Meditation on John 3:14-21
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, 142 N. 4th St., Coshocton, OH 43812
March 14, 2021
The air was cool yesterday, when I slipped on a jacket and walked around my yard. But I could hear the wind whispering, “Spring is coming! It’s almost here.”
I looked for signs. When you know where to look and what to expect to find, the signs are all around. Daffodil shoots pushing through mulch and dry leaves.
Hyacinths planted after Easter last year.
Trees and shrubs putting forth buds and new branches.
Early snowdrops in bloom!
Signs of spring are all around—if you know where to look and what you are looking for. If you have to have eyes to see and hearts of hope and anticipation.
Spring is coming. It’s almost here!
The purple banners in our sanctuary and the purple drape on the cross on the church lawn are signs, reminders of our Lenten journey. But as we wait and anticipate the most joyful of days: Easter, we are already celebrating the hope and love of our Savior, shown by what He has done for us.
Our scriptures today are also signs pointing to our journey’s end, a new beginning for us all: the promise of the empty tomb, and new life with the Risen One!
Jesus foreshadows what is to come in the first two verses of our reading in John 3. He connects the Old Testament with the New Covenant, saying, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believe in him may have eternal life.”
This year the image of the serpent in the wilderness is more meaningful than ever! I think I usually skip over it because I don’t like snake! How do you feel about them?
But with the pandemic, I am seeing different things. The snake is a sign of Christ’s healing for the world.
Roger Gench in Presbyterian Outlook writes, “It is one of the most unusual Christological symbols in the New Testament: Christ the Snake. Odd though it may be, it is well worth pondering. In both the ancient and modern world, snakes were and are symbolic of our deepest, most ominous fears, but also of life, death and rebirth — indeed of healing. Psychologists have associated snakes in dreams as harbingers of transformation and new beginnings. The American Medical Association adopted the healing snake upon a pole as its logo.”
Jesus, in John 3, connects his crucifixion with the healing of the Israelites in Numbers 21. The Israelites have become impatient and complain against God and Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” The Lord responds by sending poisonous serpents—and many Israelites die! But when the people confess their sin to God, the Lord tells his servant, Moses, to make a poisonous snake out of bronze and put it on a pole. Then, whenever someone is bitten by a snake, that person need only look upon the serpent of bronze in faith—and live!
This conversation about the snake, sin and salvation, and God’s love for all is between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus, who comes to see Jesus at the beginning of John chapter 3.
John tells us that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. He is a a rich and powerful ruler, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest governing body of the Jewish people composed of priests (Sadducees), scribes (Pharisees), and lay elders of the aristocracy. But right before this chapter begins, John tells us that many people in Jerusalem came to be believe in Jesus during the Passover festival, because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus “knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; he himself knew what was in everyone,” meaning, in their hearts!
Much is made about Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the dark of night. “Darkness and night symbolize the realm of evil, untruth, and ignorance, says Bible Scholar Raymond Brown. “In 23:30, Judas leaves the light to go out into the night of Satan; Nicodemus, on the other hand, comes out of the darkness into the light.”
Nicodemus comes at night to keep his meeting secret. It’s also rabbinic custom to stay up at night to study the Law. But there’s a third reason he comes at a late hour; he wants to be alone with Jesus. Nicodemus has questions! He wants answers—and to know Christ more.
Nicodemus has seen the signs of the coming Kingdom! “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.”
Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God, without being born from above.” And this is the only passage in John where the phrase “kingdom of God appears”—and it will, once more. Before we are through.
When Nicodemus asks him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he is talking about himself! He isn’t mocking Jesus. He is struggling with Christ’s teaching, following the Jewish belief that it is in the struggle and wrestling with the Law, God’s Word, that truth is found, understanding dawns, and meaning is made for today. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” he asks.
Jesus again mentions the kingdom of God and the need to be born of water and Spirit. 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.
Nicodemus answers, “How can these things be?” And you can almost see a smile dancing on his lips. And Jesus seems to return that smile, saying playfully, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” For of course, Jesus knows what Nicodemus knows. That’s how this passage began, with Christ knowing “what was in everyone,” meaning their hearts.
Soon, we reach today’s passage, when Christ draws the story of salvation from the Old Testament to the New with Moses and the snake on the pole to the Son of Man, lifted on a cross so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Why would God do such a thing? John 3:16: “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.”
The word translated loved (agapasen) in John 3:16 isn’t in the past tense in Greek. It is in the aorist, which defies time and “implies a supreme act of love” (Raymond Brown.) It is past, present and future. God has always and will always love the world! 1 John 4:9 interprets and personalizes John 3:16, saying, “In this way was God’s love revealed in our midst: God has sent His only Son into the world that we may have life through him.”
When Jesus tells Nicodemus about the God who loves the world and desires all to be saved, he is defining this New Covenant in Jesus Christ as no longer exclusive to Israel. John 3:17 reaffirms God’s love by providing a Savior for all people. “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 will appear two more times in John’s gospel. He will remind his colleagues in the Sanhedrin in John 7:50-51 that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged. And he will come to Jesus once more at night, after the Savior is crucified. He will help another formerly secret follower, Joseph of Arimathea, prepare Christ’s body for burial in John 19. He will provide 100 pounds of spices for embalming–a sign of a royal burial, fit for the King of kings!
Signs of spring are all around if you know where to look and what you are looking for. And just as we will keep on looking for signs of spring in the coming weeks, with all its promise of warmth, beauty and rebirth, Nicodemus is our model to seek the present and coming kingdom of God.
The signs of God’s love are all around! Won’t you take time to see them and give thanks?
Christ, who knows us completely, also wants to be known.
Christ our teacher invites us to walk and talk with the Light of the World each day. Come to Jesus, alone, with every question you have! Nothing is too small. Nothing is too silly. God cares for you!
Like the snake-bitten Israelites who looked in faith upon the bronze serpent high on a pole—and lived, I invite you now to come in faith to Jesus, lifted high on a cross. We will find healing for body and soul!
When we seek to obey, Christ will lead us to do His good works that will testify to our faith.
This is how others will come to know the God who so loves the world!
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you for your love for the world, a love that was shown when you did not withhold your Only Son. But instead, you gave him up, lifted high on a cross for our healing, like the Israelites of old who were healed by the bronze serpent on a pole. Lord, show us the signs of your present and coming Kingdom, signs that are all around us, if only we have eyes to see and hearts to walk in your Light—with you—each day. Lead us to do your good works and testify to our faith. Help us as we seek to share the good news of your love with all the world so that others will come to know and love you. In Christ we pray. Amen.