Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 8, 2020
John 3:1-17 Commentary
In John 3 Jesus does something quite unexpected: he reaches back to Numbers 21 from the Old Testament and evokes the image of that bronze serpent Moses lifted over the people as a cure for snakebites. The Israelites had to look at an image of the very thing that was afflicting them, and somehow doing so helped. It was an interesting little story in Numbers but is finally one of lots of interesting Old Testament stories. Just reading Numbers 21 would not make you think this would gain the high profile it later would through Jesus’s evoking of it.
Yet Jesus riffs on that story to say that the Son of Man will be lifted up and if you look at his death, your problem with death will be solved. It is, as Neal Plantinga has said, a striking biblical example of the principle that sometimes like cures like.
One of the greatest medical innovations in recent centuries is the development of the vaccine: if a doctor injects your body with a small amount of the disease you want to avoid (either an inert version of the disease or a sufficiently weak amount to prevent you from getting the full blown affliction), then your cells will produce the antibodies that will ward off the disease should you later come into contact with the real deal version of it. Vaccines are like tutors for our antibodies (something Jonas Salk—pictured above—figured out with his breakthrough polio vaccine).
So in the gospel: Jesus is raised up on a cross in death. The wages of sin is death, and so death is our problem as sinful people. Somehow when we cast our eyes on Jesus’ death, we receive the gospel vaccine, as it were. But what that means is that the way a person gets “born again,” as Jesus has been describing this to Nicodemus, is precisely by being crucified with Christ. This, then, is the direct set-up for John 3:16. We all love the promise of eternal life, we all are drawn to the promise that we will not perish, and we like the apparent simplicity that all we need to do to get these good things is “believe.”
Seen in its proper, wider context, those famous words of verse 16 assume a far more startling, almost chilling, profile. Because a main thing you need to “believe” to be born again is that Jesus’ death helps you. We need to dispense with the idea that we can help ourselves, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, earn salvation, or in any way get by on our own.
Nicodemus had to believe this, too. But that may not have been easy for a man like this. To riff on Frederick Buechner’s description of him, Nicodemus was a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who’s Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was–you’d recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk.
But even Nicodemus had to dump the notion that his high-falootin’ religious credentials cut any ice with God. Nicodemus had to die to all that. But the funny thing about being dead is that the dead person is, by definition, completely unable to do another blessed thing. If you’re dead the way Jesus was dead on the cross, your only hope is that someone will resurrect you, raise you back to new life. As the undertaker and well-known author, Thomas Lynch, often points out: when it comes to dead people, you really just have to do everything for them! They are of no help at all.
The way into God’s kingdom leads through death. That’s scary in a way the isolated version of John 3:16 seldom conveys. But if you can follow Jesus to the cross and believe the scandalous idea that somehow his horrible death helps you, then already in this life you get the gospel vaccine–an inoculation that will keep you safe when your own death arrives one day. That’s what Jesus lays out for Nicodemus, and now for us, in John 3.
He wraps it all up with a discussion of light and darkness, saying that the main problem with people in this world is they like the dark. People think that living in God’s light might be harmful to their health, like baking in the sun too long on a hot summer day. “People like the dark because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed in the light,” Jesus says. And you have to wonder if Nicodemus, who had used the cover of darkness for his clandestine visit with Jesus, squirmed a bit at Jesus’ words about people loving the darkness!
But we don’t know if Nicodemus chaffed under that rhetoric because oddly enough, after verse 9, Nicodemus drops out of the picture altogether. We don’t have a clue as to how he reacted to Jesus’ words.
Isn’t that ironic?! We don’t know what happened to the very first person ever to hear John 3:16! Did Nicodemus’ hard Pharisee heart melt right then and there, or did he leave in a huff because of Jesus’ stinging words about loving the darkness? We don’t know. But perhaps that is because John knew that what matters is what John will later write at the end of John 20: John has written all the things he wrote about Jesus so that you, dear reader, might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Most people are so overly familiar with John 3:16 that we think it’s a simple, straightforward text. But it’s not. It was properly disorienting (and then, hopefully, RE-orienting) to the first person who ever heard these words. Lent is a time of disorientation for all of us who live like we have it all figured out. Lent knocks us sideways to remind us that all our dieting, fitness, and age-defying make-up products will not keep us alive. We are dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we will return. And Lent reminds us that for all our self-help, get-rich-quick schemes and for all the ways we self-aggrandize ourselves for being self-made individuals, we are finally helpless. We need a Savior to do it all for us. We need a Savior to die for us. Sin is that serious.
Lent is a time of disorientation. But it is also, thanks be to God, a time of reorientation to a new perspective!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
As Scott Black Johnson points out in Volume Three of “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001), the well-known question “Are you born again?” comes from John 3. Yet today people ask this as though being born again is a decision WE make. Ironically, however, Johnson points out that almost everything in John 3 conspires to make it clear that this business of getting born again is something with which we have very little to do. This is something that comes from God’s side of things and from the Spirit sovereign operation. Babies don’t decide to get born, they just GET born. Nor can babies decide that all things being equal, they’d prefer to stay in the womb. Nicodemus was right to suggest that this born-again thing sounded tricky, if not downright impossible, from the purely human side of things. We likely over-extend the image of getting born again if and when we make it too much about personal decisions and the like. This is an act of God for which we can but be eternally grateful!
Nicodemus makes two more very brief, cameo appearances in John’s gospel. The first comes in John 7 when the Sanhedrin begins plotting against Jesus. At that juncture, Nicodemus speaks up to ask that they all make certain to follow the letter of the law in investigating Jesus. Nicodemus’ final appearance is in John 19 when he is said to have helped Joseph of Arimathea embalm and then bury the dead body of Jesus.
We don’t know, though, if either incident indicates he had become a disciple of Jesus after all. Commentators and preachers across the centuries have been divided on this matter. Some say that Nicodemus’ words in John 7 and his actions in John 19 indicate only that he remained fixated, Pharisee-like, on the finer points of the law: he buried Jesus according to the law’s burial requirements but he was not crucified with Jesus in the way Jesus said was necessary. Others are more hopeful that the first person ever to hear John 3:16 found life in those words.
Maybe it did happen that way for old Nicodemus. We should hope it did. And if so, maybe it went something like the way Frederick Buechner fancifully imagined it. Maybe as Nicodemus listened to Jesus in the flicker of the firelight on that long ago night, maybe he found his pulse quickening. Hearing the words of what we now call John 3:16, maybe Nicodemus felt a spasm of joy the likes of which he’d not felt since his first kiss–a thrilling jolt like what you get when the doctor says that you don’t have lung cancer after all but just a touch of the flu.
If so, then perhaps some time later when he buried this quirky rabbi, maybe Nicodemus recalled that image of the snake on a pole. And if so, then maybe, two, three days later, when Nicodemus heard the report that this Jesus had risen from the dead, maybe that old senior citizen Nicodemus found himself inexplicably weeping–crying and carrying on like . . . well, like a newborn baby.
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