John 3:14-21 New International Version (NIV)
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
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. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
I recently found out the hard way never to play hide-and-seek with a born-again Christian. I mean, what are my chances? They found God.
If ever there was a Bible verses that suffered from overfamiliarity, it is John 3:16. This was one of the first passages that I learned as a young man, as I memorized the KJV to perfection with its eloquent and Shakespearian language well before I could drive a car and perhaps even before I took the training wheels off my bicycle. If you are a fan of professional sports, you may have seen a person sitting in the crowd, wearing a rainbow wig, holding a sign that simply said, “John 3:16.” There are also much more subtle ways that people try to share this message, such as the west-coast fast food restaurant In-and-Out Burger or the clothing company Forever 21, both of which print “John 3:16” on the bottom of their drink cups and merchandise bags, respectively.
We Christians know that this verse is important, but we can forget what it really means when we simply lift that verse out of its narrative context. So this morning we are going to turn back a few verses and try to recall the entire story and just what point Jesus is trying to make.
John situates our story immediately after his telling of Jesus cleansing the temple. In other Gospels we are kind of eased into Jesus’ ministry, but not in John. In John Jesus is baptized, he calls some disciples, goes to a party, and then disrupts the entire temple system. This is a bold Jesus who is going to make a statement! Jesus likely gets the attention of every religious leader in the temple that day, but one is especially curious. His name is Nicodemus, and we are told that he is a Pharisee.
We are told that Nicodemus comes to Jesus after dark. I assume that John specifies that Nicodemus came to Jesus after dark because he wasn’t too interested in being seen with this guy that just caused such a fuss at the temple. But Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus has come from God because of the signs that Jesus has been performing.
Without being asked a question, Jesus tells Nicodemus that anyone who wants to see the kingdom of God must be born again, or born from above, or born anew. And this is understandably confusing to Nicodemus because he has at least some understanding of how reproduction and life works.
This is where we pick up today with our Gospel lectionary text. Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus just what it is that he means by this “being born again” thing. And he starts by calling Nicodemus back to a story from Numbers 21, which as a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been very familiar with.
In Numbers 21 we find the Israelites traveling through the wilderness, grumbling as they often do, and God gives them something to really grumble about. I think poisonous snakes are worthy of grumbling about, don’t you? Especially when many of the Israelites were getting bitten by these snakes and dying. So Moses prayed to God and God said to make a bronze snake and put it on the top of a pole. When someone was bit by a poisonous snake, they were to look at the snake on the pole and they would be healed.
I would say that there is absolutely nothing special about that snake on the pole. It is just a hunk of bronze on the end of a stick. What actually heals the people bitten by the snake is not the snake. The thing that heals the people is that they put their trust in God.
This is a common theme in both the Old and New Testament. At one time God tells a leader with leprosy that if he wanted to be healed he needed to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan River. Not 5 times, not 6, not in the Tigris or Euphrates, 7 times in the Jordan. And when he did, he was healed. There are times when Jesus is moved by the trust that the people have in his ability to heal various illnesses and physical conditions. A man is lowered through the roof of a house by his friends just so he can get near Jesus and be healed. A man brings Jesus back to his daughter, who had been sick, even after the father receives word that the girl had passed away. That is trust! And another man doesn’t even need Jesus to make the journey with him. He says, “Just say the word, and I know my son will be healed.”
These people were healed because they put their trust in God. We sometimes call that “faith.” As Jesus moves on, he tells Nicodemus that God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believed in him would not die but have eternal life. The word “believe” that is used a number of times in this passage is simply the verb form of the word “faith.” It is “pistis” in the Greek. Whoever puts their faith in Jesus, whoever trusts him, will be healed just like the Israelites who put their trust in God and looked at a bronze snake and just like the ruler who put his trust in God and washed seven times in the Jordan.
The difference in John’s Gospel is that the trust put in Jesus heals people from a different problem…kind of. In John’s Gospel, the people need to be healed from death. In John 3:16 Jesus offers two options: put your trust in him and receive eternal life, or don’t put your trust in him and perish. This idea of putting your trust in Jesus is what it means to be born again.
That can sound a little unsettling. But notice where Jesus goes next in verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Jesus came into this world to save the world. That’s goal number one. If Jesus made a “to do” list, it would say, “Save the world” across the top, and that’s itJ. That’s the main point, the theme of the incarnation. And we have been given the opportunity to either stand on the sidelines and oppose Jesus or get on his team and work with him. To put your trust in Jesus means to join him in his efforts to save the world.
