“A Gracious Yes”
Psalm 121 and John 3:1-27
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.
3 God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
4 No! Israel’s protector
never sleeps or rests!
5 The Lord is your protector;
the Lord is your shade right beside you.
6 The sun won’t strike you during the day;
neither will the moon at night.
7 The Lord will protect you from all evil;
God will protect your very life.[a]
8 The Lord will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.
(Psalm 121 – CEB)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4 Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5 Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6 Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’8 God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.(John 3:1-17 – CEB)
References to that passage show up everywhere, from Sunday school classrooms, to billboards, to bridge abutments, to t-shirts on rainbow-wigged sports fans.
However, when divorced from the words of the verse itself, the citation, “John 3:16,” can devolve into a secret handshake, a cipher of smugness. And when the verse appears out of context, it can be used with manipulative intent, saying, in essence, God may love you, but if you don’t say out loud that you believe in Jesus, God will still send you to hell. Have a nice day.
I find that discouraging because while, to many of us, the words of John 3:16 are as familiar as our own names, when those 27 words (or so, depending on the translation) are read in the context of the over 200 words of John 3, and the nearly 84,000 thousand words in the gospel of John, our hearing and understanding of that verse can become deeply and permanently transformed. In context, John 3:16 shifts from a tidy little soundbite about living some happy reward in the sweet by-and-by to a daring call to inhabit and embody God’s realm in the here-and-now.
So, let’s recall that context.
Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus, a leading Pharisee, sneaks to Jesus. It seems that Nicodemus knows that seeking out Jesus for serious conversation almost certainly means public and humiliating censure, possibly even some sort of exile. Let’s also remember, the Jewish leadership is furious at Jesus since he has so recently and so pugnaciously run the sanctioned moneychangers out of the temple.
When Nicodemus finds Jesus, he says that he privately believes that Jesus is from God because it takes uncommon holiness to do the things Jesus does. Now, that’s interesting: Nicodemus is making a statement, but he’s really asking a question. And maybe he’s afraid actually to ask because a Yes from Jesus would change everything. And Nicodemus’ question is the same fundamental question the incarcerated and doomed John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” (Lk 7:19/Mt 11:3)
Instead of offering that definitive and terrifying Yes, Jesus responds with a cryptic comment about being either “born anew” or “born from above.” Scholars may debate which translation is more accurate, but it seems to me that, in the world of symbol and metaphor, they mean pretty much the same thing. That’s what makes those yard signs that scream, “Ye must be born again!” so befuddling and sad to me. It grieves me how casually some can forsake grace—which is God’s boundless Yes to us—and reduce religious faith to a mandated regurgitation of absolutes based on narrow and literalistic interpretations of scripture.
Then again, maybe it feels safe to declare something like being “born again” as the exclusive criterium for salvation. After claiming to be born again, one can rest easy in the certainty that he or she has mollified God’s furious anger and will let them into heaven. Maybe that sounds like grace because it sounds so easy—so long as one imagines God as spiteful and violent.
I do not impugn saying a healthy Yes to God. In John, though, Jesus is God’s prevenient Yes to us, a Yes uttered not only before Nicodemus asks, but before the formation of the cosmos itself. That’s why John opens his gospel saying, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:1-3) God’s Yes to us came long before there was an Us. So, maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that any god whose love is not fully available until weemancipate it by declaring ourselves “born again” is just a graceless idol.
Nicodemus is trying to live in that kind of absolute and literal world. That’s why he asks the absurd question about a grown person returning to a mother’s womb and reentering the world with a second trip through the birth canal.
Again, Jesus gets all mystical. Talking right past Nicodemus, he distinguishes being born of flesh and born of the Spirit. He speaks of the Spirit blowing wherever it will. And poor old Nicodemus can’t handle it anymore. “How are these things possible?” he says.
And there’s the rub. While Nicodemus can’t recognize it, John is using the Pharisee’s “How are these things possible?” question to goad his readers into imagining what is possible in a world created by God’s holy Yes. And that question is about more than the possibility of going to heaven. It’s about the possibility of living in this world differently. I hear Jesus talking about the possibility of living this flesh-and-blood-and-spirit human life more fully by living more deeply-connected to God, who is Spirit and who moves about wherever God chooses, without our awareness, much less our consent.
This blows-where-it-will Spirit is the energy that bears us, that births us into the new life through which we connect so deeply to God that our seeing, hearing, thinking, and doing are transformed. Jesus implies that he is born of this Spirit, too. And he says that “everyone who is born of the spirit” can experience what he experiences as the incarnate expression of grace.
Imagine that! Through the reverberating Yes of God in Christ, we have the possibility of experiencing Christlike holiness in our own lives! How wonderful is that? I’d say it’s pretty wonderful—until we remember that Jesus, God’s Beloved Son, experiences harassment, humiliation, rejection, abandonment, and a slow-death execution. That’s his earthly reward for committing himself to love, forgiveness, and justice.
“For God so loved the world [For God so Yes-ed the world] that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life.”
To “believe in” Jesus doesn’t begin and end with voicing belief. For John, beliefmeans living a transformed and transforming life of justice-oriented compassion and love. It means trusting the Spirit whose identity and boundaries can’t be defined by creeds or confessions. And that life births us into the eternal life of Christ—a here-and-now life that doesn’t condemn the world, but participates in God’s transformation of this painful, chaotic, and yet magnificent and holy Creation by revealing the always-unfettered love of God.
I’ve sung this song for you before, but it seems to fit again today. It’s a story about a man who faces a reckoning that jars him out of his comfortable religiosity. That gracious reckoning reveals to him God’s Yes at work in the world; and it calls him to a brand-new, expansive Yes of his own.
Comfort of a Creed
w/m Allen Huff
Adam went to church most every Sunday
To thank his lucky stars for God above,
God helps those who help themselves, he heard the preacher say.
Now let’s sing a song of happiness and love.
In the parking lot a ragged man approached him.
Can you spare a buck for a piece of bread?
Adam stared right past the man disgusted.
I’ve got no change, so I’ll pray for you instead.
Oh, but all of us are hungry until all of us are fed.
Love is more than thoughts and prayers; it’s everything we share.
And compassion is the greatest gift to neighbor and to self.
We’re all in this together; if we share heaven, we share hell.
That night within a dream a thin hand beckoned,
Hollow eyes searched only to be seen.
To the sound of his own groaning Adam wakened.
In ceaseless tears he poured out all his grief.
He killed the fatted calf for familiar faces,
He gave to those deserving of a gift.
But when came the beggar dirty or the wino wasted,
He closed his heart and mind and clinched his fist.
In the morning at the mirror, Adam looked into his face.
He saw hunger in his own eyes and loneliness in his gaze.
He knew he’d starved himself when he denied his neighbor’s need,
And traded true religion for the comfort of a creed.