Except for perhaps Psalm 23, today’s passage is the most well-known portion of Scripture in the world, containing Jesus’ declaration of God’s unconditional love for the world manifest through Jesus. But following Jesus’ famous declaration, the author of the Gospel adds some penetrating commentary about human nature and the power of the light of God. Grace is God’s unconditional acceptance, regardless of our behavior or disposition toward God. John says that the light (which he earlier describes as God in chapter 1) reveals the motives of everyone’s heart. He says that those who desire to do evil, to perpetuate systems of injustice, are opposed to the light and even hate the light, because it reveals to themselves and to everyone else their true nature. He continues by saying that those who are committed to living in truth are drawn to the light, because it reveals their pure heart and true desire for justice and peace.
This passage is taken from the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus. That conversation starts at verse 2, but we pick it up with Jesus making an illusion to Numbers 21 and another example of God’s grace. In Numbers 21, the Israelites grumble against God’s wilderness provisions. To reveal their mistake, the Lord sends poisonous serpents, who bite and kill many Israelites. When they cry out to Moses for intercession, God’s prescription is a mounted serpent set up in the camp. To experience healing, the Israelites must look to the serpent raised above them: that is, they must see the image of their sin and acknowledge their wrongdoing in order to accept God’s gift of life.
Like this serpent, Jesus’ mission to the world is one of revelation but, as in Numbers, his arrival is a mixture of rescue and punishment. Jesus is the “true Light” who came into the world (John 1:9-10); He is Light and Life, but His brightness can be blinding. Jesus displays this light first in conversations and later in confrontations with individuals and crowds in John’s Gospel. While some look upon Him and receive His light, most turn away. As He says in verse 19, “people loved darkness more than the light.” Jesus is never surprised by people in John’s Gospel, but He continually surprises, challenges, and confuses those who see Him. They are dumbstruck by the presence of astounding Light in a regular human body.
This is the profound paradox of grace: in order to receive it, we must go through the painful process of exposing our inner brokenness and sinfulness. Until our sin’s are exposed, there is no reason to seek out grace. But stepping into the light, even with the promise of grace and forgiveness, is hard to do. It may very well change the way others think about you; there may be temporal consequences; at the very least, it will require us to make changes and live differently. We may sacrifice part of our reputation, or at least our self-image.
Jesus’ arrival, therefore, can lead one out of darkness and into light and life, or it can confirm one’s place among the dead. God’s motivation for sending Jesus is not condemnation, but love. God sends Jesus into the camp, and that trip culminates with Jesus’ own exaltation upon a stake: a Roman cross. Lifted high, Jesus’ pierced body demands attention as the narrator’s gaze lingers on this scene in John 19:34-37. Just like the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ body, the very location of God’s glory (John 2:21-22), is the most staggering revelation of the gospel. Rather than actively judging, Jesus’ form hangs, to be looked upon by those who dare face the horror of “the sin of the world” that caused the Lamb to die (John 1:29). Yet, rather than despair, this sight is also the place of life, the sign of God’s profound love for creation. Thus, verse 21 ends with hope: “But the one who does the truth comes to the light so that their works might be shined upon, because they are being done by God.” Jesus, the Light of the World, exposes truth all around him. That truth is not all beautiful; most of it is human mistakes, wickedness, and hatred prompted by selfishness and fear (verses 19-20).
Lent is a time of repentance and decision. As we focus this Lent on the Power of Sacrifice, we have a choice; a choice that John lays out for us very clearly this morning in black and white. Some people love the darkness, and they chose to stay there because they don’t want their terrible ways to be illumined. But you don’t have to stay in the darkness, John says. You don’t have to drown in sin and doubt. You don’t have to feel inadequate in the face of the powers of the world. You don’t have to feel as if you are not good enough, not loved.
John reveals to us today the plan of the God who loves His people very much; so much that He sent His very own Son to be a light in the darkness. And all we have to do this Lent, or any other time, is choose to step into that light. God loves us! God has made a way for us out of the darkness. Why would anyone choose not to live in the light of God’s love?!? That’s a question we should be asking not only ourselves, but everyone!
God has illumined for us a way out of the darkness, a path forward. Why would we let anything get in the way of that? We are so loved. We are of great value. We are so important! This sometimes seems impossible to believe, especially when people have never had this kind of support from their earthly parents and peers, or when we feel like love is something that has to be earned.
Sometimes it is hard for us to hear and believe that we are loved so very much. Or maybe we are afraid to acknowledge that we are loved because we know how very vulnerable that makes us. Or perhaps we don’t want the dark spots of our souls to be revealed. Sometimes it’s difficult to walk out of the darkness. It can be hard to believe in and to trust God’s love described in John’s words, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believe in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” God so loves the world. God so loves everyone. God so loves you. God so loves me. Try saying that to yourself slowly, with you name at the end. Reflect quietly on God saying that to you right this very moment!
Without those words from God, all we see is darkness. All we often hear are angry voices, put-downs, bitter rejections and total despair. And all of that darkness may not be just coming from other people; it just might be coming from within our minds as well. All this can make the process uncomfortable, but unless we are willing to step toward God and light, we will allow our inner brokenness to fester, which will only chip away at our humanity and perpetuate wickedness in the world around us.
Lent is a season of owning our brokenness, taking an account of the impact our wrongdoing has on our lives, on our world, and on those around us. It’s a season when we set aside time to go through the painful process of bringing our dark and ugly parts into the light of God’s truth, allowing ourselves and others to see all the ways that we are in need of healing and grace. It’s a terribly difficult process, but it is also liberating. Once we step into the light of God with every part of ourselves exposed, we have the profound gift of hearing Jesus proclaim the words that He says early on in our Gospel reading: “I have not come to condemn the world, but to heal it!”
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The light of God’s love is shining in the darkness of our lives. The kingdom of God has come to earth; a new reality has emerged! And a major key to the Christian journey is learning to live in this new reality, in the light of God’s love, even when the darkness threatens all around.
“God so loves you!” Do you trust God on this? If you do, then make the choice; walk out of the darkness. Healing, salvation, and liberation are ours. But the first step is owning our flaws and failures – our sin, and being willing to bring them into the light. Then, and only then, can we bask in God’s glorious gift of grace. Take God’s words of love, acceptance, and life with you. Allow God’s love to change you. And then go out in Christ’s light and love God and others as well! Amen!