By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Mar 11 2020
“For God so loved the world...” - this is the epitome of Christian shorthand. Often it is reduced even further. Sports enthusiasts are familiar with the ever present placard - in the end zone, or down by the glass - designed to catch the camera. JOHN 3:16 is all it says.
It is how evangelism looks to people of privilege; Maximum audience - minimum effort - all offered at considerable personal expense (think about the price of seats at field level…)
There is so much going on in this early chapter in John’s gospel that it seems silly to try and unpack the whole thing - and pair it with Abram’s origin story - and at the beginning of Lent, no less...Nicodemus is only part of the puzzle.
We are given a glimpse into the struggle that happens within a faithful person whose certainties are challenged by something new and obviously wonderful. We are introduced to the seeming unquestioned faith of “the one who started it all’ in Abram - (was he so easy to convince because he had no other options, or was he the blank slate that God chose to write on...?) and we are given a gospel monologue that may have been Jesus, but is most likely the author’s voice echoing his experience of Jesus as an active source of divine love. (John’s gospel is like that - slipping from conversation to theological reflection without pausing for breath..
And as much as the encounter with Nicodemus is an interesting source of conversation (why does he come to Jesus in the dark? Is he a fan or is he trying to catch Jesus out? And why on earth is Jesus so ‘consumed’ with the idea of ‘rebirth’?)
Nicodemus represents our confusion: Is it possible to undo all that we are and become something else - something pure and righteous? Is it necessary? Maybe Jesus is trying to remind us (through Nicodemus) of our true nature; we are made in the image of God, but that image is faint and difficult for us to see. Instead, we revel in our humanness, torn between our desire to return to God and our choices that come from a desire to stand apart - to be ‘better’- to be ‘like gods.’
And into that confusion, into the multitude of choices that make our lives complicated, the gospel speaks of God’s choice. “For God so loves the world…” Certainly at this point (or any point) in history, God might have chosen something else; frustration, anger, indifference…but God chooses love, over and over again.
If Nicodemus represents our confusion, Abram represents our hope. From nothing; from nowhere; through a voice in the night, or a vision, or an idea, Abram heeds God and follows. The promise is greatness. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Blessing is assured - though the details of when and where are a little hazy. Even so, Abram doesn’t hesitate. He gathers his wife, his nephew and their collected worldly goods and off they go, without a second thought.
There are questions and second thoughts along the way of course - Abram is only human - but the first response for each of these chosen people couldn’t be more different.
As a tonic for his (eventual) reluctance, Abram will have multiple audiences with God. He will receive a new name, and be granted a family in his old age. The promise will take flesh in front of his eyes over the course of a long and complicated life. For Nicodemus, with the promise standing right in front of him, a lesson in theology will have to suffice:
“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.”
John 3:16 AND 17 wrap up the controversy of sin and redemption in a way that all that ‘born again’ talk cannot. Love - belief - salvation. These are the choices God makes and these are the choices God’s people are offered.