At the wedding in Cana, Jesus begins his public ministry with the first of many signs. And while it was a spectacular feat, only the servants were first hands witnesses. Talk spread quickly and people began to hear about the event. A little while later, Jesus creates quite a
scene by clearing and cleansing the temple. His actions attracted many followers and we read in chapter 2 many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.
Nicodemus is a powerful intellectual, influential, and cautious man. He has heard the stories, maybe he witnessed the spectacle at the temple. He has an inkling that there is something about Jesus.
He has heard and seen him and he gets a feeling that Jesus may be someone to pay attention to. Why he feels this way we don't know. But we know that he takes a risk and goes to see Jesus. It is a risk. Because of his power and influence, he probably should not be seen hanging out with the rabble-rousers. So he goes at night.
Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out to ask a question or two. Like any good theologian of the day he begins his inquisition with a statement, he begins with a matter of fact- we know you are from God because you would not be able to do the things you do if you were not. Only someone from God could perform the signs you have done. But before Nicodemus can begin the questions, Jesus begins to speak.
Is that right Nicodemus, you KNOW well sir you don’t know and you can't see. You can’t see unless you are reborn-born again-born anew-born from above.
Well, now Nicodemus has a whole other bunch of questions.
HOW CAN A PERSON BE BORN AGAIN?
It is not physically possible!
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
The birth of a new family. No longer is it about who your daddy or granddaddy was, what tribe you are from, or your earthly- fleshly lineage in any way. You have to be born from above. A spiritual rebirth, a transformation. Only God can do it. Don’t you know that Nicodemus? You're a powerful and influential, and intellectual leader of the people and you don’t know? Jesus attempts to clear some things up for his visitor. Unfortunately for Nicodemus, and for us, things do not get clearer.
As a matter of fact, I fear that the following verses have muddied the waters of Christianity more than any other in the sacred text.
As you listen to John 3:11-17 in light of the preceding verses, I want us to consider, “what do these verses teach us about love?”
So many people are familiar with John 3:16.
Like theological bullet point -for many, it is the gospel in a nutshell
God sent Jesus....if you believe Jesus is Jesus then you are going to heaven but if not....then you perish...you do not go to heaven....you go elsewhere.
Many see it as a statement of harsh judgment and exclusion. It is divisive but only because we have used it to divide. It separates us from them. It is either an “atta boy, you got this” or more frequently - “you better watch out.”
It is so well known that often it is not even written out, just John 3:16, that is all you need. Seen on bumper stickers, billboards, and random signs on the side of the highway as well as on t-shirts and faces painted at major league sporting events, John 3:16 is a declaration of who you are. And so we have largely managed to disregard the overwhelming message of the text and have instead opted for a handy catchphrase.
But taken as a whole these words are anything but divisive. Taken as a whole they call us to a deeper love for God and each other.
After blowing Nicodemus’ mind by telling them they must be born again, Jesus tells Nicodemus, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is referring to the account of the Israelites in the desert that we read about in Numbers 12.
The Israelites were being incredibly ungrateful. They were whining and fussing. Essentially they are saying Hey God, we know that you are giving us our daily bread, we know you are giving us what we need but it is not good enough. You are not taking care of us well enough. So God sent a bunch of poisonous snakes. Many Israelites died. They cried out for God to save them. When Moses prayed to God on behalf of the people, God did not make the snakes go away. Instead, he told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole. If anyone was bitten by a snake all they had to do was look at the bronze serpent up on the pole and they would live.
Tell the Israelites to look at the snake. Tell the Israelites to look at what they are afraid of. Tell the Israelites to trust me on this one.
God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites to look at the thing that they were most afraid of...and live. Look at what you are afraid of, and lean into the fear and discomfort. Be courageous enough to see.
Jesus compares himself to the serpent that was lifted up.
Look at the thing you're afraid of, trust God, and choose life, not death.
Well, that's kind of weird because we're not afraid of Jesus or are we?
Jesus does some pretty scary things.
Jesus does things and calls us to do things that are terrifying.
Jesus calls us to welcome the stranger, love the enemy, turn the other cheek, and forgive. Jesus has dinner with people who are not welcome at the table
Jesus touches the people who are sick
Jesus calls us to leave behind everything that we have and to follow him... without any security. one pair of sandals no bag.
I don't know about you but I think all of that is scary. Today we call it risky or foolish and pretend that it is not what Jesus really wants us to do. Jesus really only wants us to be safe and comfortable and happy. That is what the world thinks.
“Just as the serpent was lifted up so must the son man be lifted up so that whoever believes in him, whoever sees him may live.” Whoever sees him, sees love, may live.
Look at love.
Look at love as love hangs on a shameful cross.
Look at love as love endures the pain.
Look at love as love bleeds and dies.
Look at love and consider that cost.
Looking at love costs. You can not look at the cross, see the love and grace there, and be unchanged. Not if you really see it, not if you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to really see.
Love is vulnerable.
And vulnerability is a bad word.
It is weak and helpless and pitiful.
It looks like losing.
And nobody wants to lose.
It is quite un-American to want to lose, choose a path that leads to the bottom and be weak. Our culture does not leave us space to be vulnerable. Our society would rather weed out the weak and raise the powerful up. We don’t value vulnerability, on the contrary, we see it as a deficit.“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
CS Lewis wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Brene Brown offers that, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
What do we learn about love from this passage?
Love requires us to be vulnerable.
Vulnerable enough to look at the cross.
Look at the cross and look at ourselves.
Vulnerable enough to reject the cultural norms and beliefs that tell us that winning is everything, that my way is the only way, that you must be this way to be good enough. Vulnerable enough to accept my whole self and your whole self just as we are.
Vulnerability insists we look - that we see and in seeing we are transformed, born again, from above, by God’s grace.
When we have the courage to be vulnerable we are able to experience eternal life. Which Fred Craddock says is not about quantity but quality. He offers that eternal life is a life lived in God, abundant -eternal life.
Living fully in the present by fully living in God.
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love.
The vulnerability of looking at the thing that scares us
The vulnerability of looking at real love and giving yourself to real love.
Not a hallmark movie kind of love. Real love seldom is all fairytale endings and roses and chocolate.
Real love is messy and quite often painful.
Real love scares us and costs us.
Real love goes to Jerusalem and all that awaits love there.
Do we have the courage to be vulnerable enough to go as well?