Written Sermon

Lent 4B: Out of the Night

Scott Hoezee

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Few people would dispute the assertion that John 3:16 is the single most well-known verse in the Bible. Children memorize it in Sunday school, the Gideons traditionally have placed this verse on the front page of their Bibles (usually printing it in dozens of languages), missionaries often use it as the starting point for evangelism. Martin Luther called this verse “The Gospel in Brief,” and many others agree that in this one sentence, a good deal of what Christianity is all about receives a swift, concise, and lyric summary.

Out of curiosity, I typed the phrase “John 3:16” into Google once: Google swiftly found just over 175,000 web pages worldwide that contained a direct reference to this verse. My quick perusal of the top 150 or so of those websites revealed that a number of these were websites containing various translations of the Bible. There were also a great many evangelism websites where John 3:16 is the primary verse that gets used to reach people online with the good news of Jesus.

Of course, there were any number of other interesting websites, too. A bevy of online shops offer a range of products emblazoned with either “John 3:16” or the entire verse written out. At TieGuys.com, for the low, low price of $24.95 you can buy a necktie with the whole verse printed on it. For $16.95 another store gives you a sign that looks just like a regular highway sign but with “John 3:16” printed where you would expect to see “US 131 North” or something. You can also purchase John 3:16 flags, jewelry, t-shirts, and coffee mugs. A few other websites featured the words of this verse scrolling dramatically across the screen while music plays in the background.

I also ran across an article by a minister who wanted to remind everyone that just because John 3:16 says God loves “the world,” God does not, as a matter of fact, love too much of that world but only the elect. The Rutherford Institute’s website featured an article detailing their litigation against the Cincinnati Reds baseball team a few years ago when the Reds tried to ban all those “John 3:16” banners you always see draped from the stands at major sports events. And maybe my favorite of all was the “John 3:16 Racing Team” website. This site featured photos of the John 3:16 Nascar–a bright yellow racing car emblazoned with “John 3:16” on the doors and the phrase “Victory in Jesus” on the hood! This, by the way, was once a real car that entered real Nascar races.

So very many people are familiar with this verse, and yet so very few recall its original context: namely, Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. In fact, virtually none of the John 3:16 websites contained any reference to Nicodemus. It seems most people assume John 3:16 doesn’t need a context–it’s so beautifully concise that it stands alone just fine.

But by now you know me well enough to suspect that I think that’s wrong. Yes, there may be a sense in which this verse can stand on its own, but we will understand it far, far better if we can examine it in the setting of the story from which it originally emerged. For centuries we’ve rarified John 3:16, illuminating it with blazing spotlights, making it all soft and fuzzy around the edges. Because the verse is so delightful and lovely, we assume that the story in which it was first spoken must be equally delightful, bright, airy, lovely, and full of light. In a real way, however, the opposite may be closer to the truth.

Because the story in John 3 contains a fair share of darkness, skepticism, and death. The first hint that this is so comes when John tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night.” Nicodemus emerges from the shadows of the night and eventually all-but disappears back into those shadows, too. We know very little about Nicodemus: he is mentioned five times in John’s gospel but nowhere else. We do know he was a Pharisee and a pretty powerful one at that since he sat on the Jewish ruling council known as the Sanhedrin.

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. Of course, fame cuts two ways: nice as it was to be recognized everywhere he went, this fame was not so nice when Nicodemus went some place where he wanted to be anonymous.

In the case of John 3, the place to which Nicodemus wanted to go was the house where the new rabbi in town was staying. But an upstanding Pharisee such as himself generally avoided the company of lesser religious figures. This Jesus fellow was clearly a messianic wannabe who had recently nearly destroyed the whole Passover festival by literally whipping the Temple into a frenzy as he drove out the moneychangers.

But for some reason Nicodemus felt the need to see this man anyway and so he waits until the public eye shuts for the night, until most windows in Jerusalem were dark. Then, at night, he pays Jesus a visit. He likely got Jesus out of bed, but Jesus obliges, puts on a pot of tea, and the two then while away the wee hours of the night chatting by a fire.

