The Good News of Light
A sermon on John 3:14-21
[for an audio link of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ronaldo de Oliveira on Unsplash]
John 3:16 was the first Bible verse I ever memorized. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I did not know this verse by heart:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
I’m certainly not the only child raised with this verse on my lips, for understandable reasons. It offers us the Evangelical gospel in a nutshell:
· God loves us;
· So, Jesus came to save us;
· All we have to do is believe in him; and
· We get eternal life.
It’s a simple and clear formula. Easy enough for even a young child to memorize.
But, of course, memorization is not the same thing as understanding. Memorization means knowing the words, not knowing the truth. And the truth of this statement about Jesus’ work in the world needs some context.
Because the “gospel” – the good news of Jesus Christ – is not a formula; it’s a story.
John 3:16 does not stand on its own. It is part of a narrative.
And to understand that context we need to go back to the beginning of the story in which this familiar verse appears: the story of a man named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a pharisee.
Depending on how many Bible stories we have read, we might hear that word as being synonymous with “hypocrite,” or even “enemy” – Jesus has a lot of run-ins with pharisees - but in Nicodemus’ own context this meant that he was a man of status and respect in his society.
He was a man of some means, with the leisure to study the Torah, the Jewish scriptures.
And as an “expert in the law” Nicodemus had both high social standing and a vested interest in the current religious and social order.
All of this made Jesus a bit of a threat.
Jesus challenged traditions and established thinking. He offered radical reinterpretations of the faith that Nicodemus had spent his life studying. Just before this scene, he claimed the authority to disrupt the Temple marketplace – the center of all religious practice.
We might expect Nicodemus to see Jesus as an enemy.
But instead, he is intrigued. He recognizes something real in Jesus’ authority and power.
He approaches Jesus with the statement: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
NIcodemus wants to understand. He wants to learn more from Jesus…. But he wants to do so safely.
We know this because the gospel writer makes a point of saying that Nicodemus came to Jesus “at night,” when he would not be seen.
Moreover, what he does when he arrives is as telling as his manner of coming. He expresses his belief that Jesus comes from God, but as soon as Jesus responds he starts questioning everything Jesus says.
He is interested, but cautious. He wants to learn more, but he is not prepared to trust what he hears.
THIS is the context from which today’s reading – including that most-memorized quote – is pulled.
Jesus is speaking to someone caught in a pull-push dynamic, unsure what to make of Jesus. Faced with that equivocation, Jesus offers his own pull-push response:
He appeals to Nicodemus as a teacher of the law with the story of Moses lifting up the snake, but he simultaneously challenges Nicodemus with his radical reinterpretation of the story as applied to himself.
And this reinterpretation stresses one thing in particular: TRUST.
The people in the wilderness were healed because they trusted that God would heal them from a snake bite if they looked at the statue.
The Son will be lifted up so that everyone who trusts in him will have eternal life.
I know that’s not the language I quoted at the beginning of this sermon, but I think it’s closer to the fullness of the meaning of the original Greek than what we get from our English translation of “believe in him.”
You might be able to guess at the Greek word if you listen to many of my sermons, because I talk about it a lot: it’s pisteuo (from the root pistos), and it’s used four times in just three verses in our reading.
It means “belief” in the sense of trusting in, putting our full confidence in Jesus.
In context, it calls us to see in Jesus the love of God (that sent the Son), and to trust that that love reflects a desire to save, rather than to condemn.
In other words, Nicodemus is walking the fence, trying to figure Jesus out without risking anything, and Jesus tells him, “that’s not how this works. If you want what I came to give, you have to trust me. It will be worth it.”
That’s the promise Jesus offers Nicodemus, but he also has a warning for him, because he knows the self-protective pattern he is dealing with.
Nicodemus came in the night, wanting to hide.
And Jesus warns him that hiding is what you do when you don’t really want the truth. “All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light.” (John 3:20)
Now, obviously, Jesus is not saying that Nicodemus coming to him was an action of “evil.”
