Loving the Light

John 3:14-21

Several years ago, I helped to chaperone a ski trip for the youth group at one of the Churches I was serving. I am not a skier, nor do I really like anything about being out in the snow and the cold, but it’s part of the job, so I went.

We stayed in this large lodge with a central gathering area where we spent most of the time when we were not out on the slopes. This is where I made camp. It was a big room with a lovely fireplace, and for the most part, it was quiet as everyone else was out.

This was the room where we had our meals. More often than not, they were pick-up meals, you know, you grab something on the way by. But the dinner meal was special. A large table was in the middle of the room, and everyone gathered round. There was enough room for everyone, and no one was left out.

The conversation around the table was centered around the activities of the day. How this one skied this slope and that one fell a few times. However, towards the end of the meal, someone would ask me a religious question. They had a tradition of “Stump the Minister,” where they would ask questions to stump me. I have mastered the skill of not answering the question being asked by answering another question but making them think I responded to their question.

The trip was over a long weekend, and on Sunday night, we held a simple service, and I preached something, I cannot remember what. But whatever it was, it sparked a conversation between and another person that lasted long into the small hours of the night. Like that sermon, I cannot remember what we talked about, but we moved from one topic to another, sometimes religious and sometimes political. Deep questions that usually are only asked in certain situations.

Today’s Gospel from John starts in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and part of the ruling class. He came to see Jesus at night, so no one saw him. A Pharisee cannot be seen asking questions; a Pharisee is the one who has all the answers.

To put these verses, which we heard today, into context, we need to back up to the start of this chapter. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus acknowledges who and what Jesus is. Nicodemus is wise enough to know that only someone sent by God could do the things Jesus has been doing. This is only the third chapter of John, and yet Jesus is already sparking conversations. In chapter 2, Jesus turns water into wine, and, as we heard last week, Jesus flips over the tables in the Temple and goes on a rampage against turning God’s house into a house of thieves. This has come to the attention of the ruling class.

The Gospels record very few private, intimate conversations. Jesus usually preaches to large numbers or teaches his followers, but here we have Jesus sitting with Nicodemus alone at night, having a deep discussion about the nature of faith and what Jesus is here to do.

Jesus answers Nicodemus with this curious phrase about being born again. Naturally, Nicodemus wants to know how this can happen and how someone can be born again.

I believe this one of those phrases has caused more harm than good over the years. Ask an Evangelical Christian, not the crazy ones building walls and restricting women’s rights. Still, the average, everyday Evangelical what it means to be “born again,” and you will hear about the anointing of the Holy Spirit, turning your life over to Jesus, public declarations of salvation, backsliding, and all the rest.

I am not saying that is wrong. It’s not how I see it in context with the rest of Scripture.

You have heard me say that Jesus came to bring change, a change in our relationship with God, and a change in our relationship with others. I interpret this passage as “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they change.”

Jesus speaks of being born of the water and the Spirit as an apparent reference to baptism and the necessity of one being baptized. Part of our theological understanding of baptism is that we die with Christ and rise again. Baptism is not a cleansing from some long-ago sin supposedly committed in some garden. Baptism is a realignment of ourselves with that of God.

But what about those of us who were baptized as infants and did not choose to be baptized but rather someone else chose it for us? This is where confirmation comes in. As reformed Christians, we do not hold confirmation to the same level as baptism and communion; they are not sacraments in the same sense but rather sacramental acts. The rite of confirmation is an opportunity to publicly declare that Jesus is Lord and that you will walk according to his teaching about love to the best of your ability.

I want to stress again that this is a private conversation that Jesus is having. They are probably sitting around a fire; they might be leaning close to each other so others do not hear. Jesus’ friends are probably sleeping nearby, and Nicodemus does not want anyone to listen to him asking these questions.

With this backdrop in mind, here comes one of Jesus’ most famous lines, and he says it in private, John 3:16: “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.” As crucial as that line and its theological understanding, what comes next in verse 17 is more important.

 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Let’s think about this briefly: Jesus did not come to condemn. This was not only a seismic shift in the first century but also a seismic shift today. If Jesus did not come to condemn the world, then how is it possible that I am supposed to condemn the world? Keep in mind that when we speak of “the world,” we are speaking of all of creation, all of it.

Now, unlike many people today, my theological education can come from a school and not the seminary of Facebook. I have read more than one book about theology and understand that there is so much more I need to learn and understand. However, sometimes, social media proves to be a worthy advocate. I mean, a broken clock is right twice a day.

The other day, I came across this little saying, which has stuck with me in preparation for these words today. “After close study, I have concluded that Jesus believed there are two kinds of people: your neighbors, whom you are supposed to love, and your enemies, whom you are supposed to love.”

In the entirety of what Jesus said, not what others said he said but the actual words handed down to us, Jesus does not condemn anyone. Sure, he has some pretty harsh words for the religious leaders of his day, but he does not condemn them. Hanging on the cross, he forgives those who have just done this to time. He forgives the thief and tells him he will join him in paradise. No words of condemnation ever!

How did we take such a simple message, love everyone, and make it so complicated? This message is so simple that Jesus chose to say it not on some big mountain but as part of an intimate conversation between two people. Our faith is about relationships, our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other.

Now, I call it a simple message, which certainly is, but loving is the most challenging thing we can do. Condemnation is easy; hate is easy, but love, love costs us something. Love requires a dying to self and our natural sense of whatever is best for me. Love requires us to listen even to the stuff we do not want to hear. Love requires us to change our vocabulary from “I” to “we” and from “me” to “us.” Love my friends is not easy but it is required.

But God knows this. A God that loves the created world so much that this all-powerful being is willing to lower oneself, to leave the throne, so to speak, and walk with the little people is not going to require something impossible. What sort of all-loving, benevolent God would that be?

God knows that we will fail, but there is no condemnation, there is no; sorry, but you cannot come in. God has shown us a way of love and that way makes room for all sorts of trips and falls, mistakes, and wrong turns. All God asks of us is that we try, we try to love our neighbor and we try and love our enemies.

This is the good news of Jesus Christ, not that he died to remove some sin, but that Jesus came to show us a new way of living and a new way of loving. Humanity had lost its way and was more interested in condemnation. But that little verse after the one at football games tells the real story. Knowing that God sent Jesus to us how much the creator cares for creation is essential, but the idea that there is no condemnation in that is of the utmost.

The good news, the message we need to preach, is that the love that God has for us is unconditional and complete love; there is no condemnation, not now, not ever.

The way of Jesus is the way of love. And the way of love will change the world.


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