Second Sunday in Lent Year A 2020
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
Many of you know that I grew up attending a non-denominational evangelical church in Oregon. It is one of those places where the preacher talks for at least forty five minutes, where the baptistery is behind an old velvet curtain at the back of the stage, and where every single word in the bible is expected to be taken literally, without context. In that kind of church memorizing verses is a highly prized activity. As someone attending youth activities and a pseudo-boyscouts-esque church group called AWANA, I was tasked with memorizing verse after verse, Romans 3:23, Ephesians 2:8-9, and of course John 3:16 all ring a bell for me. We would get awards for how many we could memorize and recite perfectly, and looking back, I can also tell you I had little grasp of what I was reciting.
I don’t think it’s too big a statement to say that John 3:16 is one of the few verses in the Bible that has captivated billions of Christians throughout the centuries. While it certainly has a place now in the modern Evangelical culture, and by extension perhaps you recall the use of it in Professional Wrestling and other sports, even Martin Luther found this verse to be highly regarded. He wrote that this verse was, “the Gospel in a nutshell.”
Yes, it does sum up the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that hits the high points: God’s love, Christ’s redemption of the world, the path to salvation. It’s a good starting place when explaining the good news, but it’s nowhere near enough to fully explain it. And as much as I’m sure there are people here today who can recite John 3:16 from memory, I would suspect that number would drop to probably zero, including myself, that can recite John 3:17 from memory.
As I studied today’s Gospel reading, one of the two pieces that captivated me most was that last verse, 17. So often our theology of redemption relies heavily on the verse before it that the next one is lost. It leaves me to wonder what sort of faith I would have grown up with if the words, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” were just as important.
John 3:16 is a great verse, when it isn’t used to guilt people into a Christian faith, which is how I saw it used most of the time. Adding on verse 17 offers us a more robust theology. God did not arrive on Earth, incarnate as a human to condemn anyone, but to assure that we would have access to the Kingdom of God at the end of all things. No matter how broken we are, how bad we are, how many times we fail or frankly no matter how many times we succeed, our salvation is assured by Grace because of God’s steadfast love for his creation.
That’s really what Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus in the first part of the gospel reading. Nicodemus has come to him and told Jesus that he likes what Jesus is teaching, and that Jesus must surely be sent by God to be able to do what he’s doing. But Nicodemus ultimately stops short of recognizing Jesus and the messiah and of being willing to step into the light as a follower of Jesus in this moment.
Jesus is offering to Nicodemus an explanation that foreshadows of course the crucifixion. This is the second thing that really caught my attention in this passage. Jesus refers to the story of when the Israelites in the book of Numbers, had been speaking out against God and Moses. So God sends serpents into their midst, and people begin dying from the bites of these serpents. God then tells Moses to create a serpent out of bronze and set it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the bronze serpent will be saved from the bites of the real serpents. All they have to do is look at it and they are saved.
In a way Jesus is teaching that we have to be willing to look, to gaze upon the instrument of our salvation, or more clearly put we must take an action rather than to just really like what Jesus says, like Nicodemus. Our salvation does require more from us than a cursory luke-warm okay-ness with Christ and the Gospel. Our faith requires action…it requires us to take a step and be reborn as Jesus says, in water and spirit. We must be baptized into the body of Christ, and we must live our faith, always striving to improve. We must look upon the act of saving love by God. The result of taking on his shoulders all the evil that exists in the world.
Mthr Mary Ann Hill writes, “But evil isn’t then healed, as it were, automatically. Precisely because evil lurks deep within each of us, for healing to take place we must ourselves be involved in the process. This doesn’t mean that we just have to try a lot harder to be good. You might as well try to teach a snake to sing. All we can do, just as it was all the Israelites could do, is to look and trust: to look at Jesus, to see in him the full display of God’s saving love, and to trust in him.”
Nicodemus struggles to find that trust in Jesus. He comes to Jesus at night, in the darkness, to hide from the world his interest in Jesus. This is the first of two times that Nicodemus visits Jesus in the darkness, the second time is near the end, and Nicodemus does try to intercede with the Pharisees on Jesus’ behalf. But still he is unwilling to step into the light as Jesus says we must all do. He is willing to fully commit and be born again, though clearly in this first encounter that terminology is just very confusing for him.
Author George Stroup, writing on this passage says, “For many Christians, the gospel is summarized by the words in John 3:16. Everyone who believes in Jesus will not perish but will have eternal life. Some Christians, however, understand faith or “believing in Jesus” to be simply what one does with one’s mind. In John’s Gospel, being born from above and believing in Jesus are clearly not so much about what one does with one’s mind as about what one does with one’s heart and one’s life. […] In John’s Gospel believing and doing are inseparable. Nicodemus lives in the darkness and the shadows of this story until its conclusion, when he emerges publicly with Joseph of Arimathea, who is also a “secret disciple”, to bury Jesus.
Christ calls us to do more with our faith than passively letting it sit on a shelf collecting dust. We are meant to be reborn, to step out into the light, to herald the good news to a world mired in fear and sin. The good news that not only God loves the world so much that he takes our form and bears the burden of our sin, but also, as verse 17 reminds us, that Christ came into this world not to judge us, not to point out when we fail at our faith, but only to save us and to be where we cast our gaze when we need to be reminded of God’s love and salvation.