John 3:1-17

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." 3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" 5 Jesus answered, "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. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above.' 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." 9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 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. 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. 17 "Indeed, 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 said, “The wind blows where it chooses,” We certainly saw evidence of that this past week. What a powerful, mighty and untamable wind! The Holy Spirit is like that: powerful, mighty, untamable and uncontrollable.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus in the dark of night. Now… why would an upstanding citizen have to seek out a rabbi in the middle of the night? Why couldn’t his question wait until morning? The Gospel of John doesn’t say – but maybe he did not want the other Pharisees to see him. Or maybe he just had a question. Or maybe he just couldn’t sleep. Maybe…but it may also be that the Holy Spirit was working on Nicodemus.

Nicodemus’ last words in this passage are: “How can this be?” Jesus has him stumped. But this is not the end of Nicodemus’ story. More on him later.

In the meantime, Jesus says one of the most powerful and memorable verses in scripture: John 3:16.

Martin Luther called John 3:16 the Gospel in a nutshell. This Bible verse tells what God did – God Loved and God Gave. God loved the Word and Gave God’s son. Why: So that EVERYONE who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a promise. This is Gospel. This is Good News.

This past week Lynn, a technician from the City of Minneapolis Waterworks department came to my house to install a new meter. My basement is kind of dark in the corner where the meter is so I stood and held a light for her while she worked. She asked me what I was busy doing, I confessed that I was writing my sermon. She then asked, “Oh, what’s the message?” When I told her that I was preaching on John 3:16&17, she said, “John 3:16?” like at the football games?

‘Yes, I said, “John 3:16. For God so loved the World…

Oh, she said, “We had a guy who had John 3:16 on a bunch of his shirts – he was always wearing it.”

I was getting excited but before I could say anything she said… “What a hypocrite! The management had to walk him to the gate. He was caught stealing.”

So… instead of extolling his witness, I ended up bemoaning with her that we are not perfect but are all sinners – and that we often fall short of being the people that God made us to be.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I always have the best thing to say to people after they leave. I wish I could have talked with her about the NEXT verse because it helps explain the more famous John 3:16. But she was busy doing her job, drilling a hole in my basement so I had to do my witnessing by holding a light for her.

But our conversation got me thinking. John 3:16 is well known – and that is good. But too often people treat it as a litmus test for belief or as a sweet saying. It’s not either of those. As Jesus explains in the next Verse, "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God sent Jesus because God’s love is bigger and more expansive than we imagine – big enough to include the whole world..

John 3:16 is actually quite radical because, when Jesus is talking about the world -– he is not talking about God’s beautiful creation. Jesus is talking about the world he lives in, a world that is very much like the world that we are living in today, a world that is less than welcoming – even hostile to God’s message.

To make the point, one theologian suggests that we could translate John 3:16 and 17 as: “For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead, so that the world, that rejects God, might still be saved through Christ.”1 God’s love is gracious and inclusive.

We tend to find it easier to identify differences than similarities. Remember the old children’s song: “One of these things is not like the other...” From the time we are children we are taught to distinguish between things: us and them, what’s out and what’s in, what’s the same and what’s different and that’s often what we do with people too – focus on differences.

I was at a pastor meeting last week and one of the pastors told about an event in Finland. Invitations for this event went out to a very diverse group of people and so, when they came, it wasn’t surprising that they looked quite different from one another. Some who came were dressed in executive style suits and others had torn jeans. Some were young and some were retired. As they came into the room, typically people would look around and then seek out people who “looked like them.”

When it was time to begin, the facilitator asked them to form a circle. And then he said, “Would those of you who hugged or kissed a child goodbye this morning please come to the center. They did. And as they did – they smiled at one another and recognized their commonality as parents or caregivers, a commonality that rose above their differences in clothing or age. Then he said, “Would those who love their jobs come into the center… and then those who hate their jobs… and so on.” Again and again, various people came forward and began to see the “others” in a different light. Then the facilitator said, “Would those who are bisexual come into the circle?” One person stepped into the middle of the circle. And when people realized there was only one – they gasped. But the facilitator turned to the one lone person in the middle and said, “Thank you. Thank you for the courage to stand alone.” And all the people clapped and cheered.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God loves the WHOLE world – even the God-hating world. We, as a the body of Christ, are called to live out God’s message of love for the world, the whole world, even the God-hating world. We are called to cheer for one another in both our similarities and our differences. And, we are called to support and stand up for those who are alone, who are threatened and who are treated as “other” or “less than.”

Last month I received an email about a bomb threat had been sent to a Jewish Community Center in downtown Minneapolis. They were asking pastors for support. I signed it immediately and so did many other pastors. The leaders of the Jewish Community Center sent us each a letter back, thanking us for our support. This was an easy decision. Of course we want to stand with our brothers and sisters in the faith against hatred.

We need to stand with God’s people whenever a group of people are threatened - even if they are different from us. Whether the “other” is poor, hungry, an immigrant, a Jew or a Muslim, we are called, by Christ, to love and care for and stand up for the “other.”

But it won’t always be easy. There may be times that we don’t all agree on how to love and care for the “other.” At those times we will have to pray for the Holy Spirit to lead and direct us.

I think that’s what happened to Nicodemus. Nicodemus begins as a cautious but curious rule-abiding Pharisee. Later in the Gospel he dares to speak up, urging restraint. At the end of the Gospel, Nicodemus is at foot of the cross, caring for the body of Jesus. We don’t know the whole story of how it happens but clearly Nicodemus grows in his discipleship – and most of the growth is “off- stage.” Looks like the work of the Holy Spirit to me.

Isn’t that how it is for most of us? Some people have a great “Aha!” moment and transform their lives instantly. But for most of us… the Holy Spirit keeps tugging… keeps working on us… and we pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

That’s one of the reasons why we gather as a community in Christ each week. We come to support and encourage one another in Christian faith, to hear the Word of God and to share the things that keep us up at night. We come together because where two or more are gathered in Christ’s name, God is with us, and the Holy Spirit promises to encourage, empower and help us share God’s love and Grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Pastor Pam Stalheim Lane

1 Dr. David Lose in website:In the Meantime. Lent2A Just one more Verse