Lent 4 (Gospel reading: John 3:14-21)
Our Bible passage today is the chunk of scripture surrounding one of the most famous verses in the Bible – John 3:16. One of the reasons it’s so famous is that it is considered to be an encapsulation, a summary of the Gospel. It is Jesus Christ’s life, and ministry and purpose – in a nutshell.
It’s nighttime. Nicodemus has come to talk to Jesus, but is ashamed to be seen with him. See, Nicodemus was one of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews. He was a leader and part of the religious elite. Pharisees were so well versed in the law, they wrote laws on top of the law so that you would never actually break the law. They were the holy men. They thought they knew right from wrong. They thought they knew everything.
And they did not like Jesus. For many reasons, not least of which at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, he calls them a brood of vipers.
The darkness that surrounds Nicodemus and Jesus cannot be ignored. Its presence is palpable. By coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus shows himself – and the Pharisees that he represents – that he believes coming to Jesus, LOOKING to Jesus for any source of wisdom or truth is wrong. In fact it’s shameful. Nicodemus doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s coming to Jesus. He doesn’t want the neighbours to see.
Actions reveal beliefs. There was a desire there to know the truth. Jesus doesn’t mince words with Nicodemus. Our Scripture passage today throws us into the middle of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
Jesus reminds this Pharisee of the story of the Israelites in the desert. Nicodemus would have had this story memorized. Nicodemus had all the scriptures memorized. He knew the context as soon as Jesus brought it up. Moses is leading the Israelites through the wilderness and they sin against God, so God sends venomous snakes among them and many of them die. They see the error of their ways, they cry out to God, and God tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole in the middle of the camp. They are told that all anyone had to do to be saved was to look at the snake, raised up there on the pole, and they would be healed. All they had to do was believe that God’s way was THE way, and their actions would follow. Their belief would lead them to look, their belief would like to their healing, their salvation, their very lives.
In our Western, Individualistic, consumerist culture, we’ve got darkness. Especially in cities like Toronto. We think we know it all. But there are poisonous snakes here. Our self-interest has left us lonely, our consumerism has left us empty.
In Matthew and Luke Jesus calls the Pharisees a brood of vipers. Isn’t that funny? These religious men that put the burden on the people for their own salvation – THAT works-righteousness – THAT is what was killing these people. THAT was the poison in their blood. As much as sin is serious the wickedness of the Pharisees, what Jesus calls EVIL, was actually how they made up their own religion, picking and choosing how to act in such a way that they looked good and didn’t have to look too closely at Jesus.
The Light has come into the world, but the Pharisees hated the light, because it demanded belief. If Jesus was God, they were not. (Now no self-respecting Pharisee would call himself God, and no person today would either, but you see that we all worship something, and we either choose God as our Lord or we choose ourselves). So they chose darkness instead of light. Not unlike we do. Choosing not to believe in the fullness of the gospel, the fullness of Christ, and instead choosing to believe in some half-truth, that we create. When we look to ourselves to be the experts on our salvation instead of Christ, like the Pharisees, we turn inward, it becomes about us, and that inwardness ultimately devours us. We are destroyed. We perish.
Jesus’ shines light on Nicodemus in his darkness. Jesus knows the darkness Nicodemus chose to visit him in, reflected the darkness of disbelief inside him. Yet, he says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world (or Nicodemus), but in order that the world (and Nicodemus) might be saved through him.”
Nicodemus’ in our story today did not believe. Not yet. He was still one of the Pharisees, a group of people that did not recognize Jesus as the Saviour or as the son of God. But Jesus is patient, he engages with him. Later we learn that Nicodemus brings a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds in weight, to wrap the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
Eventually, he comes to the light. He comes to Jesus because he believes, if he does not fully know yet who Jesus is or what he was doing, dying on that cross. Coming to Jesus is what is true, is right.
Like the bronze snake lifted up in the middle of the camp of the Israelites, anyone can look to Jesus for salvation. And like the Israelites in the desert, we still today need a saviour, a healer, a way to be made right with God. We need the poisonous venom in our blood healed, we need a transfusion, we need the blood of the lamb. And there’s only one way, The way, the truth, and the life. It is Jesus. That is the Gospel, the good news. That God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
I leave you with a quote:
“As Christians, we seek to be instructed by God, thus from a theological perspective we do not presume to already know or to understand what is wrong. Even the knowledge of sin and evil is often a matter of revelation. We rely upon the Holy Spirit and Scripture to illuminate our individual and societal wrongdoing, and we approach the Bible with open minds and prayerful hearts.” (Paul Scott Wilson, in The Four Pages of the Sermon.)
May our hearts and minds be open, and may we prayerfully ask Jesus to shine his light of truth on our lives so that we may more fully believe in him. Amen.