Apart from the famous John 3:16 verse, this Sunday’s Gospel (the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B) is very strange: Jesus compares himself to an odd chapter in the Bible about a serpent being lifted up to save others, and then talks about how dark the world is.
This is because the readings today teach us a strong lesson in the joys that Jesus Christ uniquely brings. They are not simple and superficial joys; they are serious, subtle joys — joys that last.
First is the joy of complete acceptance.
Let’s take the famous verse first: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
People love that verse. They tattoo it on their bodies and hold it high on signs. Why?
Because there is nothing more satisfying than being accepted and loved by somebody. Human beings are hard-wired for community and when somebody notices, appreciates and approves us, the feeling fills us with delight. In fact, the feeling is so strong that we tend to seek it cheaply, trying too hard to be accepted in superficial ways.
But honest-to-goodness loving acceptance is powerful not just because we are human, but also because we are wounded. The pain of rejections small and large throughout our lives have taken their toll, leaving our souls calloused and wary, expecting the worst from others.
There is something of that in Nicodemus. He is sneaking out to see Jesus, for fear of his Jewish colleagues. He is looking for love but keeping his guard up.
When he hears Jesus’s now famous words, the words are like a lifeline.
They are the same thing for us: They bring the joy of unconditional acceptance after painful experience has taught us that love is rare, hedged, and filled with disappointments.
Second is the joy of a miracle cure.
The Gospel also brings Nicodemus the joy of unexpected and total healing. In the Bible, people dance and shout for joy or can’t stop talking about it when Jesus cures them. It’s the same for us.
When Jesus compares himself to the bronze serpent Moses lifted up, Nicodemus knew what he meant: After the people grumbled against God, they were plagued with poisonous snakes. The strange remedy for a snakebite came with Moses lifting up the sign of their tormentor. Whoever looked upon it was cured.
Nicodemus knew what snake-borne illness he suffered from: The original sin which began in the garden with Adam and Eve. The disease would be cured by Christ on the cross, but to get the cure, people would have to look to him there. The second reading describes how this works.
“By grace you have been saved through faith,” says the letter to the Ephesians, “and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.”
Nothing we do brings about the cure. It comes from “the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” — and it is a miracle.
Third is the joy of true light.
The third joy Jesus brings is the joy of light. A few lines before today’s Gospel begins, it reports that Nicodemus came to Jesus at nighttime. He came cloaked in darkness. So he understood right away what it meant to step into the glow of truth and to no longer “prefer darkness to light.”
In the dark, we move cautiously and stumble. In the light, everything is laid bare and made clear to us. In the spiritual darkness, we cannot tell right from wrong, we cannot tell “true” from “false,” and the world is colorless and bleak. In the light, we see the right way to go, we can understand what is in front of us, and we are surrounded on all sides by color.
Now that Nicodemus has met Jesus, who accepts him and cures him, there is no longer any reason to fear the light where “his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
Fourth is the joy of home.
The two Old Testament readings today point to one last joy that Nicodemus must have appreciated: The joy of finding home.
The first reading tells the story of the Babylonian exile, when the Jewish people were forced out of their homeland because they “added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations,” says the Book of Chronicles.
It sounds a lot like the world today. “Early and often did the Lord, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them,” says the tale. “But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets.”
Turning from God led to a painful exile, expressed in today’s hauntingly beautiful Psalm: “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”
We feel the same way. We feel out of joint with the world. Its beauty captivates us but it is never enough; its goodness soothes us — until it disappoints. We know there is some deeper home where we truly belong.
That nagging alienation starts to fall away when he meets Jesus. Here, in the incarnate God, is the resting place he is looking for. Here at last is absolute beauty, absolute goodness, absolute truth.
Here, in Jesus, we can finally find “home.”