Equipped for a mission-focused
Journey With Jesus

Sermon for March 10, 2024 – Fourth Sunday of Easter Preparation

Welcome to this week’s episode, a special rerun from our Speaking of Life archive. We hope you find its timeless message as meaningful today as it was when it was first shared.

Program Transcript

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

This week’s theme is God’s provision of salvation. In our call to worship Psalm, the psalmist recounts how God had saved the people of Israel from their great distress. In the Book of Numbers, the Lord had Moses fashion a bronze serpent on a pole. When the snake-bitten Israelites looked upon it, they lived. In Ephesians, we find that we have been freely saved by God. And in the John’s gospel, we learn that just as Moses lifted up that bronze serpent, so Jesus was lifted up that we may believe in him and have eternal life.

The Cure, The Conundrum, and The Crisis

John 3:14-21 (NRSVUE)

Perhaps the most quoted scripture in the entire bible is John 3:16. For many believers, it is the first scripture committed to memory. This scripture reference is so popular that it can be seen plastered on billboards, painted on signs held up at various sporting events, etched on jewelry, and even tattooed on a person’s skin.

While John 3:16 does provide us with a nice little sound bite for the gospel, it needs to be placed in its proper context which paints a much sharper picture to the overall message that John is trying to convey about Jesus.

As today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter preparation, it is only fitting that we look at a passage that alludes to the reality of Easter. While John 3:16 fits neatly into the Easter reality, the rest of our passage today will be a test for us. A test to find out if we are prepared to consider the cure, the conundrum, and the crisis we all must face.

Read John 3:14-21

At the beginning of chapter 3, we have a conversation that takes place between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. Not only that, but he is described as a religious elite. He is a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. You could say that Nicodemus was a celebrity among the Jewish people.

At this point, Jesus was already drawing the attention of the religious leaders. He was not being looked on favorably, and so, Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night, where he would not be seen by his fellow Pharisees.

Earlier in this chapter, John shows that despite Nicodemus’ great spiritual learning and the fact that he is Israel’s teacher, he fails to understand something that Jesus presents to him as fundamental to one’s spiritual life. Nicodemus is not tracking with Jesus on his need to be born from above; to be made new.

What Nicodemus is hearing presents him with a costly challenge: to lay aside his understanding of how the world works, to acknowledge that the things that were to his credit and gain may in fact be seen as a loss and a detriment to his spiritual well-being. Jesus then decides to share with Nicodemus an event from the scriptures he knew he would recognize.

 And just 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 NRSVUE)

The story that Jesus refers to is found in Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites had grumbled against God in the wilderness. As a result, deadly snakes came and bit many of the people, and many died. God then told Moses to fashion a bronze serpent on a pole. Moses was then to lift it up, and anyone who looked upon it would live. This was the cure.

Jesus takes this story and draws the connection between it and what will eventually happen to him. In the same way, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross, whoever looks upon him will live as well. Jesus will be the ultimate eternal cure for humanity.

The idea of “lifting up” has more than one meaning here though. There is the obvious meaning of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. But there is also the idea of Jesus being exalted, where Jesus has ascended and has come into his glory. In the previous verse, verse thirteen, Jesus is alluding to his ascension, so this double meaning makes a lot of sense in this context.

When Jesus says that all who believe in him will have eternal life, he isn’t asking for an assent to a set of facts. Jesus is speaking about a definitive trust: to place all of our weight upon Christ as our savior.

This trust, then, is not founded on our religious upbringing, our abilities, degrees, positions, or possessions. This may be the way that the world worked for Nicodemus, and it may be the way the world works for us, but this is not the way of the cross. Our trust is in the fact that our cure is totally and completely found in Christ and in his finished work on our behalf.

Just as it was for Nicodemus, so for us; there will be much that we either don’t understand or have a hard time giving in to.

Many music teachers as well as language teachers may tell you that in general, it is harder to teach adults these skills than it is to teach children. There may be several reasons for this. Let us look at one reason in particular.

