Scripture: John 3:1-17
It must be frustrating to be an innovative inventor. To be the type of person who files patents and creates the utilitarian products we use daily requires a unique way of thinking and viewing the world. It requires trying to solve a problem in the most efficient way possible, and inventors try to pack as much practical function as they can into the designs they create. This is where it must get frustrating for them, because they are too good at this. The clever things they create are completely misused by the rest of us. For instance, did you know that a pot has a built in spoon holder? It is true. Nearly all pots have a hole on the handle. That hole is not just there to hang the pot, but it has been designed so that a wooden spoon can be inserted into it, and held over the pot. Another design feature we miss are how soda cans are made with a straw holder. Again, the pull tab to open the can has a big hole, and once the can is open the intention, is to spin that tab around so that it holds a straw. Another problem that has already been solved by intentional design is the fact that fast food cups have a tendency to sweat. This is why the lids that keep them from spilling are also made so that if you take the lid off it makes a perfect coaster for the cup. None of these things are clever life hacks that people came up with. These are all intentional design intentions that are expressed or illustrated in diagrams in the original patent applications. Several things that we use regularly were made to be used a certain way and either we overlook the functionality or we do not completely understand it. I think this is probably true for more than just the tools and objects we use regularly. In fact, I think it is probably truer when it comes to abstract or complex concepts. For instance, we are probably all painfully aware of what inflation is right now. Yet the vast majority of us have only the most basic of understandings of the micro and macro-economic nuances that lead to inflation in the first place. We tend to accept only partial understandings of ideas, and operate off of those. The same thing can happen with our faith. Just like we can miss the intended design of some inventions or not fully understand the nuance of a complex idea, we can miss or have an incomplete understanding of fundamental faith beliefs.
When it comes to being a Christian perhaps the most core, must fundamental, and most basic of all beliefs is “Jesus saves.” We have all seen it plaster on billboards or sign posts scattered around the countryside, we have all heard that expressions, and many of us here truly do believe it. However, have we ever fully considered what it means to say that Jesus saves. There are many so many different questions to ask about this such as: “who does Jesus save?” “What does Jesus save us from? “ How does Jesus save? Why does Jesus save? We have heard said hundreds of times that “Jesus Saves”, but can we fully articulate just what makes Jesus a savior. As we continue on in lent we are going to focus on who Jesus is as revealed in the scripture. Throughout the gospels we see many different facets of Jesus, and by gaining an understanding of them all we can better follow Jesus as his disciples. Today, we explore Jesus as savior.
Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus reveals a lot about how Jesus saves. I think that a lot of modern day Christians can find a lot of common ground with Nicodemus, because he is the kind of a person that several aspire to be. As a Pharisee, he took his faith seriously and he was known to all as a good, religious person. He would have been known, and respected in his community. People would have thought well of him, and if Nicodemus fit the mold well then he probably did his best to get along with everyone and do no wrong by anyone. Like I said, he was a good religious person.
However, like a lot of good religious people he had a tension in his life. In this morning’s scripture we get a sense that Nicodemus wanted to more authentically follow God and live out a deeper faith. To this end he recognized something in Jesus. He could tell from Jesus’ actions and words that Jesus was not just another pretend savior, another wannabe messiah, or a rebel rouser with a charismatic aura. Nicodemus’ faith, his connection with God, was one of the most important things to him, and this drew him to Jesus. Nicodemus saw the divine in Jesus. As he says in verse 2 “You are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the sings you are doing if God were not with him.”
Yet at the same time, Nicodemus did not want to rock the boat. He did not want to upset the status quo. This is why he went to Jesus under the secret of night. He could not outright declare his support for Jesus. That would be far too radical for Nicodemus. Jesus had proved to be a bit of a divisive figure. To even publically talk to Jesus in a way that was not belittling would have been viewed as endorsing him, and that would have been far too scandalous for a good religious person like Nicodemus who did not want to rock the boat. Thus, coming at night was his compromise that satisfied his faith based desire to draw closer to God and maintain his desire to keep everything calm.
Again, I think a lot of Christians today can really identify with Nicodemus. Because like Nicodemus we do take our faith seriously but we also like when the waters are smooth. We like when everything is calm, and we are not in open conflict or disagreement. We do not like going against the grain, causing a scene, or sticking out as the one going against the flow. We often find ourselves facing the same tension that Nicodemus faced between pursuing a deeper faith and not rocking the boat.
