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Sermon for March 11, 2018: John 3:16 (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

I once read a study that suggested that complaining is good for your health. My first reaction was, “Well, I guess that means my kids are going to live forever!” Then I began to wonder exactly what the study results meant. Is it that complaining allows us to vent our pent-up feelings? Or is it possible that when we voice our complaints out loud they don’t seem so bad? Or perhaps it’s just that we get a tiny bit of satisfaction by making everyone around us as miserable as we are.

The Hebrew Scriptures don’t tell us whether the Israelites felt any better after they complained to Moses in the wilderness. We just know that they did a lot of it. Despite the fact that they were being rescued from a life of slavery, the Israelites started complaining almost immediately after escaping Egypt. There are numerous passages in the Exodus narrative – called “the murmuring stories” - in which the Israelites sound just like children in the back seat of a car. “I’m thirsty. I’m hungry. Are we there yet”? God is pretty patient with them, but today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures suggests that at a certain point in the exodus God had had enough – so he sent poisonous serpents among the people - and many were bitten and died. It’s safe to say that in their case, complaining was not good for their health.

Actually, it’s not necessarily good for us either. According to study author Guy Winch, “We complain today more than ever before in history but few of our complaints get us the results we want. Instead we usually find ourselves repeating the same tale of woe or dissatisfaction to one person after the other in an effort to rid ourselves of our frustration… The problem is that today we associate the act of complaining with venting far more than we do with problem solving.”[1] It’s like my mother always said: “Don’t just complain about it. Do something.” You see, it turns out complaining is only good for your health if it motivates change – if it gives you the sense that things can get better - if it brings hope.

Maybe that’s why the Israelites kept complaining –because they had lost hope. After all, they were in the middle of a desert. They didn’t know where they were going or how long it was going to take to get there. They had given up everything they had based on the word of one man for the worship of a God they had never even seen. Is it so surprising that hopelessness – like poisonous snakes - started to make its way among them?

The members of the early Christian communities complained a lot too. We know this because so many of Paul’s letters seem to be written in response to disputes among them. Most of these epistles are about teaching people how to live with each other – but this one seems different, and, according to scholars, it is, having been written not by Paul but in imitation of him. It varies from Paul’s writings in several ways, but primarily, unlike Paul’s instructive letters this epistle is not about what Christian communities should do but rather what has already been done for us. The Greek rhetorical structure of it may seem a bit convoluted, but the message is clear; before Jesus we were victims of our human nature - sinful, disobedient, and spiritually dead. After Jesus we are saved. We are wholly and fully alive. This change is not the result of anything we have done; it is simply a gift – the gift of grace.

The belief that God sent Jesus to save us from ourselves is the core of what Christians believe. John 3:16. It can be found on t-shirts, posters, overpasses, and football players’ eye black. It is hung up and held up with no explanation- like it’s the secret password of salvation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” Humans are bad. God is good. Jesus died for our sins. If we believe this we are saved, but if we don’t believe, we are condemned. Simple.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps that second part – the bit about nonbelievers being condemned – troubles you a little. After all, don’t we all know some mighty nice people who don’t believe? Are we supposed to believe they are condemned? If this worries you, you are not alone. Jesus’ words troubled the person he was talking to too. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and an underground disciple of Jesus. He was a member of the ruling class, which means that according to Jewish tradition he was assured entry into the Kingdom of God by birthright. But in an exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus that took place right before today’s passage, Jesus told him that entry into the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with birth. It has to do with spiritual re-birth. It is not about what you do or who you are. It is of what you choose that matters - and it has to be an informed choice. That part is crucial. It is, in fact, why Jesus had to come into the world.

“The Greek word for judgment …is krisis, from which our English word ‘crisis’ comes. The coming of Jesus results in a crisis that demands a decision. Neutrality is not a possibility.”[2] In other words, Jesus came into the world so that we might know him – and then make our choice. God’s “judgement is based on one’s response to the light that reveals a person’s true identity.”[3] It is not those who have never perceived God’s grace but rather those who have experienced it and still choose to turn to darkness who are condemned. It is those of us who call ourselves Christian but act otherwise who are doomed.

The good news is that we have many chances to choose the light – to choose the good – to choose God. Faith is not a test. It is a process. It is a choice we make over and over again -whether to do good or evil- to love the light or hide from it -to promote life or participate in death. We are always making these choices – whether we recognize them or not. Maybe that’s why the Lord told Moses to put the snake on a pole where the Israelites could look upon it. Maybe they needed to see that the snakes that bit them weren’t a punishment sent from God; they were a demonstration of what was already in them, in human nature.

Human beings have the capacity for great evil – but also for tremendous good. The serpent is not necessarily a symbol of evil. It can be a symbol of fertility and life. Thus, by changing a vessel of death into a sign of life, God took what was evil in their hands and turned it into grace in his. “They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress” - but they had to ask – to choose to believe and to be healed. The Israelites chose salvation over sin, faith over fear, life instead of death.

It is the same choice Jesus offers us. We live in a world in which sacred symbols are used to justify evil as often as they are used to inspire good. It is a world in which it is easy to see darkness and one in which people no longer trust the Church to lead them into the light. In such a world it is hard not to complain, hard not to fear, hard not to give up hope - but hoping is exactly what we must do. Stop complaining and get up. Choose to believe. Take up your cross and be saved. AMEN.

[1]Guy Winch, “Does Complaining Damage Our Mental Health,” Psychology Today Online, {accessed 3/13/15].

[2]W. Hulitt Gloer, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 121.


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