Light In the Darkness (John 3:1-21)

Note: This sermon was preached in dialogue format by John York and Rubel Shelly.

Rubel Shelly: Good morning, church! Welcome to Woodmont Hills. And for those of you who have chosen to visit us today, you need to know that this church is reading through the Gospel of John together this fall. In fact, our focus will remain on Jesus as he is presented in the Fourth Gospel through May of 2002. We really hope those of you in small groups are adding your personal study and sharing your insights on "The Path to Faith" revealed in John and paralleled by your own experiences.

I am having a wonderful time reading John's Gospel again and getting to preach through it with John. And how do you feel about what you and I are getting to do here every week, John?

John York: I'm in complete agreement about the joy of working through the Gospel of John and the rightness of our choice of this material for our study together this year. However, I must admit that there are other words that best describe how I feel every Sunday morning when we get up here to preach. "Wonderful time" is how I reflect on my job the other six days of the week-I do have a wonderful time working in this church. But on Sunday mornings, fear and panic best describe how I feel at the moment!

There are some people who love to preach; but I'm one of those guys whose stomach is in a knot from about mid-afternoon on Saturday to 12:15 on Sunday when we finish the third service and head for the house. I have to admit to you (Rubel) and you all (audience), this is the most frightening part of my week. Anyone who has seen me wringing my hands and shuffling my feet on the front row, or shaken my cold, clammy hand before the service starts knows how nervous and afraid I get. How about you? You always seem so calm and collected. Is it ever a fearful moment for you?

Rubel: Ever? Did you say "ever"? Always! Some of you know how cold and clammy my hands are on Sunday mornings. If you haven't figured out why that is so, let me confess to the fear I still feel every time I preach the Word of God. But my fear isn't of you. You are my friends, and I really don't sense that you are out there filling out a Sermon Critique Form on John and me each week. You are here in hopes of hearing a word from heaven that addresses your life in a way that is encouraging, that gives direction, that allows you to encounter God and move a few steps further on your own path to faith.

That's what scares me. It is appropriately humbling to try to teach the content of Scripture. I am under its authority; I am not its master. Like you, I am looking to hear a word from God that makes possible an encounter with the One who is truth and life and light. And when we do meet here on Sundays, open God-breathed Scripture, and - through the Gospel of John - hear and encounter the Son of God, that is always a bit "scary" and "unsettling" to me. He is the Eternal Creator, and I am mortal flesh. He is Lord, and we are servants. Coming into his presence is neither trivial nor inconsequential to me. It's a bit like stepping out of the darkness of a movie theater into a bright noonday sun. It makes me squint. It hurts my eyes. I almost want to cover my face.

John: But we're at a "safe distance" of 2000 years from his physical presence. I've often wondered how you and I would feel if we had been alive then? Would I have been overjoyed to see Jesus Messiah face-to-face, or even more afraid than I am today of certain conversations? You all know those moments, when we are to meet with someone important. When we have to ask difficult questions or answer them.

What was it like to be Zacchaeus, just wanting to see Jesus from a distance, only to have him peer up and you and invite himself to dinner? What was it like to be this character Nicodemus, a trained scholar, confident in his understanding of God and Scripture, thinking of himself as the teacher, suddenly intimidated by someone from outside his social circle who seemed to know more than he did? What insecurities rolled over him that led him to come to Jesus at night-in the darkness? Imagine the fear of facing the possibility that all of your own faith and practice might be misplaced, wrong-headed. How does someone like this turn loose of a life-long position of earned status as a teacher in order to become an initiate in something totally new and foreign to his experience? Listen to the opening words of this conversation:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit" (John 3:1-5).
Rubel: That's a familiar text to both of us and surely to most of the people listening to us today. It affirms something we both believe about baptism. Unlike some who relegate baptism to the fringe of Christian faith and practice, you and I would insist that it is an important and necessary part of the faith-response God wants people on the path to faith to make to the gospel. If the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor.15:1ff) and if our salvation is bound up in that story, the confession of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection under the symbol of immersion in water can hardly be inconsequential! But I suspect there is even more that we are supposed to understand from this text that is a bit, shall we say, "scary"?

I suspect John intended for us to be transported all the way back to the beginning of his Gospel by this scene. Here Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in the darkness, a teacher who is still in the dark on the fundamentals of the kingdom of God. It makes me think of this verse: "The light [of Jesus] shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it" (1:5). Or, thinking particularly of Nicodemus in this setting, perhaps we might shift to the NIV for a moment: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." And I suspect this conversation with Nicodemus is also supposed to be seen as an expansion of this conclusion to our text from last Sunday: "But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone" (2:24-25).

