Sunday reflection: John 3:13–17

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 3:13–17:

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

“No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who 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 might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Last year, my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which took us through Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. We started from Amman to one of the places on the River Jordan that is considered one of the possible sites for where John the Baptist baptized Jesus and where His ministry began. Our next stop on the pilgrimage took us to Mount Nebo, where the Lord gave Moses a view of the Holy Land before he died, barred from entering it himself.

Today, Mount Nebo is a popular destination, not just for pilgrims but also for locals. When we visited, dozens of schoolchildren from the West Bank were there with us. The view is nothing short of spectacular, even when haze clouds the view for us more than it did for Moses. I took this photo of the view at the time; our guide told us that after a rain, one can see all the way to Jerusalem, just as in Moses’ day:

nebo

Just behind me as I took this picture was a representation of the staff created by the Israelites on God’s order to cure them of the bites of the serpents. (The front-page picture of the staff comes from one of our friends on the same pilgrimage.) Today’s readings connect both of those events in their own way, and is an example of the parallels that Scripture routinely provides between the Old and New Testaments — and this one strikes to the heart of salvation.

In this case, Jesus makes the connection himself, while disputing with Nicodemus on his mission. Nicodemus came to Jesus as one who saw that Jesus spoke with authority and did wonders that no one else could do, “unless God is with him,” but did not understand what Jesus wanted to do. Jesus tried explaining that He represented a rebirth, one that freed us from our sins and prepared us for eternal life in salvation, but Nicodemus worked in the same context of the Messiah that most of his contemporaries did. They understood the Messiah and salvation as an earthly king and a rebirth of the nation of Israel as an independent nation, not salvation for all who wished it in the afterlife.

That is why Nicodemus could not conceive of the act of being “born anew” (John 3:3) “of water and Spirit,” and why Jesus told him that this failure explained his confusion. Nicodemus sees and hears, but does not take the testimony to heart, because he does not grasp the need for healing and salvation rather than just the temporal woes of a conquered Israel. The problem with Israel isn’t the Romans — it’s sin, and it had been since the Exodus.

The first reading today explains the reference Jesus makes to Nicodemus, which the elder would have immediately recognized. Not for the first time, the Israelites rebelled against Moses and the Lord on their 40-year journey through the desert, which was itself a consequence of their earlier rebellion and lack of faith in God’s plan for salvation. The Israelites wanted their material needs met more than devote themselves to God’s plan and “complained against God and Moses” (Numbers 21). God set saraph serpents among them as a consequence for their rebellion, and soon the Israelites wanted to repent, asking Moses to pray for them. God told Moses to create a staff with a bronze saraph on it, so that any who looked upon it would be cured of their bite — once they had cured themselves of their sin against God by seeking repentance.

Interestingly, the representation of that staff at Mount Nebo today takes the form of a cross. Nothing in the description in Numbers mentions how the staff was fashioned, except that it was a “fiery serpent” of bronze on a staff. However, the parallel between the saraph staff and the Cross would be undeniable in any case, especially because Jesus explicitly connects the two in His explanation of His mission to Nicodemus.

Sin is the disease, as it was in the days of Moses; Jesus, the Cross and Resurrection is the cure. Nicodemus sees the powerful signs Jesus performs and wonders why the Messiah is not overturning Roman armies rather than the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. That’s the limit and the context of salvation for Nicodemus, just as land and material wealth was the limit and the context of salvation for the Israelites in Exodus. Neither saw that God had a plan for salvation for the world, and that it would work through the Israelites but not be limited to just a dominant nation of Israel.

In our second reading, Paul writes to the Philippians about this mission and why it took the sacrifice of God’s son to serve as our saraph staff. He came not to turn men into slaves by demonstrating his equality with God, but stood with fallen mankind as a beacon to cure our basic sickness of sin. Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness.” Being sinless Himself, He nevertheless submitted Himself to the final consequence of sin, which is death, in order to conquer both sin and death — but in a way that allows us to choose salvation for ourselves, not as slaves but as free sons and daughters of God. We look to the cross to cure our sinfulness, just as Jesus told Nicodemus we would have to do in order to be cured of it.

We march through the desert of this life, surrounded by sin and the consequences of it. In fact, thanks to the wonders of the modern world, we can see so much more of the variety and depths of sin than the Israelites of old could know.  We are so much more easily distracted, so much more likely to get the saraph’s bite without feeling it or feeling the need to cure it. We look to the saraph’s nest rather than the cross for our cure and fall more and more into sin.

The temptation to participate in sin and to rationalize it in all sorts of ways surrounds us 24/7, even without the march to the Promised Land as our primary mission — or more accurately, without the perception of a march to salvation as our primary mission. Our lives are a march to the Promised Land, whether we recognize it or not, whether we want it to be or not. The only way to reach it, to succeed in that mission, is to put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, and not the materialism or power of this world. That is why we need the Cross — to see it, remember, and seek our cure through repentance and renewed faith.

Jesus understood that, even if Nicodemus did not. It takes a rebirth in water and Spirit to have a chance to seek salvation from sin. A bronze saraph won’t do the trick any longer, and the Golden Calf never did. It takes God loving us so much that He had His only Son become the everlasting icon of salvation, so that all who believe in His salvation will share in it. Our sins are too many to be bought for any lesser price, but we can claim our part in that transaction by embracing His Passion for our sins. The cure is always at hand, has always been at hand, and will always be at hand. The choice has been, is, and always will be ours.