Come illuminate these words.
Teach us to see your light through these ancient Scriptures,
and teach us to live in your light.
Illuminate our lives, we plead.
We ask these things through the Light of the World, your Son, Jesus,
who together with you and the Holy Spirit, rule and reign the universe,
one God now and forever,
We’re going to be in the third chapter of John today,
so you can go ahead and be turning there.
The last couple of weeks we’ve been recognizing that what we’re doing is a little odd.
We’re doing some things when we gather that we don’t regularly do.
Singing in public. Sitting in silence.
Confessing creeds. Using the word “creed.”
And we’ve been trying to recognize that the peculiar-ness of what we’re doing
has something to do with the peculiar-ness of Jesus.
Jesus has succeeded in changing the world.
I think that’s almost unquestionable,
regardless of the scholar or historian you are talking to.
And the way Jesus succeeded in changing the world is by forming a community.
The way we said it last week is
the church is the legacy of Jesus.
And the reason we have begun coming together to
participate in particular peculiar practices
to recognize and remember that the same Jesus
who blessed and invaded and sent the earliest disciples
wants to do the same with us.
And so for these early, first weeks of Church Beautiful, we’re wanting to explore what it means for us—here, now, in this basement—to be the legacy of Jesus.
What does it look like for us to be a Jesus community?
Last week, we said that humility must be a defining characteristic of a Jesus community
because it’s a defining characteristic of Jesus himself.
Which means humility is defining characteristic of God himself.
God is willing to empty himself and seek the good of others
even when it’s costly and painful.
But this humility—
it’s just so surprising, so left-handed, so counterintuitive
to the way we expect life to work
that we rarely consider it to be a serious path to life.
But the witness of Scripture insists that the happy humility of God himself
is the purest, truest—and ultimately only—life to be found.
And so we have to begin to trust Jesus—
trust that he really knows what real life is.
To trust Jesus is an act of humility.
We have to be willing to allow him to redefine reality for us.
That’s a lot of what we’re doing when we come together.
Much of what we’re doing when we gather—
from the very act of showing up
to entering into the Christian tradition
by confessing a creed and listening to Scripture—
these things are meant to humble us.
Trying to allow something older and wiser and broader
than our own culture and our own experiences to define our lives.
Today, I’d like for to wrestle through another angle of how we envision being a community that trusts Jesus. There are probably dozens of lenses we use could focus on what it means to trust Jesus, but we think that honesty fits hand-in-glove with humility.
Honesty ought to permeate both our community and our individual lives.
And “honesty” in much deeper sense than “we never ever ever tell a lie.”
To be sure, speaking truth is indeed important.
I think it may have even made “The Big Ten” that Moses brought down the mountain.
But what does it mean not only to speak truth but also also live truth?
What does it mean for us to not be merely speaking honestly but living honestly?
Well, what truth is makes all difference about how it means to be honest.
I mean, you can’t speaking falsely—you can’t tell a lie—unless you know what is true.
And, conversely, we can’t live honestly until we start getting at “truth” a little bit.
And to get at “truth,” we’re going to return to the fourth gospel.
A BIG NEON GOSPEL
The four earliest, most ancient accounts of Jesus’ life were included in Scripture:
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
If you’ve ever read any of these “gospels”
or heard stories from the gospels,
it doesn’t take long to recognize that this fourth gospel is not like the rest.
The first three gospels all tell the life of Jesus in a similar sort of way:
Jesus is a wonder-working, prophetic rabbi living in first-century Israel
announcing that the long-awaited reign of Israel’s God is arriving.
The kingdom of God is arriving (Matt 4.23, Mk 1.15, Lk 4.43).
Repent!—which is just a word meaning “Change!”
Change your living and thinking!
Begin lining up your life with the reality of
the rule and reign of God that has begun arriving.
And as he announces this “kingdom of God” in Matthew, Mark, and Luke,
Jesus reinterprets the Torah in the speeches (e.g. The Sermon on Mount),
challenges conventional social thinking through parables (e.g. The Good Samaritan),
and wages war against sickness, evil and darkness
by healing the sick and casting out demons and even raising the dead.
Painting with a broad brush, if you’re picturing Jesus
giving specific ways to live in clever statements (e.g. “turn the other cheek”)
or teaching in parables or casting out evil spirits
you’re probably thinking about Matthew, Mark or Luke.
The Gospel According to John has got an entirely different feel—a different flavor.
One of the world’s leading New Testament scholars describes John’s Gospel this way:
“It gives the appearance of being written by someone who was a very close friend of Jesus, and who spent the rest of his life mulling over, more and more deeply, what Jesus had done and said and achieved, praying it through from every angle, and helping others to understand it.” (Wright, John For Everyone, Part 1, x)
So the writer of John experienced first-hand interaction with Jesus
and knew that stories were circulating (maybe even written down) about Jesus,
and it seems like he crafts his account of Jesus’ life in such a way
to make sure that his readers won’t miss the significance of Jesus.
