An Invitation, not an Ultimatum

SERMON
Immanuel Episcopal Church, Ripley, Tennessee

The Reverend Alexander H. Webb II (“Sandy”)

March 14, 2021

The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year B)
Revised Common Lectionary

Numbers 21:4-9

John 3:1-21 (Expanded)

 

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

This morning’s gospel reading contains what is arguably the most famous passage in the entire bible. 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.”

 

Too often, we hear these love-filled words presented as an ultimatum: “Believe or die.” But, I want to suggest to you this morning that John 3:16 is the complete opposite of that. John 3:16 is not an ultimatum; it is an invitation.

 

~

 

Jesus speaks his famous words to Nicodemus.

 

John tells us that Nicodemus as a Pharisee and a leader among the Jews. From this, we can conclude that Nicodemus is well-versed in Jewish law, that he has a place of leadership in temple life, and that he probably takes most of his income from religious work.

 

Nicodemus approaches Jesus under the cover of darkness because he is both curious and afraid. On the one hand, Nicodemus has heard of Jesus’ signs and wonders; he wants to know more about the man who can do these marvelous things. On the other hand, Nicodemus has a lot to lose if he decides to follow Jesus – his livelihood, his authority and prominence, his place of privilege under both religious and secular law.

 

In John 3:16, Jesus aims to persuade Nicodemus that these are sacrifices worth making. Jesus aims to persuade Nicodemus that he does not have to live the way he has been living up to that point.

 

Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus continues, “Those who believe in [God’s Son] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.”

 

To put that in other words, imagine Jesus saying to Nicodemus: I have not come to bring death; death is already here. Look around you! Your religious practices exploit the poor. Your political alliances have made peace with Rome at the expense of your own people. Your economy is built on the assumption that you do not need to be concerned with anyone but yourself.

 

These are patterns of life, but these are not patterns that will fill you with life. If you continue on your current path, your life will be defined by corruption and will end in death. If you turn to Jesus, you will be born again and will live a new life. You will know what it is to live in the kingdom of God.

 

In our Old Testament reading this morning, we hear of people being healed when they look at the snake on Moses’ pole. I am like that snake, Jesus says to Nicodemus – and to us. If you look to me rather than focusing on yourself, you will be born again and you will live a new life. If you lift your eyes to the hills, as the Psalmist says, your help will come.[1]

 

 

~

 

To borrow Moses’ words from Deuteronomy, Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel: “…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…”[2]

 

I wish that Nicodemus would make a bold profession of faith right there and right then. I wish that Nicodemus would do what so many of the other disciples did, leaving their previous lives behind without thought or regret at the simplest possible invitation from Jesus: “Follow me.”[3] But, Nicodemus’ story does not end here. Nicodemus needs some time to think things through.

 

As I consider this story from Nicodemus’ perspective, I cannot help but recall the story of the Apostle Paul. Like Nicodemus, Paul was a Pharisee and a leader among the Jews. Like Nicodemus, Paul stood to lose his power and his privileges if he began to follow Jesus, or if Jesus too severely disrupted the status quo.

 

Paul’s fears did not lead him to seek Jesus as Nicodemus did, even in the dark of night, but to persecute Jesus’ followers in an effort to preserve the life he knew. Everything changed on the road to Damascus. Everything changed when Paul saw Jesus through the mysterious veil of his scale-covered eyes.[4]

 

Years later, Paul will reflect on this experience in his Letter to the Philippians: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”[5]

 

Nicodemus cannot imagine the complete transformation of which Paul speaks. Nicodemus cannot imagine a life in which he would come to regard his privilege and his power as things not worth having. And, if I am honest, neither can I.

 

Yet, Jesus reaches out to Nicodemus anyway. And, thanks be to God, Jesus reaches out to us as well.

 

~

 

Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Put another way, Jesus says: I do not bring death into the world, death is already here. Death is all around you every day – as a result of Adam’s choice, and as a result of your ongoing choices. What I bring into the world is your opportunity to live.

 

In the end, Nicodemus does accept Jesus’ invitation. Nicodemus reappears near the end of John’s gospel. Nicodemus reappears at the foot of the cross, in the bright light of day and the full view of everyone, to help Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial.[6]

 

It took Nicodemus a while to think things through, but in the end, he chose blessings over curses and life over death. We can too.

 

John 3:16 is not an ultimatum; it is an invitation. It is a standing invitation that we can always accept. John 3:16 is not coercive; it is grounded, and anchored, and rooted in love. It is surrounded and steeped in the same love that called Adam into being, the same love that motivated Moses to persevere, the same love that converted Paul, the same love that will never ever, let us go.

 

In the midst of all the forms of death that surround us on every side every day, we have an invitation to live. Thanks be to God!

 

Amen.

 

[1] Paraphrase: Psalm 121:1

[2] Deuteronomy 30:19 (NRSV)

[3] Cf., Matthew 4:19, Matthew 9:9, etc.

[4] Cf., Acts 9:1-19

[5] Philippians 3:4-8 (NRSV)

[6] Cf., John 19:38-42

Posted by The Reverend Sandy Webb at 8:03 AM
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