A sermon written on the story surrounding John 3:16. Written for our daughter Avery Kathleen Pugh, on 3/16, the day she was baptized.
The audio is found here.
Two nights ago Jacob and I are lying on his bed in the dark.
Jacob: Dad, have you ever stayed up all night?
Ashley and I have made promises to not lie to our kids.
Me: Yes, Jacob, I have.
More than once? He asks.
Yes, more than once.
Dad, what did you do?
Mostly we got in trouble, I said.
I do not think I want to do that, he said.
I know. But you will, I said.
There is a saying in our house that Nothing Good ever happens after 2 am?
Two phrases have dropped out of my vocabulary over time.
What do you have to lose? What are you afraid of? As a young man these two questions got me in plenty of trouble.
But as time has gone on- that same Litmus test doesn’t work.
What am I afraid of? Lots of things. What do I have to lose? Everything.
And when I get in bed I offer this prayer, “Lord, watch over my children when I can’t.” Some nights I sleep better than others. The darkness is sometimes overwhelming. Darkness can smell fear. Suddenly I’m breathing in darkness, filling my lungs with pure fear. Fear for my kids. For Ashley, my house, my purpose in life, fear that the uncertainty of the future and the missteps of the past.
I’m a pretty rational guy, but fear ain’t rational. We all have it. My worst fear, the one that finds me in the utter darkness, is that God isn’t really there.
Some say God is angry or dead or doesn’t exist- I envision it more like darkness, like a closet or a cave. Without God there can be no true joy- just synapses and impulses and dopamine. All life is a meaningless illusion. A void bigger than a black hole. Inescapable Darkness.
That is my worst nightmare.
In my tired and dark moments I turn to scripture. Though where I do not want to turn the light on- for fear of waking someone else up- someone who isn’t struggling with deep metaphysical darkness, instead I close my eyes and read the bible verses I have memorized.
Luther liked to say that bible is the cradle the holds baby Jesus, and inside the gospel,
He also said John 3:16 is the gospel in a nutshell.
A psychologist might tell you that all phobias ultimately boil down to one: the fear of death. This is the very promise that Jesus aims to make- whoever believes shall not perish, but have life.
It belongs as the heart of a great speech, a sermon on the mountain or plain in the sun high in the sky and where Jesus is reaching thousands. Belongs on the front page of every gospel, on the front of the bible, on bill boards, written in the sky and written on signs held by disturbed men wearing rainbow wigs at football games..
But it’s not in a great speech. There is no great crowd, no cheers after receiving it.
The great John 3:16, when first uttered, falls on the deaf ears of a Nicodemus, a man who wasn’t ready to hear it, in the middle of the night.
It’s dark. And not just because the sun is down. Nicodemus is stumbling in the dark, tripping on his own system of laws, unable to sleep, and afraid to be seen in public at the foot of Jesus.
Nicodemus is over educated. Rather than the college student he’s more like the professor.
Jesus has no formal training. He’s a carpenters son who got baptized by an eccentric Zealot. For anyone witnessing Nicodemus going to see Jesus in the middle of the night might just think- this is the blind leading the blind.
Under cover of darkness, Nicodemus opens the conversation with no question, but rather tries to tell Jesus who he thinks he is.
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God
Not prophet, not Lord, not savior, not messiah, not Christos- just a Rabbi.
Jesus responds. Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
Born again? Nicodemus asks. Like in a womb?
Same word born again/above
Jesus: No, born of water and the spirit. Do not be astonished. It’s like the wind, the Spirit blows where it blows, and you can’t see it, and you do not know where it goes.
Jesus is playing with him
Nicodemus finally arrives at the heart of his question, the true nature of his fear:
How can these things be?
Nicodemus, like all of us, imagine the order of things to be a certain way. And a couple of times in our lives, all of a sudden everything we thought we knew comes crashing down around us.
It’s hard to pick up the pieces of your life falls apart. It is hard to answer the question eating at our souls, “How can these things be?”
We lose our job, or a pet. We ask, how can these things be?
We look at new self- which looks more like an old self and we ask, “How can these things be?”
The doctor tells us we need surgery and when we wake up, a part of our body will be gone forever.
“How can these things be?”
Mom calls. She says Dad’s had a heart attack. And all we can think to say is
“How can these things be?”
The darkness fills our lungs and all of a sudden, the same God we worship by day we curse by night.
Nicodemus goes home bruised and limping like Jacob, from his wrestle with the living God.
But his story isn’t over. In chapter 19 he applies his knowledge of Jewish law to properly prepare the lifeless body of Jesus for burial. I imagine him uttering those same words but with different meaning.
This man was supposed to be the messiah. I finally believed in him and now he’s dead. He promised eternal life. How can these things be?
I heard a definition of Faith that I really like. Faith is believing in promises that have been made to you. Like John 3:16.
Those nights of darkness fear and doubt fill our lungs.
So I have a challenge for you. For a whole week, instead of confessing our sins, lets us try to confess our fears. Confess your inability to trust in things unseen, your struggle to hold onto God’s promise in the dark times of our life. Confess that we want to trust ourselves rather than God. Confess that we do not believe and we do not see.
What are you afraid of? What do you have to lose?
I’d like to read for you a poem called the Conversation of the Unborn twins.
The conversation of a set of twins in the womb of their mother ...
“Say, do you actually believe in life after birth?” the one twin asks.
“Yes, definitely! Inside we grow and are prepared for what will come outside,” answered the other twin.
“I believe that’s nonsense!” says the first. “There can’t be life after birth—what is that supposed to look like?”
“I do not exactly know either. But there will certainly be much more light than in here. And maybe we will be walking about and eat with our mouths?”
“I’ve never heard such nonsense! Eating with the mouth? What a crazy idea. There is the umbilical cord that nourishes us. And how do you want to walk about? The umbilical cord is much too short.”
“I am sure it is possible. It’s just that everything will be a little bit different.”
“You are crazy! Nobody ever came back after birth. Life is over with birth. That’s it.”
“I admit that nobody knows what life after birth will look like. But I do know that we will see our mother then, and that she will take care of us.”
“Mother???? But you do not believe in a mother, do you? Where is she?”
“She is here, all around us. We are and we live within her and through her. Without her we couldn’t exist at all!”
“Nonsense! I’ve never sensed a mother, consequently she doesn’t exist.”
“Yes, sometimes, when we are very quiet you can hear her sing.”
Today we baptize our baby girl, Avery Kathleen Pugh, as a child of God, whether she likes it or not. I am so excited to baptize our baby girl I can’t stand it. She is a symbol of God’s promise to give life to the world. Of God’s love.
Baptism is a great reminder that God acts first. There are some who would say that we ought to wait to baptize, until the person can speak for themselves and profess their own faith. But God does not ask our permission to love us.
So when you’re in the dark, when the fear and doubt fill your lungs, remember that sometimes the greatest thing to happen after 2am is the breaking of the first light, and the promise of a new day.