“Fourth Sunday in Lent”: John 3:16-21

Rev. Dr. Jan Gregory-Charpentier
Kingston Congregational Church
March 14, 2021
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:16-21

The Wideness of Mercy

You’ve seen in at football games, painted on signs held by fans in the end
zone. You’ve perhaps seen it on bumper stickers, billboards or emblazoned on
t-shirts. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that
those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life.” It is probably
one of the most quoted and “proof texted” verses in the Bible, whipped out by
zealous proselytizers to convince you of the legitimacy of their claim that you
can either “turn or burn.” Martin Luther, of Reformation fame, called this verse
“the gospel in a nutshell.” So tidy and efficient it almost leads you to believe you
can summarize the entirety of Jesus and the Christian message with just three
words: John three sixteen.

But this verse was never meant to stand alone; it comes with a story. After
the dramatic events of chapter 2―water becoming wine and the temple
precinct becoming holy chaos after Jesus drove out the animals and turned the
tables on the money changers―Nicodemus, a Pharisee, seeks out Jesus under
the cloak of darkness with a few questions. Is he skeptical, curious, afraid,
hopeful? Probably all those things. But as another preacher put it, “If you’re
looking for simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ unambiguous answers, don’t go to Jesus.”1
Especially in the gospel of John where Jesus tends to answer simple queries or
complicate simple situations with paragraphs of monologue or quizzical
metaphors that usually raise more questions than they answer. Augustine of
Hippo, the fifth century Church father, in his discussion of the four gospels
pictured St. John as an eagle, soaring as he does sometimes so far above us we
wonder when or if his theology is ever going to come down to earth. As is the
case with Nicodemus. Jesus’ first response back in v.3 is another one of those
often quoted but still mysterious nuggets: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see
the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Or “born again,” the
word is the same in Greek. But either way, it’s a mystery, and Nicodemus is still
confused. But Jesus isn’t talking to Nicodemus’s head; he’s talking to his heart.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a scholar, a teacher and a strict interpreter of Torah.
He knows all the right answers to all the right questions. But here comes Jesus
with words that don’t compute. Words that strain logic and are meant to
connect at a deeper level. To know God, to see the Kingdom, to live in the Spirit

1 Samuel G. Candler, “Where Were You Born?” Feb. 17 2008, The Cathedral of St. Philip, Atlanta, GA

is not a matter of simply being able to cite chapter and verse or of toeing the
straightest line. It’s more like becoming a new person, it’s more like being blown
by the wind, it’s more like being born, which when you stop to think about it, isn’t
something we can even do for ourselves. To be born―the first time, again or
from above―isn’t our task, our work, or our decision. Our birth is something that
happens to us. Nicodemus the Pharisee, like most of us I would wager, would
prefer a check list, a clear and crisp way to judge if we’re in or we’re out, right
or wrong, saved or damned. But Jesus doesn’t give it. Instead Jesus offers an
invitation to let God give us birth. Let the God who is crazy in love with this
stubborn, rebellious world renew and remake us, again, from above.
In biblical and theological terms this interchange between Nicodemus
and Jesus is referred to as a “crisis of decision,” a critical pivot point in a storyline
or a life. It’s an ongoing theme in the gospel of John. Jesus shows up in the life of
a person who now must choose to believe or not: Nicodemus, the woman at
the Samaritan well, the man born blind, Peter, Thomas. All are challenged by
Jesus in some way or another to see the world differently, to step out on faith, to
trust in something bigger than themselves. “Believe in God and also in me,”
Jesus says in John 14. It’s not an invitation to tick a box, to pray a prayer and be
done with it, to slap a logo on your t-shirt or a bumper sticker on your car―
“saved,” “born again,” or even “Christian.” It’s an invitation to open yourself to
the influence of a higher power. Kind of like the wind, Jesus says. You can’t see
it, produce it or control it. But you can feel it and you can let it move you. Fight it
if you want. Try, if you like, to nail down the furniture or the doctrine. But if you
open your heart as big as a sail, that Spirit will send you soaring into a freedom
and joy that only God can provide. It’s almost like being born again.
And again, and again. In my experience, “giving my life to Christ,” being
born again, conversion, has not been a onetime thing. I’m still being converted.
I’m still being saved. I’m still being born from above – every time I need to trust
God, lean on Jesus, listen for the Spirit in a new way, or once again, or deeper
yet. My crises of decision can sometimes feel daily. Will you believe in me today,
Jan? Will you trust me also with this, Jan? Will you dare a bigger world view, a
little less defended ego, a bigger risk of heart, mind, body and spirit? That is the
greatest commandment after all, to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all
our strength, and all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Try to live that one
out on a daily basis and I guarantee you, you will be born again and again and
again, as God shows you exactly what “all” means, what love entails, and who
the word “neighbor” includes. But the good news here, the best news really, is
that the hard work of birthing us, birthing the world, birthing this stubborn,
rebellious humanity into new life isn’t ours. It’s God’s. God our loving father, God
our laboring mother, pushing, panting, groaning, birthing, welcoming,
embracing, receiving us. For God so loved the world that God gave us the Son,
that anyone who believes, trusts, leans into him for life and strength won’t perish
but have eternal, real, true, deep and abundant life.

And let’s be honest, as much as we don’t like the stark either/or language
John places on Jesus’ lips, we all have places in our lives where we are going
under, “perishing,” alone or together. Under the weight of wounds or sorrows,
doubts or addictions, the consequences of our own bad choices, family history,
stubborn ego, oppressive forces like racism, greed and nationalism. We like to
think we are the masters of our destiny, wielders of our own fortune,
independent actors. But that is in large part an illusion and a falsehood. We all
tether ourselves or are tethered to great weights, that pull us off course from the
life of the heart, the life of the Spirit, eternal life, which in the gospel of John
doesn’t simply mean heaven, “life hereafter,” but “real life,” full life now, life that
is life-sustaining and lifegiving, life that was first breathed into us by God and
pronounced “very good.” But so often we choose something else; we fall in love
with shadows, to borrow John’s metaphor.

But God, the original Blesser, will not stand by when we are perishing, will
not abide our being lost in the dark, comes to us in Jesus with the good news of
a grace, mercy and love, big enough, free enough, to change and rebirth us
and this world. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not
your own doing; it is the gift of God [Eph 2].

John 3:16. It never was and never should be used as a test, a dividing line,
a box to tick. It’s a declaration of God’s generosity. It’s a proclamation of God’s
crazy, stupid love for us and this world. It’s an invitation to receive deeper life, to
be rebirthed by love, to be given breath by a renewing Spirit. We can resist it.
But we can’t stop it. Even if we want to. No more than we can stop the wind.
It’s hard to say, exactly, what Nicodemus’ response was to his crisis of
decision. In this scene in chapter 3, he sort of fades into the background as John
hands the narrative spotlight and the microphone to Jesus, who waxes on as
Jesus is wont to do when John is the one telling the story. Did Nicodemus simply
slink away like the rich, young ruler after Jesus invites him to let go of more than
he wanted to? Give away his life to find it? We don’t know. Except… Nicodemus
shows up later in John’s gospel, much later, in chapter 19, right beside Joseph of
Arimathea to receive and attend to the crucified body of Jesus with exorbitant
and costly amounts of oil and fragrance to anoint and bury the slain messiah.
Seems like somewhere along the way between chapters three and nineteen in
John’s gospel Nicodemus’ world changed, his heart broke open, he unfurled
the sails of his mind and maybe, just maybe, found himself born again, from
above, by a God who so loves the world. May it be true for us. Again and again
and again.

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