Sunday, March 14, 2021

Sermon: “Recipe for Repentance: Reorientation”, John 3:14-21 (March 14, 2021)

(This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series, "Recipe for Repentance". Previous sermons can be found herehere, and here, and the Ash Wednesday message can be found here.)


I remember the first time I saw someone holding a “John 3:16” sign at a sporting event. I was probably in middle school or thereabouts. I asked my parents why, out of all the verses in the Bible, someone would choose to hold up that one, and they said something like, “Because that verse is a summary of the whole gospel message.” After I looked it up (I wasn’t yet the biblical prodigy you see standing before you today), I was puzzled. I mean, yes, John 3:16 by itself is technically a spoiler for the rest of the story, but as far as I could tell with my limited preteen theological prowess, it wasn’t really communicating anything new, insightful, or uniquely compelling. Why, I wondered, would someone attempting to evangelize to a (presumably) non-Christian audience choose THIS verse to represent the Good News?

I wasn’t buying into the simplistic, transactional theology that this verse on its own seemed to convey. I didn’t like how sure the proponents of this one verse seemed to be, when so much of the rest of Scripture was, frankly, confusing and enigmatic (I knew THAT much). And honestly, the apparent message, “Believe in Jesus or you’ll go to Hell,” isn’t a particularly appealing argument to someone considering Christianity for the first time. I’ve always felt that the laser-like focus on this verse was a bit misguided. It’s certainly important and useful for teaching (as is all scripture), but should it really be upheld on its own as the gospel in a nutshell?

This ubiquitous verse is just SCREAMING for some context, so let’s back up a bit and see how this reading fits into John’s larger narrative. On its own, it SOUNDS like a soliloquy delivered to a crowd as an authoritative teaching, doesn’t it? But it turns out that these verses actually come at the end of a dialogue between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Scholars debate whether verses 14-21 are intended to be a quote directly from Jesus or are an interpolated commentary by John, but one thing is clear: this was never a doctrinal sermon. These words are clarification for a very specific conversation that Jesus was having with a very specific person. So, if we want to understand what’s being said, we’ll need to reframe our understanding given this new information. Let’s take a moment to reorient ourselves to this familiar verse.

So, this Jewish religious authority comes to Jesus of his own volition (albeit, in the middle of the night so that he wouldn’t be seen “fraternizing with the enemy”). Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about his motivation. We DO know, however, what he said to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” How do you think he expected Jesus to respond? Maybe, “Cool,” or “Welcome to the team!” or “High five, bro”? Specific phraseology aside, I’m pretty confident that Nicodemus was expecting SOMETHING affirming his declaration of faith (such as it was). He seems to have gotten it into his head that it would serve as a passcode of sorts, that his understanding of Jesus was his ticket into God’s Kingdom. He comes to Jesus essentially saying, “I know the answer to the test; what does that get me?”

Understand the circumstances here: Nicodemus was a pharisee who was unwilling to let anyone see him even talking to Jesus. Unlike the rich man who came to Jesus in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels, Nicodemus didn’t bother asking Jesus what else he should be doing to achieve God’s Kingdom. He didn’t even get his affirmation of faith quite right—he recognized Jesus as a teacher sent from God, but only because of the evidence he’d seen, which meant that he couldn’t bring himself to identify Jesus as either the Messiah or God’s son. Nicodemus had done the spiritual calculus, settled on the bare minimum (convinced that it was good enough), and resolutely set off on his presumed path to God’s Kingdom.

But Jesus recognized that Nicodemus was barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. Putting his eggs in the wrong basket. Missing the mark. Instead of giving Nicodemus the pat on the back that he expects, Jesus instead tries to reorient him in the right direction: “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, from above, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” In other words, believing the right things isn’t enough. A proclamation of faith alone won’t grant access to God’s Kingdom unless that faith also leads to a reorientation of the self so complete that it’s like starting over again—a rebirth. Nicodemus obviously doesn’t get it (he obtusely protests, “How can an adult enter the mother’s womb a second time and be born?”) so Jesus keeps trying to explain it to him…and that’s where today’s scripture reading comes in.

