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How God Loves the World

John 3:1-17

May 31, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Today is Trinity Sunday when we affirm the belief in God in Three-Persons—Three in one and one in three. In our lesson for today about Nicodemus, we see God’s love for the world, the Son of Man lifted up, and being born of water and Spirit. John emphasizes the importance of belief while the other gospel writers emphasize discipleship or follow-ship.

Take for example in Matthew, we see Jesus, as the authoritative teacher of the Sermon on the Mount, and his disciples are those who do what he says, or try to do what he says. For Matthew’s Jesus, belief without obedience is meaningless.

Jesus says to is disciples, “Why do you say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, then do not do what I say?’” Matthew is also the only gospel in which Jesus tells the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, that sobering story in which the sheep, the ones who will sit at his right hand in the kingdom of heaven, are not necessarily the ones who have professed belief in him or devotion to him—they are the ones who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited prisoners and welcomed strangers. In other words, Matthew’s Jesus says, “I’m more interested in what you do that shows you are following me than in your profession of belief in me.”

In John’s gospel, though, it’s all about belief. For John the world is divided into those who believe in Jesus as the divine Son of God and those who do not. The division is a tragic one. Those who do not believe, John says, “love darkness rather than the light.” They are lawless and evil. The world outside the community of believers is a dark, chaotic, ignorant place, populated by the enemies of God and God’s Son. Believers are commanded to love each other, as Jesus loved them—but they are not commanded to actively love those outside the community.

Much of the energy of this Gospel comes from Jesus’ conflict with unbelievers; the Gospel of John often has the feel of a long trial in a law court. Those on trial are the ones who fail to see or refuse to see Jesus for who he is.

Nicodemus

Nicodemus is one of those on trial. It is customary to say that Nicodemus came at night because he was afraid of being seen talking with Jesus. Jesus had already gained the reputation in Jerusalem as a troublemaker by thundering into the Temple courtyard, brandishing a whip, and knocking over tables. It’s reasonable to assume that Nicodemus, a man respected in the Temple and in the city, would not want to be seen associating with a radical like Jesus.

However, it may not be fair to say that Nicodemus was afraid. Maybe Jesus had gotten Nicodemus so upset that he couldn’t sleep, so he went out at night to find him and ask him to give an accounting of himself. Maybe Nicodemus sensed that there was something about Jesus that he had to know more about, something that both disturbed him and excited him, he couldn’t let go of it.

What Nicodemus did seem to be afraid of was the mystery that was Jesus himself. Nicodemus may have been looking for another rabbi like himself, a religious scholar, and what he got instead was someone whose teaching was so strange, so provocative it was threatening.

Nicodemus, we learn, was first attracted to Jesus by the miracles, or “signs” he was performing, and he seems to be focusing on these “signs” when he comes to see Jesus. Nicodemus, in spite of his own high standing as a leader of the Pharisees, a religious expert, comes to Jesus as a genuine seeker. But Jesus immediately throws him off guard with his strange words: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (or “born again”—the same Greek word has both meanings). With these words of Jesus, Nicodemus finds the theological ground under his feet shifting uncomfortably, and loses his footing.

Nicodemus is fascinated by Jesus, but he doesn’t really “get” him. Nicodemus is a smart, learned man, but with Jesus he’s the guy who doesn’t get the joke, doesn’t understand the play on words.

How much of Nicodemus do we have in us?

From the human and literal point of view, Nicodemus is right in what he says—you can’t be born all over again. You can’t go back in the womb, and you can’t simply erase the genes, habits, and experiences that have made you who you are.

Read Related Sermon  The Messiah Effect

Nicodemus’ problem, of course, is that he looks at Jesus from a purely human point of view. That’s why he misses what Jesus is all about. To him, Jesus is an impressive teacher and miracle-worker, but not the Word made flesh.

So Nicodemus goes away without demonstrating any faith or understanding. He is one of many in the Gospel who doesn’t pass the test, who misses the boat on the gift of new life Jesus offers. But the Gospel’s verdict on him is not entirely clear, because Nicodemus reappears later, first to defend Jesus’ right to a fair trial before a religious tribunal and then to go with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Maybe the mystery of Jesus slowly seeped into Nicodemus’ consciousness, leading him to faith in a gradual way.

How much of Nicodemus do we have in us?

But for now, though, Nicodemus has not forsaken his alliance with the world John calls dark and evil. He stands with those in John’s Gospel who do not believe and therefore are condemned.

Salvation

Every Christian has to decide for himself or herself on the matter of whether God’s love and grace will ultimately extend even to those who do not profess belief in Jesus Christ. John states quite clearly that those who “will not perish” are those who do believe in Jesus. But the story of Nicodemus and his fumbling after faith seems to me to be more open-ended than that. Nicodemus flunks his face-to-face encounter with Jesus, yet he keeps coming back. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, is the last person to see and touch Jesus’ earthly body above ground.

