14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 ‘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.
17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We’ve entered into our passage today as eavesdroppers in a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, “a Pharisee… a leader of the Jews.” Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the darkness of night, admitting that he and other leaders know Jesus must be from God because of all the signs he’s been performing. Jesus had stirred something in Nicodemus. And if you go back and read the rest of chapter 3, you’ll hear Nicodemus wrestling to understand what Jesus is trying to tell him about needing to be born again, born into a totally new way of being in order to follow Jesus.
But I think there’s something else going on here for our friend Nicodemus. Yes, maybe he is coming in the middle of the night because this Jesus is keeping him awake with all kinds of questions. But I also wonder if Nicodemus coming in the night was really more about his counting the cost of being seen and associated with this radical rabbi. Just days before, Jesus had come into the temple to flip the tables of money-changers who had been allowed in God’s house to take advantage of impoverished people. So maybe Nicodemus is sneaking in this clandestine meeting with Jesus because of a tension he finds himself in. On the one hand, Nicodemus has been moved deeply by Jesus, this embodiment of God in human form who turns water into wine to keep a wedding party going, calling some fishermen from the margins of society to be a part of his closest community. And on the other hand, God with flesh on has just literally made a whip out of cords to drive money-changers out of Nicodemus’ office, the temple, pouring out the money they had collected onto the floor and flipping over the very tables of power where Nicodemus was used to sitting with his peers. I imagine Nicodemus has realized that following this rabbi would mean leaving his respectability and reasonableness behind for a life of solidarity with the despised of society, a life without a clear road map, a life of flipping the very tables where he’d always found a sense of security and clout. And so, Nicodemus comes at night, riding this wave of indecision – unable to sleep for the radical vision of grace Jesus has shown him, not ready yet to be seen with Jesus in the light of day.
I believe that mainline, progressive churches find ourselves today right next to Nicodemus in this moment of tension. I remember a common aphorism I heard in January 2020, that it would be the year of 2020 vision, of seeing things clearly. And how very true that ended up being. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” I love how Casey Overton, a Black strategist and activist who wrote a commentary on this passage, reframes the kind of clear vision Jesus is talking about here: “…my soul is enticed by a liberating image of my Black Jesus as a blacklight, exposing our faults and excrements with no possibility of denial. A blacklight in which transgressions glow in striking neon, commanding the attention of onlookers.” (Casey Overton, Liturgy that Matters) We cannot unsee what we have seen in the past year, dear ones. We might feel that reality in our bodies today on this one year anniversary of worshiping online. Because in 2020, Jesus has been for us a blacklight. If you’re like me, before this last year, you’d never really grappled with just how deeply steeped in oppressive -isms every institution in America really is. If we have been paying attention, we’ve seen God embodied in those who hit the streets to insist that Black Lives Matter. We’ve seen God embodied in the kinds of surprising connections we have made with one another over Zoom, where seeing each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices reminded us that, with all the accoutrements stripped away, the Church is the people. Jesus the blacklight has revealed for us how far we have run away from the liberation God made us for. Perhaps the Jesus embodied in this last year has compelled us with new, radical visions of what it really means to follow in Christ’s way. This rabbi has moved us. Challenged us. Disrupted our comfort, keeping us awake at night.
And yet, as the vaccine rollout continues, you’ve probably heard the news pundits saying some version of, “Things are looking like they will soon go back to normal!” And with that promise of “normal” comes the temptation to waffle in indecision like Nicodemus. It may feel tempting to press snooze on the part of us that Jesus lit a fire in this past year. We might want to hide with Nicodemus under cover of night. The promise of returning to the “normal” we knew before this past year may be urging us to put off any seismic shifts in our worldviews that might end up actually turning our ways of being upside down.
And you know what? This is a juncture, a point of decision, where God has actually been before. And in this chapter, John 3, we learn exactly what God did when faced with the question of what to do with a broken world like ours. God could have walked away, abandoned us, thrown it all in the trash to start over. But God did quite the opposite. “For God so loved the world that God gave Her only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” In facing us, God did not hesitate in indecision, not even for a moment. Instead, God gave Godself away freely, completely, generously. Not just for a few “good” people, but for THE WORLD. And just so that there would be no confusion about God’s purpose in coming to us, verse 17 continues: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God did not come to us with criteria for who is deserving and undeserving of care, compassion, and liberation, but rather TO SAVE, to reject every form of condemnation humans inflict upon one another, to heal like that bronze snake Moses lifted up in the wilderness.
John 3:16-17 are verses to know not because they answer every question we might have about God’s salvation, as some billboards might lead you to believe, but rather because, as we look forward into the future, they will continue to ask us a question again and again: Will we give ourselves away as freely as this God? Will we surrender to Jesus, our blacklight, who has shown us all the ways we are broken, and who has come not to condemn us, but to heal us? Will we, like Jesus, throw out the human-made labels of “deserving” and “undeserving” and reclaim the irrevocable belovedness of every single life on this planet, the belovedness that claimed us in our baptism?
I grew up skiing, but had to stop in high school because my basketball coach was worried one of her very small team would get an injury and have to sit on the bench. I went skiing once in college, but then didn’t go again until 11 years later, last month, to be exact. I rented some skis, borrowed a ski jacket and gear from a friend, and headed up to White Pass to see if I could make it down the slopes in one piece. My friend, who lovingly and generously coached me through the day, noticed that I kept leaning up the mountain on every turn. When she pointed this out, I was like, “Well, YEAH, I’m not an idiot! This hill is steep! Of course I need to lean away from the freefall to keep myself safe!” Makes sense, right? Lean away from the steep drop off to keep from falling. Lean away from gravity’s pull so that it doesn’t send you tumbling. The most sore part of my body the next day was not my legs, but both of my arms all the way up my neck from tensing all my muscles as I tried to lean up hill on the turns. But my dear friend, a veteran skier, told me I should actually be doing the opposite. Leaning down the hill, into the falling feeling at every turn would actually give me the freedom to ski with abandon. Leaning into the wild downhill moment of every turn would liberate my movement down the mountain. Freedom was in putting my weight down into the free fall. Liberation was in complete surrender.
I think this is what Jesus is getting at with Nicodemus in our text today, and what God is inviting us to consider at this critical moment in the history of the American church. Think about the holy disruption God has done in your life this year. What did it look like, feel like, sound like? Think about the things our blacklight Jesus has shown us. The new ways of being church that upended our expectations. Today we have a choice. We can lean away from the gravitational pull of this transformative love revealed to us in the last year because that leaning away is what we know. Or we can throw our weight down the hill with Jesus. We know that God threw Godself downhill for us, destroying condemnation forever and coming to heal and make us whole with a reckless abandon that led God to be lynched on a cross. And all I can say after a year filled with so much death and pain, church, is that there is no amount of respectability or reputation or wealth or keeping ourselves safe that we take with us when we die. So, let’s spend it all like Jesus did. Let’s be born again, learning altogether new ways of being and doing and living, as if we were newborn babies completely dependent on our Parent God. Let’s put our weight down the hill with Jesus, leaning into the free-falling, table-flipping, margins-embracing way of God. There’s no day like today to ski down that hill of liberation. Amen.