Are We Searching for the Wrong Sign?

The following sermon was shared at First Presbyterian Church in Murray, KY on March 14, 2021. The reading was from John 3:14-21.  

Back in my college days, which have a way of appearing longer ago each time I recall them, I had two friends named Geoff and Jon. They were the archetypes of quiet, polite, God-fearing mid-western guys. I roped them into serving at a local youth group with me, and we always ate dinner together with the other guys on our floor.

Not too long into our first semester, Jon and Geoff started going to the gym to lift weights. I had done a little bit of weight lifting in high school. I was on the tennis team after all. I’d flexed my forearms with hand grips and arm curls, and I thought that perhaps I could join them. Maybe I would learn something new.

One day I asked if I could join them, and they kindly let me tag along.

Now, these were unassuming guys who wore jeans and plaid shirts to class and maybe sensible basketball shorts and t-shirts with a favorite team on them when we played sports. But for weight lifting, they wore these ragged shirts with cut off sleeves. There may have been red bandanas or headbands involved.

They started slapping their hands together and pumping each other up.

“Come on! Let’s go!” and “Come on! Let’s do this!” There was a call and response quality to this, where a shout of “Come on!” with a clap was met with a reply of “Yeah!” and a responding clap.

Then I noticed their biceps… they were quite large. These guys took this really seriously.

They took turns lugging these 50 pound weights and loading them onto the bench. It turned out that Jon was working on his way to bench pressing 250 pounds. Geoff could hold his own as well.

Needless to say, when the former high school tennis player took his turn, they had to lug all of those weights off the bar. It turned out that I had a lot to learn about lifting weights, and if you took a good look at me today, you’d know that I still haven’t learned that lesson.

Turning to Today’s Gospel Reading, I’d We Have Some Heavy Lifting to Do

Today’s Gospel reading feels a bit like Jesus is lugging these heavy theological concepts and dropping them in our laps. These ideas are heavy lifts. They aren’t comfortable or easy, even if some of the passages like John 3:16 may strike us as familiar.

In particular, Jesus is approached at the start of chapter three by Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is known as a leader of the Jews. The Pharisees were respected teachers of the law—Jesus even refers to Nicodemus as a “teacher of Israel.”

This is an important office for a people living under Roman military occupation after enduring generations of invasions, exiles, and oppression. We need to avoid making negative associations with the name Pharisee.

Much like my enthusiasm about being on the same page with my weight lifting friends, Nicodemus approached Jesus in the dark of night to say that he believed Jesus came from God because of the signs he did.

Remember John is not a strictly chronological Gospel like the other 3 Gospels appear to be. So it’s extremely likely that Nicodemus has witnessed quite a few miracles at this point. And keep in mind that Jesus likely had already cleared the temple of merchants in a surely controversial move. Nicodemus knew that publicly supporting Jesus would be risky.

In fact, throughout the rest of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus pops up in the narratives at key moments. At one point, the chief priests and Pharisees intended to arrest Jesus, but Nicodemus suggested that they couldn’t technically judge Jesus without giving him a proper hearing (John 7:50). That motion was swiftly dismissed.

Then, after Jesus’ death, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who feared the Jewish leaders, removed Jesus’ body from the cross and buried him in the tomb.

Nicodemus was a man with divided loyalties. It’s tempting to speculate about whether he finally became a disciple or whether he returned to the ranks of the Pharisees. That John never fills us in on his choice should serve as a warning sign to us about being willing to take on the weight of Jesus’ words.

Taking John 3, verses 1-21 as a cohesive conversation, we can see…

Nicodemus Had a Lot to Lose

As tempting as it is to see with 50/50 hindsight, we shouldn’t be too hard on Nicodemus. If we were in his sandals, we would have certainly found Jesus quite challenging.

To Nicodemus’ thinking, he was already way ahead of the pack among the Pharisees. He was willing to meet with Jesus one on one, and he correctly attributed the signs of Jesus to the presence of God. Some of his contemporaries attributed Jesus’ miracles to demonic influence!

He was at least on the right track.

Yet, as he found out from Jesus, he still wasn’t willing to do the heavy lifting that faith in Jesus would require of him. He couldn’t just believe the signs.

The word “believe” that Jesus used in this passage is the verb form of faith. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to go beyond mental assent. In that sense, we could say that even the devil “believes in” Jesus and the signs of the Jesus. The devil can’t deny them.

But Jesus is asking Nicodemus to make a shift in his thinking toward trust and reliance, to have faith in the Son of Man who came down from heaven to reveal the Father and who would be lifted up as the light guiding all people toward the Father.

