To explain the salvation of God to the religious leader, Nicodemus, Jesus refers to the scripture passage quoted in today’s first reading. Just as those who looked upon the bronze serpent were healed, so people will be saved when they behold Christ lifted up on the cross.
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16For 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.
17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”
Grace to you and peace, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
If there is any one passage in scripture that has received more airtime than our Gospel reading, I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you what it would be. People post this verse all the time on social media, use it as a means of confessing their faith during important church events like baptisms, funerals, weddings and everything in between, and, of course, no professional sporting event would be complete without at least 5 or 6 people holding homemade posters with John 3:16 scrawled across it. Despite many media outlets making an effort to not endorse any one religion over another, it seems you can always see somebody in the back of a crowd holding one of these signs. It’s like the quintessential Christian photobomb opportunity.
But what is really being said, here, in this verse that seems to have taken the world by storm? What is Jesus actually talking about here? This is essentially the 2nd half of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee. Nicodemus comes to him at night, under the cover of darkness, and begins talking to him about Jesus’ signs or miracles. Jesus, in a very intense conversation, responds and talks about faith and belief in God and the results of that faith.
Before we get too far, we should know that Jesus is pretty brilliant in his response. Of course, the whole conversation is great, but I’ll just talk about what we’ve read today. First of all, he ties in Old Testament imagery with his use of the serpent being lifted up to cure people (Numbers 21:4-9). He’s talking to a guy who has made his life based around knowing and teaching these stories. Jesus is speaking the language of Nicodemus, not using really obscure terminology or abstract thinking. Secondly, he uses his natural surroundings as fodder for the conversation, speaking of figurative light and darkness while standing in literal darkness. He is assigning spiritual significance to what is around them. That is awesome! Imagine if we lived in a world where we could see the significance of each and every moment. Imagine if we lived in a world where what is seen as regular is really miraculous and what is ordinary is really extraordinary! That would drastically change our world, don’t you think?
That kind of change in thinking is seen in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2.1-10), too. Paul writes that we were all dead in our sin, that we followed our own will because we couldn’t see that each and every moment contains within it, the divine. We gave in to “passions of our flesh” and we acted and still do act in ways that were and are contrary to the will of God. Yet, God is rich in mercy, forgiving, cleansing, and raising us up to new life with Christ. I know that when we read that as Christians, our thoughts drift to this ethereal, abstract Heaven. But this isn’t referring to some distant time, it’s referring to now. Faith changes everything now! Faith, inspired by the Holy Spirit and based in Christ as the Son of God, changes everything now! By grace, we are saved from seeing the world as just a way for us to get by. It frees us from the endless pursuit of unfulfilled happiness and a constant stream of pleasures which will ultimately leave us let down and hungry for more. Instead, this grace, this free gift of life, enables us to see our lives and actions for what they are – a way to show God’s love and light to the rest of a dark and dying world. We can begin to see that our faith changes our entire self, not just our afterlife destination. We don’t just get a new ticket to fly somewhere else. It changes the way we travel entirely.
Of course, receiving grace doesn’t erase all the problems we face. Bad things still happen. We fall short, we hurt people, and we are hurt by people. The darkness still exists. But one of the marks we see of people of God is that, when we find ourselves in darkness, we take what we’ve created, our mess and our problems, back to the light. That’s what confession is all about and that’s why we have a time of confession and absolution at each service. It’s a chance for us to bring to God all our issues and problems and bring them to the light. And that can be terrifying. That’s incredibly difficult. When dark places get exposed, the mess is seen for what it is.
I can immediately think of an example of this. On Monday, my office window was boarded up because there was some work being done on the room and they didn’t want a brick to come crashing through the window, which I appreciate. My office door has frosted glass, so it’s usually kinda hard to see into it and, with the window blocking all natural light, it was almost impossible. So, when I got to the office on Monday, my office looked like this kind of void or cave. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what was in there waiting for me. But, when I turned on the light, the mess I had left was exposed and I was reminded of all the things I would have to do to clean up. I had dirty dishes (most of them coffee mugs), I had papers all over, and the random assortment of odds and ends I manage to collect wherever I go. When I turned on the light, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I am a very messy person and that I have a lot to clean up.
That’s what confession is. It’s turning the light on and exposing who we are and what we’ve done. And it’s hard because it leaves us vulnerable to judgment. I can guarantee that I would have received judgment from any type A person here for the mess I left. But, as much as we fear this exposure, we can find some assurance in what Jesus says immediately after that famous John 3:16. “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.” Jesus came not to condemn, but to save! Jesus came not to exclude but to include. Jesus came not to judge us as guilty but to pay our debt and declare us innocent.
It’s easy to miss that inclusion when we look at the belief and unbelief dichotomy. But Paul, in our Ephesians text, mentions it too. He says that “we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.” (Eph. 2.3) We were all condemned and we are all under judgment. We all carry in us this knack for choosing evil and choosing darkness. Yet, Jesus tells us that his mission is not to condemn us, but to save us. You, like everyone else, are not perfect but you, like everyone else, are deeply loved and cared for. We cannot earn grace, but it has been given to us. We cannot force faith, but it is inspired in us. Our reassurance doesn’t come by our own actions, depending on our own efforts, but on the actions of Jesus, the Savior, the Redeemer, the Son of God. We are changed. We are loved. We are saved. In the light of Christ, we find what we are; loved by God.
And that’s a lot of what this season of Lent is about. It’s about bringing ourselves to the light, finding ourselves exposed, but seeing ourselves as loved. We come before God shackled, in handcuffs of our own misguided passions, our own misplaced efforts, and our broken selves. And God breaks the chains, welcoming us as forgiven children. We are saved and adopted, we are forgiven and renewed. We are changed forever. We don’t just get a new ticket on a flight out of town. We learn to travel in a whole new way.
So, as we leave here today, I pray that we remember that. I pray that we would be a changed people. I pray that we would live a life marked by love and compassion, by grace and generosity, because we have experienced that in our lives. It’s terrifying sometimes. It’s hard to come to the light. But we do, to remember and remind ourselves that God so loved this silly, broken world that God gave and continues to give God’s only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life. Amen.