We seldom present ourselves with the question, “Which is my favorite Gospel?” Until recently, that for me was Luke. I was drawn to the imperatives of taking care of the sick and the lame, the widow and the imprisoned. It was clear, it was charted and definable. I can do this!
But then a pastor came into my life in 1999 here in Boise. He would challenge me to consider the Gospel of John. “Nothin’’ doing.” I told him. I don’t understand it.
But he kept after me and introduced me to a theologian named Raymond Brown; a Catholic priest who wrote in the 1960 – 1980’s. He was preoccupied with history behind the early Christian writings. Immediately I liked this author who wrote a two volume commentary on that Gospel.
As it turns out, what I didn’t understand was the Johannine code; something that seemed to be just under the surface. I became captivated by the imagery and symbolisms to things that were seemingly hidden understandings and messages. I was hooked!
The lesson for yesterday, the fourth Sunday of Lent was from John 3: 13-21.
“This is easy!” I told myself. The most memorable verse, taught first to the youngest in our Sunday school classes, is right there in verse 16. Cool!
But then I considered how it had been used to a frazzle and that for years it showed up in football stadiums in the end zone and shown relentlessly during field goals and point after kicks. There has to be more that can be done with this citation. Then I decided to back up and consider the entire section, vss. 1- 21. There were major connections to be made on both sides of the so well known 16th verse.
One of the evangelist writer’s more common symbolisms is the use of the notions of light and darkness. Vs. 1, Nicodemus is identified and in vs. 2, it points out that he came at night. Why would the time of day be at all important? It’s not. This is the John code of identifying the nature of the character in this particular story.
Also in vs. 2, Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as a distinguished rabbi and reveals his understanding that Jesus has come from God. This places Jesus in the light and thus creates the contrast of the symbolism.
In Johannine code, light was seen as that which is associated with or comes from God, and darkness was an association with the realm of evil, untruth, non-understanding or ignorance.
In the betrayal account in chapter 13 vs. 30, Judas leaves the light to go out into the night of Satan.
Another piece of code, vs. 11, is how Jesus speaks of Nicodemus and the Jewish ruling order as “you people”. This attests to the dating of the writing of John as clearly after 92 CE as the Council of Jamnia (Jabne Heb.) had drawn a line in the sand that one could not be both Christian and Jewish. This point of friction permeates much of the Johannine thinking. When this Gospel says, “the Jews”, or “you Jews”, it is not intended to be polite.
To return and try to treat Nicodemus with a bit of fairness, let’s assume that he is coming only from a position of non-understanding. The questions he presents to Jesus in vs. 4 are pretty clear evidence of his failure to “get it”. He asks, “Can I go back to my mother….?”
In vs. 10, Jesus acknowledges the esteem of the position Nicodemus holds in the Jewish religious order, thus they have each established an awareness of position of the other. He then proceeds to instruct Nicodemus and level him with his failure to understand in vs. 12. He goes on with the instruction and then in vs. 19, comes back to this comparison of light to darkness. Jesus places himself in the light which suggests that Nicodemus may be part of the work of the darkness.
The use of light and dark here can be referred to as a dualism. It is a writing style that was common at that time and in fact was not new as it shows up in Qumran documents known as the Dead Sea Scrolls which precede the Gospel of John by several hundreds of years. Another dualism in this text appears in vs. 6 where flesh and Spirit are contrasted. Similarly, evil and doing truth are yet another dualism that shows up in vss. 19-21.
So what are the admonitions of all of this?
- We are called to act in truth and seek the light.
- Shun evil and move from darkness.
- That acting in the light is the activity of the Truth.
I am reminded of the South African praise hymn that has a place in our Lutheran Book of Worship, page 866.
We Are Marching in the Light
Subsequent verses include: dancing in the light, praying in the light and singing in the light. All of this speaks to the celebration of life and the living of a life in the Light.
Lord God, guide us always toward your Light and help us to never fall into the darkness. Help us to be messengers of your Light to the world.
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Bob, i loved this reflection! You injected new life into John 3:16.