Speaking Of Life 3016 | The Sacred Irony Greg Williams A memory scripture from my youth is a familiar verse to many. In fact, it’s a gold standard for kids memorizing scripture in Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible School. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV) This verse is one of the anthem cries of our faith, especially in the evangelical protestant tradition. We are saved by grace, not by good works or good nature or good attitudes, or whatever plea we make on our own behalf. Salvation is the gift of God. But look at the next verse: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10 (ESV) Did Paul just do a 180° here? He was talking about how salvation is the gift of grace, not works, and then in the next breath, he’s talking about how God has prepared good works for us beforehand to adopt as our lifestyle. Is this a contradiction? Not at all. It is important to know that Paul isn’t talking about “good works” as some way to merit God’s favor or “earn” our way into heaven. And there is no discussion in this passage of somehow keeping God happy. The verses before make it clear that our identity in Christ is sealed and delivered. Paul is talking about life, and by “life” I mean real life, full life, spirit-filled life, which the New Testament writers called “zoe.” This is eternal life, and it begins today, right now, in Christ. It also deepens and broadens as we experience Christ by joining him in his work in the world—the “good works” that Paul is talking about. This is the key. The best life is knowing Christ and walking with him—participating with him in his good works. This is the sacred irony of freedom through obedience; experiencing fullness by giving everything back to him. Jesus saved us, but he doesn’t just wait for us to meet him after death. He leads us, by the Spirit, to serving and loving and giving and we meet him every day and join him in the daily good works he has prepared for us. I am Greg Williams, Speaking of the fullness of Life.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 • Numbers 21:4-9 • Ephesians 2:1-10 • John 3:14-21
The theme for this week is born from above. The call to worship Psalm is the anthem of God’s redeemed people, saved only by his mercy because of who he is. Numbers 21 talks about the bronze serpent that Moses made in the desert. When the people looked at it, they were mysteriously healed from snakebites. They had to look for help from outside themselves and receive a healing they could never earn. Ephesians 2 describes the mechanics of how we are saved by God’s grace, not our own merit or worth, but because of his grace to call us into true life with himself. John 3 tells us about being “born from above” (or “born again”, the phrase means both things) by God’s Spirit, not working or evolving our way into God’s grace, but looking up for help.
Jesus in Conversation
John 3:14-21 ESV
Read John 3:14-21 ESV
Before we begin unpacking today’s text, let’s get a context. The average modern person speaks over 860 million words in a lifetime. That includes everything from baring your heart to your best friend to ordering fast food. We talk our way through life—there’s nothing more human than conversation, and it’s the daily traffic of our existence.
Among those hundreds of millions of words, there are pivotal conversations. There are some moments you’ll never forget—your first conversation with your spouse, your last talk with a parent who died, the first time your kids asked about a particular topic. Conversations tell us a lot about others and tell others a lot about us. In many ways, our exchanges make us who we are. Jesus’ conversations tell us a lot about him.
He has three important conversations in this first part of John—each telling us something different about him, but all giving clearer indications about what his kingdom was going to be. There are some interesting observations in these three conversations:
- Three different people from different walks of life
- Nicodemus – a Jewish leader
- An unnamed Samaritan woman at a well
- A Roman official
- Three different conversational styles
- First is almost confrontational, but also prophetic.
- Second is the longest recorded one-on-one conversation of Jesus.
- Third is short, almost dismissive.
- Different times/locations
- Nicodemus meets Jesus at night (night is one of John’s symbols for sin and confusion). This meeting seems to have taken place in Jerusalem.
- Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at noon in a town of Samaria.
- The official comes to Cana in Galilee to meet Jesus.
- Three different parts of society
- Nicodemus represents the current religious power
- The woman represents the poor and broken
- The official represents the military power
These conversations tell us a bit about who Jesus is and what his kingdom means. They tell us Jesus is not exclusive to one people group. (Later we see he was teaching us that all are included.) Here is where the last shall be first, the humble get the seats of honor, and the broken are healed and not forgotten.
John and the Gospel writers often used individual conversations as a device to speak to an entire people group and show how Jesus related to that group. There’s an old cliché about storytelling: “If you want people to read what you’ve written, don’t write about Man, write about a man.” That principle is at work in here.
Our focus today is on part of that first conversation. The first part of chapter 3 tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. In other words, he was a prime example of an “important” person in the Jewish community. He was connected to the religious-political elite and would have been a great networking link for Jesus. If Jesus wanted to win friends and influence people, Nicodemus would be on the short list.
Nicodemus comes because he is intrigued with what Jesus is teaching. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God…” Jesus seems to interrupt him by telling him he must be born again. He then expounds the point by speaking of the mystery of the spiritual life.
The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 ESV)
Jesus is telling Nicodemus that you need the invasive work of God to know God, and no amount of good works or good traditions or faith in yourself will get you there.
Nicodemus responds by saying, “How can these things be?”
Jesus responds with today’s text, which begins with a reference to a story Nicodemus was familiar with.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (John 3:14-15 ESV)
As Nicodemus is pondering these words, Jesus shares what has become (perhaps) the most famous scripture of all time.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 ESV)
The message is that God himself entered the story; the Author walked into the narrative because we needed outside help. At least in the U.S., this is the favorite Bible verse written on signs at football games or tattooed on someone’s bicep. John 3:16-17 speaks to our universal need that this can’t be all there is. We are made for another world, some deeper reality than what we just see and touch, and yearn for in our hearts. John 3:16-19 gives us that elevator pitch of the gospel—a short, compact version of the problem, the solution, and the action to be taken.
