Light Up
John 3:14-21

by | Mar 11, 2024

PRAYER: God of light and hope, illumine our way that we may stay in the path of your love and grace. Strengthen us that our light may shine and that the world may know your glory through this church, and through those of us gathered here. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Our reading today begins in the middle of a story – chapter 3, verse 14. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to start a reading in the middle of a story, so I want to provide a little context about what comes directly before it. You may remember that last week, we read from the 2nd chapter of John in which Jesus overturned the tables and chased the money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. He annoyed a lot of temple leaders / pharisees in that moment. And now, beginning in chapter 3, Jesus is still in Jerusalem when one of those Pharisees, a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He said to Jesus, “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”. In the gospel of John, this is not an insignificant detail that this leader in the Jewish community comes at night – comes in the darkness seeking light. Even though Jesus got under the skin of these temple leaders, there were still some – like Nicodemus – who wanted to know more about what Jesus was saying… who wanted Jesus to show them the light… even in the midst of the cover of darkness. And just so we are clear: it is God who created light. Let’s never forget that!
Darkness is a recurring theme throughout the Bible. The creation story. The very first sentences in the Bible. ¶ They describe God’s actions – God’s words – when darkness covered the face of the deep, and darkness was defeated by light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.
In the opening sentences of the Gospel of John, we see the creation story echoed. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Back in the Hebrew scriptures, as Moses tells Pharoah to let the Israelites go free, he prophesies that there will be 10 plagues: Blood, Frogs, Gnats, and Flies were the first four. And then there was a plague on livestock, a plague of boils, and then hail and then that was followed by locusts. That’s eight. The tenth plague was on the firstborn – from which we get Passover. All terrible plagues in and of themselves. But the ninth plague – darkness. In Exodus 10, it says, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven so that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was dense darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days.”
As a side not: This was no small thing to the Egyptian people. The Egyptian God, RA, is the God of Sun. It wasn’t just that Moses plunged the Egyptians into darkness – Moses defeated the god of the Egyptian people. On April 8 of this year, there is going to be a total eclipse over portions of the world. We know that the total eclipse is a temporary phenomenon, and that it will be over in short order. For the Egyptian people, the plague of darkness was their worst fear realized. That impenetrable dark meant the end of the world. Ra had been defeated. Perhaps Ra had died and was not being re-born. Could anything be more terrifying? Could any story be more destroying, more hope extinguishing, than this one? The plague of darkness was not just something the Egyptians had to “live through.” The plague of darkness took away any reason to live, their reason for being. The plague of darkness was a plague directed not at the body, but at the Egyptian soul.
In Isaiah 58:10, the prophet promises that if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Light defeats the darkness when you offer your food to the hungry and care for the afflicted.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the writer says, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” They were in darkness – in the shadow of death – but now they have seen a great light. Darkness is defeated.
My favorite Bible verse – 1 Peter 2:9 promises that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.
And let’s not forget that when Jesus was born, what was the sign that God gave? The star. Light. Darkness is defeated by light. Amen?
In the third chapter of John, Jesus draws Nicodemus out of the darkness and tells him to be born again… reimagine what you’ve always known…. Look at God from a totally different perspective than what you’ve always seen. It’s time for Nicodemus to understand that God is not about just following the law for the law’s sake. It’s time for him to look at God from a perspective other than just one who invokes a bunch of rules. Because God did not create the light so that God’s creation would just follow a bunch of rules just for the sake of following the rules. That’s not a pathway to being the light.
And that brings us to this very famous verse. I would bet that most of us here today had to memorize this verse – John 3:16 – when we were children. There is a lot of evangelical theology that is wrapped almost exclusively in John 3:16. It reminds us of the importance of belief in the Son of God for salvation, it conveys the substance of our relationship with God as one of love, and it demonstrates God’s sacrifice.
But this passage also has risks. Because if we just read this verse alone, then those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are, and that can lead us to conclude that the only thing we need to be concerned about in our faith is believing the correct things about God — orthodoxy. We run the risk of reducing the massive relationship we can have with God down to a shallow litmus test of doctrine.
Let’s be very clear that our faith – our world – is far more complex than a single verse can summarize. Don’t get me wrong: this verse is, still, an incredibly important gift from the Gospel writer of John, but I do believe that we should pay just as much – if not more attention to the verses that come before it and the verse that followed: “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.”
God is shining a light on Jesus, that draws us out of darkness. For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him… in order that the world might come out of the darkness and into the light.
God is offering us light in our darkness. God is offering to bring us out of the darkness into the marvelous light in order that we may be born anew – that we can reimagine ourselves in light instead of darkness.
The potency of this verse could be compared to a spark that ignites our faith just like it might ignite the flame that results in a hot air balloon taking flight. We could be “lit up” with the message these verses convey and our faith could lead us and our communities to soar.
I think that’s the deeper way to read John’s concern about believing in this passage. Belief is not simply about following the right orthodoxy, but instead, it’s about shining the light on God’s power, on what God has done. What if we are saved because we believe God works in the world for good and we can participate in that goodness, rather than believing certain “correct” doctrines about God?
When I read this passage, I see the importance of believing in miracles. I see the importance of believing that God makes many things possible that our human, worldly understanding might think is impossible. I see the importance of looking beyond the overly simplistic orthodoxy of a finite set of beliefs and I see the importance of shining a light on the beauty of all that God has to offer. And isn’t that the essence of faith?
God loved the world, so God held up Jesus for us all to see. God shined a light upon Jesus for us to look upon and to worship and adore. The light that shines upon Jesus is the light that breaks away the darkness. That’s what the light does, and that light is what we are called to use that we can shine it upon the darkness of this world.
Sin thrives in the darkness, and light destroys the darkness. When we shine the light of God’s love upon the darkness of systemic racism, systemic racism cannot live. If the activists during the Civil Rights movement didn’t believe in miracles, and if they didn’t do everything they could to shine the light upon the sin of white supremacy, I do not think we would have progressed as far as we have in the journey through the sin of white supremacy. When we shine the light of God’s love upon the sin of hatred, hatred cannot live. When we shine the light of God’s love upon the sin of neglect, when we shine the light of God’s love upon the sin of economic disparity, when we shine the light of God’s love upon the sin of food deserts… those sins cannot live. If we didn’t possess a belief in what God could do, we wouldn’t experience transformation. And without transformation from the sinfulness that can ensnare all of us, how indeed could we be saved?
Nicodemus was a devout Jew – a leader – the story says. So we can presume that before he came to Jesus at night, that he already had a belief in God… So the transformation for him was not just to believe – he already did that. He had to become a new creation within that belief that he brought God’s light into the darkness and, as a result, brought his transformed spirit in relationship with the rest of God’s creation.
One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous quotes is “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As you go out into the world that God loves this week, you’ll carry the light of God – the light that God created to break darkness – with you. Take that light and light up the world with God’s love. Take that light from God into our souls and heed the words found in the Gospel of Matthew: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.” It’s very possible that you will encounter people that you may not agree with… It’s OK. Let your light shine. Light up the world with God’s love, because light will defeat darkness… every time.
To God be the glory.