Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon; Lent 4B; John 3:14-21

John is an interesting gospel, to say the least.  It's quotable (John 3:16), it's confusing (I am in my Father, you in me and I in you), it's a beautiful mystery (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God), and it may have been the source of Gnostic Christianity.  One of the motifs of his gospel that I want to touch on is the interplay between light and dark.  Jesus is the light of all people who shines in the dark and is not overcome.

Today's gospel passage is part of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus.  If you only pay attention to today's passage you may not know this; but the whole thing begins when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, playing into the light/dark motif that runs throughout John.  Jesus uses this conversation that takes place in the dark to shine the light of why he came – he came for the benefit of those who live in the dark.  The light that shines in the dark is life and love, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

One problem with this passage is that people have turned it into a passage of condemnation.  That isn't Jesus' fault, that is our fault.  We have a way of taking passages that speak to God's love and turning them into passages that speak to God's condemnation; especially if we are dealing with people who refuse to believe like we do.

Take one of the most cited verses in Scripture – John 3:16:  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.

We used to see this all the time at football games, mainly behind the goal posts.  And it's obvious why – God loved the world.  So people want to get that message out there by broadcasting that verse on a sign to a bunch of people sitting at home on Sunday, watching TV, drinking beer and eating chips.  Makes sense to me.

But leave it to people to change the emphasis from God “so loving the world,” to emphasizing condemnation for those who don't believe.  We change it from emphasizing Jesus and eternal life, to a turn or burn message.

That message of condemnation gets picked up two verses later when Jesus says, “Those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

“See,” we say, “Jesus himself says those who don't believe in him are condemned.  So it's our job to let people know they are going to hell if they don't accept Jesus as their personal Savior.”

First, that's not what Jesus said.  And second, why are people more concerned with a gospel message of condemnation than they are with a gospel message of love?

God did not send the light to condemn, but to save.  And here's where it gets tricky, because Jesus does say that those who do not believe are condemned.  But notice that he doesn't say, “I will condemn,” or, “My followers will condemn.”  What he says is that they are condemned already.  In short, they condemn themselves because they prefer darkness rather than light.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.  He gave.  Jesus is a gift to the world and the purpose of that gift is to give light and life.

We don't have to accept this gift.  For that matter, we don't have to accept any gift – just look at the return/exchange lines in department stores the day after Christmas.  By accepting this gift, we are choosing to participate in the life it offers. By accepting this gift, we are choosing to participate in the holy mystery of God through faith and belief.  By accepting this gift, we are choosing to participate with God in shining a light onto a darkened world.

Conversely, people are also free to reject this gift.  For John, if a person rejects this gift, then they reject the life it offers.  If a person rejects the gift, then they condemn themselves to a realm of darkness and death.

The final verses of this discussion have to do with the end times: This is the judgment . . . all who do evil . . . those who do what is true.  This is a very shortened version of the sheep and goats story found over in Matthew 25.  Like there, Jesus is pointing out that who we follow and what we do has a bearing on whether we live in eternal light and life, or whether we live in eternal darkness and death.

The paradox of this light and life, however, is the cross.  In Numbers, the Israelite camp was infested with poisonous snakes.  The solution was for Moses to make a bronze image of a snake on a pole, and anyone bitten was to look upon the image so they might live.  That which might kill a person was the very means by which they might live.

It's the same with Jesus.  Not that Jesus will kill us, but if we choose to follow him and proclaim him Lord and Savior, then we must, in some way, die.  We must die to the self.  We must die to worldly desires.  We must die to systems that want to maintain the status quo, prefering to keep the message of Jesus in the dark.

When this happens, when we are confronted with people and systems that want to keep the message of Jesus in the dark, when we are confronted with selfish desires that take us away from the love of God, we must be willing lift up our eyes to the cross and understand that Jesus also confronted these very things and chose to die to the world.  We need to remember that it is in his death on the cross that we also are lifted up and exalted with life.

This passage in John isn't to be used to condemn others.  This passage is meant for us to move from dark to light, from death to life.  It is meant to remind us that it is through Christ’s death and resurrection that we experience light and life.  It is meant to be shared.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son for light and life.

May we always remember that we have received a gift of love, light and life.  More importantly, may we remember to share that gift with others, not as a tool to condemn, but AS A GIFT freely offered to be accepted or rejected as desired.



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