|Taser chase of John 3:16|
There is no bible passage more known, recognized, beloved, despised and exhausted than John 3:16. It was the first verse I memorized as a young child in Sunday school; it is held up on signs from time to time by zealots in clown wigs at the sidelines of football games and can be found on bumper stickers, license plates, and printed on the bottom of the disposable cups from In-n-out Burger. “John 3:16” - as though someone would go home or to a library or on the internet after eating their burger and look it up in a bible and discover Christianity for the first time.
John 3:16 has become a kind of shorthand invitation to give your life to Christ, to have a conversion experience, so it comes with a lot of assumptions and baggage.
When I was 11 years old, I had my first outing with a friend and no adults to take a bus into the city and go shopping and out for lunch. We were feeling quite grown up and proud to be on our own, and not a little nervous when we realized a group of teenagers were watching us from across the pizza restaurant.
We got increasingly uncomfortable as their attention to us became more obvious. Finally, our hearts started racing when a few of them got up from their table and approached us. “Excuse me,” they said, “we want to share something with you.” And they took out a pamphlet with John 3:16 quoted on the front of it, and began telling us about Jesus, and how he had come to save us from our sins if we would only believe in him. We were relieved to tell them that we were already converted Christians, so they had no need to share their message with us, and they seemed relieved to hear it.
These are the things that come to mind for me when I hear John 3:16.
What does not come to mind for me is Nicodemus. This teacher of the faith, wise leader, who comes to Jesus - the one this gospel calls “the light of the world that the darkness cannot put out” - in the dead of the night, when nobody else can see him coming. And he sort of asks a question, or implies one, anyway, when he says something like, “Some of us think that you are from God...” with an unspoken yearning just underneath the evocative statement.
And so Jesus begins talking about the kingdom of God, and how one must be “born from above” in order to see it, as though God’s kingdom is so foreign it cannot be recognized by us as we are, in this world as it is, and also as though God’s kingdom is somehow happening right here and now and we are missing it - not far away and in the future.
He reminds Nicodemus of a strange time back when the people were wandering in the wilderness: they were dying from snake bites and needed only to look on a snake God had told Moses to create from bronze and lift before them, and they would live.
And then a little way into this conversation, which by this point has become a monologue, Jesus himself says the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish...”
I suspect that part of the problem we have with this verse that’s been called “the gospel in a nutshell,” is that we hear within it the implication that we need saving. That somehow, without something extra, something different, something done to us or by us, we will perish. It implies we are in some kind need. We need salvation.
That’s not the only place this is implied, by the way. We hear it all the time, this suggestion that we need some sort of saving. If we had a nicer home, a better job, smoother skin, cooler clothes, THEN we would be enough. Life would be good; it would last. The fear of perishing is prevalent and powerful, and it permeates everything.
A while back Owen called me into the living room where he had paused the television. “Mom, this is important, you’ve got to see this.” And he rewound it past commercials for kids’ toys, which looked enticing, and cheerful vacation destinations and fun-looking restaurants to a boring looking, clearly adult-oriented commercial. The advertisement had urgent music and scenes of people whose faces were filled with worry and fear, and then showed official and competent-looking people with headsets on, sitting at computers in a clean, white room, nodding comfortingly while typing efficiently.
“Your identity can be stolen on the internet; it is a far greater risk than you may realize! But for just a few dollars a month you can have insurance to protect you against identity theft. Our experts will ensure your life remains your own.”
“Do we have that, mom?” he asked. “We should get that right away.”
The most terrifying prospect had invaded his cartoon-watching: that someone could steal your very life. And then what would you have left? Any amount of money is worth preventing perishing.