If we are supposed to be following Nicodemus on the faith-path here, don't you suspect we are supposed to hear something more than baptism from this text? Don't you have a sneaking feeling that coming out of the darkness and stepping into the presence of the One who already knows you better than you know yourself is going to demand more than just confessing him in the baptismal bath?

John: I'm reminded of our study of the Psalms a couple of years ago and those categories Walter Brueggemann and John Mark Hicks gave us of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. In John's Gospel, Jesus often seems to be about the business of disorientation. John constantly depicts Jesus in conversations that are full of confusion and double meanings. That's what is going on here, with Nicodemus. Unfortunately, the process of translation has created even more confusion for us modern readers of this text because Jesus intentionally uses a word that can have two radically different meanings, and our translations have traditionally chosen the meaning that Nicodemus understands.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born - and here Jesus uses the Greek word anothen, a word that can mean either "again" or "from above." As you read on, it is clear that Nicodemus hears the idea of being born "again." The New Revised Standard Version that I read a few moments ago is the first standard translation in English to provide the meaning that Jesus actually intended, which is "from above."

That sets up the confusion that runs through the rest of their conversation. Nicodemus is trying to figure out how to re-enter his mother's womb, while Jesus is trying to convey the necessity of being born "from above." Jesus has in mind a baptism that is "from above" and that leads to the indwelling of the Spirit. Only this could produce a transformation of life from God - from above.

Now let me add one more piece of confusion to the story, because those of us in an audience 2000 years later need to remember the two more immediate audiences of this text. Remember that this story is being read first by John's Christian audience. I don't think John's audience could have read these words about being born of water and Spirit without thinking about their own baptismal experiences. But it was the empowerment of the Spirit that made their baptism "from above."

Rubel: Well, even though I bear a good Jewish name like Rubel, I'm not Jewish and I'm not a member of the Sanhedrin; so I don't think I can quite read Nicodemus' mind here. But I am a church member, and I think I can get into the minds of some of those original church-member readers of this Gospel: I've been baptized and still remember the physical sensation of the cool water as I stepped into it and the breath-taking plunge beneath its surface. But that was a sign - Hey, I'm using John-type language here! - to me that I was entering Spirit-begotten "life from above." I dried off from my baptismal experience, but this new quality of life God gave me that day has stayed with me and is becoming a fuller reality every day. I'm not living for me any more, but for him. This isn't just life, but eternal life!

Am I stretching this too far, John? Or do you agree with me that "good church folk" like all of us here today are supposed to read this text and ask ourselves this question: Did my baptism really mark a transition in my life? Or maybe we should put it this way: Do the people who know me have good reason to believe that mine is a Spirit-begotten lifestyle, a life-from-above lifestyle?

John: I think that is precisely the word of disorientation for a lot of us who have spent a good deal of our own teaching and believing lives concentrating on the need for water baptism, without much or even any thought given to the Spirit. Precisely because the teaching and translations always emphasized being born "again," not much thought has been invested in our being born from above, empowered by the Spirit. Ironically, in this text it is not water that Jesus emphasizes; the clear emphasis is Spirit! That's what drives the contrast in verses 6-8: "What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

To be Spirit-born - born from above - is to experience the radical act of God's grace empowering us for life. Otherwise, one is left with human effort even in the act of water baptism It becomes just another line item on Nicodemus' "to-do list." He already has that performance-based faith figured out. Jesus is suggesting a radically different approach, one that cannot be humanly explained any more than Nicodemus or John's audience could explain the blowing of the wind.

I should note one other word change that is lost in our translations, namely the change in verse seven to the plural "you" - "Y'all must be born from above!" Jesus says. The plural "you" becomes a very important because it suggests the teaching is much broader than a simple address to a single individual.

Rubel: It is interesting to me that Jesus points out that both the "wind" and God's "Spirit" - a play on words in their conversation - are sometimes unknowable except in their effects. "The wind blows wherever it pleases," he said. "You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit" (3:8).

God's work is mysterious, deep, and beyond our comprehension. We are invited into his initiatives, but we are not capable either of understanding or of conquering those purposes - depending on which translation of 1:5 we use. With specific reference to the challenge of this text to Nicodemus and to us, a baptismal certificate won't be enough at the last day. We will want to be standing before the Judge of Heaven and Earth with that wind-blown - uh, Spirit-engendered and Spirit-revealing - look of newness, life, and light that someone living "from above" would bear!

When Nicodemus expressed his sense of confusion over this idea - the idea that being Jewish wasn't enough of itself, that being a member of the Sanhedrin wasn't a guarantee of being a member of the kingdom of God, that being a rabbi didn't mean you knew everything you really needed to know - Jesus gave him the same challenge John wanted the church to get from this exchange. Since we human beings are so limited in our insights into divine things, we must learn to listen to Jesus. After all, he is "the one who came down from heaven - the Son of Man" (3:13). He is the one to heed, to trust, and in whom to put your hope.