And note that Jesus doesn’t just refer to the incarnation here—he also refers to his death. God gave his Son to humanity, and in being “lifted up,” the Son of Man gave the ultimate gift.
The encounter with Nicodemus ends with two verses that some feel are difficult to understand at first, but they fit well within the context and the overall story of John:
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. (John 3:20-21 ESV)
Light is a major theme for John, whether it’s physical or spiritual. Here Jesus talks about the fact that we in ourselves can’t take the terrible exposure of God’s light on our actions and our hearts. His light exposes the fungus of egotism and the cobwebs of self-focus around everything we do, even the good things.
And the upshot of it is that when we really encounter God, we realize that even our best isn’t good enough, and that we need him to work his light through us to the world. Every non-self-interested thing we do, every loving word we speak, every act of true kindness we do comes from him, not from us. It is, as the King James renders verse 21, “wrought in God.” Done by God for God’s glory, which is the only way we are truly fulfilled and live in true freedom.
“So that it may clearly be seen…” We need to be born again, and when we are, we can rejoice that the good in us is a gift from God. Nicodemus comes out of a tired, power-hungry religious structure that was flea-bitten by egos and in-fighting. Jesus tells him to walk away, that we all need a savior, and our only chance is rebirth. We don’t need more traditions, more good works— we need stronger medicine.
This reality frees us. We can walk away from our need for recognition and rejoice that God has brought us into the sacred work of bringing his kingdom into the world. Think of the great quote from an 18th-century missionary, Nikolaus Zinzendorf, “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.” Do you see the freedom in that? Our voracious egos wait around to be noticed, our addiction is to center stage, and here is Jesus telling us, “All that’s good in you came from God, don’t look for credit. Instead rejoice. Your father is pleased with you.”
The end of this dialogue sticks out like a question mark. It’s unresolved and jagged. It’s Jesus essentially taking control of the conversation, deflecting every angle Nicodemus might come up with. Jesus breaks through it all, saying, “You need to start over, everything needs to be replaced. So what will it be?”
This isn’t the end of Nicodemus. We have one hopeful image at the end of Jesus’ life. Two men in hushed voices carry the body of their friend and the air is soon sweet with perfume:
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40 ESV)
This is our parting image of Nicodemus, years later. He and another aristocrat, Joseph of Arimathea, are preparing the body of Jesus for burial. They are doing slaves’ work. Members of these ruling classes would never prepare a body! That was slaves’ work, far beneath them.
But what we’re seeing is two men who have been freed from the sickened power structures of their society. They are able to walk away from privilege and do this humble work. They are beginning to understand that true life doesn’t come from power and status, it comes from outside. They are being born from above.
Three points to put in your pocket today:
- Conversations with Jesus—Which one of these conversations sounds more like you? The aristocrat interested in keeping the peace and his career intact? The Roman official trying to get things done, secure in his power? Or the woman at the well, aware of her own need and brokenness?
- Born from above—Are we trying to live in our own strength? Are we trying to save ourselves? We need that outside help, we need that birth from above, to fully release us from our self-addiction. Otherwise we live under the cruelest ruler in the universe, ourselves. Only Christ can free us.
- Nicodemus prepares the body—Do we see the freedom of Nicodemus, in public, doing the work of the slaves? Put it this way: If you appeared in the beginning of the Gospel and then reappeared years later, what would be that final picture of you? Would it show you living in the freedom the Nicodemus found?
Jesus will take you. Whether you come to him under cover of night for fear of what people think, you meet him hot and tired about your daily business, or you come to him on behalf of someone else, like the Roman official with his ill son. So many conversations with Jesus seem to start almost accidentally, and then that conversation becomes pivotal, and changes everything.
Contrast these for a moment to your own conversations. Do we give that time and attention, like Jesus did, to those who “don’t matter” and remind them that God has made them matter because he came? Do we take notice of those the world forgot, and make sure they get the good news of the gospel? Are we working in the light so that the works of Jesus can be clearly seen?
For God so loved the world, he gave us his Son. This is the message we share. Let’s be about sharing it.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Questions for Sermon—“Jesus in Conversation”
- Can you remember a pivotal conversation in your life? Maybe a conversation that exposed who you were and changed your life?
- We talked about the comparison of the conversations between three people and Jesus in these chapters of John: Nicodemus, the Woman at the Well, and the Roman official. Each conversation tells us more about who Jesus is. Which of these characters do you feel like in your life right now?
- Nicodemus—Trying to preserve the status quo, baffled by Jesus
- Woman at the well—Broken, but open to Jesus as the savior she needs.
- Roman official—Meeting with Jesus almost by accident, part of the current power establishment, uncertain what to make of this wonder-worker.
- One theme through this conversation is being born from above/born again. What does that mean to you? How do we know when we are “born from above”? Is that a one-time thing or an ongoing process?
Questions for SPOL—“The Sacred Irony”
- Do you see this “sacred irony” in how we reach true life by dying to ourselves? How we reach freedom by obedience? How does that work out in everyday life?
- Paul says we aren’t saved by our works and yet talks in the next breath about how God has prepared “good works” for us to take part in. What’s the deal?
Quote to ponder:
A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn’t something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God’s sake. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked (John 3:9), and that’s when Jesus really got going.~~Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures