The 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B
11 March, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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Just looking at today’s readings, the connection between the first lesson and the gospel makes perfect sense. In the first lesson is the story of how so many of the Israelites doubted God and began to lose faith and to grumble against God, so he sent the venomous snakes throughout the camp. The venom represents the poison of their own sin and unbelief. Then after Moses prayed for them, God had him fashion a bronze snake to lift up on a pole so that whoever looked up at it would be saved. It wasn’t the image itself that saved them, but the act of trust in God, that by being obedient to what he commands they’d be saved. In the book of Wisdom in the Apocrypha there’s a commentary on this event in the form of a prayer. It says that the Israelites “were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a symbol of deliverance to remind them of your law’s command. For the one who turned toward it was saved, not by the thing that was beheld, but by you, the Savior of all” (Wisd 16:5-7).
In today’s gospel, Jesus indicates that both the event itself and the much later commentary in the book of Wisdom are intended to point toward himself: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” He’s talking about his death on the cross, which he reinforced sometime before he was arrested, when he said to his disciples, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. “He said this,” John says, “to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” (Jn 12:31-33).
As I said, that connection between the first lesson and the gospel makes perfect sense. However, the rest of today’s gospel reading doesn’t seem quite so connected to all that. And that’s because it’s been lifted out of context. It’s the second half of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus after dark so as not to draw attention. The first part of that conversation is pretty important in understanding the second part, so here it is in a nutshell: Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Presumably, the “we” he speaks of are his colleagues. So far in his ministry Jesus has turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, which was pretty astounding, and he’s driven the merchants out of the temple, as we read in last Sunday’s gospel. Nicodemus and his colleagues understand that nobody can do such things unless God has his back. In reply Jesus says something that seems like a complete change of subject: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” How does that happen, Nicodemus wants to know? Jesus says, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is perplexed by all this, so Jesus says, “You’re a teacher of Israel [a teacher of the things of God], but you don’t understand all this? If I’ve told you earthly things and you don’t believe, then how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
Then he says this other thing which seems like another disconnect: “No one has gone up into heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world so much, that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” Just as the Israelites in the desert who looked up to the serpent on the pole were healed of the snakebites and reconciled to God, so whoever looks up to Jesus on the cross will be reconciled to God and welcomed into his kingdom.
Nicodemus is no slouch when it comes to knowing the faith of Israel and the Word of the Lord, but he’s having a really hard time with all this. He’s totally in the dark, because he’s never heard anything like this. Yet he believes this rabbi Jesus has come from God, so he’s eager to learn. He starts the conversation by stating what “we know”– “we know you’re a teacher sent by God, because of the things you’ve done.” This is where we all begin in trying to understand something new. We start where we’re at, with what we already know, then we grope our way through the darkness of things we don’t understand, hoping for a little light to be shed on them. Jesus says this strange thing about needing to be born again to get into the kingdom, and Nicodemus asks, “How’s that possible?” Then Jesus explains that rebirth, or new birth– the Greek word could go either way, happens through water and the Spirit, something outward and visible, and something inward and spiritual– baptism. Again Nicodemus says, “How’s that possible?”
He has a reputation among the people; he’s a highly respected “teacher of Israel,” as Jesus points out. And yet, Jesus says to him, “you don’t understand these things?” He doesn’t say that to put Nicodemus down, but he does mean to make him feel small in the sense that there is so much more to God and his kingdom that has yet to be revealed, so much light still to be shed. And Jesus is encouraging him to keep struggling toward the light. “We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen,” Jesus says, and no doubt Nicodemus has been faithful in doing just that in his teaching ministry, but, Jesus continues, “you do not receive our testimony.” The “you” is plural there. He’s not speaking of Nicodemus alone, but of the teachers of Israel in general, most of whom are eventually going to reject Jesus and play a part in getting him crucified. The two exceptions that we know of are Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. There may well have been others, but not many.
