For many people, Christians are seen as judgmental and against things more often than they are seen as for something. (See this Barna Group report from 2007.) And, by extension, many of us (including many Christians) think God just wants to wag a finger at us for all the times we’ve messed up. The sentiment can be summed up thusly: “Why would I want to go to church, I feel bad enough about what I’ve already done and don’t want to feel worse.”
This makes me sad as Jesus himself says quite the opposite. And church is a place that can invite people to find peace, hope and love in the arms of the Almighty. My sermon for this Fourth Sunday in Lent based on John 3:14-21.
Our Gospel lesson this morning includes one of the most famous of Bible verses, the one held up on placards at sporting events. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” I cannot recall the first time I memorized that verse, but I can say it was a long time ago. The problem is that when we hear such familiar verses, we think we already know what they are about and we stop listening. So I want you to hear them again in a fresh translation.
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” (The Message Bible)
God sent Jesus into the world, because of this great love for all of us, not just so he could come and wag his finger at us. He came to bring us fullness of life. Life lived in harmony with God. A life immersed in truth and reality. Jesus came to set the world right again. The love of God was so great that God didn’t want to leave us to the sin that so easily besets us, but to help us out of the mess we are in.
And while this great love means that Jesus didn’t come to bring accusations against us—and let’s be honest, he could easily have done this— he did come to bring light to our dark places. Since accusations are not at all helpful, God’s light allows us to face our lives and admit where we need help. When God’s light came into the world, men and women everywhere ran for darkness; we ran for cover. We did this, of course, because we fear the exposure of light; we would rather keep things hidden away from God’s view, and either try to fix it all by ourselves or to pretend that somehow we don’t have any problems at all.
And here is the paradox of our condition as human beings. We want a whole and lasting life, and that life can only be found in God’s deep love for us. Yet, while we desire this life, we have a deep terror of the light, because we don’t want to be exposed for what we are. We fear that if we are shown as we really and truly are, either other people, or worse, God, won’t accept us for who are. Or we might have to recognize that we really are in need of God’s help and care. We live lives at times that are addicted to denial and illusion, fearful of painful exposure in the light of God.
Nicodemus, the unnamed hearer of Jesus’ words this morning, appears to embody this message himself. The third chapter of John begins with Nicodemus, a religious leader of that day, coming under the cover of night to speak with Jesus. He doesn’t want others to know he is there with Jesus, that he is speaking to this trouble-maker. Just before this Jesus cleared the temple of all those selling animals and the ones exchanging currencies for a profit. He offended a great many people, including the religious types. So Nicodemus, wanting to know more but afraid of any consequences that might arise, comes to see Jesus while it is night.
Jesus accepts Nicodemus where he is. He engages with him, and spurs him on to a deeper understanding of life, and how the kingdom of God works. He tells Nicodemus that one must be born again, of both water and Spirit, to enter God’s kingdom. And then he tells Nicodemus that he, Jesus, must be lifted up just like that snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Just as God healed those Israelites who looked up, so Jesus offers eternal life to those who look on him and believe.
I think we forget that God sent the Son to help the world. You see, God already knows the things we keep hidden in the darkness. And God loves all of us and wants to give each of us life. But that life isn’t possible without stepping into the light. Without facing the fear we have of exposure. And what we fear most of all, I think, is rejection. Rejection from God and from those who love us. We think that in moving away from the shadows of our lives—in speaking the truth about who we are and what has happened in our lives—we will give others the reason they need to push us away.
But God loves us. God knows us as we are. God knows we need help, and God sent the Son not to bring us harsh accusations, but so we could have everlasting life. As painful as coming into the light can be—and I think there is more fear in anticipation of that light-entering journey than in anything else—it leads us to a whole and lasting life.
We hide in the shadows for many reasons, either due to our own failings or the failings of those we love. Alcoholism, abuse, bullying, misuse of power, infidelity, drug-addiction, angry outbursts, lying, ignoring relationships, cheating, hatred, not caring about others. These are all present in our lives and more. You can find any number of online confession sites where people anonymously lay out their failings.
And God loves us.
I cannot say to you enough that regardless of what has happened in your life or in the life of your family, God loves you. Healing and fullness of life and an overwhelming flood of God’s grace is given when we simply acknowledge that we cannot go it on our own.
Take the story we heard from Numbers this morning. The children of Israel are constantly complaining about their lives since they left their enslavement in Egypt, somehow thinking that being slaves was better than being free, and their grumbling is directed against God. These snakes appear and bite them, and then the people seek forgiveness and Moses is instructed to make a serpent and put it on a pole to be held up before the people. Anyone who looks up to that snake will be made whole. But they have to look up.
And so it is with us. We have a choice. We can either step into the light of God or we can remain where we are in the darkness. We can either remain in a world of hiding, deception and illusion, or we can live in the world of truth and reality and enveloped in God’s light.
Hear again John’s words from this morning. “Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.” How much God desires us all to trust in God, to step into the light, to receive fullness of life. When we do so, we come out from under that death sentence, we have a weight lifted from our shoulders.
What cold shadow have we been lurking in, afraid to come into the warming and revealing light of God? How long have you been looking down instead of looking up toward your salvation? “God loved the world so much that he gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; but by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” May it be so. Amen.