It turns out that the intersection of belief and salvation is more complex than John 3:16 makes it sound on its own. Without the larger context, it’s understandable that today’s passage might conjure the image of a God who demands belief in Jesus in exchange for deliverance. But if we stop fixating on what we think we know and allow our focus to be redirected, we may find ourselves with a completely different understanding of salvation. When we let go of our presumptions, we may notice that the verb in verse 18 is in the passive voice—linguistically speaking, there’s no one doing the judging here. And that same verb, often translated “to judge”, can also be translated as “to separate”, as in “to separate out those who belong from those who don’t”. Verse 18 it could just as accurately be interpreted as “Whoever believes in [Jesus] isn’t separated out; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already separated out as a result of their disbelief.”

With Jesus’ previous insistence on rebirth factored in, the passage is suddenly transformed from one about the punishment of unbelief to one about natural consequences. Jesus is lifted up (both literally and figuratively) for the sake of both the believing, who actively seek him, and the unbelieving, who don’t. ANYONE who then chooses to look towards him, to really SEE him, naturally finds themself compelled to completely reorient their entire life towards him. This isn’t coercion; it’s engagement. Think about it: if something is lifted over your head, you can’t just move your eyes to follow it; you need to shift your entire body if you want to keep it in view. Anyone who chooses this reorientation will be able to take part in the eternal life that Jesus is offering; anyone who doesn’t, won’t—not as a punishment, but because it’s simply impossible to take part in something you turn away from. It’s the natural consequence of the choice.

While this cause-and-effect explanation of salvation may be straightforward in principle, the actual process of complete rebirth from above is anything but. As Nicodemus demonstrates, many of us are willing to turn towards Jesus (the Rabbi) but stop short of reorienting our whole selves to Jesus (the Light of the World). John’s gospel calls Jesus “the light of the world” not because his presence is warm and inviting, but because the light exposes all the things that we’d prefer remain hidden in the dark (the phrase “the harsh light of day” comes to mind). Most of us actively avoid anything that makes us feel uncomfortable, but why would we expect rebirth to be a comfortable process? Transformation is never without pain. Reorienting our lives towards Christ ultimately means being willing to gaze directly into the sun and face the naked truth about our own depravity.

This is a REALLY HARD thing to do. Picture how difficult it is to make eye contact with someone you love about to rebuke you for something you’ve done wrong—a parent, maybe, or a spouse. It doesn’t matter how benevolent the person is or how gentle you know the reprimand will be; it’s much easier to stare at the ground than to look directly into the eyes of someone you’ve disappointed. Now imagine that the one about to rebuke you knows every single mistake you’ve ever made and literally has your entire life in their hands. If you’re anything like me, your feet would suddenly become the most fascinating things you’ve ever seen. No force on earth would be enough to make you face your accuser.

Examining our own wrongdoing in the light of Christ is one of the hardest things God could ask of us, but it’s the most important reorientation we need to make if we want to see the Kingdom of God. Like Nicodemus, we may be able to reorient our beliefs to accept that Jesus has been sent from God without too much trouble. We may be able to reorient our time to prioritize worship and Bible study. We may be able to reorient our relationships with others to better reflect God’s love. But if we can’t lift our eyes to meet Christ’s gaze unflinchingly and face our own sinfulness laid bare, then we’ll never be able to see God’s Kingdom. There will always be something standing between us and the divine; we’ll always be “separated out” from full relationship with God.

The very first step of repentance is making this choice to lift your face and meet Jesus’ eyes, to face whatever it is that Christ’s light will expose within you. It’s reorienting yourself from a closed-off, protective stance to one that’s fully dependent on God’s mercy. Without it, we can’t hope to share in the rebirth that Jesus describes or the salvation that John 3:16 promises. This final, essential piece of reorientation can be the hardest because it makes us completely vulnerable…but then, every newborn is vulnerable. And that’s the goal, isn’t it?

So, the question is…where are you facing right now? Like Nicodemus, are you looking for salvation in the completely wrong direction and needing to reorient yourself? Like “the people who loved darkness”, are you turned in the right direction, but unable to lift your eyes to Christ out of fear of what you’ll find there? We all find ourselves facing the wrong way every once in a while. The good news is that, like a bright, blinking, neon sign, Jesus is always pointing to where we SHOULD be looking so that we can see God’s Kingdom and choose eternal life. So even though it may be uncomfortable, even painful sometimes, even though it’s easier to stay where we are, let’s turn our whole selves to Jesus. Let us all be reborn again and again—not through a proclamation of what we think we know, but through a continuous reorientation of ourselves towards the holy light of Christ. Amen.

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