But we are perishing, actually. All the time. Anxiety and hidden sadness plagues us. Marriages fall apart; friendships break down. Cancer attacks our bodies, and worries attack our minds, and we feel life slipping away: in the words we cannot take back, and the choices we cannot have back, and the clock we cannot turn back. We know all about perishing. We understand perishing. It’s living we’re a little fuzzy on.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever does not believe in him will perish and disappear forever.” THAT reading makes sense to us. THAT message is clear to us. We need to do something, give our life to God, convert, believe, repent, change, to prevent perishing. That we get. We are quite accustomed to doing things, saying things, buying things, and sacrificing things in the frantic attempt to keep from perishing. This is a message we understand completely. We live our whole lives, most of us, to avoid dying.
But I wonder about Nicodemus, sneaking out of his house and hoping his neighbors don’t see him slink off into the darkness, searching out this man, Jesus, this slightly suspect, intriguing and dangerous, radical street-preacher, about whom the rumors are swirling but whose words cannot leave Nicodemus alone.
I imagine Nicodemus, moving through the shadows, driven by his questions, doubts, wonderings, that he even cannot quite articulate. I wonder about the man who comes in the darkness, with that tangled ball of question pressing in on his heart, of loss and death and the inexplicable places where light does not seem to shine and perishing feels imminent and real.
And Jesus’ words to him are not clear, simple steps to safety or salvation. They do not prey on fears, and they avoid altogether strategizing against death. They speak a mystery: they speak of life that death cannot extinguish. They speak of being born into new life, life from above, life that is set not towards inevitable perishing, but toward love, wholeness, life. Life with a different trajectory. How can these things be?? Nicodemus asks, incredulous, awake, longing to take these things into himself.
For God so loved Jesus says, for God So deeply and fully loves this perishing world that God gave the only son...
So the words come to Nicodemus’s longing ears and hesitant heart,
Whoever trusts in this God, whoever relaxes their being into the being of God, whoever finds their life in the life of the creator of all life will live!
In John, remember, believing is not actually about knowing. It isn’t signing on with your mind, accepting a set of facts you can argue. Believing is trusting. “Believe in me” means “trust me”, know that I am for you, open yourself to me, lean into me. Trust in me and you will find life everlasting.
Jesus isn’t selling Nicodemus a way to pretend we can prevent perishing, instead he is inviting him into a life that outlives even death.
Oh, Nicodemus, with your questions and your brilliance and your competence, lurking in the shadows of darkness with the ball of question pressing on your heart– have you ever heard something so fantastic? How can this be? This shocking love of God? This perishing world is so adored and treasured and claimed and held by God, this world is joined by God, shared by God, upheld and redeemed by God?
Can you even conceive of this the backwards stream of resilient, enduring, ever-lasting life against the relentless march towards death? How did your heart hear these words, Nicodemus of the night?
God so loves this world... God will not let it go, God came in and joined in this perishing world, and is saving it. God Is bringing life out of death and hope from despair and joy from sorrow and healing from brokenness and heading everything to a time when perishing itself will perish. This is resurrection language.
Trust in him – this one standing with you in this perishing world, the very life you are living created by his hands…
Trust in him and even death in all its forms, isolation and loss, grief and separation, death itself – cannot have the final say over you. Trust, find yourself, rest your being, in the one who has come to share life with you, and you will not perish, but will truly live.
Perhaps this is not, after all, a verse for the glaring false light of football stadiums, or to be printed on license plates and held up on posters. Perhaps it’s not meant to be handed out by nervous teenagers on written pamphlets and spoken with a salesperson’s confidence and belief and sureness. Perhaps, after all, it is not just another advertisement feeding our fear, another form of insurance against perishing sold to us to help us pretend we can avoid death. We can’t, after all.
Perhaps, instead, this verse makes the most sense whispered in the places of darkness by the light of the world himself. I see you, Nicodemus, in this perishing world, and I know it all makes no sense, so little sense, in fact, that you must be as though born all over again free from the logic of this world to sort it all out!, but no matter, here it is: God so loves the world that I have come; you are now no longer alone. God so loves the world, that this darkness you see will not prevail.
Trust in me, and you will truly live.