Then Their Eyes Were Open II: Darkness to Light

eyeThen Their Eyes Were Open

Darkness to Light

John 3:1-17

Genesis 1-4a

This is the second Sunday of Lent- the second stop along the way as we journey to the cross.

         Now, last week we talked about sin and blame through the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And today we move on to talk about choice.

You may have noticed that we have spent a lot of time in Matthew’s Gospel lately (we have been in Matthew since well before Christmas) but today we shift into the Gospel of John.  And this switch is really a dramatic one- Matthew is written from a Jewish perspective, very heavily rooted in the Old Testament.

But John is different- it is unlike any other book in the Bible.  It has its own unique character and personality- full of vivid settings, symbolism, and imagery.

And in our Scripture reading this morning we encounter a story that is packed full of the trademark style of John’s Gospel.  We read about darkness and light, spiritual re-birth, eternal life, the gift of God’s own Son.

Nowadays, these concepts and words have become part of our Christian language- part of the jargon that we use in the church.  But could you imagine being Nicodemus and hearing these things for the first time!  This would have been absolutely mind blowing!

Now, lets talk about Nicodemus.  He was a Pharisee.   This means he was a member of a very influential Jewish social movement of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were known as being the upright, law-abiding, very religious members of the community. The fact that he is described as a “leader of the Jews” also indicates that he was, likely, a member of the Sanhedrin, the assembly that acted as judge and jury over the people.  Nicodemus is a religious and civic leader.

He makes this perfect picture of a successful, devout, upstanding Jew.

He is what Timothy Keller called that “highly moral insider.”

Yet, he comes to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness.

As I said earlier, John loves to use light imagery in his Gospel.  He plays with the meanings and contrast of light and dark.  In fact, John describes Jesus as the light of the world, just following our Scripture passage today.  So, if we think of Jesus as light… What would that make darkness?

Darkness is all that is at odds with the light- with Jesus.  Last week we talked about the heaviness of sin and shame… this is the darkness.

So, when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night/ in darkness… not only is this a creative was of saying that he was seeing Jesus in secret (away from the judgmental eyes of his fellow Pharisees)– but likely, this means that Nicodemus came to Jesus carrying an inner darkness as well.   John’s style is one that asks us to read into the imagery a bit.

So we have before us, Nicodemus, a moral man, a good leader, the model Jew… but with a darkness on his heart.  The darkness of sin and shame.

For those of you that went to see Son of God with me a couple weeks back, you may have noticed that the directors made the political situation of the day very clear.  We saw that the Pharisees and the Romans both did not have particularly happy feelings towards Christ.  He was seen as a radical, a troublemaker… and one that had confronted their teachings and practices.  They saw him, not as the Son of God, but as someone that was trying to start an ill-timed uprising…

Yet, Nicodemus (a leader in this political context) seems to have seen a truth in Jesus’ ministry.  So he goes to Him, under the cover of darkness… if not in total faith and belief, than at least in a faithful curiosity.

He goes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with you.”

And Jesus gets right to the point with his answer, he says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Born again.  This is where this heavily loaded term comes from.  What do you think of when I say “born-again Christian?”

For about the past forty years, this phrase has been used to indicate a group of people that subscribed to a particular vision of the Christian life. Whether or not I understand myself to have been “born again” became code for asking the question, “Are you one of us?” Or (more harshly), “Are you one of them?”

In some circles of Christianity, unless you can assign a date and time to the moment you knew yourself to be “born again,” you aren’t considered to be a real Christian.

But on the other side of that coin, if you can name and describe a moment of conversion- of “coming to Christ,” – some people considered you to be somewhat of a fanatic.

Christians have tragically allowed these words, “born again,” to divide us, to compartmentalize all those that are simply trying to follow Jesus.

A satirist, once said that “Making fun of born-again Christians is like hunting dairy cows with a high powered rifle and scope.” (P.J. O’Rourke)

And it is easy to try and put “born again” Christians into a box and set them aside as something different.  People that are fanatic, perhaps, more emotional or broken or more fundamental.  Those that have needed a seismic turnaround in there life to get them on the right path.

But, as tempted as we are to say that the label of “born again” is for someone else.  We have to remember who Jesus originally said this to!