Rather, he was calling out Nicodemus’s unwillingness to see anything he doesn’t want to see. The unwillingness to risk. The refusal to actually trust Jesus enough to let himself be changed.
And it doesn’t work that way. Jesus is the light of the world. He brings the exposing light of truth. When we come to him, we have to trust that anything we don’t want exposed to that light is something we need to lose.
That’s what we need to know about the biblical context in order to understand today’s gospel.
But we have a context too, a context that requires us the think carefully about how to apply Jesus’s words… especially his words about light and darkness.
Those words have a weight, a history, and a current reality in our context that has done incredible damage.
Those words have been used in our country to draw lines of human value to say that “light” people matter more than “dark” people. To say that light skin somehow equates to superiority and dark skin equates to immorality and evil.
And while in much of our culture such usage is now, thankfully, rejected, the ideas are not gone.
Just two months ago insurrectionists stood in the chambers of the federal Senate and prayed a blasphemous prayer invoking the “white light of Christ.” A phrase with no place in scripture but a central place in the white supremacist ideology that warps Christianity to support its own power.
In the wake of such a so-called prayer, how can we hear Jesus’s words in this gospel and not recognize that the persistent roots of racism in our culture are precisely the kind of evil that Jesus is describing: the kind of evil that thrives in the shadows where it can twist the truth, and fears and fights exposure to the light.
And if that is true, then Jesus’s call to us in this gospel is to TRUST him enough to bring it into the light.
To tell the truth about the ways that racism still lives in our nation, in fringe conspiracy theorists, clearly, but not just in them.
To face the discomfort of white fragility, and the evidence of systemic racism that perpetuates the wealth gap, and the health gap, and disproportionate poverty, and unequal justice.
To bring these hard truths into the light because if we trust Jesus, we can trust him with this. However uncomfortable it makes us. Because if it makes us uncomfortable, it’s a sign that we are trying to keep it out of the light. And Jesus has something to say about wanting to keep things out of the light.
But remember, before he issues the warning, he offers the promise. The promise that we can trust him. The promise that the reason he came was love.
And that love is why we can have hard conversations, trusting that what we will get out them is LIFE.
Life for us, and for people we love.
Because, whether or not you know it, there are people YOU LOVE who have suffered and are suffering from the active presence of racism in our society. I know that because some of those people are in our congregation.
It’s not my place to tell their stories, but one of them has given me permission to share her words this week.
Our dear, loved, Maria, has born the pain of racism her entire life. And she’s ready name it. She wrote a powerful, heart-breaking, hope-giving poem about her experience living in a brown body.
And so, with her permission, I offer her words to the healing light of Christ, so that we all can see more clearly:
Her poem is called Little Brown Girl.
Little brown girl staring at me,
why can’t you love me?
why can’t you let me be free?
I heard from my father you’re not black don’t hang with them.
I heard from my “friends” you’re not white don’t hang with them.
I heard from my Latin friends you’re weird don’t hang with us.
I heard from my heart, who can I trust!
I tried to fit in everywhere,
I see labels that don’t fit me,
it’s just not fair.
So I cry and scream
everyone leave me alone,
so they did
and now I have no home.
I don’t fit your labels. I’m tired of trying!
Little brown girl, was constantly dying!
Making jokes to make you smile,
Maybe they’ll like me for a little while.
So say what you will when I try to come in
Accept me or not I submit this bill
I’m just a little brown girl party of one.
I’m done trying to please you! You’ve had your fun!
I make a joke, I hide my pain.
That’s my way of surviving, of covering my distain!
I’m sorry I don’t fit in your code,
but when God made me he broke the mold.
Little brown girl has had enough!
Love me or live me just let me be free.
Little brown girl, I’m just me!
Little brown girl, try and be strong.
If Jesus loves you, no one can do u harm!
No more crying no more shame,
Little brown girl, I’ll help find your flame!
Thanks be to God.