Lent 4 · John 3:14-21 · March 22, 2009
By Robert Rosin
Although the reading begins with verse 14, the context from the start of the chapter is helpful. Nicodemus, a learned man, an expert in the law, and a leader of the religious community (Sanhedrin), came by night to see Jesus—to see but not be seen. Darkness provided cover, giving Nicodemus hope that what he did would not be seen. And that was for good reason, for while others sought out Jesus in public to put him in a bind and discredit him (cf. John 8 where the adulteress is brought to Jesus in the open forum of the temple), Nicodemus seems honestly to want answers and to understand. Yet as the chapter unfolds, it is apparent he still hangs on to his pre/misconceptions with a mindset that turns out to be mistaken. But he was at least interested in what this Jesus was all about, and he begins on a positive note: what he has seen and heard to date smacks of things of God. What follows is as well, though it would scramble his thinking, also for good reason.
Logic, not to mention cultural/social standing, weighed on Nicodemus’s misperception of how God operated. Israel might think its efforts at keeping the Law in whatever form (moral or ceremonial) were a necessary contribution to salvation. In fact, as Luther noted, throughout God’s salvation history from Adam on, people were always saved the same way, namely, by faith in God’s promises. Rightly speaking, Israel’s conduct was witness to its trust in the covenant God himself had made. So when Jesus spoke of starting over, of being born again, Nicodemus should have thought of circumcision of the heart, of attitude, of faith—but that is, humanly speaking, a risky way to live and does little for the ego.
But Jesus was not through. Turning salvation logic on its head again, he points to Moses and the serpent and then to himself. In the Exodus, as Israel was dying from the poisonous snakes, it was promised life by looking to the embodiment of that death lifted high by Moses. What sense did that make, to escape death by looking at death made large? But it was God’s promise that brought life in faith. That Jesus whom Nicodemus came to see soon would be lifted up as the sum, the embodiment of rejection, sin, and death itself, and yet people were told to look there for life. Deuteronomy 5 (cursed is one hanging on a tree) not to mention what people would see before them on Calvary said otherwise, but nevertheless life was there because of God’s promise. It was an irrational way to show love, but then this was no ordinary love.
Luther emphasized the difference in his 1518 “Heidelberg Disputation” where, explaining his theology to fellow Augustinians, he wrote in Thesis 28, “God’s love does not find its object but rather creates its object; human love finds its object.” We are drawn to and love what we find lovable (e.g., we order Brussels sprouts because we like them, not hate them), and we think we can do something God also will find lovable and accept. In fact, by ourselves we have and are nothing. But God, in His love, creates what He wants to love, making new creatures out of the nothing we are or have to offer. As with the Son lifted up on the cross, how God operates is counter-intuitive. “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling.”
There is no getting close or being in the neighborhood, no existing on the fringe. It is darkness or light, and the two cannot coexist. But this is far from terrifying: Christ came not to condemn the world. The world has done a good job of doing that to itself on its own. Rather he has come to save all. Heinrich Schütz, in a motet on John 3, underscores that the Son comes “so that that all, all, all, all who believe in him will not be lost.” And he has not failed: no limited atonement, but light for all—yet some prefer to stay in darkness.
Nicodemus came in darkness. We don’t know how things ended for him personally. The chapter concludes with Jesus’ discourse on the light of salvation. What of us and others? This is not to suggest a choice we make. We love darkness. But the Spirit blows in God’s promise, so the point is to make sure light is shed, and then, when we live in that light, to pray God keep us despite all logic and because of his love. In Lent, a season devoted to re-examination and change, that’s a radical change for life.
“God’s Radical Way with Radical Love”
I. Nicodemus as Everyman
A. We prefer our logic, our perspective
B. Groping in the dark gets us nowhere and God still sees all
II. God’s radical way in Sinai (v. 14)
A. The circumstances that brought punishment
B. The illogic of the brass serpent: the promise of life in the image of death
III. God’s radical way in Christ and cross (w. 15-17)
A. Nicodemus-like logic; God’s creating the lovable
B. The illogic of God’s infinite love: life in the Son’s death
C. No existing in twilight; rather darkness or light
D. Empty hands clinging to promise/cross in faith and joy