SCRIPTURE   John 3:14-21  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever 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 may not perish but may have eternal life.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

MESSAGE       “What Do You Love?”   Rev. James Renfrew

What do you love?  We could spend all morning making a long list of everything that we love.   Friends and family, cherished possessions, even beautiful sights and sounds around us.

What does God love?  There is no Bible text that puts the answer before us with such clarity as we find in this reading from John’s Gospel:  God loves the world, and that includes everything on the long list we might make and far more than that.  And of course included in God loving the world is that God loves you!  You, in all your complexity.  You, in all of your joys.  You, in all your mistakes.  You, in all of your hopes and dreams.

What does God love?  The whole world and that includes you.  Is this theoretical love, or philosophical love?  It is love pure and simple, emphasized in this memorable phrase, “God loves the world so much”, which also means that God loves you so much!  So much that God not only loves us, but takes action to demonstrate that love, action to lift you up!

Here’s how John gets into it.  Jesus will be lifted up, and so will you.        “As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up. “  These are the words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, a Pharisee trying to escape the darkness of his time, who came to Jesus looking for answers for the confusion and frustration of his life.

“… the Son of Man must be lifted up.”  When we hear that phrase “lifted up”, we can’t help but think of the cross, how Jesus was the target of a conspiracy, how he was arrested, how he was convicted, how he was nailed to the cross, how that cross was lifted up to the top of a hill to serve as a symbol of defeat, and how that cross leaves a dark shadow over the whole world.

“… lifted up” …Those who nailed Jesus to that cross meant to destroy him and to defeat all of his followers once and for all.   Those who lifted him up on the cross want you to drop your eyes to the ground in hopelessness and despair, they want your heart to sink, they want you to collapse.  When they lifted him up, they wanted you to give up.

This is a cross that was made by artisans in a village in El Salvador following a brutal war in which the government chose to combat dissent and unrest by destroying villages all over the countryside.  It was a brutal time.  If you look closely at the pictures on this cross you will see Jesus lifted up and you might expect to see him weeping or in pain or dead because of so many lives lost.  But not so, at the center of the crosspieces you can see Jesus, not defeated and dead, but his arms lifted up, lifting up all of the people who were destined to be defeated with him.

Look carefully at this cross, images from a village in El Salvador that was nearly wiped out by violent thugs in the service of a brutal dictatorship.  On the arms of the cross you see a refugees that returned to their homes, who have reclaimed their community for life and hope.  You can see all the ways that the defeated and dead Jesus has returned to lift up that entire community, his arms lifted up as people plant and harvest their crops, build schools, teach children, organize their life, care for one another, and represent the hope and peace of Christ to wider world through their beautiful artwork.   That you are looking at this work of hope today is the proof that they were not defeated.

Those who created this cross want you to lift your eyes in confidence, they want your heart to rise, they want you to revive!  When they lift him up on this cross, they wanted you to be lifted up with him.  I’ll pass it around.

In Russian and Greek Orthodox churches simple pictures like these of the Lord and his apostles have a divine, sacred use, they are called icons, and they are considered more than beautiful pieces of art, they are windows into the reality of God.  I once visited a Greek Orthodox Church in Syracuse, and the sanctuary was filled with icons, images of Jesus and his disciples, and the great heroes of Christian faith.   People venerate these icons, to a degree that is very unfamiliar to us, they pray in the presence of them, they hold them in their hands, and they see the things that they have only heard about from scripture.  It is a holy endeavor to gaze upon the icons and to see, really see, the reality of Jesus Christ lifted up out of death to embrace life in the resurrection.  I hope you will gaze upon this cross and see what I am seeing:  as he is lifted up, so are you!  He is lifted up so that you can be lifted up too.   God loved the world so much that each one of us is the special object of God’s care and attention, and God will do anything and everything to find us, reach us, and lift us up.

Do you need to be lifted up?  Are you in a low spot … because of your job, because of a difficult family situation, because of the horrors of war, and violence of our times,  because of fears or doubts, or anything else?  Do you feel powerless, lost, confused?  Then look at Jesus’ arms, lifted up to lift YOU up.

God loved the world so much …”.  When Pontius Pilate gave the orders that caused Jesus to be nailed to the cross, he ordered that a small plaque be mounted on the cross, “the King of the Jews”.  The plaque was meant to be a final insult:  “so much for the King of the Jews, so much for his hopes and dreams, so much for his followers, so much for his purposes and promises.  The words “so much” in Pilate’s pronouncement mean “not much”, his estimation that all of Jesus’ teachings and deeds, amount to nothing on the stage of human history.

Pilate was thinking that the ones who amount to so much more are the Roman Emperor, his mighty armies, the wealth and power of Rome to rule the world, the ability to decide who lives and dies.  But Pilate overestimated Rome.  The great empire of Rome is no more, it’s armies long gone, its wealth reduced to a few silver coins that archaeologists  find in the dirt.  Pilate underestimated Jesus, who had no empire, no armies, no wealth, whose picture appeared on no coins or money, who appeared to be an easy victim, but whose name and presence are a source of truth and transformation in the present day.

So much for the King of the Jews,” Pilate thought, “he’s dead and his dreams will die with him”.  “So much did God love the world,” the people of that village in El Salvador display for us in their work of art, “that Jesus was sent to lift us up, to lift all of us up, to lift you up!”