Epiphany 4 (NL4)
January 28, 2018
A word about interpreting John’s Gospel: We should understand that each of the Gospel accounts shows Jesus fulfilling his mission in different ways. For example, in Matthew, we have the sense that we are “marching toward Zion,” but we’re not yet there – that’s in the future. In John, however, we get the sense that Jesus’ very presence among us has brought the kingdom of God to earth. Jesus sort of pulls a kingdom of God canopy over the earth. The result is that, down here is flesh and darkness, and up here is light and spirit. There’s no way to get from down here to up here except through Jesus (remember, I am the Way, the truth and the life?). We can catch glimpses of it through Jesus’ signs, but we cannot fully grasp it until Jesus is lifted up and brings all of humanity with him.
Because of this, John’s Gospel is wrought with misunderstanding. Frequently when Jesus talks to people, it looks like this: someone asks a question of earthly significance, Jesus answers from up here in the kingdom, and the person responds with something stupid. Question, answer, stupid response – which then prompts Jesus to explain further. We see it with Nicodemus: he observes something about Jesus, Jesus says something about being born again, and Nicodemus says, “Uh, can I crawl back in my mother’s womb?” No, Nic. You missed it.
Still, it’s not so bad for the reader, because it shows us how very different our earthly understanding is from a heavenly understanding, and urges us to think differently than the world would have us do. So, watch for that in our reading, and see what you can pick up about the reality of the kingdom of God that Jesus is describing. Please rise for the Gospel acclamation. [READ]
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“St. Augustine is walking along the beach when he sees a little boy digging a hole in the sand and running back and forth from the ocean to fill the hole with water. Curious, Augustine asks the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ The little boy replies, ‘I’m putting the ocean in this hole.’ Augustine says, ‘Little boy, you can’t do that. The ocean is too big to put in that little hole.’ The boy, who is really an angel, responds, ‘And so, Augustine, is your mind too small to contain the vastness of God.’”
That’s how I feel when I read John’s Gospel, and today’s story is no exception. How desperately we want real, concrete, understandable answers, just like Nicodemus! We want to understand God and God’s ways. We want to be certain about the questions of faith – like, why bad things happen to good people, why good things happen to bad people, who is going to heaven and who isn’t, and what the purpose of being here even is. All good questions – to which only God knows the answers. And the smallness of our minds compared to the vastness of God’s makes it impossible for us to know or understand.
Today’s story about Jesus and Nicodemus shows us just how much we don’t, and can’t, know. There is so much going on here, and much of it is so cryptic, and a lot of it sounds really judgmental. And yet in the midst of it all is probably the most famous verse in the Bible, a word of immense love, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that all who believed in him would not perish but have eternal life.” The Gospel in a nutshell, as Martin Luther called it, and it’s true: it says succinctly the whole purpose of this faith: God loves us so much God didn’t want us to die, but to live forever in God’s care.
And yet this verse of love – as well as several other verses in this passage – have been used over the years not to include people in God’s embrace, but to exclude them. The “born again” imagery has been used by evangelicals to say that unless you have had a believer’s baptism – one in which the one being baptized is able to confess his or her own faith, as opposed the infant baptism – then it doesn’t count. The verses that follow John 3:16 are also judgmental ones: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” It’s enough to make us all squirm a little – because even if you yourself do believe in Jesus, you probably have someone close to you who doesn’t, and we all want our loved ones to be with us in heaven. The fear that it could be otherwise is sad and unsettling.
So what do we do with all this? We come back to those tough questions of faith – who is saved, why do things happen as they do – and the fact that we simply cannot know. Our minds are the small hole in the sand, and we are that little boy, trying to fit the ocean in there.
But that doesn’t stop us from digging into God’s word and trying to understand. So first, let’s look at that word, “world.” The Greek word John uses there is kosmos, and throughout John’s Gospel, this word refers to “that which is hostile to God.” It is the “down here,” not “up here,” the thing that Jesus entered to ultimately bring it to himself when he is lifted up. So we could translate John 3:16-17 this way: “God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and, “God did not send the Son ‘down here’ to condemn even this world that despises God, but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.” It is hard for our small-hole-in-the-sand minds to grasp such audacious and unexpected love as that!
Well that sounds good, you say, but what about all the stuff that comes afterward about condemnation for those who don’t believe? Ah yes, that is difficult. But take a look at it – nowhere does it say that God is the one doing the condemning. It says simply that their lives are in darkness, that they must endure all the things that darkness brings. In other words, life is better when you are living it with Jesus, and if you aren’t living it with Jesus, you are already suffering the negative impact of that. The consequence of not believing isn’t necessarily an eternal one – Jesus says later in John that he came to draw all people to himself, up into the “up here” – but rather, the consequence is right now.
(How’s that small hole in the sand doing? Is the ocean fitting? Mine is already overflowing!)
Maybe you’re thinking about now, “So, then what’s the point? Why believe if just anyone can get into heaven?” To that, I have two answers. One is: my mind is just as much hole in the sand as yours is. Who knows if anything I just said is true. I hope it is, but I don’t know! This is all way beyond me. It was way beyond Nicodemus. It is way beyond anyone who isn’t God, so don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. God and God’s ways cannot be understood. The fact is: we don’t know what happens in the final judgment, but one thing we do know is that it is up to God, not us. And if God welcomes someone into heaven that I wouldn’t have let in if it were up to me, that doesn’t in any way diminish my own experience of heaven. It’s just not worth worrying about – all we can do is the best we can, living into this life in the way Jesus teaches us how, by loving God and neighbor with all that we are and all that we have.
But my other answer is a testimony. If your question is, “What’s the point?” then let me tell you what is true for me. Here is why I believe in Jesus Christ: I believe in Christ because it makes my life better. I feel full. It gives me hope when I am in despair. It gives me strength when I am weak. As much as I cannot and will not ever understand about God, my faith still helps me to make sense of the joys and the challenges of this life. I believe in Jesus because that relationship makes me want to be better. It moves me every day toward living more and more authentically into life as a baptized child of God, a life of looking to the needs of others, a life of self-sacrificial love, a life of speaking out for the needs of the oppressed and vulnerable. I believe in Jesus because the story of death and life that God tells through Christ is one that I have seen to be true in my own life. It is a story that, because I know it is true, I am compelled to search for it. I am moved always to search for life, even in the darkest of deaths. And this keeps my head above water, and makes my life worth living. It gets me up in the morning and puts me down at night. And I tell other people about this, I share the good news, not because I want them to go to heaven (though I do!), but because I want them to experience the life right now that I experience by having a relationship with Christ. I want other people to feel the fullness and love that I experience by my belief in Jesus. For me, that’s the point.
We cannot know about things to come. Our minds are small holes in the sand, and we can only fit so much ocean into them. What we can know is this: that God loves us. God loves us so much, that God sent God’s only Son so that we could have a glimpse of that love, a glimpse of what is yet to come. God loves us so much that God doesn’t want us to live alone in the darkness of this world – with all its sin, death, loneliness, hunger, and want – but rather, to live in the light of knowing that God dwells among us. God loves us enough to provide us a Way into a life of fullness and light and love. That’s the point.
Let us pray… Lord of light, we thank you for your self-giving love. Help us to live with unanswered questions. Help us always to pursue your light. And help us to share your love and your light with all whom we meet. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.