March 11, 2018
Watch a video of this sermon here.
Are you getting tired of Lent, yet? If this were the fourth Sunday of Advent, we’d be nearly done with the purple of penitence and preparation. We would be anticipating the celebration of Christ’s coming in less than a week – Christmas Eve would be just around the corner!
But this isn’t Advent. It’s Lent. We have a ways to go before the end of this 40-day journey into the wilderness. There are still two more weeks before we can wave palm branches at the entry into Holy Week. We have three more weeks to fast and pray and prepare our hearts for Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning.
Here in the middle of Lent, we could sure use some joy. I think that’s why, centuries ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to make the fourth Sunday of Lent be Laetare Sunday, a Sunday when we get to ‘rejoice in the Lord.’ It’s kind of like that third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, when we light a rose-colored candle instead of a dark purple one. And what better gospel passage to bring us joy, than the third chapter of John? This is where we find the famous verse that sums up the whole gospel message – “For God so loved the world…”
And this brings us to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a rabbi, who comes to Jesus under cover of darkness. Maybe Rabbi Nic comes to Jesus at night to keep his conversation a secret from the other Pharisees. Maybe he doesn’t want to admit publicly that he is in contact with Jesus.
Or maybe he was only trying to speak with Jesus when he had a better chance to spend some significant time in conversation, after the crowds have left for the day. Whatever motivation caused Nicodemus to wait until darkness had fallen, his appearance at night is unusual enough that later, when Nicodemus re-enters the story (7:50), he is referred to as “the one who came to Jesus at night.”
It’s pretty clear that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in a state of confusion and spiritual blindness, and he can’t seem to grasp what Jesus is trying to teach him. Whether he’s being stubborn or simply misguided in his lack of understanding, Nicodemus is completely in the dark when it comes to comprehending how God actually works.
It’s also clear that Nicodemus has been keeping an eye on Jesus. He has seen him teaching in the synagogues, and he recognizes that Jesus teaches with an authority he himself would never dare to claim. The conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus is focused on the idea of new birth, of being born both of flesh and of spirit. When Nicodemus leaves Jesus, we aren’t sure if he has decided to become a disciple or not. We won’t know that for several more chapters.
But after Jesus speaks to him, Jesus turns to us, and begins to speak in second person plural terms. He is addressing all of us when says, “If I tell you all of earthly things, like wind and water, and you don’t get it, how will you be able to grasp heavenly things, like spirit and rebirth?” (v 13) Jesus continues to speak:
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.” (John 3:14-21)
Throughout the Gospel of John, we find an emphasis on the contrast between light and dark. In the opening prologue, John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (1:5) and a few verses later, “The light was in the world, and the world came into being through the light, but the world didn’t recognize the light.” (1:10)
And now Jesus says, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (v 19) These are harsh words. They don’t have the same “warm fuzzy” feel of that familiar verse that starts “God so loved the world…” These words sound harsh because Jesus isn’t talking to someone else. He’s talking directly to us.
Here in the heart of Lent, God calls us into a face-to-face conversation. We aren’t hearing a nice story about Rabbi Nic’s encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus has gone home. We are the ones looking Jesus in the eye. He is talking directly to you and to me and to everyone who claims him as Lord and Savior. Ours are the deeds that are being held up to the light in judgment. And ours is the belief that is being called into question. Do we really believe in Jesus as the Son of God? Where is the evidence? How does that belief show itself in the things we do? When our deeds are held up to the light, is it clear that they have been “done in God?”
We don’t like to talk about judgment much. We don’t like to think about those who are condemned already because they have not believed in the Son of God. And we sure don’t like to have our behavior scrutinized for its godliness. Because we know we fall short. Every one of us falls short. We all need God’s grace, that ‘unmerited favor’ God offers to everyone he loves.
If you don’t get anything else out of John’s gospel, be sure you get this: God loves you. These words of Jesus go deep into describing the way God loves us – not “how much,” but how.
- God loves us by lifting up his Son so we can believe in him. (14-15)
- God loves us by sending his only Son to give us eternal life (16)
- God loves us by saving us from our sin (17) – not just our petty little everyday sins but from all our Sin with a capital S.
- God loves us by shining the light of Christ into the dark places in our lives, the places where we try to hide our sin (19)
- God loves us by drawing us into the light, so that what we do is “done in God” (21)
Why would God bother to love us in this way? Why doesn’t God just write us off as a loss? It seems rather foolish of God to waste divine love on our sorry lot. But that’s who God is. God loves us because of God, not because of our worthiness. God loves us because God is love. That’s the primary identity out of which God operates.
God is willing to be a fool for love, giving us his own self, even when we don’t deserve it, can’t grasp it, and don’t love him back. He keeps loving us through it all. He keeps loving us through our rebellion, through our complacency, through our poor attempts to keep control in our own hands. If this were anyone but God, we’d laugh at how foolishly he loves.
For God loved the world in this way: 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.
How are you like Nicodemus? What keeps you in the dark, preventing you from turning toward the light? How do you try to keep your faith hidden, or separated from the other parts of your life? What assumptions do you hold onto, that prevent you from experiencing the peace that comes from confessing Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, and trusting in his grace alone? What keeps you from naming Jesus as your Lord and being born anew of the Spirit?
Remember the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful because he had many possessions? We never know the end of his story, because the gospels never mention him again. But we do hear from Nicodemus again – twice. The first time, he defends Jesus to the other Pharisees and priests, asking the other leaders to give Jesus a fair trial (7:50). The last time we see him, he is at the foot of the cross, with Joseph of Arimathea, taking down Jesus’ broken body and preparing it for burial with an unusually large amount of spices (19:39).
Did he finally come into the light?
Did he eventually experience a spiritual birth?
I think so. I think his actions demonstrate an awakening to the light of belief in the Son of God. Nicodemus shows us that sometimes we don’t get a struck-by-lightning experience. Sometimes, the process of claiming Jesus as Lord and Savior takes a while. Some of us can’t identify a single moment when we suddenly realize our salvation is secure, but we still claim Christ’s grace, and we confess Jesus as our Lord.
Is Jesus calling you out of the darkness, into the light of his saving grace? Are you ready to make him Lord of your entire life, not just the part that you think of as “belonging to church”? Are you ready to step out of the darkness, and into the light of God’s love for you? For God loved you in this way: he gave his only Son, so that if you believe in him, you will not perish but you will have eternal life.
It’s no accident that Lent began on Valentine’s Day this year. This is how God loved the world. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love. Craig Keener writes, “No where in this Gospel does God say, ‘I love you’; rather, he demonstrates his [seemingly foolish] love for humanity by self-sacrifice (13:34, 14:31), and demands the same practical demonstration of love from his followers.”
Throughout this season of Lent, some of you have been reading Michael Frost’s book, Surprise the World. Each week, we’ve practiced new ways of demonstrating tiny sacrifices of self – from blessing others with words of encouragement and acts of kindness, to giving up our regular eating habits so we can share a table with someone else. These are all ways to lift up the cross of Christ – not in condemnation, but in love. As you leave today, I’d like you to accept a small gift. It’s a pin that shows a cross and heart fused together. You can wear it as reminder of the way God loves you. And you can also wear it as a conversation starter. If someone asks you about it, you can tell them you wear it to remember the way God loves you. Let the Holy Spirit take it from there.
 Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1, 566-67.