Sunday, March 26, 2006

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3
14And the Son of Man must be lifted up, just as that metal snake was lifted up by Moses in the desert. [a] 15Then everyone who has faith in the Son of Man will have eternal life. 16God loved the people of this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. 17God did not send his Son into the world to condemn its people. He sent him to save them! 18No one who has faith in God's Son will be condemned. But everyone who doesn't have faith in him has already been condemned for not having faith in God's only Son.
19The light has come into the world, and people who do evil things are judged guilty because they love the dark more than the light. 20People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done. 21But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what they do.

Where is this quote from?

They can be a great people...if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–for their capacity for good–I have sent them you, my only son.

I confess to a terrible trick. Here at the halfway point in the service you have been marinating in the third chapter of John, and the remarkably familiar sixteenth verse, and so the above quote feels biblical. You could even say it feels "Johannine" (meaning in the style of John) and impress your friends. But alas, it is neither Johannine or even biblical: it is from the trailer to the new movie "Superman Returns."

Superman comes to us from the fertile minds of the late Jerry Siegel and the late Joe Shuster. Shuster, born here in Toronto, moved to Toledo, Ohio at the age of nice and befriended Siegel. They shared a love for science fiction and for comics and collaborated on a number of projects, but nothing like the story that debuted on June 1st, 1938. "Superman" was a huge success, and though a multitude of incarnations and a multitude of imitators, remains the gold standard for superheroes. (By the way, if you have a copy of that first issue tucked away, you have the most valuable comic ever published)

The problem with the trailer for the latest installment of Superman is in the allusion. Listen again:

They can be a great people...if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–for their capacity for good–I have sent them you, my only son.

This injection of Jesus-language ("my only son") wouldn't sit well with Shuster and Siegel, a couple of Jewish boys who wanted to retell the story of Moses through their hero Superman. All the elements are there: sent as infants from the troubled place of their birth (Kryptonite, slavery in Egypt) to a better place (earth, the palace of Pharaoh) each embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Both must resolve their duel identity problem (Clark Kent/Superman, Prince of Egypt/Moses) and the appearance of miraculous powers, in order to do good.

The movie builds on the success of the television show "Smallville," a show that tells the story of Clark Kent as a teenager. The show has an innocent feel to it, and some not-so-hidden Christian undertones, and for this reason has been popular among conservative Christians. The trailer is no accident, building on "Smallville" and using the language of John's Gospel to turn Superman (aka Moses) into Jesus.

This, however, is not the first time there has been some Jesus-Moses fusion going on. John himself does it as he tells the story of a conversation between Jesus and the Jewish leader Nicodemus:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

The lifting up, you will recall from the first reading (Numbers 21.4-9), is the miraculous sign that brings healing in the desert. The Israelites are complaining so bitterly that God sent poisonous snakes to punish them. In some of the most realistic dialogue in the bible, the Israelites say "we hate this stupid manna." (Without a doubt, this passage of scripture was written by someone with children). God quickly repents of the snakes and through Moses gives them the symbol of healing that doctors continue to use, the snake on a staff.

The comparison here, Jesus as the Son of Man also lifted up, doesn't quite work. It is as if John is trying too hard, trying to draw a parallel between the miraculous healing power of the snake-staff and the power of the cross. He is trying to draw the followers of Moses (Jewish readers of his Gospel) into the story of Jesus and his death. He is trying to build a bridge between what has become two camps in his community: Jewish Christians within the church and Jewish non-Christians who are increasingly hostile to the message of the church. Ultimately these two groups will go their separate ways, and John's Gospel will continue to be a document that defines the divide between them. John's Gospel is filled with allusions meant to retain Jewish Christians in the first century, but also to condemn those who could not follow. It is the most anti-Semitic of the four Gospels, and must be read carefully for this reason.


The other theme that enters this Moses-Jesus-Superman jumble is the light. When Moses speaks to God on Sinai his face becomes so radiant with reflected light that he frightens Aaron and the others. His face is so radiant that he must wear a veil to cover it, a veil that he begins to wear in God's presence as well. If you are a student of John this can only lead you to his famous prologue in chapter one:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.

If you are thinking to yourself "why does he quote that passage so often?" then I will tell you. The prologue, the first 14 verses the first chapter, is the key to understanding John's entire Gospel. It is the "rosetta stone" that allows us to interpret the rest of the story. Here is a little more of the prologue:

The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Now jump ahead to chapter three and listen to the way Nicodemus enters the story:

After dark one evening, a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to speak with Jesus.

It is no accident that Nicodemus appears in the dark. He comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness (it is already dangerous for a religious leader to speak to Jesus) and his quite literally in the dark about the meaning and purpose of Jesus' teaching. The other notable part of this exchange is the question "what do you mean?" It passes the lips of Nicodemus twice in five verses, and is clearly meant to cast him in the role of someone lost and in need of the light of understanding.

The climax of this exchange, the reason Nicodemus enters the narrative, and the message that Jesus wants to leave with both hearer and reader is this:

The light from heaven came into the world, but they loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. They hate the light because they want to sin in the darkness. They stay away from the light for fear their sins will be exposed and they will be punished. But those who do what is right come to the light gladly, so everyone can see that they are doing what God wants.

This is not my favourite Jesus. I have to say I much prefer the forgiving Jesus, the "consider the lilies" Jesus, the eating and drinking Jesus, the healing Jesus, even the cryptic and hard to understand Jesus. Judgmental Jesus, the Jesus that explains the nature of human sinfulness, is not a favourite. And whenever I'm challenged by some aspect of Jesus and try to put it into context, I go back to the prologue. "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him," John said. We did not receive him, or at least not in his more unsettling ways of being, because we couldn't bear his light.


Everyone in this sermon—Jesus, Moses and Superman—is about the business of confronting evil. Each must develop a self-understanding that permits them to confront evil in their context. Each must name the evil in the hope that others will see it too. Where they stand apart, in is in the way evil is confronted. Moses/Superman will follow the path of the miraculous sign and the mighty act. Jesus will choose the cross. And this is where we begin to stumble. God demonstrated powerful acts in human history, a limitless capacity to defend his people. How does the cross fit this picture?

When the sky was darkened, when the earth shook, when Jesus breathed his last human breath, the light was momentarily veiled. The light was nearly extinguished, but “the darkness will never overcome it.” The cross is the mysterious way that God now confronts evil, it is the way of sacrifice and self-denial, it is a way apart from the way of the world. Our work, is to see the sense in God’s new way, to reject that power must meet power, and find God in those that suffer. We find God there, and we find ourselves, and we find the light. Amen.


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