This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church on Sunday, 3/9/20. The gospel text was John 3:1-17.
What is there about the night that invites questions and concerns? We lie in bed and thoughts swirl around in our heads—all the things we worry about. Did I turn the light off in the kitchen? Then the ponderings morph into more serious issues. My friend with the recurring cancer—will she be alright? What about the flu that’s going around and that awful Coronavirus? Are we worrying too much or too little?
It was the night that called Nicodemus with his questions to go to Jesus. In the dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus, the two are just not on the same page, but appear to be talking past each other. Nicodemus is thinking and speaking concretely, while Jesus is responding spiritually, talking about what the kingdom of God looks like. It’s a birth from the top down, being “born from above” (v. 7). This is the formation of an alternative society, re-defining one’s “family of origin.”
The word translated “spirit” (vv. 5, 6) is related to breath, blow and wind (v. 8). So, the verse that reads, “The wind blows where it will” means “the Spirit blows where it will.” It could even be read as “The spirit spirits where it will” (Rob Myallis, lectionarygreek.blogspot.com). It is that work of God’s Spirit that transformed Nicodemus.
In today’s gospel Nicodemus just doesn’t get it, but the wind of the Holy Spirit carries Nicodemus deeper into faith borne out later in John’s gospel. Nicodemus takes his private faith public at the riskiest of times, defending Jesus to the other Pharisees (chapter 7), and then when Jesus needs to be prepared for burial, Nicodemus uses his power as a Pharisee to honor Christ’s death (chapter 19).
And of course, John 3:16 is so familiar and visible in all kinds of venues, making it easy to overlook. Yeah, I know that, so what else do I need to know about it? This verse encompasses the central assertion being made by God, that God “loved the word…” Martin Luther called this verse “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.” God loved and gave his Son, not “to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” according to the following verse. By “world,” John means both the place and the time in which God’s salvation is unfolding.
God “so loved the world.” We likely think it means that God loves us “so much,” but the primary meaning is “in this way” or “in this manner” (M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary). It is fully grounded in relationship, not a mere mental exercise.
In verse 16, “belief” needs to be read as “trust and bond with.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who [trusts and bonds with] him may not perish but may have eternal life” (David Ewart, holytextures.com).
What is this eternal life of which John writes? It is not sitting around in heaven strumming our harps. It is not the duration or immortality of life of which Jesus speaks, but rather the quality of life, abundant life as we’re told elsewhere in John’s gospel. Eternal life is a new order of being, the life of the age to come, which is already present in the life of the Christian.
God’s salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God’s love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe. This offer of love is not a one-time, take it or leave it, expires soon offer (Ewart). John 3:16 is a promise, not a threat.
Like Nicodemus, we too are filled with questions. We follow in his footsteps, thinking our naked honesty will remain hidden in the gloom of night. But the Spirit, through the love of God, calls us from the shadows into the light of Christ, exposing us to the brilliance of God’s love—a love that meets our questioning hearts with nothing less than life eternal (sundaysandseasons.com).
How does being born anew, born from above work its way out in our everyday lives? It is not simply about us as individuals, but about how our choices impact others. God calls us to be a blessing to all families. For example, will a housing opportunity contribute to the gentrification of a neighborhood or to wasteful energy usage? Are the people whose services we depend on paid a fair wage? What about our investments? Do the various companies impact the world for good or ill? What are the children in our families learning about injustice in the world and advocating for others?
We know John 3:16 so well that we forget about verse 17 that follows. If we take them together, we have an example of parallelism. When taken together, the emphasis shifts from human belief to the saving actions of God. It is not about humans having to work hard to have faith, but rather becomes the story of God interceding for the sake of the world.
John 3:16 tells us that God loved the cosmos—this earth, this time and space. As the church, we often imagine that God mostly loved us, or at best humanity. Today’s gospel gives us a more profound, all-encompassing understanding, that through Christ all the cosmos is being saved. As Paul wrote in Romans, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:19, 21-22).
Salvation is about far more than me and Jesus. It’s about Jesus and me and you and the rest of the world.
Salvation is all about the restoration of broken relationships—with God, with one another and with the rest of the world, the rest of creation. We dare not reduce a love as rich, demanding, costly and free as God’s love for us to a mere formula.