[This sermon used a lot of props, so I’ve included photos of the props, and I’ve left in my “stage notes” to show when and where I used them.]

When I read the scripture for today, and realized that the passage was John 3:16, I began to think back to where and when I had last seen that passage outside the context of church. I immediately got to thinking about merchandising and marketing. … You know, like hats that say “John 3:16” on them, or shirts that have a bible verse on them or those rubber bracelets that say WWJD on them and which look like every other rubber bracelet that are so popular right now to make people aware of a particular purpose or cause. 

John 3:16, Austin 3:16, Vegvisir Symbol Posters

Then I got to thinking about sporting events, and how sometimes – if you watch enough sports anyway – you’ll see someone holding up a sign that says “John 3:16” on it. <Lift Up the John 3:16 Sign>

Without context, though, most people won’t have any understanding of what exactly that verse means. Those who have been to church and understand the references to various books of the Bible will immediately understand that this sign as a reference to something in the Bible. And if they remember their Sunday school well enough, then they’ll probably also be able to even recite the verse.

But for people without any history of church or Sunday School, this reference wouldn’t make much sense. I can imagine two people sitting at home, watching a game for football, when they see someone holding up a sign with “John 3:16” it, and one of them turns to the other and says: 

“I wonder what that means, ‘John 3:16’?”

“Hmmm… Dunno. Let me Google it. … <pause> Looks like it has something to do with the Bible – the book that Christians read. And it says that God loved the world and sent his only son into the world and that if you believe in the son you’ll have eternal life.”

“Wait! God has a son?! … Does he have any daughters? But what exactly are we supposed to believe? That his son exists?”

“Hang on. Googling. … Says here that you have to believe that you are sinful, but that the son died so that you could have your sins forgiven.”

“Wait a minute? I have sin? I’m a good person. I’ve never killed anyone, or stolen anything. What exactly is sin?”

“Hang on. Googling. … Whoa.  Looks like there’s a whole list of stuff here that’s considered a sin…. – Dude. you better put out that cigarette and gimme your beer or else you won’t get to live forever. Sinner.”

“Oh hey, the game’s back on. Hey, what happened to the guy with the John 3:16 sign?” <hold up Austin 3:16 sign>

“Hmmmm…. looks like the guy holding up the ‘Austin 3:16’ sign beat him up.”

Now, if you didn’t understand that Austin 3:16 reference, it’s OK, because I’m trying to make a point. If people have no reference – no context – for the citation of John 3:16, then most likely people won’t even bother looking up some random reference that someone is holding up at a football game.  For people who are not aware of anything even remotely or tangentially related to the church, looking at a scripture verse outside of any context would make about as much sense as me holding up this Vegvisir symbol and asking some of  you to explain it. <hold up Vegvisir sign> 

It simply doesn’t make much sense without the context, and most of you will probably forget the symbol before I’m even finished with this sermon.

This lack of context is what Nicodemus is experiencing in today’s readings.

When Nicodemus comes to Jesus to ask him about his teachings, Jesus tells him that the only way to understand what is happening is that Nicodemus needs to be born “from above”.

And Nicodemus essentially says, “Um, What?! How can you be born again if you are old? Do you want me to climb back into my mother’s womb?”

And Jesus says that in order to understand what he is speaking of, in order to understand the concepts that he is sharing, one needs to be born of water and spirit. He then says that all those born of the Spirit move according to a purpose that others cannot quite discern. – I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the part about not knowing from where the wind comes.

Now, it’s interesting that this word that Jesus used can mean “from above” or “again” or “anew.” Nicodemus interpreted it to mean “again,” while Jesus meant “from above.” Nicodemus saw it as a singular event in history, while Jesus saw it as a spiritual issue.

Those that focus on “again” tend to focus on making a certain set of confessions and statements of beliefs, so that you can point to the exact time and day that you were born “again.” But Jesus was talking about a transformation of the mind that allows us to see and understand the concepts that he has shared. Being born “from above” is not so much something that we do, but something that was done for us, and will continue to be done for us as the spirit of God transforms our minds to understand the will of God.

But, of course, we cannot forget exactly why God sent his son into the world, and why we need saving

God sent his son to save us from ourselves. To pull us out of our sin. To make us worthy to enter into heaven and stand in the presence of God.

If you look at the Catechism in the BCP – on pg 848 – you’ll see that the answer to the question of “What is sin?” is simply, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

And we have that innate tendency within us. Again, the BCP tells us – on page 869 – that by our own nature, we are inclined to evil, so that we consistently seek those things contrary to the Spirit. In other words, left to our own devices, we will seek those things that are against God, against other people, and against all creation. 

