John’s third chapter opens with Jesus in conversation with a highly-respected Jewish leader named Nicodemus. Nicodemus came to Jesus to commend him as man of God, but Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the compliments. Jesus talks about faith and the proper object of faith. Jesus explains that everyone must be born “again” to see the Kingdom of God. It is also possible to translate the words as “born from above,” that is, spiritually, rather than “again.”
In verses 14-15, Jesus explains why he must be crucified to bring eternal life to everyone who believes in him. Then this: 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. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
We almost always recite only verse 16, then stop. But there is the rest of the story and Jesus told it. It is a blunt, unpleasant truth. Jesus drew a genuine distinction between salvation and its lack.
Furthermore, Jesus said that there is no neutral territory. There is no spiritual space where we are neither saved nor unsaved, there is no halftime where we get to ponder the question for awhile off the clock. Jesus said those who do not believe “are condemned already,” that is, unsaved to begin with. This is a “hard teaching,” as Jesus disciples put it about another subject later in John. Either one believes in Jesus or one does not; there is nothing in between. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is himself proof that faith is justified. Jesus is clear that he is the actual embodiment of God on earth. To make that confession about Jesus, to affirm his teachings about himself, is to be born “from above,” that is, spiritually reborn by the Spirit of God, just as Jesus was himself born of God. To believe in Christ is more than merely acknowledging that Christ was a real person. There is a difference between saying, “I believe I have a neighbor” and “I believe in my neighbor.” It is one thing for us to believe that there was a Christ, it is another thing for us to believe in Christ. To believe in Christ is to place one’s destiny in his hands.
The story is told of a husband and wife walking in their town when the sidewalk gave way beneath them. It was a sinkhole, and they fell to the bottom, almost twenty feet down. They yelled for help because they knew that the sinkhole would cave in again and bury them. They were, we might say, “condemned already.”
Shortly a philosopher came along. He saw their plight and said, “Let me explain to you the metaphysical meaning of sinkholes.” Next came a psychotherapist, who asked, “Did you ever have arguments with your mother over sinkholes?” Then came a self-help, motivational speaker, who jumped up and down excitedly and exhorted them, “Yes! Yes, you can! You can get out of that sink hole. Say it after me, now: I can! I can! I can do it!” Then Professor Schrodinger walked by with his cat and told them, “In another quantum state you are already buried.” The next fellow was a congressional candidate who said, “Vote for me and I’ll introduce legislation to outlaw sinkholes.” Then former President Trump came by and said, “I would have built a yuuuuuge wall around that sinkhole!” A lawyer came by and said, “I will help you sue the property owner.” Their parents came by and told them, “If you loved us you would move out of that sinkhole.” The county inspector walked up and asked, “Do you have a sinkhole permit?” A news reporter asked, “Can I get some video of you in the sinkhole?” An IRS agent informed them, “Medical expenses from sinkhole injuries are deductible only for the amount that exceeds seven and one-half percent of your adjusted gross income.”
President Biden came along and told them, "I will send legislation to Congress to send stimulus relief checks for everyone trapped in sinkholes."
