A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Lent 2 ~ John 3:1-17
I feel kinda bad for Nicodemus because in the way the Gospel of John tells this story about his late night visit with Jesus Nicodemus comes off as, well, not very bright. He’s a highly educated Pharisee, he’s probably part of the Jewish ruling council; these are not things that you can do if you don’t have the smarts. And yet, in this scene, this teacher of Israel can’t seem to understand what is clearly a metaphor and instead only seems to understand literal, concrete ideas.
Now, it says that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. That suggests a couple of things.
First, that he didn’t want to be seen because the Pharisees and Jesus weren’t exactly buddies, so he’s called a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus.
Second, and metaphorically speaking, coming at night suggests that he’s coming in a state of not understanding things; he’s ‘in the dark’ so to speak.
He’s really just set up as a foil for Jesus’ teaching here (I mean, Jesus doesn’t even really respond to what Nicodemus says; he just barrels in and teaches his thing) – and the perplexing thing is that after a couple thousand years of hearing this story, and despite the fact that it contains what is arguably the most famous verse in the New Testament, we still too often miss the point (just like Nicodemus did).
Jesus starts, in John 3:3, with this: “Very truly (literally it’s ‘amen, amen’), I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (born again, born anew).”
Poor Nicodemus can’t seem to comprehend this obvious imagery and falls into the classic trap of trying to apply a physical, scientific lens to spiritual, metaphorical things. How can a person be born a second time? Does one crawl back into the womb and come out again? It’s insulting to Nicodemus to put those words in his mouth – but then again, a lot of people seem to try to take the bible literally when it’s clearly offering metaphors and imagery. It’s sad, really.
John 3:5-8 Jesus answered, “Amen, amen, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 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 anew.’
(Then Jesus gets all poetic.) 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.”
3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Then Jesus insults the intelligence of this apparently bewildered teacher, alludes to a super-weird story about Moses and snakes, and then drops the bomb of John 3:16.
I suspect you have it memorized, which makes it even harder to interpret. Martin Luther called it the gospel in miniature.
You probably know it in the old King James version:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
It’s beautiful. It is the gospel in miniature.
But which gospel?
It’s one of those verses that everyone ‘knows’ but because it’s been lifted out of its context may have had its meaning altered.
When you hear that verse do you hear it as a warning? – a threat? – an ultimate reward? – or a way to live?
My suspicion is we hear one of the first three, but I think it’s better understood as a way to live.
Out of context it’s easy to interpret this as one of those “you’re either in or you’re out” verses of exclusive Christianity. But I’d argue that in context it says nothing of the sort.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I’d like us to re-translate this.
Three words in and we already have a misunderstanding. “For God so loved the world (not as in ‘so much’ but as in ‘thusly’)
– God loved the world in this way, that God gave (just like a father might give the bride away at a wedding having nurtured her into maturity)
– so, God nurtured God’s only son (‘only-begotten’ also translates as ‘unique’)
– so now, God nurtured the profoundly unique person of Jesus so that everyone who believes/trusts in him (meaning everyone who ‘got it’
– who understood or dug the Way that Jesus exemplified) would not perish but have eternal life.”
Ok, we need to get technical for a minute for that last bit. John’s gospel demonstrates a ‘realized eschatology’ – that’s fancy theo-speak meaning that in John what Jesus was on about wasn’t so much concerned with the future but the here and now.
So when you hear “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” you can (and should) interpret that to mean now – eternal life starts now, which suggests that perishing starts now as well.
Think about that.
If both perishing and eternal life refer to our current situation then we need different words here because perishing and eternal life instantly trigger images of what happens when you die.
I’d suggest floundering for perishing and flourishing for eternal life.
So, here is a revised translation of John 3:16 –
“God loved the world in this way – that God nurtured the profoundly unique person of Jesus so that everyone who got what Jesus taught would not flounder in life but flourish.”
I think that is the gospel in miniature. This beloved verse isn’t a warning, or a threat, or even a promise of eternal reward – it’s an offer of a rewarding life right here right now.
Jesus lays it out for you – you get to choose.
Will you choose light or darkness?
Will you choose to flounder or choose to flourish?
Which one sounds better to you?
Nicodemus learned that the cost was to “die” to the self-interest, self-importance, and self-satisfaction that we put ahead of God and be “born anew” or “born again” into a new life of flourishing.
Actually, I prefer the idea of being “born again-and-again” because our self-interest, self-importance, and self-satisfaction don’t just go away when we open ourselves to God.
What John 3:16 is talking about is a process for flourishing in life – not a “get out of hell free” card.
In one of my favourite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, a prison inmate sums this up beautifully.
He says, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Jesus said the same thing – “Get busy flourishing or get busy floundering.”
God loved the world in this way – that God nurtured the profoundly unique person of Jesus so that everyone who got what Jesus taught would not flounder in life but flourish.
Whenever we talk about choosing – “floundering or flourishing”, “darkness or light” – we run the risk of simplifying it into dualism. The problem with dualism is that it presents us with either/or choices in a both/and world – it wants us to choose black or white when we see grey – and yet, there are many things in life that are either/or choices. You’re either married or you’re not. You’re either pregnant or you’re not. You either think I’m a brilliant theologian……or you’re wrong! 🙂
I do believe there are either/or choices in faith as well – but that doesn’t mean you “either choose Ja-eez-us-a or you burn in hell” – it means that when you catch a glimpse of the presence of God you really do need to choose what to do with it.
Either you’ll turn toward it and orientate yourself in an accepting posture or you’ll turn away from it and orientate yourself in a rejecting posture.
God is light.
Choose light and flourishing results.
Choose darkness and floundering is bound to follow.
I’m using the metaphor of being in the wilderness as a theme for Lent this year. In the bible being in the wilderness indicates a time of transformation, of change, of a time of choosing God’s way over the ways of the world. I’m playing with the word ‘bewildered’ each week. Nicodemus is clearly bewildered by this teaching of Jesus. But Nicodemus is also being ‘wildered’ – upon hearing this teaching he’s out there in the spiritual wilderness, trying to come to terms with what Jesus has said, trying to discern for himself whether he’ll lean toward floundering or flourishing.
But that makes it sound too easy, right?
I mean, if I say to you that right now you have to choose you’d obviously choose flourishing.
Nobody wants to flounder.
But the choice isn’t where it stops – it’s just where it starts. Again, and again, and again.
Once we’ve reoriented ourselves in the direction we want (toward flourishing, I hope) then the hard spiritual work begins – the work of taking small steps along that path, striving to stay focused, resisting distractions.
It’s easy to understand what Jesus is teaching here about renewing your life and flourishing.
It’s not easy to be in the wilderness, and it’s quite challenging to stay on that narrow path in the day-to-day world.
But that’s why we journey together. That’s why we hang out at places like this. That’s why we keep returning over and over again to the teaching of Jesus.
Spirituality and discipleship are easy – in theory.
In practice, well, let’s just say it takes a lot of practice, and just like Nicodemus we tend to spend a lot of our time bewildered.
And as we make our sometimes bewildering journey in faith, we are inspired by truths like this one:
God loved the world in this way – that God nurtured the profoundly unique person of Jesus so that everyone who got (and practiced) what Jesus taught would not flounder in life but flourish.
Bewildered in the wilderness we are invited into renewed life, again, and again, and again, and we’re given a clear choice for how to respond to God’s glorious gift of light.
Get busy flourishing, or get busy floundering.