Text: John 3:14-21
Date: Lent IV + 3/15/15
It is night time, but that in two different respects. Today our Lenten journey to the cross leads us closer to dark Gethsemane, the judgment hall, the mournful mountain of Calvary. The darkness looms as we draw nearer to the sacrifice. But there is another sort of darkness; that of a fallen, sinful soul who cannot see, cannot perceive the love of God in it all. Through the darkness, however, a light shines and we will discover the light of love, joy, peace and hope.
It is night time. A man, Nicodemus by name, a man of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews, came to Jesus by night so as to remain anonymous. If he had a question for Jesus we don’t know because he never got to ask it for Jesus knew what the man really needed to know and so steered the night time conversation Himself. Jesus knows what you really need to know and to believe. So He speaks to you now through His Word. Jesus directed this man with what were mysterious words to him, words about being born again, born from above, born by water and the Spirit. Now He directs this “teacher of Israel” back into the Word of God which he should know so well to discover the light of the gospel.
We heard that word earlier, of the complaining of the people in the wilderness. “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people.” When asked to pray for help, “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Num 21:4-9). But what, Nicodemus might have thought, does this have to do with being born again?
The light of understanding and faith happens when you see how everything in the Old Testament ultimately points to the salvation of God through Jesus Christ. Notice that God did not tell Moses simply to hold the bronze serpent up in the air but to “set it on a pole.” Jesus said, “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.” That’s what this otherwise strange incident eventually pointed to. The pole upon which Jesus would be lifted would be the cross. And as the people of Israel received life simply for a look, so because of Christ’s crucifixion, “whoever believes in Him has eternal life.”
Now, beginning with that famous verse, John 3:16, the apostle proceeds to “unpack” or explain why it is by faith in the crucified Savior that God gives eternal life, and gives it to all.
The Son of Man must of Divine necessity be lifted up because God so loved the world. But what kind of love is this? God didn’t and doesn’t only love some of the world, a portion of the population, but the whole thing. It was this love that was behind it all. When it says that God so loved the world “that he gave his only Son,” that “giving” ultimately meant and pointed to His sacrificial death. Maybe here Nicodemus would remember Abraham’s sacrifice of his only son, Isaac. There again, through the substitute sacrifice of the ram we are once again to see its fulfillment in the cross of Christ our scape goat and substitute.
God did this in order “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is with the eyes of a God-given faith that we look to Christ and live. And that life does not wait until after death and the grave. It is a present reality. Eternal life begins now, you “have” it now.
God sent His Son not to punish us or to tell us to shape up and get our spiritual act together. No, it was precisely because we cannot save ourselves that God sent His Son “in order that the world might be saved through him.” And again notice this gift of salvation is for “the world,” for all people.
Though we confess daily that, apart from God’s grace, we sinners deserve only God’s condemnation both now and for eternity, it is lack of faith, after all, the refusal of God’s gift that entangles us in self-condemnation.
Now, in the darkness of this night St. John says, “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world.” What is this light? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. And darkness has not overcome it; not the darkness of Gethsemane or Calvary or even the grave; and not even those dark days you encounter. How many testify to God’s help and grace through the darkness of our sinful ways or days; the death of a loved one, or of difficulties and doubts of daily life? The darkness has not overcome the light of life by faith in Jesus.
So finally John says, “whoever does what is true comes to the light.” What is “doing what is true” but doing repentance of sin and turning in faith through the cross to Jesus Christ crucified and risen again.
Something happened to Nicodemus that night. At least we can assume so. For he would see “the Son of Man,” that is, Jesus, “be lifted up” on the pole of a cross. Was it faith in his heart that then drove him to join another secret disciple of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, to take the body of the crucified Lord down from the cross for a suitable burial?
God so loved the world. We continue to approach and prepare for the mystery of the cross. Isaac Watts, in his beloved Lenten hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” caught the mystery of this love in the third stanza, saying,
See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown? (LSB 425:3)
It is because of and through the sorrowful passion of our Lord, through the cross alone, that the light of God’s love shines, His love for you, and no darkness can overcome it.