Sunday, January 30, 2022

Invitation to Abundant Life: Living in Light

Today and next week, we read two stories back to back that are a study in contrasts. 

Today, we hear about Nicodemus. A man. A Pharisee. A Jewish religious leader. Who comes to meet Jesus at night. Next week, you’ll hear the story of a woman. A Samaritan and an outsider. Who is unnamed. Who meets Jesus at noon - the brightest time of day. The conversation with Nicodemus in this week’s text will last for nine verses. The conversation with the unnamed woman next week will last for twenty-six verses.

But, today, our focus is the first person in this study in contrasts. Nicodemus. We begin today’s reading with the last two verses of last week’s text at the end of chapter 2. In the Greek these verses are much more closely connected to the beginning of the next chapter than they appear in English. They also foreshadow what we will hear today in this story about Nicodemus. So, we begin by reading these transitional verses and continue into chapter 3. We’re reading today in two parts.

While Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs that he did. But Jesus didn’t trust himself to them because he knew all people. He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? --John 2:23 - John 12 (CEB)

This play of light and darkness, of night and day, is a frequent theme in John. 

Remember the Prologue - “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Nicodemus comes in the dark. To come in the dark suggests, in John, one who comes in a state of unbelief. To come in the dark suggests that one neither understands, nor fully believes in who Jesus is.

There’s this back and forth dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, who appears to be speaking on behalf of a group, perhaps the rest of the Pharisees. Perhaps the Jewish leaders. It’s not clear in our text. But, he’s come to find out more about Jesus. He asks honest questions. He’s seen the signs. So, he recognizes that this Jesus is one from God. But he misses that this Jesus is God.

Jesus doesn’t really help him out here. Nicodemus takes Jesus literally, when he says that he must be born anew. What? Are you saying I have to be put back in my mother’s womb again? This word in Greek actually has two simultaneous meanings. Born anew - referencing a physical change. And born from above - representing a spiritual change. Nicodemus doesn’t really get it. And Jesus doesn’t really help him out. Our minds immediately go to baptism. But, Nicodemus doesn’t have that connection. He won’t get it. Finishing the conversation with these words, “How is possible?”

It’s at this point that Jesus seems to turn from Nicodemus and address an audience. The pronoun you moves from the singular to the plural. Perhaps his words are for all of the Jewish leaders. Perhaps, his words are for all those who only believe in the signs, who lack a level of faith that leads to a complete change - a rebirth into a new community. And an entirely new way of life. 

Our story continues in verse 13.

No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.

“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.” --John 3:13-21 (CEB)

In the midst of this, we hear what is likely the most famous verse in scripture. John 3:16. We hear this so often, it’s almost become meaningless to us, doesn’t it? But there are a couple of things to look at more closely here.

First, when we think of the phrase “eternal life”, we often think of unending life, particularly of life after death. Of heaven. But, a better reading of this is abundant life, which is the life God desires for us. Here and now. And in the future. A life of freedom. And of truth. A life that is free from the shame of our own darkness. Those things we keep hidden. Of which we are most ashamed. Our mistakes. How we treat - or mistreat - those we love the most. More broadly, our thirst for power in this world. Our marginalization of people who don’t think like us. Or look like us. Or live like us. 

Then, there’s this word “perish.” It’s in a reflexive voice. Meaning that the subject of this verb is affected by its own action. In other words, the perishing Jesus is talking about in this most famous verse in Scripture is a perishing of our own making. God’s own Son has come to save us from ourselves. Because we would choose to live in darkness. Yet God, through the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts. Notice I said that the Spirit works faith in us. We don’t have the capacity to choose. It is God at work in us. Yet, we can refuse to receive that faith. To hang onto the darkness in us. And to the darkness of this world. To perish through our own making.

But, here’s the thing. God doesn’t come to us in Jesus to condemn us. Or anyone else.

God’s approach to us is all about love. God does this horrible thing - let’s name it, it is a horrible thing that God is doing. To give up God’s Son to die on the cross. For us. In love. So, that we might experience abundant life. A life of freedom and joy. A life of openness and trust. A life lived in the light and with others living in the light. People whose actions reflect that light.

The Nicodemuses of the world might be able to say all the right things, but until they put their lives on the line for the faith, in John’s gospel, they are still people who “love darkness more than the light.” 

May you and I, born anew and from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. May we, as people of God, be lovers and actors. Not of the darkness. But of the Light. Amen. 

Preached Sunday, January 30, 2022, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Epiphany 4
Readings: John 3:1-21; Psalm 139:13-18

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