This is an edited manuscript for my sermon on John 3:14-21. It was originally entitled, “Lifted Up.” For this post I’m renaming it, “In the Light” as that better reflects the content.
Jesus expresses God’s desire for the world and is it very simple and straight-forward. God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. It’s the banner you see everywhere during sports broadcasts, “John 3:16.” So, in many ways this sermon is very simple. Folks, eternal life can be found through the Son who was lifted up on our behalf. Go out and live that story for others.
The problem is, we can’t stop with that positive affirmation because immediately following it Jesus offers a polemic smack upside the head. Unfortunately, this polemic smack often gets mis-used by people to do all sorts of awful things in Jesus’ name. So, in order to understand it let’s get some background on John’s gospel.
John is interesting because the story as written is an example of an internal struggle within the Jewish community over Jesus’ identity. It reflects a growing sense of separation between the wider Jewish community and the disciples of Jesus (who at the point it it’s writing were still mostly Jewish themselves). We see this in the way John refers to Jesus’ opponents in the narrative, “The Jews.” This is really shorthand for “The Jewish Leaders” who were utterly opposed to both Jesus’ ministry and his claims to Messianic authority. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension these same leaders, as demonstrated in books like Acts, continued their opposition to Jesus – and even increased the intensity of their opposition.
It is in this context that John reports Jesus’ indictment of his opponents. Beginning in John 3:18 our savior boldly claims how one responds to the Son, reveals much about their hearts. Those who believe in the son will not be judged. Those who refuse to believe in the son are already judged. Why are they already judged? Because the “light” entered into the world and those who do what is wicked hate the light. It makes sense, right? Just from our vantage point, people who do things which they know will bring condemnation or punishment, hide their activities in from “the light.” They don’t want to be seen.
In the immediate context of John, however, this is an extremely targeted statement – the “wicked” it references seems to be those who wanted to hold on to their own power and authority, rather than submit to will of God through the “one and only son.” What these people were showing was, no matter how noble and upright their actions appeared, they were really only living for their own good.
In contrast, those who do what is true, step into the light and show that the things they have been doing have been in/with/for God. Nicodemas, a Jewish leader who sparked the conversation found in John 3, is one such person who shows a genuine interest in “the light” (though, ironically, he “steps into the light” at night). The disciples show an interest in “the light” and step into his illumination. So do the women who follow and care for Jesus (one of whom becomes the first apostle when she is told to bring news of the resurrection to the other disciples).
So what does this mean for us, and why am I trying so desperately hard to put this passage in it’s context?
First, I have seen passages like this one used as a way for Christians to excuse ourselves from any sort of evangelistic responsibility. When people resist the message of the Gospel, or show no interest in religious expression, we say, “Well, they just love their sin and won’t turn to Jesus.” I have to say, I often wonder when I hear statements like that (and I hear them frequently), “Is it that they love their sin too much that they resist the Gospel, or is it because they’ve looked at us and not actually seen Jesus?” After all, it doesn’t matter how many people we tell the Gospel, or what invitations we hand out, or what tracts we keep on our person – if our lives aren’t actually evangelistic, we’re really just kidding ourselves.
Second, and it is tied to the first point, when we read a polemical passage like this one in John it is so easy to turn it outward and make it about “them.” After all, “they” are the ones who haven’t responded to Christ. “They” are the ones who don’t do what’s right. “They” are the ones who are immoral. “They” need to repent, “we’re” fine. The biggest problem with this attitude is, I think, that is causes us to become the very type of people this passage is written about (actually, the type of people against which the entire Gospel seems to be written). We puff ourselves up, thinking we are the “good guys,” and forget that we also need to repent of our sins.
And in this season of Lent I hope we’ll all ask ourselves, “Do I really want to stand in the light? Are the things I do done in service to God, out of gratitude to our Savior? Or, are they done for me, in order to maintain my own sense of superiority or to hold on to personal power and influence?” Look, I don’t pose this question because I want to be harsh, or mean, or imply that you are all a bunch of terrible people. I pose it because I think whenever we step into the light the dark parts of our lives we want to hide can be burnt away – and through Jesus’ love and power we can become truly beautiful. Amen.