Children are already in learning mode. They are in school and as such, they know that there is so much they don’t know. When they make a mistake, they brush it off and keep going. With adults it can be a different story.

Most adults finished their schooling long ago. At this point in their lives, they have accomplished certain things and now they want to feel competent. When learning a new skill, your ego takes a hit as the mistakes seem to keep piling up.

The challenge is to be like a child, to realize that you are starting something brand new, and acknowledge that you are no longer the competent one. Maybe this is key to understanding Jesus when he said that unless we change and become like little children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)

The idea is to embrace being made new in Christ. We have been given a gift to trust that Jesus is everything to us that he said he is. We get the privilege of being able to trust that he is daily making all things new by his Spirit.

We all have been bitten by the fatal fangs of sin that were filled with death. But there is life everlasting as we look to Jesus as our one and only cure. And we trust in him. Jesus continues his conversation with Nicodemus:

 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18 NRSVUE)

John continues this section here with the most famous verse in the Bible. It is the verse that tells us that Jesus is God’s gift to us. This is God loving us with the fullest expression of himself, to prove to us how much we are loved by the Father.

Verses 17 and 18 provide us with a conundrum. That is a fancy way of saying “a head scratcher.” If Jesus was not sent to judge but to save, then why do people refuse to believe?

When a person chooses not to see God for who he is, he judges himself. If someone refuses the love of God found in Christ, they are condemning themselves. It’s like a person who holds unforgiveness in their hearts towards another person. In judging others, we create a sickness that eats away at our own souls.

The mission of Jesus was not to judge, but to save us, and part of that salvation plan includes freeing us from the ways that we damage and judge ourselves and others.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:19-21 NRSVUE)

The word for “judgment” in verse 19 comes from the Greek word, krisis. Yes, the same pronunciation as the English word “crisis”. Jesus is saying that there remains a crisis. Although the love of God has come to us in the form of Jesus, offering us everlasting life, we are faced with a crisis.

The judgment, or crisis, is that many prefer not to embrace the Light, which is Christ, because they are accustomed to concealing the darkness of their hearts. To those who would follow Christ, illumination is necessary. And this is what scares many people.

To embrace love, we must be vulnerable to the truth. That proposition can be frightful and even painful to think about. We can become so attached to our egos, to being right, to being superior, or, on the flip side, holding up our wounds and victimhood like trophies. In either case, we have created false identities. And yet, if we step into the light, it risks exposing all we have held onto. It exposes the lies and delusions that we have believed for so long that have given us meaning, as distorted as those meanings may be.

Verses 20 and 21 set up a contrast between two types of people. In verse 20, Jesus talks about the one who practices evil. In verse 21, he talks about the one who practices….what? Were you tempted to say “good”? Verse 21 doesn’t say that; it says the one who practices “the truth.”

Our own goodness can actually be the problem. Our goodness has nothing to do with it. Our righteousness is as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are called simply to come into the light, the truth. We are called to respond to God’s nonjudgment of us.

This is what it means to be converted. We no longer fear the light. Instead, we acknowledge all that we are, all that we have done, all that we have known, and place it all before the crucified and risen Christ. We let his truth, his light, shine upon our entire being.

We have been called to leave behind those things we desperately want to keep hidden in the dark. Instead, we are to embrace the truth of who Christ is, and all that he has included us in. We are to walk in the light that has been graciously given to us.

We stand as ones whose judgment under Christ is “not guilty!” We have been freely pardoned and are freely loved. We stand now as ones who will live on, not just in this age, but the age to come. We stand as ones who embrace all the love God has for us. We stand as ones who look upon the exalted Christ and know him as our light, our truth, and our life.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • What does it mean to be “born anew”?
  • Why is it so hard for people to give up their darkness?
  • What are some things that need to be brought into the light?
  • How has coming into the Light changed your life?
  • What might you say to encourage a friend that wants to hide from the Light of Christ?

Leave a Reply

© Copyright 2024 Grace Communion International

GCI Equipper Privacy Policy