Too often, however, just like our overly curious Googling football fans earlier, we tend to come toward the concept of God’s saving act from the perspective of a catalogue of sins. 

Pault Tillich, who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York, writes that 

“People who call themselves Christian – parents, teachers, preachers – tell us that we should be ‘good’ and obey the will of God. For many of them the will of God is not very different from the will of those socially correct people whose conventions they ask us to accept.”

(Paul Tillich, “The Eternal Now: The Good That I Will, I Do Not” p. 49)

Sin is not at all about social niceties.

Sin is not about meeting the expectations of the people around us or the society in which we live.

Sin is not about abstaining from certain actions and making sure to engage in other actions.

Sin is about looking at God and saying, “My will be done. You had your turn.”

Now, you may be thinking that this passage doesn’t really mention sin at all, and you’d be right. But we need to take this passage in the context of the Gospel story about Jesus of Nazareth to understand what Jesus was saying to Nicodemus here. We need to understand the context of God’s desire to save all people to understand why God sent his son into the world. And the need for sending his son, while not mentioned in these verses, is sin.

However, in verse 17, Jesus himself says that God did not send his son into the world to condemn it. Instead, God sent his son into the world so that everyone can enter into the presence of God for all eternity.

And God did it all out of Love.

This idea that God sent his son to the world to save us from our sins seems like it would fit in so much better during the Easter season, rather than in Lent. This idea that we are made whole through Jesus’ death is often what we use to share the “Good News” with people. This idea that we have been made worthy to stand in the presence of God through the death of God’s son is a reason to be joyful. The resurrection of Christ at Easter is what makes all of this possible after all, and Lent… well Lent is supposed to be a time when we reflect upon those aspects of our lives that draw us away from God, and draw us away from living according to his will.

And this is why Nicodemus comes up in Lent. In this passage, we see that he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night. He is a Pharisee, after all, a leader of the Jews, and the social expectations placed upon him would keep him from visiting a man who has been causing trouble for the Jewish leadership from when he first started teaching. Nicodemus is a man who has lived according to the strict rules that the Pharisees have placed upon those that followed the Jewish faith. He is being good according to what he has learned from his parents, teachers, and preachers. It is because of this that he cannot quite understand why God would say that all will be saved. Nicodemus, just like we might be tempted to do, sees rules and regulations to be followed, instead of seeing the love that God has for all people, and not just those that follow the guidelines of the community.

And, seen in the context of the Gospel of John, we begin to see a clearer picture of Nicodemus. First he came by night, but then, later, in Chapter 7, we see that as the Pharisees want to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus asks them,  “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” Granted, it’s a timid defense of Jesus, but one that made the other Pharisees question Nicodemus’ allegiance. And then, finally, we see Nicodemus again in Chapter 19, where he, along with Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and buried it, with Nicodemus providing the spices to help embalm the body.

There is nothing immediate about the change that Nicodemus experiences, going from one who comes to talk to Jesus at night under the cover of darkness, to one who is a true disciple, helping to bury Jesus’ body. It is a slow, progressive transformation of his spirit and of his mind. 

Nicodemus had been born “from above.”

He was spiritually transformed within the context of the lives of both Jesus and his disciples.

But it certainly didn’t happen immediately.

And this is where I will turn the story back to us.

We know from today’s Gospel reading that God’s will is that none should perish.

And in order to do that God needs us.

Because we are the context through which God is made manifest in this world.

T-shirt, Episcopal Church Hat, Rosary and rubber bracelet.

It might be easy for us to hold up a sign at a football game, or to put on our religious hat <put on hat>, to put on our religious jewelry <put on rosary>, or to put on a rubber bracelet that tells people the truth about God. <flip over t-shirt> Or maybe we decide to wear a t-shirt telling people their need for a savior, all while hoping that people will ask us what it all means.

But all of this <point to the hat and other props> is nonsense without the context of a life transformed by God. 

God is made manifest in this world through us.

It doesn’t matter what we wear, what we eat, or how we look.

What matters is that we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Love of God so that when others look at us they see the Love of God in the context of our lives.

And if people don’t see the Love of God in our lives, then all of this <point to the hat and other props> is just false advertising.

And so, as we continue in Lent, let us keep looking for ways to allow God to transform us, so that we can become more and more of an advertisement for God’s Love by sharing the love we have received.

None of this will happen immediately.

It certainly didn’t happen overnight for Nicodemus.

And it won’t for us either.

But it will happen.

[This sermon was delivered at Christ the King Episcopal Church in Tucson, AZ on January 5, 2020. Listen Here.]

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