Parallels and paradox abound in these passages: the source of harm becomes the source of healing, those who see the darkness are brought to the light. What is exposed offers a route toward wholeness despite––and even because of––brokenness.
The preacher today may focus on the call in Lent to look squarely at the roots of self-deception and dishonesty. Looking at what harms us is the beginning of life abundant.
While nearly everyone is familiar with John 3:16 and the verses that immediately follow it, most readers are probably unaware of the verses that immediately precede it, included in today's reading. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. . .” refers to an oft-overlooked incident during the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness (see below).
Just as Moses turned the serpent, something that was originally the cause of suffering, into a means of saving lives, the gospel writers made the cross, originally a symbol of shame and suffering, into a symbol of eternal life. . . .
While most readers are familiar with John 3:16, many may overlook the inherent tension between inclusivity and exclusivity in [the passage as a whole]. . . “God so loved the world” suggests the possibility of inclusion (whereas many places in the Bible speak of God's exclusive love for the chosen people), but “everyone who believes in him” limits the reward of eternal life to believers. The next verses increase this tension, since unbelievers are condemned on the assumption that they've had the opportunity to believe and have chosen not to. . .
While many readers have accepted this exclusivity. . . we must consider the audience to whom this gospel is speaking. Some have suggested that the Johannine community felt so beleaguered by “enemies,” not only the synagogues from which they'd been expelled, but the followers of John the Baptist as well as other early variants of Christianity, that they needed encouragement that they had made the right choice. From this perspective then, the exclusivity may be less important than the emphasis on belief in and loyalty to Jesus. –– Jonathan Lawrence
This passage provides the background to the cryptic statement that precedes John 3:16. As they often do, the Israelites complain against God and Moses. . . [but] unlike the other times when they complained and God provided food or water, this time God sent poisonous serpents among them and many people died.
When the people realize their sin in criticizing God and Moses, they repent and God instructs Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole so that anyone who was bitten by the serpents could look at it and live. . . The concept is of God providing a way to rescue the people from the situation they found themselves in due to their sin, offering a logical parallel for the gospel of John. –– Jonathan Lawrence
Whereas John described Jesus as a signpost of hope to which people could look and be saved by belief, the writer of Ephesians sees the problem not so much as unbelief as the sins they have committed under the influence of the “ruler of the power of the air.” No longer under the sway of their fleshly passions, the Ephesians have been “raised” up and seated with Christ in the “heavenly places.” As in John, they are saved through faith, but there are also echoes of Psalm 107 in the references to God's help and healing. –– Jonathan Lawrence
Jonathan D. Lawrence, an American Baptist Church ordained minister, teaches Religious Studies and Theology at Canisius College, Buffalo, New York.
Homily Service 39, no. 4 (2006): 44-52.