This step toward the light was a single step on a much longer journey of faith. Nicodemus had to enter into a spiritual way of seeing the world, and he had to place even greater trust in Jesus than he imagined. He had to lay his life down so that God’s renewal could lead him to rebirth.

Nicodemus had to rethink so many things at once with Jesus. In John chapters 2 and 4 we find references that Jesus was already redefining the role of the temple around himself. Jesus’ body would become the meeting ground between God and humanity.

THAT was a big ask to make of any Jew  who associated the temple with the presence of God and Israel’s national identity. It had been the center piece of the Jewish people for generations, and it’s original construction plans had been handed down directly from God.

Could Nicodemus trust that Jesus was offering something better in his own body? Could Nicodemus see how the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus had fulfilled everything in the Law and prophets that he had devoted his life to both learning and teaching to others?

Imagine devoting your life to a certain way of thinking and amassing a public reputation around your expertise and then one day meeting someone who claims to offer something better. Imagine being asked to rethink your religious beliefs on a completely different, spiritual level.

That may sound hard enough for us to do today, let alone for someone like Nicodemus.

Jesus had also challenged Nicodemus to rethink what it looked like to truly put his faith in God and to be reborn spiritually. This was a conversion experience, being reborn in water and the Spirit.

It’s most likely that Jesus was referring to a baptism of repentance. John had been baptizing people in order to prepare the way for Jesus, and we shouldn’t overlook what Baptism meant to the Jewish people.

So far as I know about the current background research into Jewish customs, there was ceremonial washing before worshipping at the temple in a pool slightly larger than a hot tub called a miqvah, but also converts to Judaism were baptized.

It’s possible that being baptized in the time of Jesus was a way of acknowledging past unfaithfulness and failing to live as God’s people. It wasn’t just a ritual, it was a statement about turning away from a failed identity and taking up the identity of being God’s people again.

All of this is to say, Jesus wasn’t condemning Nicodemus, but he was confusing him and challenging him to make sacrifices and to rethink things about himself that he’d grown quite attached to.

All of that is to say….

Nicodemus Had a Heavy Lift to Place Faith in Jesus

If we are looking to make sense of how we can tie the conversation with Nicodemus together with the rest of today’s passage about light and darkness, Kamilla Blessing suggests a helpful path forward in her contribution to the IVP Women’s Bible Commentary. Blessing notes that John offers a useful foil if we compare Nicodemus with the woman at the well in the following chapter.

Let’s start with Nicodemus…

Jesus said in chapter 3, verse 8 that being born from above is mysterious and unseen and yet it has an impact on the world just like the wind. Yet, Nicodemus responded to Jesus with incredulity when Jesus spoke of a spiritual rebirth, of being born from above in chapter 3, verses 4 and 9.

Nicodemus focused only on the idea of a physical “rebirth” instead of asking Jesus to explain the nature of being born of the Spirit from above.

Then Jesus reminded Nicodemus that Nicodemus had just said a few moments ago that Jesus was from God and empowered from the very presence of God. Jesus drove home the source of his authority and wisdom in verse 13. Jesus is the only one who has ascended into heaven to bring the things of God down to humanity.

If Nicodemus finds it hard to believe Jesus, it’s because Jesus is revealing wisdom from heaven. He shouldn’t be surprised by this being a heavy lift!

John’s narrative here seems to step back into a commentary on the conversation in verses 1-15 with Nicodemus. Some commentators even think that Jesus’ discourse ends at verse 15 and then John offers the commentary starting in verse 16.

At the very least, it’s likely that Jesus’ specific conversation with Nicodemus seems to end in verse 15, and then he transitions to a more general commentary on the big picture about salvation, comparing and contrasting those who love the light vs. those who love the darkness.

This conflict between light and darkness that occurs in the discourse between Nicodemus and Jesus is a recurring theme in John. John drops little clues throughout his Gospel about contrasting light and darkness.

Now, let’s turn our attention briefly to the Samaritan woman at the well…

In her commentary notes, Blessing writes that even if the woman at the well started out as evasive and combative, she recognized the divine wisdom of Jesus. She was willing to bring her deeds into the light, facing the fact that Jesus knew everything she had ever done and things would still be OK.

She could have retreated in belligerence and shame. She could have returned to her old sources of comfort or her identity as a Samaritan woman who doesn’t talk to Jewish men.

Yet, she was willing to lay aside her assumptions and identity in order to recognize the light. While Nicodemus resisted stepping into the light with his tepid belief in the miracles of Jesus, the woman at the well brought her whole life into the light of Jesus and found mercy and a chance for a spiritual rebirth.

