John 3:14-21

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

March 15, 2015

John 3:14-21

Spring is around us as trees are budding forth as azaleas bloom.  The show of color is a reminder of the new life offered through Jesus Christ.  But before we can embrace the new, we must let go of the old which is what Lent is all about.

Today, we’re looking at the second half of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus as found in John 3.  It contains that verse we all know—John 3:16—which is the gospel encapsulated in a single sentence.  I once heard it described in terms of superlatives:

  • The greatest subject ever: God
  • The greatest extend ever: So
  • The greatest affection ever: Loved
  • The greatest object ever: The cosmos
  • The greatest gift ever: His one and only Son
  • The greatest opportunity ever: Whoever believes
  • The greatest commitment ever: Entrusting oneself to Him
  • The greatest rescue ever: From destruction
  • The greatest promise ever: Everlasting life[1]

 

In these verses, as in much of John’s gospel, our Savior speaks of light and darkness, of grace and judgment.  If we believe in Christ, we must leave the darkness behind and come into his light.  But that’s easier said than done, for shame holds us back.  Shame hinders our will.  READ John 3:14-21.

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None of us like to admit guilt.  Nor do we like to be caught doing something wrong.  It’s a part of the human condition, going all the way back to the garden where Adam and Eve, after biting into that juicy piece of fruit, hid from God.  Or they tried to hide… Sooner or later our transgressions come to light.  We can’t run forever!  We end up like a kid, having raided the cookie jar, standing before our mom denying our deed with melted chocolate chips on our hands and crumbs in the corners of our mouths.  We get caught.  Maybe we’ll get away with our misdeeds for a while, maybe we’ll even go a lifetime without being caught, but the big guy knows.  Sooner or later, we must come clean.

In the meantime, we worry and fret over being caught.  We cover our tracks the best of our ability, but we’re never able to pull it off perfectly.  When I was in the ninth grade, I participated in a serious prank the last day of school before the Christmas vacation.  A couple of us decided our school needed a white Christmas and finding old test papers, we covered the front lawn with paper.  I don’t remember anything that happened during those two weeks off; I don’t even remember what I got for Christmas.  My only memory of that vacation is worry—being afraid that when my Christmas vacation was over, it would be extended for me to the great displeasure of my parents.  Mike (one of my co-conspirators) and I rode the school bus back to school that early January like two men on death row.  But we got off easy.  It seemed everyone had forgotten about the prank.  Worry, it turned out, was our penance.  But I still remember the knot in my stomach as I rode the bus back to school knowing I’d done wrong.

Garrison Keillor captures the fear of getting caught doing wrong in a humorous account in his first bestseller, Lake Wobegon Days.  The story is about a boy who is a member of a fundamentalist church.  One night, he goes out drinking with a Catholic girl…  They were driving home at night down the Old Post Road.  They’d had two whiskey sours each, on her fake ID.  When he topped a hill driving way too fast, he notices a pair of tail lights directly in front of him.  It was Brother Louie, driving his usual 30 miles per hour.  He slams on brakes, swerves, and then hits the gas to pass him…  But as he swerves, Louie’s neon red license plate holder catches his attention.  “The wages of sin is death,” the top side read.   “Romans 6:23,” was below the plate.  “It was like a flashbulb exploding my face,” he recalled.  His date thought he was a wonderful driver and had saved her life, but he knew the truth and assumed God saved him from his sin (drinking and lusting over a Catholic girl) because God had something important for Brother Louie to do.[2]

Have you ever been there?  Thinking God spared your life because it was the only way someone else would be safe?  There’s enough guilt in the world to go around and it causes us to think less of ourselves that we should.  For the truth is, as we read in this passage today, “God loves the world.”  This love implies a supreme act, its love shown in action.[3]   Secondly, this love is for the whole world, not just for believers.  The word translated here, as “world,” is cosmos, which implies all there is to the created order.  This is no selective love shown to just a few.  This is an all-encompassing love manifested in action.  My paraphrasing this passage, trying to capture the intent here, goes like this:  “God shows his love to the cosmos (think Star Trek) by giving His Son.”

All of us have done things for which we’re ashamed.  That’s okay.  As I’ve said, that’s part of the human condition, going back to the beginning.  We’re disobedient, we rebel, and then we feel guilty and want to go hide.  There are two important things to understand.  Our shame shows our need for grace and, secondly, God’s love still extends to us.  God provides a way for us to escape the helplessness that Nicodemus felt when Jesus told him, earlier in this chapter, that he’d have to be born again.  When Old Nick heard that, he thought he might as well throw in the towel.  But as we learned in that passage, Jesus isn’t talking about something that Nicodemus does, he’s talking about what God does for us.  God sends His Son.