Nicodemus meets with Jesus at night, but right away Nicodemus finds he is out of his league. He is completely confused as to what Jesus is talking about. It seems that the author of the gospel, was also concerned that people would not get it, and adds their own summary. John 3:16-17, are not actually statements of Jesus, they are the author John seeking to clarify and explain what Jesus was getting at with Nicodemus. John summarize, “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.”
We are so familiar with John 3:16, but at first glance it does not seem to fit with the rest of the scripture. John 3:16-17 is all about how Jesus saves, but the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is centered on the idea of being born again. The key to understanding the connection is found in John 3:14-15 which reads, “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.”
Many of us might have a similar reaction from hearing this scripture, which is to ask“what snake?” We have to remember that Jesus was talking to Nicodemus. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have known the Torah, the first five books of the bible, extremely well. So to help Nicodemus connect the dots and understand how Jesus saves, he connects it to a story Nicodemus would have been familiar with. In Numbers 21:4-9 there is the story of the bronze snake. This is when the Israelites were wondering the desert after they had left Egypt with Moses, but before they had arrived to the promise land. The people were impatient, they were ungrateful, and they lashed out in anger and blasphemy against God. They turned away from God and desired to do things their way. As a consequence for this sinful behavior, God sent poisonous snakes throughout their camp. The people confessed and repented their sin. God instructed Moses to erect a bronze snake on a pole, so anyone bit by a snake could look upon the statue and they would live. This was a reminder to the Israelites that they could not save themselves, but that it was God who saved them.
In the wilderness the Israelites out of pride and selfishness had turned away from God. Their sin led to separation from God and death. Jesus brilliantly uses this story that Nicodemus would have known inside and out to illustrate the human condition. Jesus is comparing himself to the bronze snake, because even at this point Jesus knew that there would be a day when he was lifted up for all to see. Just like we do not always understand how to utilize all of the features built into everyday items, we do not always realize the full depth of the scriptures or God’s love. John 3:16 is perhaps the most quoted and best known scripture in the world. However, when we remove that scripture from the fullness of its context, it loses its power. God’s love for the world was vast and so great, that he offered up his son. Just like the bronze snake was lifted up in the desert Jesus was lifted high on the cross. Looking at the bronze snake was how well one was healed in the desert. It was an admission of humility and a realization that the people could not save themselves. Looking to the cross of Jesus is how one is saved from sin and death. It is an admission that we have fallen short of the glory of God, that we have sinned, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It is an acknowledgement that the savior who hangs on the cross took the punishment we deserve. It is an understanding that we cannot save ourselves but because Jesus emerged victorious, we can look to him and live. We can have new life.
To accept this reality, to gaze upon the cross and live is like being born again. This is what it means to be born by the spirit. Being born again is living life with the profound realization that we need a savior. It is acknowledging that we cannot make it through this life, that we cannot truly know peace, love, or goodness on our own. It is like being born again, because our outlook and understanding of life can change. Instead of primarily looking out for ourselves and being concerned with making sure we get what we think what is coming to us, our focus instead looks up to the savior who was lifted up on our behalf.
The gospel, the good news of the Christian faith is communicated in this scripture, and it is perfectly paraphrased in John 3:16. If we wanted to get it even shorter, we could shorten it to two words as many have done. The gospel is Jesus saves. Who does Jesus save? The scripture says God, so loved the world. All who look up and acknowledge Jesus as Savior will be saved. What does Jesus save us from? Jesus saves us from ourselves, from our sin, from our rebellion against God. It is through Jesus that we are reunited with God and we are born again to live a new, God-focused life, which will last for all eternity. How does Jesus save? Jesus saves us by taking the punishment we deserve. Jesus took our place and emerges victorious so that we are delivered into new life through him. And why does Jesus save? As we already mentioned, it is because God so loves the world. God loves me, God loves you enough that he was willing to pay any price to get us back.
One of the most profound ways that we can know Jesus is as the savior. This scripture declares that Jesus is the savior of the world. The most important question we have to all answer is this: Is Jesus the savior of you? Perhaps, you have gone to church before today, you have heard that Jesus saves, but you have never truly considered what that means, and what that means for you. Perhaps like the unused functionality of everyday objects, you had not fully considered what it means for you to be saved. If so, then it is my prayer that today has been a help to you. If so, and you still have questions then there is nothing that would bring me more joy than to continue the conversation. It is my deepest and most sincere prayer for all of you that each and every one of you would know in the depths of your hearts, minds, and souls that Jesus saves. May you be willing to confess that you cannot save yourself and acknowledge that you need a savior. May you live a life that is born again, a new life, and eternal life that is given birth by the Spirit. May the proclamation of all our hearts joyfully be Jesus has saved me!