A Sermon on John 3:14-21 for the 4th Sunday in Lent, Year B; preached March 15, 2015, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“For God so loved the world.” The words of this verse—John 3:16—are so well known, not just to us here in the church, but at least to a degree in the culture around us. “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 musical setting of these words that our choir just sang has long been a core standard for choirs of all sorts. Even more than the words themselves, many of us remember a time just a few years back where it was a common sighting to have somebody holding up a poster behind the football endzone that simply said “John 3:16”, or people would get that—“John 3:16”—tattooed places, or you could run across that single-verse reference scrawled just about any where. John 3:16. John 3:16.
I am told that there was a football game back in 2012 that has come to be known as the “3:16” game. Then-Denver-Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, known widely for his fairly public and at times showy displays of his conservative-evangelical Christian faith, had used a contrasting color to paint a bible verse reference onto the black stripes footballers often place on their cheeks right below their eyes. This was something Tebow has come to do quite a lot. On that particular day, the reference was… you guessed it… “John 3:16”. In that game, Tebow threw the ball a total of 316 yards, part of what led to a playoff upset win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Providence…? Or coincidence? Who knows?!
Whether providence or coincidence, though, the truth is that after that game, John 3:16 became the top Google internet search inquiry in America for a time. So, whether or not the painting of John 3:16 on Tebow’s face had any effect on the actual game—to be honest, I tend to be a little skeptical of such things myself—it did have an effect on people watching. For whatever brief moment it may have been, the reality is, it made people look.
There’s a lot going on in the passage from John we’ve heard this morning—a lot more even than the famous John 3:16—and much of it has to do with making people look… or perhaps I should say, inviting people to look… and even a bit about those who refuse to look.
At the center of all of it, I think, is the question of whether we are willing to look into the light, and have the light shine upon us, even if doing so means we have to face up to what is less than perfect about ourselves.
Light, for all its beauty and usefulness and warmth, also is revealing… revealing of shadows, revealing of imperfections and blemishes. It’s no accident, after all, that most bars and nightclubs are kept fairly dark inside—especially those oriented toward meeting people and hook-ups. In dim light, and with the softening of the eyes from a drink or two, the blemishes and imperfections we might fixate on in the light fade away.
But when we’re trying to address our blemishes, our problems, our imperfections, we need the light. Think about those special make-up mirrors you find in some hotel bathrooms and that some of you might even have at home… you know, the one with the ring of light around a mirror that magnifies everything. It’s great for dealing with blackheads and blocked pores and pimples, for finding the stray whisker or eyelash or nose-hair. But gosh, just about every one of us looks terrible in those things. For indeed, you can see all those stray hairs, and the ones starting to turn gray, and the wrinkles. You need the light in order to heal and fix-up and grow, but sometimes what you can see in the fullness of the light isn’t so pretty.
And so, of course, some of us don’t want to see. We don’t want to know the truth about ourselves, our brokenness, our baggage that weighs us down and our inconsistency that strings us up. If I turn on the light, then I’ll see all those blemishes. If I go to the doctor, then I’ll know about my weight and cholesterol. “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.” That’s what we hear in today’s reading—it’s actually not clear whether it’s Jesus saying it or the writer of the gospel of John saying it—and in any event, we recognize the truth in that. It might be easy to jump to looking at others who we think of as loving the darkness rather than the light—the people we think of as politically naïve or unenlightened, the people we see in the news committing heinous crimes—but if we’re honest, we know that we don’t always want to turn on the light ourselves. We don’t want to see everything that the light reveals.
And in doing so, in protecting ourselves from being exposed, we’re also protecting ourselves from being healed. In the reading this morning, we heard about people being “condemned already”, and I think we need to pay attention to the already of that. We don’t have Jesus or the writer of John here threatening that if you don’t believe in Jesus you’re going to be condemned. It’s a present reality. It’s talking about when you know that the light is there, but you don’t want to turn it on lest you be exposed. It’s like what we say about truth, that “the truth will set you free”… indeed, it will, but we have to be willing to hear and know the truth, too, no matter what it reveals.
The light that Jesus brings into the world both condemns and saves. As Jesus is lifted up—which for John is about both the crucifixion and the resurrection—the fact that we humans are people that would kill this one, this Jesus, the light is shined all over that. And some of us would rather not face that ugly truth. But when we face it, when we look right into the image of that which is most scary and most uncomfortable for us, we also find the place where we are healed and embraced and redeemed. In fact, the lifting up of Jesus, the cross of Christ, shows us that sometimes we have to look into the darkness to see the truest light.
Most of you who are regulars here in this church know our dear friend Trudy Lamb. And many of you know that she is presently journeying through the last moments of her time with us in this life. I’ve sat with Trudy for a number of spells this week, as I know others of you have done, too. Between her condition and the medication she’s being administered to keep her comfortable through these last moments, she’s past the point of being very responsive or rousable. Nevertheless, I and others have sat with her, held her hand and placed loving hands on her body, read scripture, and prayed. We’ve visited with each other in her midst, remembering and reminiscing. Some members of our choir went on Wednesday and sang for her, this pillar of our congregation and long-time ‘patron’, if you will, of our music ministry.
Death itself seems such a dark place. We fend it off as much as possible, and when it comes for those we love, it takes a certain amount of courage to really face it. To sit with the dying and care for their needs and be honest about the fact of what is coming for them. Not everyone is comfortable doing it. And yet, as I have sat through these moments over this past week, I have been reminded how utterly holy and full of light they are. Sitting with someone like Trudy this week puts into different perspective all the things I deal with on a day-to-day basis, all the things I might think are important to do, all the complaints about this-or-that program or this-or-that worship practice or this-or-that administrative decision that are laid at my feet, all the things that might distract me or any of us from seeing the light shining in our midst.
Even at the bedside of the dying, that light shines. Even in the midst of the deepest brokenness, the truth heals. Even in the agony of the cross, life triumphs. Because, after all, “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 “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.”
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Information about the Tim Tebow story borrowed from J. Barrington Bates, “4 Lent (B) – 2015: God so loves the world”, Sermons That Work (blog), episcopaldigitalnetwork.com, accessed 15 March 2015 at http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2015/02/22/4-lent-b-2015/.