An optimist told them, “Cheer up! Things could get worse!” A pessimist came along and said, “Don't cheer up, things will get worse.” A Methodist preacher arrived and asked, “Did you know that sinkholes can be used as metaphors for the human condition of John 3.16-19?” A Buddhist showed up and told them, “The sinkhole is not real.” A television evangelist told them, “Send me money and I will pray for you to get out of the sinkhole.” A Hindu guru came along and told them, “The sinkhole is your karma.” A Zen master walked up and asked, “What is the sound of a sinkhole?” A Confucian appeared and said, “Confucius says, ‘In all lives there are sinkholes, such is fate.’” A Muslim approached and said, “It is Allah’s will for you to be in the sinkhole.” Then Jesus came to the sinkhole. He did not pause to ponder sinkholes or to explain them to the couple trapped there. He just leaped to the bottom of the sinkhole and said, “Jump on my back and I will carry you out of the sinkhole.” And he did. We are in the season of Lent, of course, and that is the season that even Methodist preachers really, really like. During Lent we get to really hammer sin and bang on the pulpit about what miserable sinners and reprobates make up the human race. During Lent we have a preaching license to give all the explanations and warnings about the sinkhole of human sin. Well, that or something like it has a place in Lenten reflection. I am pretty sure that a lot of people really don’t understand that the sinkhole problem of the human condition is indeed grave. We may wonder about it in the aftermath of horrific crimes in the news, but even those horrors rarely evoke true conviction of the sinkhole problem of human sin. In 1998 I went on a study trip to Appalachia as part of a course at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. One Sunday we attended a service in a small up-hollow town in coal country. It was a congregation of the Old Regular Baptist church. That was the name of the denomination: Old Regular Baptist. The service started at nine and ended at noon. Three hours of church, five preachers! It was an engrossing experience. The first preacher was like the guy with a guitar who plays and sings before a Garth Brooks concert: just starting out. He gave a heartfelt testimony but got sung down by the choir because he went on too long. Then there was another man who had preached before. He was more polished. And so it went, each preacher more talented than the one before. After the fourth preacher sat down, everyone took a short break. Then the choir sang a hymn and the headliner preacher stepped up to the pulpit. At first he spoke slowly, softly, then he picked up the tempo and the volume. He knew about every sin in the book, and apparently somebody in the congregation had done at least one of them recently. Eloquently, he covered all the bases: the human inability to love God right, the need for repentance and the imperative that we throw ourselves at the foot of the cross and pray for the precious blood of Jesus to cleanse us. By and by he took his coat off. Then a few minutes later he loosened his necktie. Awhile later he rolled up his sleeves. Before long he took out his handkerchief and wiped his sweating brow. “Though our sins be red as scarlet, Jesus will wash them white as snow. Jesus stands at the door and knocks, but in our pride we won’t answer the door – we should be ashamed to leave him standing there in the cold, the one who suffered and died for us.” And finally, the expected ending: though no one has any right to ask God anything, and none of us are worthy even to untie Jesus’s sandals, from his infinite and incomprehensible grace and love Christ will accept us if we sincerely beg his forgiveness. Then he sat down, the choir sang another hymn, and everyone left.
We don’t always take God very seriously as God, a God who is as close to us our next breath. For sure the Old Regular Baptists up there in Appalachia take God pretty seriously. They live a hard life and they sometimes know a hard God. Their kind of worship is not for us, but the wind of the Spirit blows where it chooses.
Yet while we need to be reminded that sin is a serious, in fact fatal, condition, we must not lose sight of the great thing about Lent. Lent is about sin, yes, but how much more is it about love and mercy and forgiveness of sin! We think we are doing pretty well and that God must love us because we are doing well and because we are are pretty good people. I mean, look at us: What’s not to love? Yet those Appalachian Baptists knew what Nicodemus had to learn: God does not love us because of who we are, but because of who God is. Bishop Will Willimon wrote: In the midst of our trivial moralizing, our scolding and scrambling for a few penitential brownie points, John reminds us of why we’re here. We are on the way of the cross not because of what we have done or left undone but because of what God has done. The goriest work of human sin gets sidetracked into glorious divine redemption. The prophet is sent not to scold but to save. It was out of love that he came among us and stood beside us and chided us and died with us, for us, and saved us. Love. Now we remember. It was for this that we began the journey. It was not for sackcloth and ashes, whips, the sacrifice of a before-dinner martini and empty stomachs that we are here. It was love that put us in this parade. We kneel not as miserable worms but as those brought to their knees by sheer wonder at the gift. It was not to condemn us that our Lord bid us bear his cross, but to save us. We are not here as the lost but as the found. The cross is heavy and clouds gather, and we shall have more days for honesty, more Sundays to examine our lives again and pray for the courage to be truthful about all, the ways in which we betray so great a love. Lent is not over; “there is still more repenting to be done. But as we turn our steps again” toward Calvary, “let us take these words with us: it was not for condemnation that he was sent to us, but for love. He beckons us on, not to condemn but to save. (Christian Century March 17, 1982, p. 292)
Shall we be born again, be born from above by the wind of the Spirit? Yes, we shall. We shall have faith: we are ready to bet our lives on the Son of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Thanks be to God!