Lent 4B

March 12, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel

    John 3:14-21

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    There may be some irony to be observed in the fact of how completely famous John 3:16 has become.   Over and again as the words of that verse get splashed around, one gets the impression that this verse is utterly plain and simple, that this is a straightforward assertion that is at once easy to grasp and simple to apply to one’s life. 

    Yet as Frederick Dale Bruner points out in his just-released commentary on The Gospel of John, this entire chapter is fraught with mystery.  The story takes place at night, the meeting seems to be done somewhat in secret, and most of Jesus’ rhetoric to Nicodemus seems calculated to confuse and then to evoke wonder and awe once some measure of understanding begins to break through after all.  What’s more, in the midst of this conversation—Bruner calls it Jesus’ “Nicodemus Sermon”—Jesus evokes one of the oddest images from the Old Testament in bringing up that bronze serpent on a pole out in the wilderness that, weirdly enough, became an instrument of healing to the snake-bitten Israelites at that time.

    When I was a child, somewhere in a children’s Bible storybook (or maybe it was on a painting my Sunday school teacher showed me), I saw an image of this story.  It showed Jesus and Nicodemus seated in the dead of night on a kind of terrace.  As Jesus talked, a wispy image of that bronze serpent appeared over Jesus’ head (almost like a cartoon bubble might appear over Charlie Brown’s head in a comic strip) even as Nicodemus listened to Jesus’ words with his mouth hanging partly open from the mystery of it all.

    I don’t generally find great inspiration in the artwork in children’s storybook Bibles but that one actually may fit the bill here as John presents the scene.  It’s a mysterious encounter.   And well-known though the words of John 3:16 may now be, they are part of this mystery.   Maybe we can revive for ourselves and for those to whom we preach the vividness of John 3:16 if we view it through this mystery lens.

    After all, what we encounter here is confounding.   Because no sooner does Jesus utter those famous words than he goes on in verse 17 to say that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it.   Really?    There sure have been a lot of Christians across the last two millennia who seem to think that condemnation is where it’s at when it comes to preaching, teaching, and evangelizing.   Not a few Christians in North America seem convinced that a major part of their vocation as believers is to wag judgmental fingers in the faces of all kinds of people.   After all, what are all those placards and protest signs paraded in front of socio-political opponents on a range of “culture war” issues if not a message of condemnation?

    But here in John 3 Jesus indicates that although there are plenty of condemned people in the world—it’s pretty tough to read John 3:18-20 and deny that Jesus was aware of bad and evil people who really exist in this world—pointing out to them their condemned status is not exactly job #1 for either the Son of God himself nor those who enter his marvelous Light to become saved.   Yes, the condemned are out there and yes, they stand in contrast to those who live in the Light.  And yes, the evil will resist the Light and they won’t willingly walk into the Light lest they be exposed.

    All true.   But the message that is to be both proclaimed and lived is one of Life and Light and Truth.  “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.”   So why do so many of us who are baptized into that Son’s name feel that it is our job after all to condemn the world?  Again, we need to be clear that plenty of people stand self-condemned.   There is a difference between those who serve God in Christ and those who serve only themselves or any number of the false gods of the age.   Of course!   But even in the Season of Lent when we focus on sin and on what Jesus came to do to save us from our sin, we dare not forget that above all what we have to proclaim, preach, and teach is Good News.

    Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

    In his commentary on John, Dale Bruner points out that he once saw John 3:16 laid out as follows:

    “God               The greatest subject ever

    So (much)        The greatest extent ever

    Loved              The greatest affection ever

    The world (kosmos) The greatest object ever

    That He gave His One-and-Only Son,   The greatest gift ever

    So that every single individual, whoever,  The greatest opportunity ever

    Who is [simply] entrusting oneself to him The greatest commitment ever

    Would never be destroyed,  The greatest rescue ever

    “But would even now have a deep, lasting Life.”  The greatest promise ever

    As noted elsewhere in this set of sermon starters, it’s probable that by rarifying John 3:16 and lifting it out of its true (mysterious) context that we tend to misunderstand the real import of this verse.   Even so, however, what cannot be denied is that this may be one of the greatest summaries of the Gospel that you can find anywhere in the Bible.  There is a sense in which this is the Gospel at its truest, most boiled-down form.  So much of the very essence of what makes the Good News good is here:

    ·         God is love not hate (and not anger).

    ·         God is, therefore, not an angry deity who needs to be converted to love but just is love.

    ·         God hates nothing that he has made, including his off-the-rails cosmos.

    ·         Salvation is a free gift—God is the Giver and we can be never more than grateful Receivers.

    ·         The promise of the Gospel is ever and only Life.

    ·         Therefore, God’s never-ending love for all that he made means that the very flourishing God desired when he made the creation in the first place will have the last, best cosmic word.

    It was noted above that if Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to announce the presence of Light and Goodness, then we must do the same.    And it’s just possible that if we believers really and truly can fall in deep and abiding love with the Gospel as it comes across in John 3:16, then we will ourselves be so infatuated with this glorious truth that we will find it all-but impossible to talk about anything else!

    Textual Points

    Is John 3:16 a part of the Nicodemus story or do verses 14ff. stand on their own?  It’s hard to tell from John 3 in that what had previously been an obvious give-and-take between Jesus and Nicodemus pretty much stops after verse 10.  Presumably the following verses up to John 3:22 constitute an extension of what Jesus starts to say in John 3:10 when he is still clearly addressing Nicodemus as “Israel’s teacher.”   But another complication here is that in the original Greek  Jesus uses the 2nd person singular form of “you” in verses 1-10 but that ceases after verse 11, getting replaced with the 2nd person plural form as well as by the 1st person plural form of “we.”    Suddenly that doesn’t sound like a private conversation between two people.  But as others point out, no doubt we are to understand that Jesus is still talking to Nicodemus here but what he says is so laden with galactic truths that apply to every last one of us that it is as though the evangelist John is allowing Jesus’ words to Nicodemus to float up off the page to become, billboard-like, a proclamation to the entire cosmos that verse 16 tells us God so loved.  (For some helpful information on this, see Richard Burridge’s essay in The Lectionary Commentary, Eerdmans 2001).

    Illustration Idea

    In trying to convey the point that what we preachers are tasked to do first and foremost is preach Good News, my colleague John Rottman and I sometimes used a YouTube video to show what Jesus did not do in also his own ministry.    A while back somebody took some old Jesus movies from the 1960s and then over-dubbed them in ways designed to make the point of how different preachers today sometimes sound as opposed to the Jesus you actually meet in the Gospels.

    You can view this YouTube video here:


    Yet “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world . . .”    And that explains a lot about what Jesus really said in the Gospels.

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Numbers 21:4-9

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

    Author: Doug Bratt