It’s like he wants them not only to hear the stories about Jesus
but to grasp the deepest meanings of these stories and this man.
And so he crafts his gospel with powerful stylistic imagery:
light and darkness, water and spirit
seeing and blindness, life and death.
We find Jesus talking a lot in John’s Gospel.
And he’s not talking in clever statements.
He’s delivering Shakespearean soliloquies.
And not about “the kingdom of God.”
These majestic monologues are about Jesus himself.
I am the bread of life (6.35).
The light of the world, you could say (8.12).
The gate (10.9), the good shepherd (10.11), the vine (15.5).
The resurrection and the life (11.25-26)
The way, the truth and the life (14.6).
John has crafted his gospel like big neon sign:
Life and light and truth and God’s kingdom—
everything that you and ancient Israel and the entire world has been waiting for—
is found here, in this Jesus.
We’re looking for truth?
John would say: Listen to Jesus. Look to Jesus.
In chapter 3, we’re jumping into the early parts of this fourth gospel. Jesus is in the middle of having a conversation with a Jewish teacher named Nicodemus, describing himself and the reason he came into the world:
(3.14-21) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in 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. 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.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
I find it fascinating that John 3:16—
the verse you can still kinda quote even if you know nothing about Christianity,
the verse that’s held up in more end-zones than any other verse,
the most famous verse in the Bible—
is sandwiched in the middle of some strange stuff.
Excuse me—peculiar stuff.
It’s followed by Jesus talking about
light coming into the world and people loving evil deeds.
Right before it,
Jesus is evoking an old story from Numbers 21 about a bronze snake in the desert.
Before and after this verse, we’ve got cryptic Jesus again.
Jesus man-of-mystery again.
But John 3:16 seems clear enough.
So clear, in fact, that we’ve put it on bumper stickers.
And I suppose John 3:16 is a pretty good verse to use for that.
Even when it’s ripped out of its context, it stands up pretty well.
Because there are some Bible verses that don’t stand up as well when they’re ripped out of context. Verses like 1 Samuel 6:11:
They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors.
I mean, just imagine if you saw that on t-shirt.
I suppose if we must slice-and-dice the Bible into soundbites,
if it’s necessary to find slivers of Scripture that are Twitter-ready,
if we must shrink-wrap truth down to something that can fit on coffee mug—
then John 3:16 could be a pretty good option.
But even then there’s a danger.
A danger that we might misunderstand what Jesus is saying.
“…whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
When truth seems so professionally shrink-wrapped,
it’s easy for us to start assuming we know what Jesus is talking about:
It’s easy for us to say: “believes in him”—
that means saying a particular prayer to ask Jesus to live inside me,
and that I get the right facts about Jesus in my head,
and that I have conjured a degree of certainty about those facts.
(“I really (really) believe”…)
And “eternal life.” Well that’s obvious, isn’t?
That means that I’ll live forever with Jesus in heaven after I die.
I’ve got a “Get Out of Jail Free” card
that also covers sulfur and brimstone.
And it was easy to get.
All I had to do was really believe the right things and I’m set for the afterlife.
Obviously that thinking is a little bit of a caricature.
But only a little.
The point is there’s a way of hearing Scripture in soundbites that leads us to think that
trusting our ideas about Jesus is the same thing as trusting Jesus with us.
As entrusting ourselves to Jesus.
And so it’s really easy for our ideas about Jesus
our interpretation of what’s important and true about Jesus,
to start dominating the horizon.
It’s easy to become so devoted to truth
as something “out there” to prove and defend and proclaim
that we find ourselves living falsely “in here.”
We do believe in something “out there” called truth.
Ultimately his name is Jesus.
We confess a creed about him.
We’re learning to believe it more and more.
What we confess to be objective reality of Jesus’ resurrection
is the source of all our life and freedom and hope.
But sometimes trying to aggressively honest about “objective truth”
can make what we find to be life and freedom and hope
become intimidation or coercion or fear in others.
This is what happens when you’re in a church and you feel like
you can’t let know people know what you actually believe or who you really are.
And you’ve got this destructive pattern in your life that you can’t shake,
or you understand politics differently than that vocal group over there,
or you’re kinda interested in the Bible (but the way they interpret it doesn’t make sense)
or you’re haunted by doubts about the goodness of God (or the existence of God!)
because of that thing that happened.
Or you just want to ask a question.
But heaven forbid you ask “the wrong question.”
And so you don’t ask.
Because you can’t question.
You can’t explore.
You can’t confess.
Because here’s the facts, here’s the standard—
here’s the objective truth and the truth doesn’t budge.
And slowly we end up exchange trusting Jesus
for trusting a set of ideas about Jesus.
Slowly truth becomes primarily about proving something “out there”
instead than a posture “in here.”
TRUSTING THE LIGHT
But when Jesus invites us to “believe in him” (In verse 16 and elsewhere),
he’s asking for a posture not a proof.
