When I had a houseful of kids, if something went missing or got broken there were plenty of possible suspects and of course no one ever wanted to confess to being the guilty one. Now that I live alone, there is no one but myself to blame and when something goes missing, I know who misplaced it.
Confronting our own guilt is never easy, but it is what we are called to do on a daily basis as Christians. The remarkable thing is that we are told over and over again that if we confess, we will be forgiven.
In our Old Testament Lesson we have a rather odd story. The children of Israel are making their way from the Red Sea which they crossed to escape slavery in Egypt toward the Jordon River and they are taking the long circuitous route to avoid the tribe of the Edomites. Along the way the people begin to get tired of traveling and begin to complain. They are remembering the good-old-days in Egypt when they were slaves, but had easy access to food and water. They even called the mana sent down from heaven “miserable food.” Poisonous snakes invaded their campsite and many people were bit and died. The people saw this as a sign from God that they had sinned by complaining against God and Moses and they begged Moses to intervene on their behalf so the snakes would go away. God tells Moses to make a bronze replica of a snake and put it on a pole. Then when anyone was bit by a snake, if they would look at the snake on the pole they would live. In effect, what they were doing was acknowledging their own guilt by looking at the snake on the pole, acknowledging the mercy of God by the simple act of looking at the cause of their illness, and receiving mercy from God who prevented them from dying.
This might have just remained one of those odd stories in the Bible except that Jesus made use of this symbol to explain what he, himself will do.
Jesus has been speaking to Nicodemus, a Pharisee who came to him in the middle of the night. This is right after Jesus had driven the merchants off of the temple property. Nicodemus may have been one of the men who witnessed this event and asked Jesus for a sign. He obviously is concerned about what his peers would think of him if they caught him speaking to Jesus as a believer – otherwise he would not have come at night. It is obviously important to him to speak to Jesus, otherwise he would not have gone to all the trouble to seek him out after the others have all gone home to bed. Nicodemus tells 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.” Nicodemus has been watching Jesus and has witnessed what John in the previous chapter calls “the signs that he was doing.” I suspect this was healing the sick, the wisdom of his teachings, and perhaps Nicodemus was beginning to see in Jesus the fulfillment of the ancient scriptures as Jesus intended.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above;” sometimes this is translated “born again.” This should have been a compliment to Nicodemus. He has just confessed that he has seen the kingdom of God unfolding in the presence of Jesus and Jesus has responded that Nicodemus has experienced this new birth which has granted him this vision, but instead, Nicodemus takes what Jesus is saying literally and questions how one can be born again, thinking only of biological re-birth.
Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what it means to be ‘born of water and the Spirit”. Nicodemus is still stuck – he is not getting any of what Jesus is saying despite his earlier confession that he knew Jesus had been sent from God and the signs that he did were testimony to that fact.
Jesus is now rather astonished and appalled at the lack of spiritual knowledge in this person who claims to be a religious leader of the children of Israel. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I can empathize with both Nicodemus and Jesus at this point. Science and math can be hard, but at least you can point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify it is true and if you will observe it, you will see that it is true. In spiritual matters, we can also point to something and say –I observed this and I can testify this is true, but telling someone else how to observe it for themselves can be difficult. Spiritual experiences are often difficult, if not impossible, to repeat even by those who first had the experience.
Jesus continues to try to explain to Nicodemus what he is talking about and this is about the place we pick up todays gospel. Jesus tell Nicodemus that if he is having trouble understanding something earthly, like birth and re-birth, how can he ever understand the heavenly things, but Jesus doesn’t stop trying to help him understand.
He tells him that “no one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” Son of man is a term that goes back to Daniel where Daniel has a vision of one “like a son of man” (a human being) who is presented to “the Ancient one” and to him is given “dominion and glory and kingship…” Jesus is using passages of scripture that should be familiar to Nicodemus to tell him, I am the one – I am the Son of Man that Daniel describes and I have come to earth as a man.
Jesus pulls out another story from the scriptures that Nicodemus should know. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is describing his crucifixion and comparing it to the bronze serpent that Moses put on a pole in the wilderness. Jesus will take on the sins of the world at his crucifixion and all one needs to do is look to the cross and acknowledge that Jesus has taken on their sins and has forgiven them and they will be saved – not just for the moment, but for all eternity.
Verse 16 is the first Bible verse most people learn – “For God so loved the world that he give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “ It is a beautiful summary of the mercy of God, but we seldom pay attention to the rest of the passage and it is a statement of fact intended to cause Nicodemus to wake up to what Jesus has been telling him.
Jesus emphasizes that he did not come to condemn the world. The ancient notion of the last days was all about judgement, but mostly about judgement against the other person. The prophets often reminded folks that in the day of judgement everyone, including you, would be judged, so be careful what you wish for. Jesus states that we pronounce judgement on ourselves. “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3: 18) None of us are put in the role of judging another person’s relationship with God, but I can’t state I believe the scriptures to be the inspired word of God and turn around and say it doesn’t matter what we believe.
Jesus gave this warning to Nicodemus – that we could tell the difference between good and evil because “those who do what is true come to the light.” Symbolically, Jesus is comparing himself to the light but he is also saying that what is true, what is good, can stand up to the light of day – is not afraid of being exposed. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he was afraid for others to know what he was doing. His motives are questionable. He is drawn to Jesus and yet, he places the esteem of his peers higher than his desire to be with Jesus.
Looking on our own shortcomings is never easy, but the solution is easy, we only need to turn and look at Jesus, to acknowledge what Jesus did on the cross as the path to our salvation. We don’t have to completely understand it, but we must be willing to be seen in the light of day embracing the cross. Are you willing to look at Jesus on the cross and acknowledge that is where your salvation was obtained? Are you willing to let others know, or do you carry your faith only in the dark recesses of your own heart? Jesus tells us to put our lamps where the light can be seen. We are the lamps, Jesus is the light, but it is up to us to determine where we allow His light to shine.