In the musical Into the Woods, fairytale characters journey into the wilderness; as Stephen Sondheim says:
Ah, the woods. The all-purpose symbol of the unconscious, the womb, the past, the dark place where we face our trials and emerge wiser or destroyed.
The woods are a metaphor that we have been exploring since Lent began. Jesus of Nazareth goes into the woods and is challenged and transformed. He invites others to go with him and they are challenged and transformed. But in the woods, it can be scary; it can be lonely.
In Sondheim’s musical, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella, the Baker and his wife—they get lost in the darkness of the woods. At one point, Cinderella says:
It’s hard to see the light now.
Indeed, because sometimes in the woods we do get lost.
And then it is hard to see the light.
Even so, in that darkness of the woods, Cinderella and company find strengths and talents they never knew they had. And, coming out of the woods they see the light; they realize that their decisions and actions affect everybody else in and out of the woods.
Light and darkness is a recurring theme in the musical.
Light and darkness is also a prevalent theme in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew prophets like Isaiah use the motif of light and darkness to describe the journey of the Israelites. The New Testament Gospels borrow from the OT as they present their perspectives about the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s Gospel in particular emphasizes light and darkness.
John chapter 3 is a well-known chapter, because it includes the Nicodemus story. You remember him? Nicodemus was a religious leader of the Sanhedrin. He came to question Jesus—or at least to engage in some sort of theological debate. But we’re starting at 3:14 and Nicodemus’ lines in the story are done. In fact, the whole tone of John chapter 3 changes. That’s why I think it’s likely that this portion of chapter 3 isn’t part of the Nicodemus story; some Bible scholars agree. In the original Greek of the Gospel, the pronouns change. Before, Jesus spoke with Nicodemus on a private level using “I” and “you singular” language. From verse 14 or 15 on Jesus seems to be addressing a larger crowd and not just one know-it-all religious leader.
Some scholars take it a step further and I happen to agree with them.
Perhaps these words attributed to Jesus at the end of John 3 were not his own, but instead were words actually written by the Gospel writer to address the church; in other words, the growing community of Jesus followers 60-65 years after his death. Yes, John’s Gospel was not written until 60-65 years later. NO WAY!!!!!!!
But don’t freak out about it.
Sure, many are conditioned to think that these Gospels were all eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life and death.
But they’re not.
And as it pertains to the so-called “words” of Jesus, as always, you’re welcome to look at the story as you wish. I’ve chosen the perspective of many modern scholars that these “John” words were not words actually spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. This is because of what I’ve studied about John and also because John’s portrayal of Jesus [and what the Gospel has Jesus say] is so drastically different from the other three canonical Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
I simply encourage you to read John’s Gospel as a separate story, because it really is. There is a clear purpose to it and also a distinct audience in mind.
But back to the recurring theme of light and darkness.
Do I need to mention that Nicodemus went to talk to Jesus at night?
And Jesus, in John’s perspective, is the light of the world.
So there you are.
This latter part of John chapter 3, however, is not about Nicodemus, but about Moses. I’ve mentioned before that sometimes the Jesus stories of the Gospels parallel the Moses stories of Exodus and Numbers. Here is another case. If you are familiar with the OT story, you’ll remember that Moses was with the Israelites in the woods [wilderness].
See….I TOLD you that into the woods was relevant!
Well, things were not going so well.
The Israelite people didn’t have enough food, they were tired, and hello, Moses, where is this so-called promised land again?
All of a sudden, Egypt sounded just great.
If you want, you can read the original story in Numbers 21, but here’s what happened next: snakes started biting people and so eventually God tells Moses to place a fiery serpent [an ancient symbol of knowledge] on a pole so that when people got bitten by the snakes they could look at the snake on the pole and live to see another day.
It’s weird, right?
But it wouldn’t have been weird to John’s community. They were already drawing parallels between Jesus and the prophets. So John’s Gospel tweaks the story just a bit, and has Moses lift up the serpent on the stick, just as Jesus would be later lifted up on a cross and then lifted up to life.
The point is that in both cases, Moses and Jesus bring healing to people.
That of course leads us to a passage probably no one has ever heard of….NOT!
Honestly, many preachers [including me] would like to avoid talking about this one little verse that has been so misused and misquoted, but that would be like ignoring a flaming pile of…[oops], so we’ll talk about it.
It’s one verse.
As I said before, Jesus probably did not say it. It’s not, as some claim, the “summary” or “crux” of the religion of Christianity or the one true way to know God.
It is one verse within a larger context and story.
So let’s be honest and thorough Bible explorers and give John its due.
It’s light and darkness again.
The dark place is the world, the reason for all this lifting up of serpents and sons of man. God so loves that darkness. God so loves in a way that it disrupts our ideas about what is light and dark.
God so loves without any kind of condemnation.
God so loves.
The Moses story and the Jesus story of John are about confronting the darkness—not just the darkness in the woods, but that which is in ourselves.
We’re meant to shudder at the idea of biting snakes and scary woods being symbols of healing and life. The things that scare us and that which we call “evil” or “bad” are all of a sudden the direct opposite.
The biting snake heals and gives wisdom.
The scary, dark woods provide light and life.
Light has come into the cosmos to stay.
Unfortunately, though, people seem to love darkness more than that light. In other words, as human beings we are capable of doing evil, hateful, and unjust things.
Yes we are—all of us.
And of course we would not want such things to be exposed in the light.
This is in sharp contrast to the unconditional love of God that embraces the whole of the cosmos and is itself LIGHT.
Just all-encompassing love.
Friends, it would be easy [and lazy] to say that John 3 is simply about Jesus saving those who believe in Jesus and judging those who don’t.
I encourage you to dig deeper and to hear the whole of John’s story.
This is about lifting up.
In Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s story the emphasis is on Jesus undergoing great suffering and then eventually dying.
In John, the death of Jesus is about healing—just like the snake on the pole.
For John, Jesus was just like Moses, but a step further.
Jesus was logos, or the light that from the beginning was there with the divine presence. John wants us to see Jesus as not just a healer from his mid-thirties until his death, but a healer from day one. Not just a prophet who received a call on earth, but a prophet from the very start of things. Not just a light after baptism, but a light from the very beginning.
And this is a change—a shift in perspective.
It’s a new community some 60 years later thinking about what Jesus meant to them.
I think Christians of today ought to take note and do the same.
John’s context cannot be ignored, but neither can ours.
We are all interpreting Jesus’ life, ministry, and death right now.
Our heads are filled with what other people and churches and preachers and television and radio programs and blogs tell us we should believe or think.
I encourage you, however, to accept that it’s really up to you how you see this Jesus of Nazareth.
We have these Gospel stories as examples of how other people in different places and times saw him and interpreted his life. It only matters if you wrestle with the stories in your own context.
What does your journey into the woods, into darkness, look and feel like?
What things do you hide from the light due to shame or regret or fear?
How can your view of Jesus help you to heal from those things?
How can your view of Jesus move you to accept and love all people, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe?
How can your practice of living out these views move you towards light?
What lifts you up in this life?
And how can you lift others up?
I think it’s best to begin and end with these questions.