Deep Reading                       John 3:14-21     March 22, 2009
The New York Times has long been nicknamed “the gray lady” because of the depth of its coverage and the density of its copy. The Times is a newspaper for people who like to read. Yet, last March, the editors began to devote the second and third pages of every issue to summaries of articles that appear elsewhere in the paper.
Management explained that they made this change to address two complaints they were hearing, one of which was from readers who said they didn’t have enough time to read the fuller articles. Others said there was so much in each issue that they often didn't get to the articles they really cared about.

However, the change is also evidence of a larger trend in our world. Writing in The
Atlantic, NicholasCarr, who watches technology, business and culture, said that the new feature was driven by how the Internet is affecting us. The Internet is rewiring not only our reading habits, but also the circuits in our brain that have to do with cognition.

As a professional writer,
Carr spends a lot of time online, especially in the last decade. There is good reason for writers to use the Internet. Nevertheless, Carr points out that the ’Net has become “the conduit for most of the information that flows through [his] eyes and ears and into [his] mind.” The problem, as Carr sees it, is that all of this comes at a price: The Internet not only supplies stuff to think about but also shapes the very process of thought.

A recent study by scholars from
UniversityCollegeLondon shows that as people view material online, they usually skim rather than read deeply. They hop from one source to another and rarely return to any one they’ve already viewed. Generally, they read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they leap to another site.
The authors of the study concluded that users are not reading online in the traditional sense and that “there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse.’” They add, “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” (italics added).

As further evidence,
Carr quotes MaryanneWolf, a developmental psychologist at TuftsUniversity, who worries that the kind of reading the Internet promotes is undermining intellectual growth. The Internet aims at “efficiency” and “immediacy,” and may be withering away our capacity for the kind of deep reading books call for. When we read online, Wolf says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” We do not engage our ability to make “the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply.”

Carr can personally attest to that. Whereas he used to read pages of material comfortably, he now finds that his concentration drifts after a couple of pages. He gets fidgety and easily loses the thread. (How are you doing right now?)  Carr writes, “I feel as if I am always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” In his article, he quotes others who give similar reports.

All of this comes from
Carr as more than an observation; he seems to be issuing it as a kind of warning. Here is his key conclusion:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as MaryanneWolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

Now for some deep reading of John 3:
Most regular church attendees can usually rattle off the gist of John 3:16, which is often called “the gospel in a nutshell.” There’s truth to that (although as someone put it: “The only thing that really fits into a nutshell is a nut”) But thinking J3:16 as G in a nutshell also leaves us with the assumption that if we can recite John 3:16, we’ve pretty much got the whole Christian message, as if the rest of the Bible were just commentary.

It may be that people who know just
John3:16 may not have the foggiest idea what Jesus was talking about in 14 and 15, where Jesus refers to an incident from the OT. What does a snake in the wilderness have to do with God’s love for the world and of his sending of his Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life?
Just reading
John3:16 and thinking you have the whole story is like reading in hop-skip fashion on the Internet. You may, in fact, get the basic nugget of the story, but you will miss the in-depth kind of understanding that comes only from deeper reading, from living with the Scriptures.

A deep reading of the
John passage in its larger context is to imagine there’s a hyperlink in verse 14 that jumps you back to Numbers 21:4-9. (Some Bibles have cross-references that are helpful in finding related passages.) We are going to jump to that story for a moment, but unlike the usual Internet reading practice, we are going to return to the text we started with, and thanks to Numbers, we will have a better understanding of what Jesus was getting at in John 3:16.

The Numbers story finds the people of
Israel in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, after the exodus. Their route requires them to skirt the land of Edom. This detour makes the Israelites cranky and it brings up complaints they have raised to Moses before: “Our slavery in Egypt was better than this. We’re going to die out here in the wilderness.” Then, in a rant that doesn’t even make sense, they add, “We’ve got no food and water, and this food we have is miserable!” They complained not only against Moses, however, but also against God.

Now if we are really into deep reading, we should go back further into Numbers to see that this is not their first occasion for murmuring. It’s not their second or even their third. It is at least the fourth occasion, and in each preceding time, God addressed their complaints in some way. But here they are at it again. And this time, according to the Numbers 21 account, God sent poisonous serpents among them, who bit them, and many of the people died.

