Fourth Sunday in Lent | John 3:14-21
John 3:16 must be the most famous verse in the Bible. To tell the truth, I can barely stand to hear anyone recite it anymore.
Everything that may be thought or said about it already has been, or nearly so, and yet the Lectionary guides us here for the fourth Sunday of this Lenten season.
There are those who claim that this one verse contains the entirety of the Gospel message. It doesn’t, of course. It does not tell us who this son of God might be, nor how or what we might believe about him, nor why, nor how God gave this son, nor who God might be or much of what God might be like, nor how or when the world is perishing, nor what it means to have everlasting life, nor what it means that this son of God is the only begotten—an odd term.
What is more, the verse lacks all context. Upon hearing it, a Buddhist goat herder raised in remote Tibet and unfamiliar with western religions will be mystified as to the meaning. Western non- or ex-Christians hearing it, though familiar with this Christian confession of faith, are likely dismayed at being preached to once again. Christians themselves hear it repeated until, like words mumbled over and over by a child, the phrases lose all meaning, become strange, uncanny, unheimlich.
Take the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles’ Creed, or a Mother Goose rhyme—any of them, repeated often enough, become nothing but meaningless sounds.
That is the catch.
There is another word in this passage, a little further along in verse 19, “…and this is the judgment…” The word rendered ‘judgment’ is literally ‘crisis’, and the crisis is found in deeds not words—whether one wishes one’s deeds to be seen in the light or not. It is no longer about the words. It was never about the words. It is about what we do, who we are. It is about being not seeming.
And there we are, between scylla and charybdis, a rock and a hard place—between familiarity and cliché, between our words and our choices.
We strain to see the truest things: that our lives are about what we are, not what we say or claim; that our success or failure as humans rests upon the person we choose to be each day; that there is only one ongoing crisis encompassing the entirety of our lives, the struggle to be and not to seem. The Zen expression is presence, the notion of being fully present in each moment, not distracted from the substance of our lives by the insubstantiality of our notions.
If there is a devil, it doesn’t have to tempt us toward choosing evil things. All it has to do is distract us long enough for our lives to pass.
It doesn’t take devilishly long.