John 3:14-21 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.’
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son
Today our scripture reading contains one of the most familiar verses in the Bible, John 3:16. It is also a scripture that is at the core of our teaching of the Christian faith. And yet we often forget that this verse comes in the middle of a story, in the midst of a conversation, a conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a seeker of sorts. He is Jewish like Jesus, but he is not one of Jesus’ followers yet. He comes to learn more about this crazy rabbi who is stirring the pot. This rabbi who turns water into wine and overturned the tables in the Temple. Yet Nicodemus comes at night. Maybe he doesn’t want the rest of his religious Pharisee friends to know- after all he is a leader of the Jewish people. After the scene that Jesus made in the Temple, I’m not surprised he comes to Jesus at night.This darkness gives us a hint that Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it. He hasn’t been enlightened yet. He doesn’t really know who this Jesus guy is even though he claims to.
So Jesus pushes him in their conversation a bit- maybe stumps him. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Yes, that’s a tricky one. And much to Nicodemus’ credit he doesn’t pretend like he gets it. He has the courage to ask Jesus a question. He has the courage to continue to seek Jesus in faith. According to the Message paraphrase Nicodemus says this, “You can’t reenter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this born-again talk?” Thank goodness!
No Jesus says, it’s not a physical rebirth- it’s a spiritual rebirth!
Then Jesus goes on to explain what God is up to- and why he came. And we have one of the most central and well-known verses of our faith in this teaching. Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” For God so loved the world! What a beautiful truth. God loves the world! Even those who don’t love God in return… God loves all of the world- the entire cosmos as the Greek translation shows us. Even those people who do not look like us… Even those people who do not think like us… The world. The world made up of: men and women, gay people, straight people, kids and babies and people of all ages, black people, brown people, white people, people of different religions, people of varying physical abilities- the entire kosmos. Oh yeah and the plants and animals and ecosystems I suppose too. The world. God loves this world.
It may be an interesting spiritual exercise to put ourselves in Nicodemus’ place- or maybe even the church.
The church came to Jesus in the night. She had seen Jesus’ work in the Temple and was a bit nervous to meet him in public. After all, religion is sort of her thing- and Jesus really did a number on the Temple marketplace. It seems Jesus is teaching that there is a new way to God now- not through Temple sacrifice- now open to ALL people. God is on the loose in the world apart from organized religion. The church wanted to get the inside scoop from Jesus.
“Hi Jesus- I know you are from God,” the Church starts. (She always has the right answers…)
“Oh you do.” Says Jesus. “Well did you know that to see God’s kingdom you have to born from above?”
“Well not exactly.” Says the church. She knows not she is obligated to ask a follow-up question- even though she really doesn’t want to at this point. “What do you mean, Jesus?”
“You have to be born again.”
The church knows a thing or two about birth from her collective experience and she knows that it is not an easy process. It is difficult, messy, and it rarely goes as planned. It requires a long pregnancy, and birthing pains, and it makes something new. “Well Jesus, I DO want to see your kingdom, but I am also pretty happy right where I am. I am comfortable here. I know what to expect. My big beautiful church building may be a little dark, but it’s very familiar.”
“You must be born again. You must become something new.” Jesus says.
“But Jesus, you don’t understand… The world out there- it’s a different place! Its not like days when our buildings were full, when everyone just knew they should come to church and everyone respected me! Maybe we can work to get back to that world.”
“To see the kingdom of God. You must be born from above- you must be born again.” Now hold onto your hats,” Jesus says, “Here is the reason why I came and here is the reason why you exist.”
Now we are getting somewhere, the church thought.
For God so loved the world- for I so loved the world- that I came to be with this world that I love so much. So I want you, too, to be with the world, like I did. I want you to go out to the people and be with them, and love them, and care for them. I want you to show them my love. Don’t love the comfort of this dark sanctuary more than you love me. Come, and gather and be fed and nourished in my love. And then go to my people that I love so much and tell them.”
“Church, my love, I want you to be born again.”
Being born is such a miracle- isn’t it! When I look at my own children, and the new babies that come to Rachel’s Place, I never cease to be amazed. With God’s help we create these little people that are truly little miracles. Two of the most memorable moments of my life where the moments when each of my babies were placed on my chest- after two very long and difficult labors. To be born is a miracle- and to be born again, to be born from above- is also a miracle. To step aside and let God work a new thing in us, a new thing in the church- to leave the past and comfort of our old habits behind and choose to walk with God into a new future- is scary. But it is also where true life comes. This new life with God is worth all of the labor pains. In the light of Christ our live have purpose and meaning and love. And after this spiritual rebirth- we can see the kingdom of God around us- found in the most unlikely of places.
Now back to Nicodemus. What happens to him? Jesus shares this amazing truth of God’s love with him, and yet we don’t see a response from him. Nothing happens. He doesn’t become on of Jesus followers on the spot. We assume he goes back to his life and carries on normally. Nothing happens immediately- but something does happen eventually. The word of love that Jesus gives to him acts like a seed. And with time it grows. We see in chapter 7 that Nicodemus speaks up on Jesus’ behalf. The other Pharisees want to arrest Jesus, but Nicodemus argues that he should at least get a fair hearing. And finally at the end of Jesus life we hear this from the gospel writer,
“Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night, came now in broad daylight carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. They took Jesus’ body and, following the Jewish burial custom, wrapped it in linen with the spices. There was a garden near the place he was crucified, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been placed. So, because it was Sabbath preparation for the Jews and the tomb was convenient, they placed Jesus in it.”
Nicodemus does finally get it. And its Jesus’ death, that helps him see this truth. He comes in the light now because he recognizes that Jesus is the true light of the world. And it is in Jesus’ death and resurrection that the Church gets it as well. When we see the marks of cross on Jesus’ hands and feet- we see how deep the love of God for us is. And we see how much God loves this world. And we see how we are called to love that world.
May you remember this deep love that God has for you, and may it give you the courage to let your light shine for the world to see.