I don’t believe I have ever included a story about frogs in our readings before. The tradition of stories and storytelling among the Sufis is probably not too different from storytelling among the Jewish people which finds expression in the parables of Jesus. Many Sufi stories are quite humorous. Being a bit deaf myself, I can relate to the frog who thought he heard something that he wanted to hear but did not. Who wouldn’t want to hear a message of encouragement rather than a message that condemned you to a miserable death?
The Gospel reading contains what is undoubtedly the best-know and the most-memorized verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son” etc., followed by a lesser-known corollary: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
The community that created the Gospel of John was deeply committed to the understanding that Jesus is God in human form and that the act of believing in Jesus was the path to a rich and abundant life. The entirety of John chapter three is the account of Jesus’ conversation with a Jewish leader named Nicodemus and the theological reflections that followed. Nicodemus appears sincere in his desire to do whatever is needed to please God, and Jesus tells him that a life of faith is like a child emerging into the world for the first time who takes a breath and is filled with a new and life-giving spirit.
I have to admit that I have not always been particularly fond of John’s gospel which most scholars believe was written later than the others. The very high Christology seems at odds with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and many people believe it reflects the evolving ideas of the church more than the life and message of Jesus himself. When I was at the Festival of Homiletics recently, a friend offered to buy me a commentary on the Gospel of John as a gift. Not exactly my first choice, but a gift is a gift, so I agreed. The author was one of the organizers and speakers at the conference. Apparently, my friend told her of my reservations about John, and she wrote inside the cover: “May you hear John in a new way, and may you experience God’s abundant grace anew in John’s witness to Jesus.” So, I’ve been considering new ways to understand John, including the possibility that the Gospel was not written much later than the others and that it is simply another voice among others reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ life.
The writer of John inserts an odd, unexpected reference from the Hebrew Scriptures in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. He writes, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” An offbeat, somewhat obscure story in the book of Numbers tells of Moses creating a snake out of bronze and putting it at the end of a long pole and holding it up in the air. There had been a problem with poisonous snakes biting the Israelites and causing them to die. Sort of reminiscent of the snakes reported to be invading homes in Texas and Oklahoma due to the floods there. Those who looked up at the bronze snake in the desert were healed of their snake bites and lived.
Part of my Doctor of Ministry curriculum required me to find and visit and write about a church that was completely unlike any church I had ever experienced. Since I was studying near the Appalachian Mountains, I naturally chose to visit a snake-handling church. The members of the Church of the Lord Jesus with Signs Following in Jolo, West Virgina were very hospitable. My study partner Brian and I were invited to share meals and visit in their homes during their annual Homecoming Weekend. On Saturday night, we attended a revival service and within ten minutes I was up in the front with my tambourine dancing along with twenty or so men and women holding rattlesnakes and copperheads high in their air as they sang and prayed. I did not touch the snakes! I did, however, watch as one man was bitten on his arm by a rattler. The next morning, the man’s young son came to church to report that his Dad was sick (No kidding, right?!) A handkerchief was blessed by the congregation and sent home to the father who we later learned recovered and went back to work the next day. Also during that service, I pulled a rubber snake out of my pocket and placed it on my friend Brian’s lap while he was praying. When he opened his eyes, he jumped up and shouted and looked like he fit right in!
I heard a sermon there in Jolo, West Virginia based on John 3:15 and the snake lifted up in the wilderness; that short verse is one of two primary Scriptures you will hear over and over again in such churches. People have asked me many times if I thought the snake handlers were out of their minds. I respond “no”, though perhaps they need to consider how overly focused they are on one or two Scriptures and the fact that so many of their church members have died unnecessarily. They believe, though, that lifting up snakes in worship is an act of faithfulness. Just as the bronze serpent was held up in the desert by Moses, so Jesus is being lifted up by them through their belief that God will save them from danger.
John’s Gospel says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.” Regardless of how we understand God and regardless of who we believe Jesus to be, there is good news in that statement. The message of the Gospel is not about condemnation; it is about life.
Ricky Jackson was eighteen years old when he was sentenced to death for a murder that he did not commit. The only witness, a twelve year-old boy named Eddie Vernon, identified Jackson as the killer under pressure from local law enforcement. Despite the fact that Jackson had a solid alibi and had not seen near the site of the crime by anyone else, he was sent to death row and remained there for thirty-nine years. Last November, Eddie Vernon finally got the courage to stand before a judge and admit that he had lied about Ricky Jackson’s involvement in the crime. Jackson walked out of the courtroom as a free man.
What would the words “There is no longer any condemnation” mean for a man condemned to death? Because Ricky Jackson was no longer condemned, he was free. He was saved from an unjust conviction and incarceration that lasted more than two-thirds of his life. In recent months, Jackson has spoken publicly of his forgiveness of that twelve year-old boy who later waited decades to take responsibility as an adult. And Vernon has spoken of the difficulty he has in forgiving himself.
Condemning others is easy. Speaking and living and loving in ways that offer life is a greater challenge.
The phrase “John 3:16” is often printed on placards that are displayed at professional football games and seen by millions of people on television. It’s the written equivalent of a sound bite, not even containing the actual words of that famous verse. And of course, we need much more than soundbites when we are conversing about God.
Karoline Lewis, the author of my new commentary on the Gospel of John, reminds readers that when Jesus speaks of the act of saving or the experience of being saved in this passage, the words should be applied to the specific circumstances of the individual. We don’t know a whole lot about Nicodemus apart from a couple of brief references in the Gospels. We do know that he was a Pharisee and a leader among the Jews. And we know that he came to Jesus under cover of night and engaged in conversation that revealed his longing for something beyond what he had already experienced of God. Jesus’ response was to speak of a new start, a new birth.
What would Jesus say to you? Salvation is a big Bible word that is packed with all kinds of meanings and associations that are not always very helpful. Maybe one way to keep it in perspective is to remember that Jesus in the Gospel of John is all about abundant life. If we can imagine a life where we experience goodness and freedom and hope and wholeness, then we have a picture of what it means to be released from condemnation and to experience God’s salvation.
“God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
Who is God in the Sufi tale of the frogs? I suspect that too many people see God among those who shouted words of discouragement: “Give up! You’ll never jump high enough or be smart enough or strong enough” - words that condemn and don’t affirm the worth of the one who feels trapped and is fearful. Jesus taught us that in fact God is cheering us on and wants us to experience life that is full. Abundant life.
May we experience God today and always as the one who encourages us and empowers us to live fully despite what we encounter on any day. And may we offer words of encouragement and affirmation to those who would otherwise believe that they are without hope. Amen!