John 3:16. Not an easy verse to ignore or pass over when it comes to preaching. And sometimes, Dear Working Preachers, we simply can’t. Often our preaching needs to offer a corrective, whether that be providing countermeasures to interpretations that have harmed or simply situating a verse back in its narrative context. But on what context we choose to focus is also ours to determine.
This time around, I am drawn to the verses that follow 3:16 — and a view of judgment that might not be very popular. Why? Because we don’t get to judge others when it comes to their relationship with God. Which should, then, give us pause when we want to judge another — period.
We live in a world that likes to judge others — even thrives on it. The sin of superiority reigns supreme in our society. As if in the same situation we could do better. As if in a similar circumstance we would make better decisions. The fear of exposure of our own mediocrity controls our behavior. We seek out those whose supposed faults are the low-hanging fruit that we pick to feel better about ourselves.
We live in a world of distrust — on every level. Decisions made without having the merited people at the table. Plans constructed without real people in mind. Opinions proposed without knowing the whole truth. Conclusions drawn all too often with only myopic and minimal information.
And, we live in a world that distorts the line between privacy and secrecy, as if the preservation of a personal life is the same as clandestine behavior, or that purposeful concealment is the same as maintaining boundaries.
I am not sure where to place the blame for the current ethos of our culture. But then again, the very desire to place blame is an attempt to deflect our own discomfort when we begin to acknowledge our own culpability or our own complacency.
The judgment of which John speaks is an important reminder for our day and time, but it will not be a popular notion of judgment. Our response to the Word made flesh — whether or not we recognize that Jesus is God — is a judgment we bring upon ourselves. Like it or not.
Perhaps it’s easier to be judged than to acknowledge that our actions, our behaviors, bring judgment on ourselves.
And as a result, we have to take a long hard look at ourselves. Why we are so eager to condemn others and somehow think that our own condemnation is exempt. How we are so willing to withhold forgiveness and to what extent that means we ourselves are in desperate need of it. How we are so willing to peripherize reconciliation when it necessitates a resolution with our own demons.
But perhaps there is good news in all of this, Dear Working Preachers. Believe it or not, I hear freedom in this passage. Not that I am freed from the judgment of others — for I will always be inclined toward condemnation. Such is the nature of the human condition. And it seems that a life in the church, ironically, incurs more judgment than other professions.
But, I feel a certain sense of liberation. That how I act, how I behave, how I respond is simultaneously a revelation of my character — not because in having this knowledge I can then preempt my own inclinations, but because it tells the truth about myself. That I will, when left to my devices, seek to judge others before I am willing to shine a light on myself. I need to hear this truth, more often than I care to admit.
The response of others to God’s revelation is not ours to control — only our own. And even then, how we react to God’s presence is more often than not contextual and inconsistent. That might be a jagged pill to swallow, but a necessary one. And a necessary one to preach.
Back in its context, the one who should have seen the Truth standing before him could not, at that moment, at least. Our evaluation of Nicodemus when we get to 19:38-42 might dissipate our absolutes, but still, we are forced to ask why — why Nicodemus can’t see here. And, Dear Working Preachers, John does not give us an answer, or an easy out, but leaves us in our own moment of decision — deciding what we will make of Nicodemus, wondering how we might have responded given the same situation, and scrambling to try to redeem ourselves.
In the end, John 3:17-18 are the after effects of our response to 3:16 — whether or not we are willing to believe that “God loves the world” might actually be true. And if we are willing to live as if it simply has to be true.