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 Preaching John 3:1-17

 

It’s Holy Trinity Sunday, and maybe, weary preacher, you are more than ready to turn from Eastertide and Pentecost fire into the long green season. But first, in another Sunday of dazzling white, it’s time to celebrate the Holy Trinity.

Sooner or later, you may be tempted to try to explain the Trinity. You’re a seminary-trained preacher, steeped in Bible study, schooled in doctrine, and steeled for all the big questions!

Almost certainly, you will come to regret it.

Maybe you’ll begin with a brisk review of Trinitarian theology, then turning to the sermon with a sense of purpose and clarity. Trust me, it won’t last.

Before long you’ll be flailing around for some way to make this comprehensible to your listeners, and clichéd metaphors will rise up to claim you. Three-in-one oil? (C’mon, do you really want to reduce the Divine Mystery to a household lubricant?) The Trinity as apple? (I admit I’ve never been able to sort this one out. Core, flesh, skin? Who’s on first?)

Next, maybe you’ll beat a strategic retreat to the creeds. Now you’re on solid ground, or so you imagine. The history and theology of the creeds are a fascinating subject (for a lecture or adult discussion that is). In a sermon, though, chances are that pedantry will smother your proclamation, and you’ll send your listeners into a bemused snooze.

So here’s my advice. Don’t go there.

Looking for a challenge? You’ll get all you want from the Gospel of John, filled with homiletical hazards at every turn.

For starters, most preachers will need to caution listeners that “the Jews” in John are Jewish leaders, and “Jews” an epithet that is the expression of a family quarrel, not, as all too many Christians believe, evidence that the Jewish people have forfeited their place as God’s chosen people.

John is often hijacked as support for other claims of Christian superiority. Preachers from “born again” faith communities find scriptural support in Jesus’ counsel to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above,” or, in some translations, “born again.” In mainline congregations, many Christians also embrace some version of exclusionary theology on the basis of John; “believers” will be saved, and “unbelievers” lost.

Preachers have a responsibility to address both of these common misuses of John. The challenge, though, is to do this without letting our qualifications and explanations distract from our call to proclaim the good news.

One approach is to tell this densely theological text as story. Bring your listeners into the imaginative space of night, the dream world of intuition and mystery. Name the fear of darkness that never leaves us entirely; the edge of anxiety we feel as daylight fades and the darkness closes in and our daytime defenses fray and falter. Then help your listeners see and feel the other side of darkness, the sheltering dark, the cover of night for the Israelites escaping from Pharaoh or immigrants fleeing over the border; the night that summons us to sleep, where God renews and heals us. Then, draw listeners into the night world of imagination, where the logic of the waking world recedes, where ordinary vision is obscured and the eyes of perception open to new layers of reality.

Enter Nicodemus, the seeker, coming under cover of darkness. Yes, maybe he’s afraid, sneaking around because he fears for his reputation, fears the judgment of others. Or maybe he is one who takes the risk of night, drawn by this strange teacher in spite of all he knows and believes about religious authority.

Take listeners through that odd dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus as the two seem to talk past each other, and Nicodemus finally falls into confusion and silence: “How can these things be?” Then the last turn could acknowledge the mystery of God, the One we do not and cannot know fully. Name some of those mysteries, the awe and terror and beauty of our lives. In closing, proclaim to your people that God is present in the darkness, bearing us up.

Another kind of sermon could develop from a focus on John 3:16, a verse that most of your listeners will know. Luther called it the “gospel in miniature: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is probably the best known and most beloved verse of the whole Bible.

Ironic, then, that “John 3:16” is now widely used as a belligerent declaration of an insider’s credo. Maybe some of your listeners remember “Rainbow Man,” an icon of 1970s and 1980s sports events, who wore a colored wig and tried to attract the camera’s eye for his sign reading “John 3:16.” He’s been widely emulated since then.

The preacher could then consider what this means. For some Christians, it seems (maybe some of your listeners) holding up this sign is a way of lifting up the Son of Man for all to see, and yet a sign that simply reads “John 3:16” seems more like a test or even a secret password. It’s addressed to insiders, a kind of Bible code. If you know it, you’re in on it, if you’re not, you’re out. This message doesn’t sound like good news, but in a way, it does sound like what Jesus is saying in this story.

So, now you’ve got to deal with “belief” and “believe,” repeated in this story in a way that can sound like a hammer of judgment. Here it can be helpful to invite listeners to substitute “trust” for belief, and to remind them of all the times that Jesus refuses to set the boundary between insiders and outsiders.

For the last turn, consider unsettling your listeners with a little jolt of John’s radical eschatology. “Eternal life” in John begins right now. Those who trust in Christ are already taking hold of the life he offers. For John, the kingdom of God is already among us, within us, even. New life is God’s gift to all who hear the promise and receive it in faith.

Barbara Melosh

 

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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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