This scene from John’s gospel is very encouraging for us. John offers a picture of Jesus’ teaching. In fact, this is the first time in the gospel of John where Jesus teaches. However, unlike the other gospels, Jesus is first seen teaching in a conversation held in the dark.
Unlike Matthew, where Jesus gathers crowds around Him and teaches from the mount, and unlike Mark and Luke where Jesus is first seen teaching in the Synagogue, John first has Jesus teaching in a one-on-one conversation in the dark. By entering the dark, Jesus ultimately brings Nicodemus to the light.
At the end of this reading, the world is depicted in pretty stark terms. Those who do what is evil live in the dark. Those who do what is true live in the light. This radical dichotomy can lead to a radical separation of the Church from the world. Rather than enter the darkness, we stand on the side and point it out. Yet, look at what Jesus is doing. He is entering the dark to speak with Nicodemus... and, by the end of the gospel, Nicodemus is coming out of the dark and into the light. He brings over 75 pounds of spices to anoint the body of Jesus for burial (19:39).
By giving us this picture of Jesus, who is teaching in the dark, John reveals something beautiful about Jesus. He will enter into the dark places to bring people to the light. Jesus has come to illumine the darkness, not to finalize it. The word He brings indeed points out sin, but He does this not to condemn but to save (3:17). This conversation with Nicodemus was a mid-course correction, a call to turn and repent, a plea for Nicodemus to experience the presence of Jesus, to come and experience the light that saves. Jesus did not come to condemn Nicodemus but to save him and that act of saving Nicodemus began by Jesus taking time to enter the dark.
Jesus will enter into the dark places to bring people to the light.
I remember a moment of teaching someone who was afraid of entering the dark. I was leading a congregational seminar on witnessing and we were about to go speak to friends and neighbors about the love of God in Christ. Everyone was nervous. I was nervous. Witnessing can be a terrifying thing. One participant called me to the side while we took a break for coffee. She confessed to me she had never talked about her faith to anyone before and that she just could not do this. Rather than pull out a 12-step program about how to share your faith, I simply said, “Let’s sit down and talk a while.”
We went to an empty table in the corner of the room and chatted. I asked her about her family, where she grew up, and what she used to do as child. We talked about her secretarial service for the government during the war. She mourned the loss of soldiers and she shared her fears about the present state of the world. As we talked, I began to ask about when she came to faith, how she came to this church, what hymns she liked, and whether there were any Bible passages she loved. We talked about her prayer life... and then, as the conversation continued, she suddenly looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I see what you are doing.” I acted innocent and said, “What?” She replied with a smile, “I think I have just shared my faith.”
We all have places of darkness. This darkness can be either the world we live in or the world that lives in us. It is frightening, awakening, and troubling us in the middle of the night. We find ourselves involved in situations where we feel like we have no good choices. These places of darkness are often private. We do not want people going there and so we never bring them up at church. When someone asks, “How are you?” we do not say, “I’m contemplating a divorce.” Instead, we say, “I’m fine.” And those dark places have a way of operating like black holes. They can suck us in. They can consume our time and our energy. They can lead us to a place of nervous exhaustion and isolation.
Jesus enters the darkness because He alone has the power to turn darkness into light.
Which is why this text is so beautiful. John tells us Jesus goes to the dark places. In His very first act of teaching, Jesus enters the darkness to bring one man from darkness to light.
Jesus is the light of the world. With Him, there is no darkness because, in Him, the love of God is truly known. Jesus enters the darkness because He alone has the power to turn darkness into light. When He hung upon the cross, the sky turned dark. The judgment of God’s wrath fell upon all humanity... and Jesus bore it for you. He bore it and buried it away in a tomb so that all those who trust in Him might come out of the darkness and live in the light.
Saint Augustine knew this. Augustine was a bishop when he wrote his famous Confessions. In that spiritual autobiography, he laid out for people the dark moments of his life: His love of women, his child out of wedlock, his adherence to a false philosophy, his fascination with the gladiatorial games, even his childhood stealing of pears that he neither wanted nor needed. Augustine places it all out there and, near the end of his Confessions, he tells us why, because God brings darkness to light (Book 10.1).
Jesus enters this world’s darkness and brings us the life-giving power of God’s light.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 3:14-21.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 3:14-21.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Charles Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 3:14-21.