This sermon was delivered on March 16, 2014, at Lufkin First United Methodist Church.
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Common English Bible (CEB)
3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 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.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 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?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8 God’s Spirit[b] 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.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 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. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
There’s a good chance that most of you have heard of this passage. That is, perhaps one or two verses from it.
Aside from the creation narratives in Genesis and the crucifixion of Jesus, the verse John 3:16 is probably one of the most quoted, the most recognizable, and most preached-upon ideas that have ever come out of scripture. Even non-Christians would be able to at least recognize the sentence. More than likely, near the end of the passage, many of you were quoting it along with me. It’s ingrained in our heads, probably because it neatly and tidily sums up the basic message of the Gospel in an easy-to-remember phrase.
Because it’s so well-known, though, it makes talking about it, even preaching about it, all the more difficult. There is so much emotional baggage, so much weight attached to this passage from John, and so many people hold it so dear, it makes it difficult to really discuss it. Don’t believe me? Let’s do an experiment. Try this. I’m sure most of you know the words to the first verse of Amazing Grace. What happens when you take the words of Amazing Grace, and sing them to a different tune? Say, the theme from Gilligan’s Island? We have so much attached to Amazing Grace that singing it to a different tune really messes with our heads. In fact, it just sounds downright silly to us. So it is with this passage from John. It’s like a song; it’s so important, it can be difficult to sing to a different tune. It’s with that in mind I approach this important passage, because it has so much to say to us, primarily about the idea of belief.
Belief is the stock and trade of Christianity. We are a people who identify with a certain belief. What is belief, though? The most standard definition of belief is to trust, to have confidence in something or someone. When we talk about belief in the church, more often than not it’s about accepting an idea or statement as truth—we do it every week with a Creed usually. “I belief in God the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth..” etc. This is the way the church has talked about belief for a long time, almost for the entirety of the church’s existence. Almost.
You see, the word “belief” used to mean a lot more than just intellectual acceptance of an idea. Something that simple only involves the head, and cuts out the crucial role of the heart. Marcus Borg, a biblical scholar, explains it this way:
“In the pre-modern world, before about 1600, the object of belief was never a statement,” he says. “It was always a person. To believe meant to ‘belove’ a person. To ‘belove’ Jesus means more than simply loving Jesus. It means to love what Jesus loved. That is at the heart of Christianity.”
While I don’t necessarily agree with him on most things, I can get behind this idea. Belief involves the entire being, body, mind, and heart. When we read John with this in mind, it adds a whole new dimension to the text.
The Gospel of John is a confounding one, to me. It’s the most different of the four gospels; it doesn’t focus as much on the miracles and the events of Jesus life as it does the meaning of Jesus’s very existence and presence on earth. It’s a lot more heavily theological and philosophical than the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Jesus does a lot more talking in John, a lot more teaching, and really comes across a little more… strange. Otherworldly. Yes, there is humanity displayed in John, absolutely, but we see a lot more of the Divine in Jesus there too. And quite frankly, it’s kind of scary, because of how different the Divine truly is. The question for us then is this—how do we love someone who is Divine, who knows so much more than we do about the nature of the universe? The answer is in the humanity of Jesus.
This passage from John 3 is a prime example of Jesus’s strange divinity. First, though, a little context. Before this passage, Jesus had just arrived in Jerusalem and paid a little visit to the temple, in which he… had an episode.
Understandably, he got quite angry over the m0ney changing and marketing going on, flipped a bunch of tables, and yelled at some high priests. He made his famous proclamation, that you could destroy the Temple of Jerusalem and Jesus could raise it up on three days. The text doesn’t say what happens right after that, but one could assume he makes a hasty exit from the temple and into the crowds. The only thing that it does say after that was that many people were talking about him, and talking well of him; however, it also says that he didn’t trust people, because he knew everyone and the nature of humanity—namely that humanity isn’t trustworthy. Harsh words, but accurate words. This passage gives us crucial insight into the mindset of Jesus.
This is near the very beginning of his ministry, and already he’s seen the mockery they’ve made of the temple. He became fully human so that he could know us better, so his love for us could be made manifest to us, but already he’s hit a bump in the road. It’s kind of like the first time you read the comments on any article or video on the internet. Here’s the internet, perhaps one of the most significant creations humanity has achieved, with boundless potential for sharing information, ideas, music, and art—and then you read the comments and think: “You know what? Humanity’s pretty messed up. I wish I hadn’t seen that.”
