March 14, 2021 Fourth Sunday in Lent The text is John 3:14-21.
[Jesus said:] 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
17 “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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is a bit of background to the verses we’ve read from John’s gospel this morning. In them Jesus is continuing a conversation he is having with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. We’re told that Nicodemus was a respected teacher of the Torah and that he was interested in hearing what Jesus had to teach about the Law. But, in his position as a Pharisee it would be unseemly for him to visit Jesus out in the open; people would talk. So, he goes to see Jesus under cover of darkness; thus, we occasionally refer to him as “Nic at Night”. And in the earlier part of the conversation Jesus is having some difficulty with Nicodemus’ inability to grasp Jesus’ message.
So, the verses this morning are a continuation of Jesus’ discourse as he strives to get the point of his mission across to Nicodemus. And we can appreciate why poor Nic is struggling to understand, since Jesus again using a series of contradictions to make his point. In his explanations to Nicodemus Jesus references several opposing themes as he speaks to the underlying reason for his ministry; that is, the unmerited grace that God bestows on the world. Jesus wasn’t sent by God to condemn the world, but to save it. Those who love the darkness will be condemned, and those who seek the light will be preserved. Salvation will be granted to seekers of truth and goodness, while it will be denied to those who cling to evil.
And in what is arguably the most well-known verse in the bible, Jesus states in 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”. And, then what follows is the inevitable opposing theme; that those who do not believe in Jesus as the sacrificial Son of God are destined for condemnation. In a nod to the centrality of John 3:16 to Christian theology, Martin Luther was quoted as referring to this one short verse as “the gospel in a nutshell”. John 3:16 shows up on billboards, on signs at football games, and on tee-shirts. It’s the most recognized verse in all of Scripture. And because it is so familiar to us, there is the risk that we might allow it to become diluted, to minimize the earth-changing significance of these few words uttered by Jesus. This statement of Jesus is the definition of the gospel itself; it is the Good News of God in Christ Jesus, not just a ballgame poster cliché.
As we continue in our Lenten journey, we are encouraged to refocus on the impact that this short verse has on our faith and on our lives. The truth of the gospel message is this; that God choose to give Jesus to the world is the ultimate expression of God’s love for what he has created. But there is so much more being revealed in this verse. “God so loved the world” may be better translated as “God loved the world SO MUCH” that he sent Jesus. Jesus’ identification as “His only Son” is confirmation that Jesus is divine, that he is God incarnate.
And that belief in Christ assures eternal life; this is the “nutshell” of the gospel for Luther as it must be for us. And, as always, the opposite, that unbelief results in exclusion from the salvation brought about by Jesus’ sacrifice. And, in the following verses, Jesus relates the expansion of the meaning of the gospel message, by stating the opposite ways in which people may respond to it. Darkness versus light, goodness and truth opposed to evil doings. And in the last verse this morning, Jesus tells Nicodemus that true deeds performed in the light are clearly seen to be done in God. This is a not-so-thinly veiled call to discipleship. So much for taking this pronouncement by Jesus in John 3:16 as a simplistic statement that most people know by heart. And if we do, in fact enter into the Lenten discipline of self-reflection we may find ourselves questioning how we internalize this concept. Do we fully acknowledge the truth of the gospel? More importantly, do we hold ourselves accountable for the reason that God gave his only Son to the world?
Why does the world need saving in the first place? And how does this need for salvation corelate with the gospel message that Jesus tried so hard to make Nicodemus understand? It again boils down to a set of opposing realities; the world needs saving from sin and the Good News is God’s desire to return creation to wholeness and reconciliation. And if we are to truly appreciate the enormity of the gift of the Good News, the coming of Christ into the world, we must first acknowledge that the need for this gospel message is the sinfulness of which we are a part. Only by accepting our own brokenness, are we able to fully comprehend the depth of the sacrifice that God willingly made on our behalf. “For God loved the world ‘SO MUCH’” that he sent his only Son to redeem it from its sin, from our sin.
Jesus recounts for Nicodemus and us this morning the story of the Israelites in the wilderness originally told in our first reading, from Numbers. As a Pharisee, a teacher of the Torah, the story of the serpent in the Hebrew Bible was well-known by Nicodemus. The snakes which afflicted the Jews wandering in the desert are a sign of the sinfulness of God’s people. Let’s not forget that the very first instance of disobedience against God takes place in the Garden of Eden, and a serpent is the cause of this initial sin.
Moses is instructed to make a bronze snake idol and hoist it upon a pole for the people to gaze upon. As the symbolic reminder of their sin, the children of God would have to acknowledge their evil doings before they would be absolved of them. Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man would also be “lifted up”; again, there are several distinct images this was meant to convey. Jesus would be lifted up, that is glorified as God’s Son. He would also be lifted up as the means through which the world would be sanctified. And thirdly, and likely most importantly, the image of Christ lifted up on the cross would come to be the symbol of the sinfulness of the people that required God’s intervention in the first place. Jesus was to be lifted up for the world to gaze upon, the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God for the redemption of a sinful people.
As Lent unfolds and we are encouraged to look within ourselves and reflect upon our need for salvation from our sinful nature, we ought to also look outward, toward the Savior who was the means of our forgiveness. The introspection that we are inspired to undertake as a means toward understanding our place in God’s creation should serve as recognition of our brokenness. But we must also look beyond ourselves; in fact, we ought to gaze upward, toward the empty cross as the symbol of the gospel, the Good News of God’s grace. Self-reflection is a worthy exercise, one that God’s people should undertake as we strive toward living lives that might prove pleasing to the Father. But we ought to be careful that this self-examination doesn’t lead to an unhealthy, overly critical internal struggle. The reason for acknowledging our sinfulness is to simply recognize it as our nature. The result of this understanding should be thankfulness for the One who was lifted up, and an embracing of the grace, mercy, and love that we have been granted; in spite of, or really more accurately, because of our sin.
It is God’s will that his children live grace-filled lives, as forgiven heirs of the salvation brought about by the lifted-up Son of Man. And, if we ever find ourselves questioning if we are indeed made worthy by the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, we need look no further than John 3:16. Christ Jesus was sent into the world for us because God loved the world SO MUCH!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, bless us with the faith to accept that your love for your people is strong enough for you to give your Son for our salvation. Help us to trust the Words of Jesus which Nicodemus struggled to understand; that you loved the world SO MUCH! And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One whose rising from the empty cross gives us the visible sign of your love for your children. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.