He’s talking about our stance towards him
not our certainty about him.
One scholar puts it this way: “To believe in Jesus’ name [in the gospel of John] is… to entrust oneself to who he is and what he stands for” (Lincoln, BNTC, 103).
Entrusting ourselves to a person is a bit different
from collecting ideas about that person.
I am learning to entrust myself more and more to my wife, Joy.
Learning to trust her with the deepest parts of me to her.
With my strengths and my insecurities,
with my excitement and my despair,
with my dreams and my shame.
I’m learning to experience a level of transparency and vulnerability with her.
I’m learning to entrust my entire self to her.
And in that process of flinging back dusty curtains
and entrusting every dark corner of my life to her, I’m being changed.
She’s only human, but her very presence floods me with a kind of light.
That’s closer to what Jesus is talking about in John’s gospel
when he’s inviting to people “believe in him.”
Jesus already is the truth. But Jesus doesn’t want to be proven.
He wants to be trusted. He wants to be embraced. He wants to embrace us.
For Jesus, living the truth—living honestly—is this invitation
to fling back the curtains and let the real and living Jesus
(this vine, this gate, this way, this life, this resurrection, this truth,
whom we confess actually, objectively rules the universe)
to illuminate and influence every nook and cranny of our lives.
To flood our lives with his love.
Last week, we mentioned that “eternal life” in the Fourth Gospel,
is the reality that Jesus invites us into right now—before death.
That’s the reality he’s talking about here.
Notice how he describes it in verse 18:
If you’re already believing,
(already learning to entrust yourself to Jesus)
then you’re already not condemned.
Already out of darkness.
Already living in light.
Already beginning to taste real and lasting life.
Because you’re finally learning that there’s nothing to fear from the light.
And Jesus (again and again) also warns us.
If you’re already refusing to believe
(already refusing to entrust yourself to Jesus)
then you’re already condemned.
Already condemned to staying in darkness.
Which makes sense.
If you fear the light (v20)
and love the darkness (v19)
You’re condemned to get exactly what you love.
We experience this in the dark areas of our lives.
We refuse to deal with that weird situation.
With that strained relationship.
With that destructive habit.
I mean, we could…
but it would make for some tough conversations,
it might require exposing some embarrassing secrets,
it could necessitate some dramatic changes.
And life has got a certain degree of equilibrium and predictability right now.
It’s not great.
But it’s familiar.
We’re not quite sure what life would look like on the other side,
what life would look like with that thing out in the open,
what life would look like after that conversation,
what life would look in the light.
And so we stay in darkness.
If you love keeping secrets, if you like duplicity, if you love staying in darkness,
Jesus seems to be warning us that it’s possible to stay there.
But the good news is that there is healing and hope
and real and lasting life to be entered into now.
And that relationship, that habit, that hiddenness, that vulnerability,
is the place that where we’re called to trust Jesus.
Not merely to trust the “right facts” about Jesus with an intense degree of certainty
and hope that one day—probably after we die—we’ll be free of the darkness.
We’re invited to be honest with God
and entrust him with
our insecurities, our shame
our relationships, our health—
We’re invited to really trust our deepest selves to the healing light of Jesus.
John says he is the light.
And we’re learning that there’s nothing to fear,
there’s nothing but healing,
if we’ll just come into it.
For us to a community of Jesus—a community of light—
means we have to be a community of honesty.
Where doubts can be expressed.
Where there’s no wrong question.
Where we can admit that we don’t have answers to every question.
If we ourselves can find the honesty to admit
that we struggle,
that we doubt,
that we question,
we may (just may) become the kind of community
where faith can be nurtured,
where sin can be confessed,
where life can be found.
I think we become this peculiar kind of community by learning to pray.
Because I think as we really learn to speak to and live honestly before God,
we begin to learn what it means be honest with each other.
As we get honest with God
that we ourselves need faith,
that we need forgiveness,
that we need life,
We may just find ourselves being given those things.
And as others begin to overhear these prayers of ours,
and see that truth is honestly beginning to be lived “in here”—
we may just have an opportunity to talk about truth “out there.”
If we live truthfully,
people may just begin to suspect we know something true.
Our posture may begin to point to something.
It’s as strange and surprising as that bronze serpent in the desert sun,
but this crucified Nazarene lives forever and invites us to walk in his light.
We’re invited to be honest.
With God. With others. With ourselves.
What would it be like to live in light?
To learn to live honestly?
Not just to speak truth but to live truth?
This table is the place where Jesus shows us that there is nothing to fear.
Because this body was broken,
this blood was poured out,
this light was extinguished for you.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
God so loved the world.
God so loved you.
And he wants you (yes, even you)
to learn to live before him and before others
with no pretending, no masks, no dishonesty.
It’s with that in mind that I invite you to stand
and speak this confession with me
as a way of practicing honesty together:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
God is inviting all of us
to join him and to join each other in the light.
And if you’re learning to entrust yourself to this God,
then you’re invited to this table.