14 March – Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, John 3:14-21
There are people who have what could be called ‘lightbulb moments’ when it comes to faith – suddenly everything just becomes clear – while others speak about light slowly dawning; that over time and through a range of experiences, they began to know and respond to God’s call on their lives .
And those who have had lightbulb moments of faith often point to parts of John, chapter 3; to Jesus telling the Pharisee Nicodemus that, to enter the kingdom of God, he must be ‘born again’ – from where we get the expression ‘born again Christians’ – and from the blockbuster verse – John 3:16: “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.” Martin Luther famously called it, “the heart of the Bible, the gospel in miniature.”
And many people believe this verse, as a stand-alone message, will be efficacious in bringing people to Christian faith. Since the 1970s, since sporting events began to be regularly televised in the US, ‘John 3:16’ signs have been held up for this purpose. Ralph Milton, who wrote the John 3 paraphrase I read earlier, had a friend who – as a joke – suggested going to a big sports event and releasing 10,000 gerbils with ‘John 3:16’ spray-painted on their backs! Much more in earnest was a man who visited Milton when he worked at the US National Council of Churches looking for funding to go to Taiwan and release thousands of helium balloons with John’s gospel attached. The onshore winds, he had planned, would blow them over mainland China and when the balloons burst, poor, unsuspecting Chinese would be hit in the head by a Bible.
People do find God in all sorts of ways. There is a Henri Nouwen quote that says there are as many ways of becoming a Christian or being a Christian as there are Christians! But while dramatic conversions are possible I think for most people believing in Jesus is a slow process, a hard process, even a costly process. Most of us start out – as Nicodemus does in this passage – coming to Jesus by night (Nicodemus was literally and figuratively in the dark) and finding our way towards the light, towards faith in Jesus, who, according to the writer of John, is the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
But moving into the light is not as simple as a John 3:16 sign might imply. For Nicodemus who was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, and likely one of the more erudite men of his day, what Jesus says about being born again or born from above (verses 3 to 10) is baffling. Perhaps because it sets aside so much of the knowledge, and the power that came with that knowledge, he had. Entering the kingdom of God was accepting that the Spirit of God could move in different ways, be present in different people and come from different directions. Are we the same? Would we rather stick to the shadows where our power and control, our understanding of how church works, of how God should work, are not challenged or are we prepared to let God shine light into our dark places?
But moving into the light can also be costly.
Verse 14 refers to an ancient story, also mentioned in our psalm, when the people of Israel’s sin became synonymous with the bites of deadly snakes, but God saves them and heals them by exposing the source of the sin, by commanding Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, that they could look at and live. In the correspondence between this strange ancient symbol and the horrific death of the human Jesus on the cross, the early church discerned again God’s saving and healing work, God’s loving intention towards the world, and the real cost of confronting the powers of darkness and oppression.
John 3:16 reiterates how costly God’s love for us and our world is. The verse begins, “For God so loved the world…” but the word ‘so’ here is not referring to ‘how much’, but to ‘how’ or ‘in what way’. We could translate it, “This is how God loved the world, he gave his Son, in order that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” To be children of the light, are we prepared to acknowledge the subtle ways we are complicit in and benefit from forms of oppression in our world? Are we prepared to love the world in such a self-giving way as this? To join Jesus in shining light into dark places.
But finally, believing in Jesus, will not be, for any of us I suspect, the work of a moment, a ‘lightbulb moment’, but a lifetime of letting our little lights shine. Believing is not agreeing with, intellectually assenting to, a set of doctrines, but discovering throughout our lives how much God loves us and responding to that love in return. In her book, Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass, points out that the English word ‘believe’ comes from the German ‘belieben’ — the German word for love. To believe is not to hold an opinion, to believe is to hold something ‘beloved’, to give our heart to it, and to allow time to deepen our commitment to it and our experience of it. Belief is about learning to love God, learning to trust God, with all of our life, our whole life long.