Nicodemus begins the conversation in a rather officious, pretentious way. “Rabbi, we know you have come from God because of the wondrous signs you’ve been doing.” Contained in that plural pronoun “we” is a hint of arrogance: we, the folks in the religious know in these parts, the folks in charge of deciding who is on God’s side and who isn’t: we have looked you over and judged there may be something to you after all.

Nicodemus is not initially in the interrogative mood. He doesn’t ask a question but delivers a verdict. Jesus’ reply to this opening salvo is rather surprising: “You’ll never see God’s kingdom unless you are born again.” Make no mistake: Jesus is taking a theological pin and pricking Nicodemus’ over-inflated ego balloon. Nicodemus swung in to deliver the considered opinion of the really smart fellows who know all about God and where God works. In a real way, Jesus’ reply was the equivalent of saying, “My friend, what you don’t know about God is a lot! You need to start all over again, get re-born, and only then will you be in a position to tell me or anybody else about who God is and what God is up to.”

Probably Nicodemus picked up on this, which is maybe why he replies to Jesus in a rather dismissive way. It is doubtful that Nicodemus actually took Jesus literally, so the fact that he pretends to think Jesus is referring to an actual, physical birth seems to indicate he’s poking a little fun of this quirky rabbi’s rhetoric. “Ah, come on now, Jesus! How can a senior citizen like me re-enter my mother’s birth canal and uterus?! I can’t even get into the backseat of a taxi without help these days, and you want me to be born all over again?!”

If Jesus detected the snideness of Nicodemus’ words, he lets it slide and so repeats what he had just said, but this time he expands on it to make clear he’s talking about a spiritual re-birth–a second birth that only God’s Spirit can accomplish. As he was talking, a gust of wind whistled down the chimney and so Jesus says, “Did you hear that? The wind blows here and there but you never really know where it comes from, when it’s going to come, or where it may go next. God’s Spirit is like that, Nicodemus. It comes to some and not to others, it comes unexpectedly but with gale-force strength. When the Spirit blows into your heart, you are made new from the inside out–fresh and young like a newborn baby.”

Nicodemus comes back at Jesus with yet another question, but this one is devoid of any snottiness or sarcasm. “How can these things be true?” he pleads. “And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” Jesus replies (showing that even he is not above some biting irony if it helps make the point). “Well then, Mr. Ph.D., come along with me and I’ll bring you back to spiritual Kindergarten. You’re going to have to start all over again and be re-born by God’s Spirit.” And then 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.

So also, Jesus says, 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, your cells will produce the antibodies that will ward off the disease should you later come into contact with it.

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.”

But 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 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.

That’s how you get born again: first you die. You know, the whole phrase “born again” spins out of John 3. It was big news in 1976 to hear that Jimmy Carter was a “born again Christian”–that line got splashed all over the place then. And it remains a fundamentalist and evangelical bromide: have you been born again? Would you like to be born again? But that makes it sound like the choice is up to you. But birth is kind of like death: it just happens to you. Babies don’t decide to be born nor do they birth themselves.

And that surely is a key feature to John 3, but one that we miss when John 3:16 is isolated or becomes a verse that forces “the moment of decision” on a person. “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved: so do you believe or don’t you? Make up your mind!” But the larger imagery of this passage indicates that this whole matter of salvation is God’s work from start to finish. If it happens to a person at all, then it’s as mysterious as a gust of wind that suddenly lays your hair back on a clear blue day: “Where did that come from?” we wonder out loud. We don’t know, it just happens.

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.

What we do know is that 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 the same as so many hope can happen yet today when they emblazon their t-shirts with that verse.

But we don’t know. Nicodemus both appeared from and disappeared back into the shadows of the night. What we do know, however, is that if Nicodemus became a believer, it happened because he died first. He died to the idea that his theological education and impeccable spiritual credentials would get him in good with God. He died to the notion that God grades on the curve, saving only the really high achievers. If Nicodemus entered God’s kingdom, it’s because he finally cast his eyes onto Christ the Snake; he looked upon that scarecrow-like specter raised up in death on Skull Hill, and so received from that death life.

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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