Not just those snakes in the grass mind you, but those snakes on the ground as well.

Folks, ancient Israel encountered snakes on the ground. (Numbers 21, vv. 6-9) And when Jesus entered human existence, guess what Jesus found….figurative snakes on the ground who act like snakes in the grass.  (John 3, vv. 14-15) It goes without saying, in the words of the famous Opossum, Pogo, “We have seen the enemy, and he [she] is us.” We are our own snakes on the ground. And no solution can be found or had in us.

The solution for ancient Israel came “from above” a literal bronze snake held up on a stick… literally a healing born from above. The solution in the day of Jesus (and now) was that the literal God-person who entered our habitat and was held up on a stick…a large stick formed by a stipes, sedile, and patibulum. Jesus took on the likeness of all snakes in the grass, so that a live-birth would come from above, a being born again process was being made into reality by God through Jesus.

Our belief cannot, did not, and shall not ever bring this live-birth-from-above process about…it is a process done by God birthing humanity again from above. Snakes bite. Snakes do not heal. That healing business is the handiwork of God.

Don’t believe that human snakes bite, do you? Just give ’em a chance.

Even those snakes who are being born again/anew from above sometimes retain rattles, fangs, and venom. Figurative human snakes are in God’s process of being born again/anew from above, and the truth is that they retain some of their reptilian habits, patterns, and mechanisms as the process shapes and re-shapes them. This birthing process takes time and those being born again from above are ever-being re-patterned and re-made—-  they always exist as 100% saint, 100% sinner, both at the exact same time, in the exact same being. (This same-time-saint-sinner concept is called simul justus et peccator, check it out sometime.)

Saintedly sinful snakes cannot be the source of their own solutions. That would be the point of John 3. That is the point that Jesus stresses to Nicodemus…one so clearly lost in metaphor. Which makes lost Nicodemus what? Like, perhaps, a number of the rest of us.

Nicodemus, whose name means ‘people’s victory,’ learns (vv. 13-17) that God’s solution is a Son “begotten,” sent from above, and lifted up for something far better than condemnation.

Jesus is the ONE who comes from above (v. 13): “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (note that it is neither human belief nor humans themselves that either ascend or descend—that would be Jesus.)

Jesus is the One who is both process and solution (vv.14 & 15): “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.” ( note that is neither human belief nor humans themselves that are lifted up—that would be Jesus.)

And yet wet have this “whoever believes” glaring at us, practically pleading for an address.

To this end, here’s the address. The word for believes (v. 16) is πιστεύων a form of πιστεύω which might be concisely understood as “believing trust.”  It is used five times in John 3 vv. 1-18. (check out vv. 12, 15, 16, 18). Note that (v. 12) the form of the word in Jesus’ how-can-you question is future tense—πιστεύσετε. Note that (v. 18) it is perfect tense—πεπίστευκεν.

This is important. Why?

Because the future tense introduces something that the perfect tense fleshes out/clarifies…and verse 16 is sandwiched between future and perfect tense. And πιστεύων (v. 16) is a present tense participle–a present action being held between a future action and perfect action.

This (v. 12) sets the stage for “testimony time.”

What is being witnessed to is the truth or untruth of what has been said by the speaker…..for what has been said to be true—and how humans relate to that truth. It comes down to this—either by believing into the truth—thus affirming the one who said it—essentially adding amen, or by not believing into the truth—-thus not affirming the one who said it—and in effect calling the one who said the truth an outright liar. It kind of looks like the game, “Two Big Truths and One Fat Lie.” Except in this case, it is all Truth and the past action has tremendous future impact.

Verse 12 sets the stage for a listing of results that corroborate the impact of believing trust, or the lack thereof:

vv. 15& 16 receiving everlasting life

v. 16 not perishing

v. 18 not being judged (condemned)

And as another potential result

v.18 not believing brings above being judged

The RCL (lectionary) which is keyed to the NRSV treats the Greek verb in v.18 κρίνεται —a form of κρίνω—as “to condemn.” This is accurate yet it feels somewhat incomplete for κρίνω also has the ability to be treated as “to separate,” or in my South Georgia lingo, “to cull out,” as in “keep this, pitch that.”  In essence to make some decision, or to come to sort of conclusion regarding worth or worth prompting discard/retention.  It seems wise to hold the idea of judging/condemning together with the idea of keeping/pitching.

And just exactly what is being judged/condemned/kept/pitched….look to verse 16. It’s the world. The word used for world in the text is κόσμον. It can mean world as in the earth or world as in the universe. It generally gets treated as “world,” but I am pretty sure that as God dreams of redemption and reconciliation that God dreams much bigger than this speck of dust on which we spin and toil. We Engish speakers refer to the universe as the cosmos from κόσμον…but in the Gospel of John it is treated as world. And what of this world? It is:

A snake-infested world that:

  • hates Jesus (John 7:7): “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.”

And yet God loves this world, this snake-a-topia:

  • so loved the world (John 3:16): ““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.”

To the end that Jesus is sent and lifted up in order that this ole snake-in-the grass world:

  • receives truest light (John 1:9): “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
  • takes sin away (John 1:29): “The next day he [John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Wait a second—-“takes away the sin of the world”—-let that sink in deep. If Jesus takes away the sin for which the world might be judged then what judgment could come to the world…the world made sinless by the Son’s taking away of sin?

Could it be that Jesus does more than address sin? More than address my sin, your sin, but the world’s sin? Could it be that Jesus actually does more in the verb (ch. 3, v.18) κρίνεται than condemn? Could Jesus be culling out the sin of the world? Taking sin away on the world’s behalf, thus doing for snakes what snakes cannot do for themselves? Could it be that God’s love is so great that what is being judged worthy of pitching is the world’s sin and what is being judged worthy of keeping is the world which God the Father created through Jesus?

Could God’s love be so cosmically great? Could the process and purpose of God’s lifted-up-Son be so universally grand? Could it be that this is all God’s believing, trusting, grace-gift to be received? Now that’s what I’d call a people’s victory.

Or is it much smaller—a matter of Jesus and you, or Jesus and me? Only a trite matter of dear simple Jesus judging a bunch of disbelieving snakes in the grass?

Happy preaching!