John: Oh, and let's not miss the anticipation of the cross that comes at this point! Just as we have seen Jesus openly declare his divine nature in nearly every episode of the story thus far, he will not conclude this dialogue with Nicodemus without commenting on the nature of his mission. Once more with Nicodemus there must have been confusion because Jesus turns a scene from Torah into a self-reference. In Numbers 21, God sent poisonous snakes through the camp of the rebellious Israelites to punish them for their constant complaining. When the people cried for help, Moses cried out to the Lord and the Lord instructed him to raise up a bronze snake in the midst of the camp so that everyone bitten by the poisonous snakes could look up at the bronze snake and live. In the same way, Jesus says, the Son of man will be "lifted up," so that whoever believes in him may live. That leads into the most famous verse in John's Gospel: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." The question is, who said it?

Remember the two audiences: Jesus addresses Nicodemus, and John recounts it for his church audience. It is very difficult in this conversation to know exactly where the voice of Jesus ends and the voice of John picks up. There were no quotation marks in the Greek language. The plural "you all" that started in verse 7 runs through verses 10-12 as well, and it is almost as though a voice-over already has begun that reaches out to John's audience and their own confrontation with Jewish synagogue leaders in their time. The words reach down through the centuries to us as well. Verses 16-21 are likely John's commentary on the conversation, but it is hard to know when exactly to stop hearing the voice of Jesus speaking because it is his life and death and return to his Father that makes these words authentic. God's love for the world is most fully expressed in the act of becoming flesh, of giving his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life!

Rubel: Why, this is what many of us point to as the Golden Text of the Bible. Others call it the Gospel in Miniature. Years ago I saw where someone had done this with John 3:16, and I've loved it ever since I found it:

God - the Greatest Lover
So loved - the greatest degree
The world - the greatest rebels
That he gave - the greatest generosity
His only Son - the greatest gift
So that everyone - the greatest invitation
Who believes - the greatest simplicity
In him - the greatest attraction
May not perish - the greatest rescue
But - the greatest contrast
May have - the greatest certainty
Eternal life - the greatest possession

Then, John, look where we've come in today's text. We're back full-circle to the issue of darkness and light. The final paragraph sums up what we are supposed to grasp from this episode: The presence of Jesus and the reaction people make to him decides their destinies.

Does God want anybody to be lost? Absolutely not. And the coming of Jesus to be "lifted up" is proof of that. Heaven has done everything possible to open, mark, and invite onto the path of faith all of humankind. Anyone who stays on the path that leads to destruction will do so because of a choice and not out of God's failure to call her to salvation. There is even a strong sense in which - though we speak of God judging the world - anyone who winds up being lost is going to be lost because of self-judgment. "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil" (3:18-19).

John: It is difficult to accept the truth of our experience that light always casts shadows! I remember when my sons were in grade school and I would go in early in the morning to get them up for school, they often didn't want to get out of bed. As a last resort, I would turn on the light in their rooms - and you can guess what kind of reaction that got!

When we have become accustomed to seeing in the dark, light can be a frightening, blinding experience! I think that's how we often experience the light of confession in our own lives. Initial reaction is to cover our eyes. Turn off the light! Retreat into the darkness. I remember a few weeks ago, Rubel, you told of your childhood experience of visiting Carlsbad Caverns and then turning out the lights and you experiencing that overwhelming darkness. Then they flipped the switch on a tiny flashlight, and you were "blinded" by the light. But you always knew you were safe because you were sitting beside your father and the security of the light was greater than the fear of its initial blinding force. I think that's what the church is supposed to be. It's a place where people coming out of the darkness don't have to be afraid of the light because they experience the safety of the Father's presence.

I know that church may not always have been experienced by some of you as a safe place. Church may have seemed at times to you as a place to hide the shame, a place to cover up the failure and fear, a place to "put on a happy face." We're not interested here in getting you water baptized for the sake of being born again and then continuing to live in darkness. We proclaim the radical grace of God this morning, the gift of being born from above, the safety of walking out of darkness and shame and false piety - empowered now to live in his light!

Rubel: John, this is one of those days where an invitation for people to give their lives to Christ is not only appropriate but, it seems to me, necessary. Today is the day for you to leave your night for Christ's day, your darkness for his light, your judgment for his grace, your flesh for his Spirit. And if you are willing to make that move, God is anxious and eager to meet you in the baptismal waters, to accompany and empower you along your faith-pilgrimage, and to welcome you home at the end. This would be the perfect day for you to step out of your shadowy darkness into his glorious light.


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