Nicodemus appears again in the gospel of John. In John 19:39 he re-emerges, along with Joseph of Arimathea, another formerly secret disciple, to care for Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial. Over the course of Jesus’ ministry, he has emerged from the darkness and is now clearly seen among Jesus’ followers.
What about us? Are we prepared to let God shine light into the darkness of our lives, to move into the light, even when this transition is hard, when it is costly, and when it involves a lifetime of learning to love and trust and faithfully follow Jesus?
I want to close with the story of Alexander Papaderous. In the Second World War, when the Germans invaded Crete, they landed at Maleme, where the islanders met them, with nothing other than kitchen knives and hay scythes. The consequences of their resistance were devastating. Afterwards, entire villages were lined up and shot.
Papaderous was six years old when the war started. His village was destroyed and he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. But after the war, he became convinced his people needed to let go of the hatred war had unleashed. To help that process, he founded an institute for peace and understanding at Maleme, the place where the horror and hatred had been unleashed – again lifting up a symbol of death as a source of healing.
One day, at the end of a lecture, Papaderous was asked, “What is the meaning of life?” There was some laughter in the room at the weightiness of the question.
Papaderous opened his wallet and took out a small, round mirror. During the war, he said, when he was just a small boy, he found a crashed motorcycle that had belonged to a German soldier. Pieces of broken mirror from the motorcycle were laying on the ground and he tried to reassemble them but he couldn’t, so he took the largest piece and scratched it against a stone until its edges were smooth and it was round. He used it as a toy, fascinated by the way he could use it to shine light into holes and crevices.
He kept that mirror with him as he grew up, and over time it came to symbolise for him what he might do with his life. He said:
“I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world–into the black places in the hearts of men–and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”
The writer of John, this passage in John, tells us that it is as light coming into a world of darkness, in our darkness, that Jesus comes to us, bringing salvation, bringing healing and wholeness and life and hope for our world. Are we prepared to step into that light, to let light shine into the dark places in our lives, to reflect light into the dark places of this world, to let the meaning of our lives be believing, loving, trusting and shining for Jesus?
Prayers of Intercession
This is a prayer involving extinguishing candles which James Cox (technically our James Cox) wrote to be used at Hamilton Baptist last Sunday – which I have rewritten again – adding a section where the candles are relit.
Loving God, as we gather today and hear your word and reflect on your love for our world…
1. We grieve when people choose to hurt and violate others,
diminishing the dream for the community of human life,
in doing so, the light of God is hidden.
(Extinguish Candle 1)
2. We grieve when our systems – social, political or religious –
do not hear the voice of the other,
when the preferences of those with power take precedence over the defenceless,
when the rich lose sight of the poor, when people justify violence over love.
(Extinguish Candle 2)
3. We grieve for the abuse – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual –
that is inflicted upon others – on the poor, on Aboriginal people, on refugees, on women
and on God’s children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex.
(Extinguish Candle 3)
4. As we come before you, we are aware that we too participate in injustice;
when we have remained silent in the face of hate
or turned away from those who suffer devastation.
(Extinguish Candle 4)
Loving God, as we gather today and hear your word and reflect on your love for our world…
4. Forgive us, O God, hear our lament, for we long to love our neighbours as ourselves.
(Light Candle 4)
We pray for healing for all who have experienced abuse or injustice or exclusion, that you might be their healing, that you might be their strong help and their refuge.
We ask that our lives and our community will be a place of love and justice too.
(Light Candle 3)
We pray for our leaders – in this country and around the world – we pray especially this morning for the people of Myanmar, that you come against this coup.
We pray too for the rollout of Covid vaccinations around the world – that the poor and not just the rich – will have help.
(Light Candle 2)
And finally, loving God, who loved this world so much that you gave your Son, your very self, to us, we give your thanks that your light continues to shine in the darkness and that the darkness will never overcome it. We ask this morning that we will, in all our actions, in all our relationships, in all of our lives, be people of the light. Amen.
(Light Candle 1)