Last Thursday, 11th March, was the 10th anniversary of the massive earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhokuin Japan and the subsequent tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex and caused a great deal of devastation in communities up and down Japan’s Pacific coast.
In November 2011, I was in Japan, as part of a research project on the preservation of records in our different cultures. As part of that visit I was greatly privileged in that my Japanese colleague was able to arrange through a friend for us to travel to two coastal communities on the Pacific coast – Noda and Fudai.
Noda was devastated in the 2011 tsunami, which swept across the low-lying ground destroying all in its path. Many houses were destroyed, but few died as a result of the tsunami early warning system which allowed almost everyone to get to higher ground.
Fudai was spared from the devastation brought to other coastal communities thanks to a 51 foot dam and floodgate, built between 1972 and 1984 by Kotoku Wamura, the village mayor, because he didn’t want to see a repeat of the devastating effects of the 1933 earthquake and tsunami. For many years this project was derided as a waste of public money and the mayor ridiculed for spending so much on it, but the floodgate protected the village and the inner cove from the worst of the 2011 tsunami whose waves reached 55 feet. The villagers nowgive thanks at Wamura’s grave and he’s seen as a foresighted hero.
In November 2011, astonishingly, we were the first people from outside the area to visit and were welcomed with great kindness and gratitude. It was a truly humbling experience as civic leaders explained to us how much our visit mean’t to them and their communities. Many people had lost their livelihoods, destroyed with their boats and nets and their lives had been turned upside down by the loss of their houses. On Friday morning everything was fine and people were looking forward to the weekend and by Friday afternoon livelihoods and homes all swept away.
Our passage from John’s Gospel begins with a play on the words “lift up”. It describes God’s command to Moses to lift up the serpent in the wilderness and the lifting up that’s in store for Jesus. This word-play relies on a knowledge of our Old Testament passage from Numbers, where the people have become “impatient” as they make their way with Moses through the wilderness, after their departure from Egypt. They’re starting to despair at trying to survive in a land with no food and water and they’re complaining about both God and Moses. Perhaps in much the way that we’re finding this pandemic and lockdown has become a bit tedious.
The result of this complaining is that terrible serpents appear and, bite people who subsequently die. Now this may sound a bit vengeful and perhaps petty of God. But let’s park that for the moment. When they repent of their complaining, the Lord tells Moses to make a serpent and raise it up on a pole so that anyone who’s been bitten can look at it and recover. The serpent here serves to symbolise both God’s anger and God’s mercy.
In recalling this story, John is reflecting on Jesus being lifted up. For John, Jesus’ being “lifted up” includes both his being raised up on a cross and being raised up to be with his Father in glory. All those who look up to Jesus in faith will be saved, will be given “eternal life”. To see the Son of Man lifted up calls for “belief” not simply a transformation of earthly life, but in eternal life. God once saved the people by calling them to gaze on the serpent, now, God will save His people by having them gaze in belief on the Son, lifted up. And all of this is a sign of God’s love. John is emphasising that God sent his Son to save and not to judge or condemn.
At the heart of our passage this morning is John 3:16, probably one of the best known verses in the Bible:
“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.”John 3:16
Notwithstanding this, the “so” is often misunderstood. The Greek houtos means “so” in the sense of “in this way” – John 3:16 isn’t about how much God loved the world. it’s about how God’s love of the world is demonstrated. The single most important thing to notice about this verse is that God loved the world that He’screated. God loves by having given the son, a non-coercive act that sets in motion tangible consequences.
Yet God’s action isn’t disinterested. The purpose of God’s having sent His Son was to save the world, just as the purpose of commanding Moses to erect a serpent on a pole was to save the people from death. The son came to save, to grant eternal life because God loved the world. That’s Jesus’ message.
“I’m here because the God who loved you of old, still does. He sent me to tell you, to show you and to gather you up into life with him forever”
God sent his Son to save and not to judge or condemn. Jesus’ coming is to bring a light into the dark places, that is the dark areas of our lives that we don’t feel able to admit to or to own. It’s the darkness of shame when there’s something in our lives which we would like to deal with by being able to share, but don’t feel able to bring out into the open.
The most likely reason for hiding things in dark places is the fear of judgment, rejection or ridicule by others. Take heart, it’s not a loving God who condemns, the agents of darkness are those who sit in judgment on others;but in reality it’s they themselves that are living in the darkness of prejudice and hate, usually as a result of their own inner fears and insecurities.
After the earthquake and tsunami, the people of the coastal villages worked hard to try to restore some form of “normality” as they struggled with the disaster that had hit them. They didn’t see the events of 11th March as being the actions of a vengeful or angry God, but what was apparent to all was the spirit of community and the love of neighbour which caused light to shine in the dark places.
The people of Fudai are of course very grateful that their former mayor Kotoku Wamura didn’t hide his idea about the dam in dark places for fear of judgment, rejection or ridicule by the rest of the community – although he did receive plenty of all three – he just ignored their complaining and got on with it. An example to us all.
The Covid pandemic isn’t the action of a vengeful or angry God, but in many communities it has unleashed a spirit of community and love of neighbour which has caused light to shine in dark places. Amen.