John 3:16: You have seen it plastered on billboards, tagged on buildings, spray painted on railroad cars and held up in the endzone of a nationally televised football game. This verse has become a public fixture of Christian efforts to evangelize the world. By putting this verse out there, people hope others will read the Bible, encounter Jesus, and believe God sent His Son into the world to save them.
This is good. Anything that puts people into contact with God’s word is a good thing because the Spirit works through the Word. But today, we come and encounter this word in church. Here, it is not plastered on a billboard or held up in the endzone. No, here, it is spoken privately in a late-night conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Sometimes, God’s word works in a private and personal way. When you see this verse painted on a building, it is public and, unfortunately, impersonal. You do not know who put it there or for whom it was intended. It is not part of a conversation. It is present in an environment, kind of like advertising or trash. Someone may pick it up if they are interested. But, when you read this verse in John’s gospel, it is private and personal.
Nicodemus has come to speak to Jesus. He has been listening to His teaching, but he does not understand it. So, Nicodemus comes privately to Jesus. Through conversation, Jesus takes Nicodemus deeper into Scripture. Jesus asks Nicodemus to recall the bronze serpent in the wilderness, to meditate on the working of the Spirit, to consider the power of new birth. In this conversation, Nicodemus, the teacher, becomes a student. He sets aside his privileged position for a moment and humbly sits at Jesus’ feet.
Because we gather for worship in a world that has fallen so far from God, we can sometimes see ourselves in a privileged position. We know the teachings of the faith. We have been members of the Church for years. But, as Jesus reminds us, you never stop learning. There are depths to the Word and the working of God you have not yet discovered. So, we gather during Lent, to be drawn again, deeply, into the wisdom of God’s Word. We set aside our privileged position and humbly experience the wonder of His work. Through the waters of baptism, God brings you to life. He claims you as a child of His Kingdom. He promises to work for you, forgiving your sins, but He also promises to work through you, forming you into a witness to the world.
Jesus tells Nicodemus He did not come, “to condemn the world,” but that, “the world might be saved through Him.” What is beautiful to behold in John’s gospel is the way this relationship with Jesus moves Nicodemus from a private conversation at night to a public witness of his faith in the world.
Here, Nicodemus questions Jesus at night. Later, Nicodemus questions his own religious leaders, asking them whether or not they have given Jesus a fair hearing (7:50). Then, finally, at the end, after the crucifixion of Jesus, Nicodemus comes out into the open, bringing 75 pounds of spices to anoint Jesus (19:39). By faith, Nicodemus gives public witness to Jesus. Jesus, who died like a criminal, is buried like a king. It took time for Nicodemus to move from private conversation to public witness. It took time and the gracious working of God.
That gracious work is something we need to remember today.
With the growing hostility toward the Christian Church in our country, public conversations are more difficult. People disagree with many of the social teachings of the Church. They resent the privileged position the Church has had over the years and want to create a public realm where other views are heard and accepted.
What this means is this most public of verses might again need to be encountered in private ways. It is in our relationships with people where God will work through His Word. Those late-night conversations are not easy. To hold up a sign at a sporting event, all you need is to go to Walmart and buy some poster board and markers. You can make the sign and then hold it up. To enter into a private conversation with another, however, you need to cultivate a relationship of trust. You need to have a place where another person feels comfortable asking you questions, knowing you will listen to their thoughts before asking them to listen to yours.
Today, Jesus comes to us with a vision of His public work. He has come not to condemn the world but to save it. The way in which He will do it, however, is not always public. He chooses to be found in private and personal conversations: Changing lives in order to change His world.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 3:1-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 3:1-17.
Lectionary at Lunch-Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 3:1-17.