Nicodemus!

Nicodemus who is admirable, pulled together, successful, disciplined, moral, religious, and even open-minded!  Wouldn’t we like to think that we are some of those things?  If not all of those things?

Yet, Jesus confronts all of that… and says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Then Jesus and Nicodemus have this back and forth conversation about what it means to be born again.

“How can someone be born when they are already old? How can this be?”

Jesus says, “as flesh gives birth to flesh, sprit gives birth to spirit.”

Just as we did not earn our way into this world (…we did not have to ask to be born) we were given the free gift of life.  So it is with the new birth.  A gift given to us by Christ.  You must be born again.

Nicodemus is a good man (a stable guy), who came to Christ in a faithful curiosity – bearing a darkness on his heart (I think many of us can relate). And he is offered the gift of Jesus Christ.  The gift of Light!

That is the grand choice that is in front of us all.  Do we except that great gift of light?  Do we except the Lord Jesus Christ and that Salvation that is his gift?  Do we accept this opportunity to be born anew?  Born of the Sprit?

Jesus says to him:

“For 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.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

I think I had to memorize this verse when I was in kindergarten…

Do we accept this as truth?  That is the great choice in front of us!

In my study this week I came across a story that I feel illustrates this choice really well:

—–

There was a Professor of Religion (aptly) named Dr. Christianson, a studious man who taught at a small college. Dr. Christianson taught the required survey course in Christianity at this particular institution.

And although Dr. Christianson tried hard to communicate the essence of the gospel in his class, he found that most of his students looked upon the course as nothing but required drudgery.

This year, Dr. Christianson had a special student named Steve. Steve was a freshman, he was very popular and well liked, and he was an imposing physical specimen (shall we say). He was the starting center on the school football team.

One day, Dr. Christianson asked Steve to stay after class so he could talk with him. He asked:

“How many push-ups can you do?”

Steve said, “I do about 200 every night.”

“200? That’s pretty good, Steve,” Dr. Christianson said. “Do you think you could do 300?”

Steve replied, “I don’t know… I’ve never done 300 at a time.”

“Do you think you could?” Dr. Christianson asked again.

“Well, I can try,” said Steve.

“Can you do 300 in sets of 10? I have a class project in mind and I need you to do about 300 push ups in sets of ten for this to work. Can you do it? I need you to tell me you can do it,” said the professor.

Steve said, “Well… I think I can…yeah, I can do it.”

Friday came, the day of the professor’s project, and Steve got to class early and sat in the front of the room. When class started, the professor pulled out a big box of donuts. Now these weren’t the normal kinds of donuts, they were the extra fancy BIG kind, with cream centers and frosting swirls. This wasn’t just any Friday, but the last day of class!  And they were going to get an early start on the weekend with a party in Dr. Christianson’s class.

Dr. Christianson went to the first girl in the first row and asked, “Cynthia, do you want to have one of these donuts?”

Cynthia said, “Yes.”

Dr. Christianson then turned to Steve and asked, “Steve, would you do ten push-ups so that Cynthia can have a donut?”

“Sure.”

Steve jumped down from his desk to do a quick ten. Dr. Christianson put a donut on Cynthia’s desk.

He then went on to the next person, and asked, “Joe, do you want a donut?”

Joe said, “Yes.”

Dr. Christianson asked, “Steve would you do ten push-ups so Joe can have a donut?” Steve did ten push-ups, Joe got a donut.

And so it went, down the first aisle, Steve did ten pushups for every person before they got their donut.          And then on down the second aisle, till Dr. Christianson came to Scott. Scott was on the basketball team, and in as good condition as Steve.

When the professor asked, “Scott do you want a donut?”

Scott’s reply was, “Well, can I do my own pushups?”

Dr. Christianson said, “No, Steve has to do them.”

Then Scott said, “Well, I don’t want one then.”

Dr. Christianson shrugged and then turned to Steve and asked, “Steve, would you do ten pushups so Scott can have a donut he doesn’t want?” With perfect obedience Steve started to do ten pushups.

“HEY!” Scott said, “I said I didn’t want one!”

Dr. Christianson said, “Look, this is my classroom, my class, my desks, and these are my donuts. Just leave it on the desk if you don’t want it.” And he put a donut on Scott’s desk.