She found what we read about today: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And so we come to our final question: What do you love?

In particular, today’s passage concludes by more or less asking us if we love the darkness or the light.

If you’re afraid to admit how you’d answer that question, that’s OK. Jesus came to us because of the Father’s love in order to save us, not to condemn us.

We don’t have to be like Nicodemus, who ran away from the tough questions and who was unwilling to let go of his identity. We don’t have to slink off into the night out of frustration that our attempts to identify with Jesus were somehow off the mark.

Jesus is making a big ask of us to trust in him, to see him lifted up on the cross, lifted up in the resurrection, and lifted up in the ascension so that he can give us the Spirit who will lead us to be spiritually reborn.

We can trust that the mystery of the Spirit in us has been given to us reliably from Jesus who brings his message directly from the Father who loves us.

Coming into the light may result in us seeing ourselves in ways that we’d rather not admit. Unhealthy patterns, destructive habits, and addictive sources of comfort can all take their toll over time and they can be hard to leave behind.

We’ll only get out of this mess by trusting in the new birth that comes from God alone. Hiding in the darkness won’t bring the solutions, resolutions, or security that we desire. Only by exposing ourselves to God’s light can we see what we are and who we trust in.

Like the woman at the well, we may have a checkered past. We may be evasive and combative. But in the end, there is hope for us if we are willing to trust in the one who already knows everything we’ve ever done.

Nothing surprises Jesus. We can’t hide anything from him. And yet, when he came to us, it isn’t in judgment or with a light that shames us. Jesus came to all people in love.

This light from Jesus is a light that give us clarity, wisdom, healing, and the indwelling Holy Spirit who can make our lives like new. We may have loved the darkness. We may even love the darkness now.

But look… the light is coming. It’s already here.

And what matters more than anything we’ve said, done, or thought is that God loves us and God’s light is here for us. And praise God that the light will always be stronger than the darkness. Amen.

The Greatest Sin of All Isn’t Unbelief or Disobeying the Bible

visit-the-prisoner-matthew-25

I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about Matthew 25. It strikes me as one of the most important passages in the Bible because it describes a striking scene where the true followers of Jesus are separated from the false followers. Perhaps something about my “closed-set” evangelical background draws me to this scene.

My particular fascination has to do with this: Evangelicals, based on Paul’s letters, teach that the righteous are saved by faith, but this passage teaches that we’re saved by what we do.

Jesus doesn’t welcome people because of what they prayed or believed. He welcomes those who gave food to the hungry, visited the prisoners, and clothed the poor.

I don’t want to necessarily create a false dichotomy here. Of course real, genuine faith is confirmed by our actions. In fact, the word we translate as “believe” is the verb form of faith, which means we’re actually “faith-ing” or taking action with our faith. Having said all of that, evangelicals such as myself have spent so much time focusing on the sin of unbelief, heresy, or criticizing those who allegedly don’t take the Bible seriously enough, we don’t have any time left to examine what we do.

In other words, we don’t say to people, “You are unloving and uncaring, and I question your salvation.” We have traditionally question someone’s salvation based on beliefs alone that we could boil down to answers on a theology exam.

We could have a whole other discussion about whether we should even question someone’s salvation in the first place (I would argue that’s never our role). That discussion is not my aim here. I’m interested in personally examining ourselves with the same standards the Jesus said he would use.

How do we know we’re actually on the right course in following Jesus?

Matthew 25 has a pretty startling, yet straightforward answer.

You can safely assume you’re following Jesus if you love other people because you see Jesus in them.

Period.

If you see the inherent dignity and worthiness of the least powerful, most vulnerable, and even the most damaged and unworthy, then you’re in good shape according to Jesus. If you love these people, then “You get it.”

And it’s not just a matter of loving the people who love us. It’s a matter of loving everyone. If you can manage to love the people who have the least to offer you and may even cost you time, money, and sanity, then it should be a cinch to love everyone else in our lives.

Put another way, if God is love, then the ultimate sin we can commit against God is to not love others.

When I am angry at people, when I ignore those in need, and when I think I’m above serving, then I am most unlike God. I’ve hidden behind my theology long enough. I should have started practicing my speech:

When did I see you hungry, homeless, and in prison? I was busy studying theology so that my faith would be pure.

I have been working on learning the startling lesson that Jesus loves me just as I am, but he doesn’t expect me to stop there. I’m learning to simply value the presence of Jesus in the first place and to receive his love. If I have truly received his love, then it should start transforming the way I view others and, most importantly, how I treat them.