Nicodemus is in the dark, but he’s curious. And as William Willimon says, “Jesus is taking the self-assured teacher into a whole new realm of possibility, a new way of thinking, of construing the world and defining his life. How is it possible?” (Will Willimon’s Lectionary Sermon Resource: Year B, Part 1, 196-7). Think deeply– that’s what Jesus is trying to get him to do. Don’t be content to rest on what you already know, but also don’t abandon what you already know in favor of some new thing. Instead, be open to looking at what you already know in a new light, and at the possibility that what you know is part of something greater that you need to know in order to grow in faith and in the knowledge of God.
That’s what Jesus came into the world to do. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus’ role was to teach the people about everything God had revealed thus far. And an important part of that teaching was that God wasn’t finished revealing. The people of God understood that. They knew their prophets, and were constantly on the lookout for the Messiah that the prophets foretold, the one anointed by God to free the people. But having been conditioned by their immediate circumstances, as we always are to some extent, the only deliverance they looked for, and prayed for, in those days was from foreign occupation. So Jesus is trying to get Nicodemus to look beyond first-century Judea and the Roman Empire, and see the bigger picture, the view from the kingdom of God. What we all really need to be freed from is not political oppression or any other kind of human tyrrany, but the tyranny that has dominated the world nearly from the beginning, the tyranny of sin in all its forms, spiritual, social and personal.
“God so loved the world,” Jesus says, not just the chosen people but the whole world, so much “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” What Jesus is about is way bigger than this tiny nation in the eastern Mediterranean– it’s just the seedbed for the rest of God’s plan– “God so loved the world…” And when he says that eternal life is God’s gift to everyone who believes, that’s a pretty clear indicator that what’s at stake is way bigger than nationalism and politics, and that God wants, not to destroy Israel’s enemies, but to redeem them. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The only dividing line that God has drawn is between whoever believes and whoever rejects his Son. “And this is the judgment,” Jesus says: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” At the beginning of his gospel St John says that the light is Jesus himself. The very first thing God did on the first day of creation was to say, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Gen 1:3), not the light of the sun, but the light of God himself shining throughout eternity and creation. St John says that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5), and he identifies that light as the eternal Word and Son of God who became human and was named Jesus. So when Jesus tells Nicodemus that “the light has come into the world,” he’s speaking of himself, and suggesting that some people will reject him because they love the darkness where their sins won’t be exposed, not understanding that it’s better for them to come to the light where they can see their sin for what it is, and repent of it and be free from it for ever.
God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to lead the people of God into the next stage of his plan of redemption. I know I say this a lot, and I’m not going to stop, because it’s really important: God’s original covenant with Abraham was to make his descendants into a great nation, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the whole world. Unlike the greatness of Rome, or of the British Empire, or of the United States, Israel’s greatness is because God chose it to be the earthly center of his worship and the place where he would raise up his Son to live, and die, and live again for the salvation of the world. After dying and rising again, and sending his Spirit into his people, Jesus sent them out to cover the earth with the Good News of his salvation. And the work continues as long as there are people walking in darkness, who haven’t heard the Good News about Jesus.
Nicodemus might never have come to understand all this in his lifetime. But we know that he did love the Light and wanted more of it. While most of his brother Pharisees who rejected Jesus were breathing a collective sigh of relief when he died on the cross, Nicodemus provided the expensive spices to anoint the body, and helped Joseph of Arimathea to lay it in Joseph’s own tomb (Jn 19:38-42). That’s quite a profound act of worship, and it says a lot about the faith of those two Pharisees. Whereas their colleagues hated the Light that they encountered in Jesus because he challenged them to reexamine their worldly values, Joseph and Nicodemus reacted very differently. They loved the Light, and wanted more of it.
That’s the challenge of Lent, and of us reading this gospel in Lent. Through it Jesus challenges us to reexamine the things we value most, to consider whether they can survive being exposed to the Light of God, or can only thrive in the dark, and then to decide which we love more, the darkness of sin or the Light of Christ. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+