Today’s Scripture focus: John 3:1-17
It was one of the eeriest nights of my life. Michelle and I were on a camping trip throughout the state of Tennessee. We started out at Frozen Head State Park in middle Tennessee. We spent two nights in the “rustic tent” area with our little campsite right next to a running stream. It was peaceful, relaxing, cozy even. Why we left – I don’t know.
The next stop was Big South Fork National River and Recreation area. We arrived close to dusk, so we knew we had to hurry to find a site and get our tent set up before nightfall. We picked a little spot with a nice view down to the nearby lake and Michelle set up the tent while I went looking for firewood.
When the sun went down, it got dark – real dark – and as we lay down for the night, an eerie reality set in. We couldn’t hear anything. Nothing. Nada. Complete silence. No bugs. No tree frogs. No stream flowing. No wind rustling the leaves. Nothing. So, add these two together – no light and no sound – and we were pretty freaked out. When some animal crunched a few leaves near the tent and we both about jumped clear out of our skin, we decided that we would be moving on at first light.
Throughout the Gospel of John, there is this interplay between light and dark. John’s gospel starts with this description of Jesus: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. He comes to him in secret. He comes when everyone else is zipped up tight within their tents, waiting for the light to return.
As one commentator put it, “He is not the first in the church nor the last to follow Jesus from afar” (George W. Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2). This is definitely a temptation isn’t it? I can remember a skit that I read some years back that had something to do with this. You know, that kind of skit that you think is pretty funny when you are in youth ministry, but you cringe years later when you think about how trivial it made the gospel sound? While I don’t remember all the details of the skit, I remember that it was something about being undercover Christians – about sneaking into places and just trying to blend in so that you could have a subtle influence over time. The point of the skit was to not do this – to be bold in living out our faith.
Now, I don’t always like to admit it, but I do this. When first meeting someone, I usually hold off on telling people my occupation until we’ve had a chance to get to know each other a little. Dropping the whole, “I’m a pastor” bomb usually spells the end of normal conversation when you’ve just met. People start being guarded and apologizing for things that they would never apologize for. It’s like an instant case of the “guilties” sets in. For this reason, I like to follow Jesus from afar at times.
We all do this, though. We don’t want others to see us stopping and praying at meals. Maybe we don’t want to risk losing our jobs by being outspoken about following Jesus. Maybe we don’t want to hear our friends give us a hard time about it. Maybe we’re forbidden to bring religion into our workplace. Maybe we just don’t want to the conversation to get weird. The reality is that we all have the temptation to follow Jesus from afar, just as Nicodemus does.
This passage in John’s gospel ends with one of the most famous verses in all of Scripture: “For God so loved the world . . .” (you know it). Believing in Jesus is about much more than intellectual assent, though. To believe is to orient our lives around his teaching and to live it out daily. As the passage says in verse 21, “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
For John, there is no way to separate believing and doing. The same should be said for us as well. If we say we follow Jesus, we must turn from our sin. We must leave the darkness and step into the light of his love. This is what Lent is about for me – stepping out of the shadows of my own sin and into the light of Christ’s love and forgiveness. What about you? Are you up close and personal or following at a distance?
Prayer: God, I admit that it is a lot easier to follow you at a distance. Give me the strength to see the truth of my sin and darkness. Help me to have the courage to step into Your light. Let me never be ashamed to be called Your child. Amen.
* Note: This blog post is part of a series of reflections for Lent. The passages are based on a booklet Steven wrote for Ecclesia, the church he pastors in Fairview, NC.