There aren’t the worthy poor and the unworthy poor.

There aren’t the worthy prisoners and the unworthy prisoners.

There aren’t the unworthy, lazy unemployed and the worthy, industrious unemployed.

Every year Christians spend thousands of dollars looking for Jesus at really nice conferences full of super successful pastors and teachers. I won’t say that Jesus isn’t there, but I will say that ONLY looking for Jesus among the affluent, successful, and influential is an epic fail according to Matthew 25.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that he is among the poor, the failures, and even the criminals. The goodness we do to those we perceive as “the least” is done to Jesus.

So where does this leave us?

I still think the most important step we can take begins within ourselves: welcoming Jesus and his love. We won’t value the presence of Jesus among others if we don’t value or recognize his presence in the first place. This presence of Jesus brings the ongoing renewal of our minds and hearts that Paul speaks about and fills us with his love.

When we finally receive the love and acceptance of Jesus, we’ll have something powerful to share with others—especially the “least of these.” In fact, if we’re still dividing the world into those worthy and unworthy of Jesus’ love, then perhaps we haven’t truly experienced that love in the first place.

If You Need Hell to Share the Gospel, Then Your Gospel Is Eternal Fire Insurance

hell and its eternal flames

Christians aren’t offering eternal fire insurance when they share the Gospel, right?

That’s what people keep telling me. When we share the Gospel, we’re inviting people into a relationship with God, into the Kingdom of God, and into the Spirit-guided fellowship of the Church. That’s it, supposedly.

The focus is on what we’re calling people to, right? We’re really not just offering fire insurance? Or are we…

 

Why is it that so many Christians spend time sharing the bad news before the good news? Are they using hell as a scare tactic?

Why do so many leading Christian pastors say what we believe about hell is extra super important?

 

I would argue that it’s because they’re actually selling fire insurance.

They would counter, “We’re just sharing the truth of the Bible. Hell is in the Bible, Jesus spoke about hell. We’re just being faithful.”

I’m not so sure about that. In fact, hell was rarely mentioned in the spread of the Gospel.

 

Did Jesus speak about hell in the same way we do today?

Did Jesus routinely share the “bad news” first?

True, Jesus warned the teachers of the Law and Pharisees about being cast outside of God’s Kingdom—thrown into Gehenna. He warned the unprepared that they would be left out of God’s feast where they would weep and snap their teeth. That’s not the same thing as our concept of hell being a place of eternal conscious torment by the way.

However, the core message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God. His message was “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” He went around healing, casting out demons, and teaching things like the Sermon on the Mount over and over again.

Judging by today’s standards, Jesus had a terrible track record of sharing the bad news before the good news.

Even the sermons in the book of Acts only mention God’s judgment once. There’s nothing about hell in all of the sermons of the early church when the church grew by leaps and bounds because of the Spirit’s empowering.

Far from providing details about the fiery fate of unbelievers for eternity, Jesus and his disciples spent the vast majority of their time pointing people to life and freedom and offered very little by way of details about the consequences.

What’s the point of it all? They actually weren’t offering eternal fire insurance. They were inviting people to follow Jesus, to enter his Kingdom, and to live in step with the Holy Spirit. Hell didn’t come up because it wasn’t a key part of the message.

The majority of the messages about being cast into Gehenna were addressed at people who routinely resisted the message of Jesus. Jesus didn’t preach to the crowds about the threat of being cast into Gehenna. It may be that he only preached about it as a warning of last resort.

 

Here’s the focus of the New Testament: The followers of Jesus are proclaiming the coming of the kingdom and making disciples.

We’re not called to proclaim the terror of hell.

I at least don’t see anyone in the New Testament doing that.

That doesn’t mean we overcompensate by saying that everybody is cool and can do whatever. God is just. There will be judgment. We will be called to account for what we have done and left undone. There is a weight to that message for us. We shouldn’t ignore it.

However, judgment isn’t the thing we’re called to proclaim. We’re inviting people to follow Jesus, to join in the Kingdom. An invitation is not the same thing as a warning.

Whatever you believe about hell, there’s no escaping that making hell central to the Gospel message draws us in the wrong direction.

The Gospel says that the Kingdom is here. Repent so that you can join it. Jesus calls us to follow him with an invitation. If we need hell in order to scare people into God’s Kingdom, then we’re emphasizing the wrong thing.

Jesus didn’t need to say much about hell in order to share the Gospel. Why do we?

 

This post is adapted from my book: A Christian Survival Guide: A Lifeline to faith and Growth.