This brought the rest quickly back to
Moses with the admission that they had sinned against him and against God, and they pleaded with Moses to intervene with God on their behalf. When Moses did so, God told him to fashion a serpent out of bronze and place it on a pole. God instructed that anyone bitten by a live serpent should look at the bronze one on the pole. And when they did so, they would recover and live.

Now if we return to
John and look at the larger context, we see that Jesus’ mention of the serpent in the wilderness was in a conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Since they were both Jewish and steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus was able to refer to this serpent story certain that Nicodemus would know it and be able to use it as a comparison to Jesus’ mission. Thus, when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “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,” Nicodemus suddenly understands that Jesus intends to be a savior.

Probably, at that point, Nicodemus doesn’t envision
Jesus dying on a cross and being “lifted up” in that sense. But he’s at least beginning to realize what Jesus means. Jesus is saying that just as looking at the bronze serpent on a pole enabled those in the wilderness who were dying due to their sin to live, so looking at Jesus with belief will enable those dying in sin today to live eternally.
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
The Greek word used for "lifted up" means to lift up on a cross, and to exalt to heaven. It has both meanings here, for John teaches that the cross is the beginning of Jesus' ascent to the Father. The verb raises our minds to Calvary and to the heavenly throne. (Campbell 39)
It was not easy for a Jew to believe that God loves us and wants to forgive us. "He looked on God as one who imposed his laws upon his people and punished them if they broke them. He looked on God as a judge and on man as a criminal at his judgment seat." God demanded sacrifices, a price to be paid or laid down. (Barclay 135).
However, Jesus is using the analogy of the serpent lifted up precisely because Nicodemus should have understood the clear intent of Jesus' statement of being lifted up.

All this deeper reading also helps us to grasp what
Jesus says after the John 3:16 declaration. He says, “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.”

Recall that in the Numbers story, the live serpents were agents of judgment. Yet here is where
Jesus tells Nicodemus how his role differs from the serpent’s in the wilderness. He did not come to be like the biting serpents of judgment and death. He was not sent to condemn the world, but to save it. Only the bronze serpent was a representation of the role Jesus came to fill. Granted, those who refuse to believe are condemned already, but condemnation is not why Jesus came. He came to save all those who are dying spiritually in sin.

17"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. 18Those 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.
God's primary purpose is salvation, not judgment. In Luke19:10 we read, "the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost." God initiates the healing, or salvation, but we decide whether to look to God in faith and receive healing, or eternal life. Just as salvation from the snakes came only by looking upon the bronze serpent, salvation comes as we look upon Christ. There is not middle ground. To refuse Christ then is to sentence oneself.
In the OT passage, the snakes were judgment and the serpent on the pole was salvation for those who looked upon it; here in the NT, the Gospel states that there is no intended judgment from God, only salvation. The way has been prepared. However, we sentence ourselves to separation from God.

14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16"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.
Eternal life is to be distinguished from 'everlasting life'—a mere going on and one. It is a qualitative term, denoting the life which is life indeed; life lived in communion with God through Christ, life with the quality of eternity about it, life that therefore can never die." (Campbell 39)
It is not enough to read John3:16 in isolation and be mere “decoders of information.” We get far more out of it if we do what Jesus invited Nicodemus to do, to make “rich mental connections” between the Old Testament and the gospel Jesus was bringing.

Deep reading the Bible will help us not only see John 3:16 as Nicodemus now saw it, but it also helps us to realize that the theme of God saving those dying in sin is not limited to the story from Numbers and this verse in John. Here, for example, is what the Psalm reading in today's lectionary’ says:

“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction” (Psalm 107: 17-20).

Throughout Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, we see God's saving grace and deliverance of God's people. Not judgment, but mercy. God is calling us into a loving relationship with Him. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in
ChristJesus." God waits for us to draw near with arms open wide. "Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest." Draw near unto God, and God will draw near unto you. Amen.
Rev. RosemaryStelz
  June 2021  
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