This sermon was originally preached at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on March 8, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, 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 above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.
“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.
This week, our lectionary gave us this passage, a seemingly overlooked passage as a whole with a really popular verse included. One of the first verses I learned growing up was John 3:16, and I remember reciting it as a favorite verse whenever one of my Christian friends would ask. It’s been used a lot. I won’t say overused, but I do think it loses the heart of the verse if we simply print that verse alone without context on a shirt or a church sign.
This entire passage from John is about faith, and specifically, faith in God’s love. It’s an interaction between this guy named Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus was a leader in his community, maybe like a public figure or a teacher of some sort. He was in charge of people, leading people.
Now, Nicodemus had some questions. He didn’t quite understand the concept of being born again. In some evangelical contexts, we hear this defined as a way of gaining salvation, the only way to be truly saved.
Personally, I don’t think that’s what Jesus was getting at. Rather, the way I understand this, is that Jesus is letting Nicodemus (and us) know that our salvation isn’t something that comes with age, rather it comes with faith.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ questions with a kind of rhetorical question. He said, ‘so you’re telling me that you don’t understand earthly things? Then how can I expect you to be trusted with this heavenly knowledge, the things you can’t see?’. Jesus then began to teach. He teaches Nicodemus that the heavenly salvation, that relationship with God that goes beyond time, that is something that comes from our decision as believers to lift up Christ in our lives.
To lift up is a kind of Christianese phrase that can mean honoring, giving praise to, celebrating. For us, when we lift up Jesus, we might tell people about his life, do things that he did, and in general, model ourselves after Jesus, striving to be more like him, in order to feel closer to God. That, Jesus says, is how we have eternal life. Even if we don’t get it all the way. Even if like Nicodemus, we are confused and have questions. Jesus tells us that our desire for God is the thing that brings us closer to God’s love, not our perfections. And in fact, God’s love works regardless of what we do right, or what we understand completely.
We now get to John 3:16, the verse we celebrate in our Christian faith as a verse that feels like rainbows and butterflies, a verse that seems kind and joyful. When we examine it more though, it’s a lot more revolutionary than the verse we read on a religiously themed postcard.
It’s actually a little offensive.
You see, the term ‘world’ in “For God so loved the world” is actually the greek word ‘kosmos’, which signifies that entity that is hostile to God’s will. So instead of reading it like we might normally, as this world that is beautiful and loving and perfect, we might better understand Jesus if we read it instead like this:
For God so loved the God-hating world…
It’s a bit of a difference, right? For God so loved the God-hating world, that God gave God’s only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
It’s kind of offensive, kind of startling, and I think that’s how Jesus intended for it to be read. We have to remember that this verse was being spoken to Nicodemus, after Jesus was questioning him on his faith, on his salvation. He wanted Nicodemus to know just how powerful this salvation thing is, and how greatly each of us should be desiring to experience it, through God’s love.
Even when the world doesn’t follow God, even when we mess up and find other things besides God to hold our attention, even when we forget what Jesus told us very plainly and simply, God loves. Even when people don’t believe in God, God loves. Even when there are those who dislike the idea of God, or even hate the idea of God, God loves. It is with this, that we can better understand the depth of God’s passion for us.
God did not send Jesus into the world to tell us everything we were doing wrong, to fact check us, to condemn us every time we failed to be as good as Jesus. Rather, God sent Jesus into this world, a world that is full of fear and hurt and conflict, so that Jesus could remind us of the power and the strength of God and God’s love.
As we leave today, entering another week of Lent, I would challenge us to remember that this world is a world in which God loves, a world which God loved so much that even though it is imperfect, God sent Jesus to live among us in it.
As we continue to journey through the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, may we see this sacred story as a story of sacrifice, of blessing, and of unconditional love. And may you find ways to be a part of that story in your own life, a reminder of God’s love, amidst challenges and imperfection.
Let us pray:
God of resilience and constant presence,
We give you thanks for sending Christ to us, a beacon of light and love in our lives. Guide us, as we learn more about you, to sense the ways that we too, can bring light into the lives of those we encounter, reflecting the Lenten story now and always. In your loving name we pray, Amen.