That’s where Jesus’s head is right now. He loves us, but he’s wary of us. Not only that, he’s not into any messing around, beating around the bush. He’s going to lay it out the best way he knows how, even if it’s not necessarily warranted. The Jesus in the Gospel of John is a truth teller, at any cost. This is obviously a very Divine Jesus in his zeal for truth; it’s also a very human Jesus in the passion for his people.
This sets up our midnight meeting quite well, does it not? We have Nicodemus, who undoubtedly either saw or heard about the scene at the temple, who we know has heard of the teachings and miracles Jesus has said and done. The meeting starts out fairly innocuous when Nicodemus approaches him, and says basically, “Hey, I like your stuff; you’re a good teacher, and you have to be touched by God somehow in order to do the miracles you’ve done…”
And right there is where I imagine that Jesus explodes at him, because Jesus’s response is NOT NORMAL. He responds with this, another of Jesus’s “greatest hits.” “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” This is not the go-to response of a celebrity to a fan. This is God’s response to a Pharisee, someone out of the caste of people responsible for the desecration of his holy temple, and he’s not putting up with any flattery, heartfelt or not. He’s seen what dwells in the hearts of humanity, and he knows that the message needs to be blunt, and it needs to be given urgently.
Naturally, Nicodemus was taken aback. He was probably not expecting a cryptic theological statement right off the bat after a compliment (a simple thank you would have been sufficient). Not only is it a theological statement, it’s directly aimed at him, worded in a strange way. So Nicky is thinking to himself: Born anew? Born again? Born from above? Which one does he mean? That word means a lot of things! What does he want me to respond with? So he takes a stab at the meaning, with a little sarcasm to lighten things up: “How… does a grown man do that? How do you get born anew? Do I need to reenter a womb or something?”
Jesus is not in the mood for games. He goes on and expounds on the bit about being born of water in the Spirit, how the Spirit goes like the wind, and nobody can predict it—but if you were born of the Spirit you wouldn’t need Jesus to explain it to you. On Jesus goes, and Nicodemus must be thinking to himself Man, did I bite off more than I can chew! He stutters out another “How is this even possible, Jesus?”
At this point, I imagine that Jesus takes a second. He realizes that he just hit this guy with a shotgun blast of truth, and though he might have been right to do so, Jesus saw the need to explain himself a bit. So he backs up. He levels with him. He understands that Nicodemus probably has his heart in the right place; he just needs some tutoring. So Jesus approaches it from a different angle, and basically says “Hey, look. You and I are both teachers, so I can relate. We can only teach what we know, and testify to what we’ve seen, yeah? But here’s the thing; you haven’t begun to see me yet. You may have heard of me, but you don’t know me yet. How about an analogy?” Nicodemus, mouth agape, nods in response.
“You remember when Moses was in the desert wandering around after he led the Israelites out of slavery, right? Well, to lead the people he used a snake on a stick as a signpost for them to follow. When they see the snake on the stick, they knew that if they followed that sign, they would be saved, led out of wilderness and into the promised land. Well, it’s the same with me. I’m the snake on a stick, just in a new way. I’m the sign of God’s love, and following me is how humanity will make it out of the wilderness.”
Are you starting to get a better picture of this scene? It’s a remarkably human scene; an earnest fan and an earnest teacher connecting over a shared love of scripture; a divine scene in which God himself reveals the truth about the nature of his presence on earth and goal for which he came. The core of the story is the bit we all know, but here’s my own paraphrase of it:
“This is the way God loved the world. He gave Jesus, the only son of God, so that everyone who loves him, who loves his teaching, who loves how he loves, will be led out of the wilderness and into salvation, eternal life. God didn’t do this to condemn people—that’s like tossing out a life preserver in hopes that someone will drown. God did this so that we could be saved.”
The point of it all is not so we have this rote memorization of a list of things we need to accept intellectually. The point is much more human, much more emotional connection to God. This story in which Jesus reassesses his approach and explains himself in a way that can be understood, who explains the mission of God on earth, is one of deep love. Jesus loved us so much, not despite our sins, but because of them. He knew that we need him in a way that we will never fully know. He loves us, and wants us to love him, and we love him by loving others in the same way.
You are the beloved of God, whether you think you are or not. You have been given the gift of God on earth, a God who wants to know us better, who came to our level, and even died for us because of his amazing love for us. Our response is to love him back, and to belove him, his teaching, his methods, the people he loved. That’s the point of John 3:16. It’s not just a magic phrase. It’s not just a verse you need to know to be a good Christian, and it definitely is not just a thing to pluck out of context. To believe is to belove. You are loved. Will you love back?
In the name of the Father, son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.