This is good news; however, there is a warning linked to the good.  Jesus does not come to condemn the world, we’re told in verse 17.  He comes to save it.  But what about those who don’t want to be saved, what about those who don’t want to admit that they’ve got problems only God can solve?

I think this passage might be best understood in light of the events at the Garden when our ancestors first violated God’s order.  “Eat of this tree and you will die,” they were told.   And like a kid being told not to play in the puddle or with an electrical outlet, they went right to it and the shadow of their curse hangs over humanity today.  Call it original sin.  As a race, we’ve fallen from God’s grace.  We’re condemned!  That’s a given.  That’s already happened.  Jesus doesn’t come into the world to bring further condemnation; he comes to save.

Think metaphorically of the human race sailing on the Titanic.  It’s struck ice and is listing badly.  Jesus is a purser, calling folks to get into the lifeboats, but as we know from that maritime disaster, the first set of lifeboats go away nearly empty.  Most people put their faith in the supposedly unsinkable ship.

You may have faith in your own ability to save yourselves, or you may just be afraid of what might be exposed if you come into the light, either way your ego keeps you from experiencing the fullness of life as God intends.  And sooner or later, judgment day comes; sooner or later, our pride and misdeeds will be brought to light.  What then?

Graham Greene’s wonderful novel, A Burnt-out Case, is the story of Querry, an architect, who has built great cathedrals but yet doesn’t believe in God.  Tired of all the praise and glamour, he runs away to a Leper Colony in the Congo, “into the heart of darkness” (to quote another English author).   It seems appropriate, with our text from John, to have someone running away from God with the hopes of hiding in the jungle.  Of course, no jungle is dark enough for God of the cosmos, and even there Querry is hunted down.  He befriends one of the lepers, feeling a kinship with one whose flesh has rotted away.  Querry believes his soul has also experienced such rot.  Yet he finds enough of his old self that he’s able to build the one building that satisfies him—a simple hospital, nothing elaborate.

The book ends with Querry’s death.  We’re left with an uncertainty as to whether or not Querry experienced salvation.   In the last chapter there’s a discussion between a doctor and one of the priests who works at the colony.  They cannot decide if his soul has been “cured.”  But as the priest notes, “he learned to laugh and to serve others.”  And then he quotes the medieval mystic Pascal, “a man who starts looking for God has already found him.”[4]

Although we may love the darkness, we can’t run forever.  Yes, we can try…  But sooner or later the truth comes out.  The sooner we stop running and open ourselves up to the grace God offers through Jesus Christ, the happier we’ll be.   There is no need to carry around the shame and the guilt of sin, for God through his Son, provides an alternative.  We can get over our guilt.  We can put away the burden of sin and shame and embrace a new life as a disciple of Jesus—the life of a believer in the one who is the author of all life.

Our passage today is part of a longer section.  It starts with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night.  And Jesus tells the Pharisee that he’ll need to be born again—which leaves Nicodemus speechless, for he can see no way he can make this happen.  But that’s just the point.  He can’t.  We can’t.  But God can.  And God cares for this messed up world so much, he’s willing to give it all, to give his Son, so that through him we can find forgiveness and acceptance and be able to put away the burdens we’ve carried, and live life eternally in his presence.  Don’t be afraid, that’s the message for all of us here.  Don’t be afraid of the light—it’s the only hope we have.

Our passage begins with Jesus recalling a strange healing ritual God had Moses perform in the desert—gazing upon an object they feared—a bronze serpent.  Those who were able to face their fears were able to be healed of the snakes’ poisonousness bite.  Don’t ask me how it worked, but it’s the same way with our sin.  We don’t like it, but as long as we let our fear keep it from the light, we will never get better.  We need to face our fears and one of our greatest fears is our shame being brought to light.  But it is the only way to salvation, the admission that we can’t save ourselves and must surrender all to the God of Creation who showed us his love in Jesus Christ.  This week, when you experience the glorious sunlight of spring in Savannah, think about what sins you need to bring to God’s light in order to be healed.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 201.

[2] Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Penguin, 1985), 140.

[3] See Raymond Brown, The Gospel of John I-XII: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 133.

[4] Graham Green, A Burnt-out Case (New York: Viking, 1961), 247.


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