For many of us, what we heard today is the most familiar part of the Bible. This text is so familiar, partly, because of the Rock ‘n’ Rollin’ movement in the 1970s when born-again Christians held up John 3:16 signs at sporting events. I was thinking about putting on a rainbow-colored wig and wrapping a sign over the pulpit today as a visual aide, but I decided that would be in bad taste. The man who used to wear the rainbow wig and who made that movement popular is named Rollen Stewart. As it turns out he is now serving three consecutive life sentences for some horrifying crimes he committed in 1992.

All of that begs an important question, what movements in Christianity are we hanging our hope and faith on? When we put our hope in shallow movements, we attract some questionable people. We can become easily disenfranchised by a weak version of our faith built on a foundation of sand. I call it the Gospel according to what is groovy right now. In the Gospel today, we read the end of the conversation between one of my favorite characters in the New Testament, Nicodemus, and Jesus. As you all remember, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to learn from him. Jesus makes the famous statement that one must be born again to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is puzzled by the statement, so Jesus explains it. He uses the imagery of baptism and then explains the wind blows where it wishes, using the Greek PNUMA, which also means Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what he wants, says Jesus. The Holy Spirit is not bound up in humanity’s preconceived notions of who is saved and who is condemned.

Nicodemus was still perplexed, so Jesus tells him, “if I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe heavenly things? Jesus then foreshadows the crucifixion using the imagery we read in Numbers today and says what needs to be said to Nicodemus because he is so caught up in his own presuppositions he can’t hear the truth from Jesus. Jesus says it plainly, “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. 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.”

Nicodemus was waiting for a mighty and ruthless judge to give the world what it deserves. Not for a loving savior to give the world what it needs, the only path to God, the Word made Flesh Jesus, The Christ. What Jesus says right after this is a key to understanding our faith. He defines judgment; he says, “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

When we turn toward the light, we allow the cleansing light of God’s mercy to transform our wickedness. Not by anything we do, but by what Jesus has already accomplished. John Wesley speaks to this in two sermons titled, The New Birth and The Marks of the New Birth. Wesley says the condition of a man, who has not been born again, is that he does not allow God to rule him but is ruled by and seeks happiness in the world and not from God.[1] For Wesley, living the Christian life is a constant, daily process of new birth. This can be summed up in saying each time we sin we must die to ourselves and be born into a new relationship with God.

I believe there is no better example of new birth and allowing the light to expose the darkness that dwells within each of us than the sacrament of reconciliation, the sacred act of being sorry. I mentioned this to the Confirmation Class a few weeks ago, and one of them asked me; how do we know we can receive forgiveness from God? I have been making my confession to a priest since I was thirteen years old. I can tell you to this day, after I make a confession to a priest, I feel born again. I feel the light of Jesus erasing all the wickedness I have committed since my last confession. The way I answered the student in confirmation was this way, to know God forgives you is to know you are truly sorry for the sin you have committed. To know God forgives you is to be sorry.

I did not make that up; it’s directly from Psalm 51: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” The definition of a broken and contrite heart is to know that we are sorry because we regret the thing we did without having been caught doing it. We regret our actions, not because we got caught, but just by the mere fact that we did it.

For some, the idea of making a confession to a priest is too scary a thought, and it can even be paralyzing. To those of you who feel this way, fear not; I have a way for you to make a confession too. Before anyone makes a confession, it is the responsibility of the penitent to examine his or her life. To take an inventory of all the times, his or her actions have been sinful. Those who cannot make a confession directly to a priest can still do the examination of self and give those sins to Jesus, for him to shine the light of love and mercy upon, and then receive absolution from a priest at Mass on Sunday. In confession, we expose our sinful acts, not for condemnation, but to receive tangibly the atonement Jesus accomplished for us on the cross.

Sermon preached by the Rev. Christian M. Wood
Church of the Redeemer
Sarasota, Florida
4th Sunday of Lent
14 March 2021

What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus and to us today in the Gospel is that we need him. That God’s greatest desire is to commune with each of us. The greatest darkness anyone can encounter is the idea that any sin is unforgivable. To believe that in some way, you are not good enough for God. Anytime you find that atrocious darkness creeping into your life, remember 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. And that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through him. We all must allow Jesus’s light to shine into our darkness; by doing so, we feel the unfettered love of God. A love that once felt is impossible ever to ignore again.

 

[1] This is a paraphrase.

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