What emotions did he have as the two men carried out this somber task? Was he filled with regret for an opportunity wasted, never to come again? Was Nicodemus, by his failure, doomed to the world of darkness John so grimly describes? Or was he a person still in process, gracefully given time to sort things out for himself? The Gospel doesn’t tell us.

How much of Nicodemus do we have in us?

I confess that John is the Gospel I struggle with the most. Perhaps you do too. The contrasts between darkness and light, Spirit and flesh, believers and unbelievers, are so starkly drawn that there seems to be no room for the gray areas in which most of us live, where sometimes we make compromises to be in the world, where we meet good and decent people who belong to other faiths or no faith, and where faithful people come to very different conclusions about what is right and what is wrong, what is true and untrue. John’s absolute certainty, his refusal to admit a gray area or to entertain another point of view, can be hard to accommodate in the pluralistic world in which we live.

The concerns we have about the gospel making sense to a religiously pluralistic world were not John’s concerns. What John wants to say—and he says it better than anyone else—is that you can’t make a halfway decision for Jesus Christ. Jesus wants all of us, the whole person, and he won’t settle for anything else. Nicodemus was not ready to take that plunge, to submit himself to the complete reorientation of life that is entailed in being “born from above.” That was his failure and perhaps his tragedy.

How much of Nicodemus do we have in us?

The theologian and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor considers the nature of salvation in her memoir Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. She said, “Many years ago now when I was invited to speak at a church gathering, my host said, ‘Tell us what is saving your life now.’ It was such a good question that I have made a practice of asking others to answer it even as I continue to answer it myself.”

What is saving you today? What is breathing life into your life right now? Here’s my list as a pastor:

            As a pastor, I can’t stop seeing the speck in others’ eyes but I am saved when I know that there’s a log in mine.

            There are lots of things that I believe that are true but for those that are still beyond my limited understanding, I am saved because I trust that God knows.

            The only way I know God is through Jesus Christ but I am saved when I cease trying to decide who may be condemned when God is the one and only perfect judge.

Read Related Sermon  Chosen to Come and See

            As one who is seen as educated similarly to the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, I am saved when God’s Spirit blows gently like a breeze over us and we find ourselves all in God’s grace and mercy.

            After laboring over a sermon all week and I thought I delivered it well with a bit of spark, I am saved when you tell me that despite what I said, the choir anthem was what inspired you the most.

And now here’s a more personal list of what is saving me today:

            Getting very close to the end of 40 ½ years of full-time paid ministry, I am saved with the plans to cruise with Joy to Alaska and to finally visit the last state on my bucket list.

            Having never spent Christmas with our three grandchildren in North Carolina, I am saved by the plans to do so this December and to celebrate the incarnation there as I know that you’ll be also doing so here.

            For almost 43 years of marriage, I am saved with a wife who never gives up on me.

            I am saved every Sunday when I hear and share the words, “You are forgiven.”

Salvation takes many forms. It is as unique as we are and our needs. While we are all dying of something, we need an understanding of salvation that awakens us to living a new life today.

Nicodemus was seeking such an awakening and based on how he reappeared in the Gospels after his encountered with Jesus at night, we can only assume that he may have been a person still in process, gracefully given time to sort things out for himself.

How much of Nicodemus do we have in us?

God Loved the World

The many new age spiritualities claim that we all believe in the same God, so it doesn’t matter what you believe. In Jesus Christ, God encounters us in a distinctly personal, and person-to-person, way. Jesus is not God in the abstract, or God as a religious ideal, or God as the composite of humankind’s best thoughts about truth and morality. Jesus comes to us with a specificity that we can’t reduce or distill into an “essence” of all faiths.

In addition, what Jesus Christ has done in his extraordinary life and unrepeatable death is to show us the specific nature of God’s love: “This is how God loved the world, by sending God’s only Son.”

Let me close with this explanation of the meaning of John 3:16:

For God

            The greatest giver

So loved

            The greatest motive

The world

            The greatest need

That He gave

            The greatest act

His only begotten Son

            The greatest gift

That whoever

            The greatest invitation

Believes in Him

            The greatest opportunity

Should not perish

            The greatest deliverance

But have eternal life

            The greatest joy

This means that no one is truly outside of the scope of God’s love. When Jesus died on the cross, he died loving his enemies—God’s enemies—as much as his friends. His resurrection was God’s definitive “no” to the evil in the world, God’s promise of its eventual defeat.

In Jesus Christ, God has been revealed as One whose love for the world is limitless. We cannot presume to know where or if resistance to that love is conclusive for all time. All we can do is affirm with John what we know: that “God did not send Jesus Christ into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

This is how God has loved, and still does love the world.

Let us pray.

God of wind and fire, God of birth and new birth, we bless your name. For all your gifts, great and small, we give thanks, especially for the gift of your nearness to us in the blessed, necessary little things of life and for the gift of your distance from us in the mystery, magnitude, and wonder of life.

We give you thanks for how you love us that you gave your only Son so that when we believe, we are promised eternal life. Breathe upon us, living God. In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, we pray. Amen.

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