The remainder of the passage speaks to how Jesus does this saving of the world thingy. And remember, he isn’t just talking about saving our souls, this is saving the world. Jesus came to bring light. Verses 19 and 20 say, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” To partner with Jesus, to trust in him, means to bring this light to others.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t see in the dark. That’s pretty typical for human beings, because of the makeup of our eyes. Some animals can see with very little light, but we need some light to see. In low light we can begin to see some things, but we see them in black and white. This is because the rods that are in our eyes that are used to see black and white operate with a lower amount of light. The cones, which see color, require more light.
Jesus uses this idea of being born again, so let’s work with that for a minute. It is always funny the way people act around a pregnant person. I’m not judging anything or anyone, but we hear stories about people putting their headphones on the mother’s belly so the baby can hear music. Some people read to their unborn child. The idea is that if you expose them to Beethoven and Bach in the womb that they will develop mentally at an accelerated rate. People read to their unborn child so that the child can learn mom or dad’s voice and to be soothed.
I don’t know how helpful any of that really is, though I readily admit to speaking to my wife’s belly when she was prego. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sound of my voice was a bit muffled by all of that amniotic fluid and body tissues that separated us. But what I do know is that there is no way that the child can see anything in there. There is no light, it is completely dark. So it wouldn’t help to try to get a picture of mom and dad in there for the baby to try to get used to our faces.
But when that child is born, they go from complete darkness and muffled sounds to a whole new world. There are people to see, sounds to hear, and things to touch. Not everything feels warm and squishy like it did on the inside! And the entire world of the child who has just been born changes.
When Jesus speaks of being born again, he is talking about putting your trust in Jesus. And when you do this, you are exposing yourself and all that you know to the light. Your world will change, it must change! How you see others, how you see yourself, how you understand right and wrong will change. And I believe it will continue to change as long as you follow Jesus. We must be born again, again. We must be born again, again, day after day, constantly bringing our world into the light of Jesus.
I was having a bit of a frustrating day on Monday. I won’t get into all of the details, but yes, my frustrations often begin and end with my children. One problem was that Hadley actually slept in and was able to catch up on her sleep after the time change last Sunday. But this meant that I head to get her up and hurry her out the door to get Paxton to preschool by 8:45. I tried to take her in her pajamas, but she refused. I tried to put her in some clothes that I had set out, but she wanted the owl shirt, which was in the laundry. And she has been intentionally wearing two mismatched boots now for a week. And I am trying to write my Master’s thesis and complete a couple of term projects and keep up with work…aghh!
And just as I’m about to lose it, my mom calls and tells me that my sister-in-law is at the hospital in labor.
Three months ago I mentioned to you all that my younger brother and his wife were expecting their first and second child in 2015. Twins. Our older brother joked around that they were going to name the children Walker and Texas Ranger, a joke based on the movie “Talladega Nights” and a character played by Chuck Norris. Needless to say, my sister-in-law was not impressed.
About a week and a half ago my sister-in-law received instructions that she would need to spend the rest of her pregnancy on bed rest. She was allowed to go from the bed to the couch to the bathroom, and that was it with the exception of the regularly scheduled trips to the doctor.
This last Monday she was in for one of those appointments and she was told that she was in labor and would need to go to the hospital immediately. There were still six weeks until her due date. So she went to the hospital and a few hours later out came Max Allen, all 4 pounds, 11 ounces of him, and he was followed by Grace Lucille, weighing in at an intimidating 3 pounds, 11 ounces.
The twins were born on what would have been my grandparents’ 75th anniversary, so it seemed appropriate that their names would reflect the names of my grandfather, Al, and grandmother, Lucille. Yet I wonder what would have happened had they been born on Tuesday instead of Monday, as Tuesday was Chuck Norris’ birthday.
As I was getting frustrated with my children, I realized just how small my problems are. My life brought into the light and I remembered the struggles of my family and friends. I was born again, again. This was a chance to step back and look at the world differently. I remembered that Jesus came to save this world and that my frustrations were quite small.
Being born again can mean a lot of things, but I am sure that it means trusting in Jesus and seeing the world in a new light. Just like a Pharisee named Nicodemus who came to Jesus during the darkness of night, we to need to be reminded of the light that is Jesus Christ and we need to be reminded to put our trust in him daily. We need to be born again, again.