We already know this Gospel passage well. Most of us may even know part of it by heart. John 3:16. Most of us have probably seen the ever-present John 3:16 sign being held up at sporting events by the guy in rainbow hair. We already know it by heart- Say it with me- “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.” It’s part of our scriptural memory. Likewise Nicodemus, a learned man of the law, could probably recite much of the Torah by heart. When we already know the words so well, perhaps we can ask-So what more can be said when we already know?
Yet this week as I re-read and prayed over these words, the world kept intruding. The word of “Water” and the wind and breath of the Spirit that we associate with baptism and new life were words that in the context of the tragedies of Japan have been words speaking death as we find we cannot even fathom the earthquake, the tsunami and now whether one can even breathe the air of radiation. What troubled me as much as the pervasive sadness was the voices of some followers of Christ, who, as they often say in other tragedies, are sure they know that God is speaking in these events- not speaking through the aid workers or our prayers, but God bringing this disaster to speak condemnation. Pointing to signs in our world where we have a steady diet of news and commentary designed to help us make sense of it all. Pronouncing that we can know and then control it all, with a generous side helping of death and hate.
It is into this world that Jesus calls us, just as he called Nicodemus to ponder what it means to be born “from above” or “born anew.” How do water and the Spirit cause us to be born into something different than the clamoring of our world? For one thing it means remembering our new birth is birth into a new community. Our first clue comes from the fact that both Nicodemus and Jesus are speaking in the language of “we”- we know, we speak, and of the plural “you.” Speaking not of an individual “my faith is between me and my God” moment, but being born into a kingdom of God. We see this language in our baptismal liturgy- “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as a worker with us in the kingdom of God.” This is what we speak and what we claim we know and believe.
But as it is for Nicodemus, so it is for us- we called to something deeper happening here. Living out our baptism also includes words we say a little less loudly – we participate in Christ’s death in addition to new life. The death of the Son of Man lifted up. And we’re then challenged to take the words we speak and know and put our belief into action- to not be “secret Christians.” To instead step out of the darkness and bear the light of Christ in our community and in our world. Living out the kingdom of God in the example of the cross takes us to the point of death to those things we still cling to. All of those Nicodemus places.
David Rensburger says that “Nicodemus is to be found wherever one whose life is secure must face one whose life is insecure and decide to say ‘ I am one of them.’” We cannot know the meaning of our new lives without grounding it in the reality of Jesus’ story not just for us but for the world. This challenges us in all of the places beyond this sanctuary, in all of the places where we fear what it means to our public persona or position at risk to bear witness to the transformational message of the cross. All the times we would rather hang out on the edge in darkness. Jesus challenges where you and I are willing to go- will we break away from the pack, from our places of security and proclaim that God’s kingdom really transcends ours? There are times when my answer to that question is “I don’t know.”
But as I said this is not one moment or one person, but a larger journey- to know and believe takes our whole lives, and is one where God continues to reveal what our “new birth” really is all about- that though we desire differently, it is entirely beyond our control or manipulation and is entirely in the hands of God.
Which brings me back to where we started and to what can be said to those who claim to know what is done at the hand of God. We can ask- what exactly do the hands of our God look like? Let’s dust off John 3:16 and read it slowly-
For God so LOVED- this what we are asked to believe- God loves.
For God so loved the world- actually, God loves all that God created- all of it.
Loved all that was created so much that God gave the only Son- God gave it all.
So we might believe that this is who God is for us and live.
Because God says so.
Think about how radical that really is and how it challenges our decisions in our lives and in how we see the rest of the kingdom- God’s world. Though none of us will perfect this living, this is why the work of the cross and our baptism are such a proclamation of sheer grace. And we can hear with hope John 3:17-that lesser known next verse- perhaps the one as important to carry on signs at public events-God did not send the Son to condemn the world but in order that it might be saved through Him. God is not in the condemnation business! I hope you will stand in awe with me. God laid it all on the line so that we are able by the love of our God, by the power of the cross and the work of the Spirit to die – to die to sin and all that separates us from God’s kingdom vision, and to live. Christ is how much God loves the whole of creation. I invite you to ponder anew this simple but profound truth. And may the Spirit help you to bear this redeeming sign into all of the places in our world desperate to receive it.