John 3:14-20 • March 11, 2018 • 4th Sunday in Lent
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
One of the things that our confirmation students are asked to do each year as they prepare for the Rite of Confirmation is to select a scripture verse that is meaningful to them or has spoken to them during their time in confirmation. Without a doubt, the three most popular verses of scripture that I have heard over the years are Jeremiah 29:11 – “For surely I know the plans I have for you…”, Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”, and one verse from the gospel of John that we just heard.
If I give you just two numbers, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. What’s the first thing that you think of when I say the numbers 3:16.
Theologian Len Sweet believes that followers of Jesus are often plagued with an awful disease. He calls this disease “versitis.” Let me show you what he means. John 3:16 – “For God so loved……” Good. Who can tell me what John 3:15 is? Or how about 3:17? Or the context in which this text appears?
You and I, and really anyone who has ever heard or read Holy Scripture, will have “versitis” from time to time. No child of God today with a bible in their hands is immune to it.
Len Sweet says that, “knowing individual Bible verses, as helpful, hopeful, and healing as they might be, does not mean that you know the Bible, the story of the scriptures. The whole story. The big story. The back story. Both the huge moments and the hidden aside. All of the components of God’s story are necessary in order to comprehend the whole, unfolding drama of the divine words and work that are found in scripture.”
So, what might be the bigger story behind one of the world’s most famous verses of scripture – John 3:16? Because there’s a lot more to it than simply seeing it painted on an athlete’s faces or posted on a billboard advertisement.
John 3:16 comes during a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee known as Nicodemus. A prominent leader of the Jewish community and a character who only appears in John’s gospel. And his appearances are significant to how John reveals who Jesus is – especially who Jesus is for an outsider like Nicodemus. Or like you. Or me.
Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus begins in this late night conversation early in John’s gospel. I don’t think Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night has a lot to do with the time of day. As if Nicodemus couldn’t get an appointment with Jesus until he got off work in the evening. Although I know many will argue with me about that.
Throughout John’s gospel, their relationship develops. In chapter 7 Nicodemus defends Jesus at a time when the chief priests are trying to arrest this Jesus who is starting to become quite a pest and beginning to get in the way of their power and control on society and the Temple.
At the end of John’s gospel, a story that we’ll hear in a few weeks, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – two people not connected to Jesus’ inner circle of disciples – ask Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ dead body. They want to prepare the body with spices and linen cloth in order to give it a proper burial. After a lengthy journey that we see unfold throughout John’s gospel, Nicodemus finally embraces discipleship.
In so many ways, I’m a lot like Nicodemus. Nicodemus and I like darkness more than light. Darkness that involves control and authority, right sacrifice according to the chief priests and religious leaders. Life that is built on certainty that I’ve created according to my own plans and ideas, not God’s.
For me, that darkness often looks like an endless need to work harder and more. Another common disease – being a workaholic. If I just put a few more hours in at work today, then I’ll be more successful. Then God will pay attention to me for being the amazing child of God that I am and I’ll finally be the pastor that God wants me to be.
Or the darkness involves beating myself up thinking that I’m not praying enough or in the right way, so I add new spiritual practices to my life that promise to make me a better pastor to the people I serve or father to my daughters or husband to my wife.
In Nicodemus’ first encounter with Jesus, he thinks that Jesus will give him a simple, magic answer to becoming his disciple. What he discovers is that following Jesus will take him to the cross on a day that we now call good.
You and I are bombarded by Christian teachers telling us that if we just say a simple, magic prayer to invite Jesus into our hearts, then we will become Jesus’ disciple and our lives will be whole.
As Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus grows, it doesn’t result in riches and fame or happen because of anything Nicodemus does. And it takes him to the deepest pits of death and despair, where he finally discovers that Jesus has been with him all along.
What darkness are you holding on to today that is getting in the way of your relationship with Jesus? That’s getting in the way of you being able to see that Jesus is right there with you already?
For the writers of the bible, faithfulness and belief didn’t refer to “intellectual surrender to a factual truth. They were writing about fidelity, trust, and confidence. As they saw it,” Christian author Debie Thomas writes, “to believe in God was to place their full confidence in him. To throw their whole hearts, minds, and bodies into God’s hands.” [blog post http://www.journeywithjesus.et/essays/1687-in-a-nutshell, but Debie Thomas]
Or as I read from another author this week “The light of God’s love shining down from the cross demonstrates the totality of God’s love and proclaims God’s desire to transform the dark places in this world into places of light, healing, and salvation.”
The Apostle Paul reminded us of what this might look like today in his letter to the church in Ephesus, which is also a letter to the church in Bismarck by the way, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” [Eph. 2:9-10] By the time Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ dead body for burial, I think he understands what God has made him to be.
As you and I continue our journey through Lent, which will takes us to the cross of Good Friday, may our walk be reflective of what God has already made us to be. God has made us to be his children, called to bring healing and hope and light into a world too often filled with darkness.
May the words from Jesus that rang true in the ear of our brother Nicodemus, also ring true in our ear today…“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.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Nicodemus’ long conversion throughout the gospel of John invites us to trust in the slow, steady, eternal work that has already begun. Work that we are called to do with our whole hearts, minds and bodies. Work made possible because God sent Jesus into the world to save the world and not to condemn the world. What are we waiting for? Let’s get to work. Amen.