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By David Howell

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Preaching John 3:14-21


On this fourth Sunday in Lent, we continue to deepen our understanding of Jesus’ identity and mission. The impending reality and necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death are stated clearly once again in this text in yet a different context and using different terminology than the predictions of the gospel texts of the past two Sundays. This passage from John’s gospel contains some of the most familiar words in the New Testament, and therein we find the first challenge for the preacher. Like other words of scripture that have grown overly familiar and even clichéd, we must first “undo” the assumptions about and associations of this text with the clandestine visit of Nicodemus to Jesus and Jesus’ declaration about being “born anew.”  Keeping this text within its Lenten context will enable the preacher to open it up in new and meaningful ways.

The pericope for today begins with a reference to the action of Moses in the wilderness in response to the people’s repentance and God’s salvific intervention. As Moses’ “lifting up” of the bronze serpent served as a healing gesture for the people of Israel who had encountered God’s punishment of poisonous snakes, so Jesus portrays his own “lifting up” on the cross as the means of healing from the poisonous effects of sin. The Lenten themes of sin and salvation are acutely evident here. The analogy Jesus makes reminds us of our human frailty and inability to heal or save ourselves. Only by God’s gracious action (the raising of the serpent in the wilderness, and the raising of the Son of Man on the cross and then in the resurrection) are we healed and offered new life. The preacher can connect to the healing that is implied in this passage and in today’s first reading from Numbers by pointing to those places and ways in which we all need to experience the healing, redemptive work offered by Christ.

The particular words of Jesus about his suffering and death reported in this text are shared in the middle of a conversation with Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, who seeks Jesus out by night. Something about Jesus prompted Nicodemus to step outside the usual resources of his tradition to hear more from the itinerant preacher who had captured the imagination of the people. While the story of Nicodemus is not the focus of this particular rendering of the text, we cannot understand verses 14-21 without that context. Nicodemus is sincere in his desire to fill some kind of emptiness in his soul and senses the answers to his questions in the teaching and work of Jesus. We are no different. If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge the empty places in our own lives and souls that prompt us to search for fulfillment and answers. That quest ends only, as Nicodemus discovered, when we have a personal encounter with Jesus the Christ.

The centerpiece of this text is the very familiar verse (16) about God’s love for the world made manifest in Jesus’ suffering, sacrificial death and the requirements of belief in order to obtain what John refers to as “eternal life.”  For Christians who may have memorized and internalized this verse as children, the challenge for the preacher will be helping them to hear this verse anew. John 3:16 is one of the most theologically-rich verses in the New Testament while, at the same time, one of the most theologically-complex and problematic. Too often it has been reduced to a creedal statement representing a particular approach to Christianity that tends to be judgmental and concerned primarily for personal salvation. What is clear in Jesus’ words, however, is that God’s love is intended for “the world” with individuals (“everyone”) simply one part of God’s good creation. The preacher can encourage the listeners to expand their understanding of these familiar verses in order to see Jesus’ work not only in terms of personal salvation and heavenly reward (“eternal life”) but also in terms of the reconciliation of the world.

In a similar way, the preacher can emphasize the lack of judgment and desire to save rather than condemn the world that characterizes God’s gracious work in Jesus Christ. It makes perfect sense that God would want to save the world God created by offering us a second chance to put right what we have done wrong. The only appropriate response, then, to God’s goodness and generosity and redemptive work on our behalf is belief and the desire to live as people who have “come to the light” in Jesus Christ, the light that exposes the darkness remaining in our world.

I write this as the world is focused on such darkness demonstrated in the heinous act of the shooting down of a passenger airline over the war-ravaged country of Ukraine. The attack reminds us of the continued presence of darkness among us in those who wish to do harm to the world God so loved and to those for whom God sent the Son. By the time these words are read, there will, surely and sadly, be more displays of such darkness. This text reminds us, at this Lenten season and always, that we are called to persist in exhibiting God’s grace and light in the world, knowing that, as John’s gospel states at the opening, the darkness can never overcome the light. That’ll preach!

Beverly Zink-Sawyer


Beverly Zink-Sawyer is the author of From Preachers To Suffragists(Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), the editor of Series 3 of theAbingdon Women’s Preaching Annual (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002-04), and one of the authors of the New Proclamation Commentary: Easter To Christ The King (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008).


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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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