Now by this time, Steve had begun to slow down a little. He just stayed on the floor between sets because it took too much effort to be getting up and down.

Dr. Christianson started down the third row. Now the students were beginning to get a little angry.

Dr. Christianson asked Jenny, “Jenny, do you want a donut?”

Sternly, Jenny said, “No.”

Then Dr. Christianson asked Steve, “Steve, would you do ten more pushups so Jenny can have a donut that she doesn’t want?” Steve did ten, Jenny got a donut.

By now, a growing sense of uneasiness filled the room. The students were beginning to say “No” and there were all these uneaten donuts on desks. Steve also had to really put forth a lot of extra effort to get these pushups done for each donut. There began to be a small pool of sweat on the floor beneath his face.

During his class, however, some students from other classes had wandered in and sat down. When the professor realized this, he did a quick count and saw that now there were 34 students in the room.

He started to worry if Steve would be able to make it. But still he went on to the next person and the next and the next. Near the end of that row, Steve was really having a rough time. He was taking a lot more time to complete each set.

Steve asked Dr. Christianson, “Do I have to make my nose touch on each one?”

He thought for a moment, “Well, they’re your pushups. You are in charge now. You can do them any way that you want.”

A few moments later, Jason, a recent transfer student, came to the room and was about to come in when all the students yelled in one voice, “NO! Don’t come in! Stay out!” Jason didn’t know what was going on.

And Steve picked up his head and said, “No, let him come. Let him come in. Give him a donut”

Dr. Christianson said, “Okay, Steve. Jason, do you want a donut?”

Jason, new to the room hardly knew what was going on. “Yes,” he said, “give me a donut.”

“Steve, will you do ten pushups so that Jason can have a donut?”

Steve did ten pushups very slowly and with great effort. Jason, bewildered, was handed a donut and sat down.

Dr. Christianson finished the fourth row, then started on those visitors seated by the heaters. Steve’s arms were now shaking with each pushup in a struggle to lift himself against the force of gravity. Sweat was profusely dropping off of his face and, by this time, there was no sound except his heavy breathing, there was not a dry eye in the room.

The very last two students in the room were two young women.

“Linda, do you want a doughnut?”

Linda said, very sadly, “No, thank you.”

“Steve, would you do ten pushups so that Linda can have a donut she doesn’t want?”

Grunting from the effort, Steve did ten very slow pushups for Linda.

“Susan, do you want a donut?”

Susan, with tears flowing down her face, began to cry. “Dr. Christianson, why can’t I help him?”

Dr. Christianson, with tears of his own, said, “Steve has to do it alone, I have given him this task and he is in charge of seeing that everyone has an opportunity for a donut whether they want it or not. When I decided to have a party this last day of class, I looked at my grade book. Steve, here is the only student with a perfect grade. Everyone else has failed a test, skipped class, or offered me inferior work. Steve told me that in football practice, when a player messes up he must do push ups. I told Steve that none of you could come to my party unless he paid the price by doing your push ups. He and I made a deal for your sakes. Now, Steve, would you do ten pushups so Susan can have a donut?”

As Steve very slowly finished his last pushup, with the understanding that he had accomplished all that was required of him, having done 350 pushups, his arms buckled beneath him and he fell to the floor.

Dr. Christianson turned to the room and said. “And so it was, that our Savior, Jesus Christ, on the cross, said to the Father, ‘into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ With the understanding that He had done everything that was required of Him, he yielded up His life. And like some of those in this room, many of us leave the gift on the desk, uneaten.”

Two students helped Steve up off the floor and to a seat, physically exhausted, but wearing a thin smile. “Well done, good and faithful servant” said the professor.

Children of God, there is a donut laying on all of our desks.

The gift of God’s salvation – that grand gift of grace and mercy.  Bought and paid for in the sweat and blood of our Savior whether we want it or not.  Just sitting there.  A gift, wrapped up with love.

There is no cost to it – no catch-  all it requires is that we choose to pick it up, embrace it!

Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, bearing a faithful curiosity. To hear Christ say, you must be born again.  That is a choice that we all have to make for ourselves.  Will we accept the gift that Christ has given us?

“For 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.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Amen.   

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