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Commentary and Reflections For The Fourth Sunday In Lent - Year B
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
"Stepping Into The Light"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

The 4th Sunday in Lent
Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
"Stepping Into The Light"
	"And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world,
	and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds 
	were evil.  For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to 
	the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who 
	do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen 
	that their deeds have been done in God."

                                - - - 

	OSCAR: "I see it this way: This guy was important, he was with the 
	others of his own class, and he was defending injustice. And when 
	Jesus speaks to him about that injustice that everybody can see, 
	he makes out he doesn't understand. And he asks and asks, and he was 
	clinging to his religion, a kind of false religion, and that's why 
	he doesn't understand him."

	TERESITA, William's wife: "With simple people Jesus didn't have a 
	problem. This man who's very educated is asking him a lot of 
	questions because he doesn't understand him."

	OSCAR: "Hell, it's just like now: some bastard is exploiting people, 
	and somebody comes up to tell him he shouldn't do that. He makes 
	out he doesn't understand and so he asks thousands of questions. 
	That's the way the bastard seems to me."
	                      - Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname

I once knew this man who was an ordinary parish minister and this other man who was 
principal of a well-known theological seminary.  This particular seminary was a well
respected, well-endowed national institution where they train people to be pastors 
of one of the largest churches in the country.  Many of its graduates had become 
important figures in the history of the nation.  Many who had become ministers had 
been influential in shaping the country's political and social policies.  The 
minister wrote to the principal one day, telling him in horrendous detail about a 
terrible injustice that was going on in the very churches for which the seminary 
was training ministers, an ecclesiastical scandal that the church was doing its 
best to cover up.

The man asked the principal to look into the matter, as a matter of faith, as a 
matter of justice, as a matter of discipleship to Jesus Christ.  He asked him to do 
it not just for the men and women who were being victimized in the church, but for 
the sake of all those new recruits, all those soon-to-be ministers who would one day 
take their places.  Asked him to call a conference, a workshop, anything that might 
let people know what was going on and have a chance to ask questions.  Bring the 
matter out into the open.  Shed some light on it.  Bring it out of the shadows.  More 
importantly wrote the man, "do it for the church. Do it for the integrity of that 
institution you and I have served all of our lives in obedience to Christ.  Do it for 
the thousands of people traumatized by this evil every single week in the church. 
Do it out of reverence for the Gospel we preach, which calls us first and foremost to
serve the world, not ourselves".  After all, he added for emphasis, the seminary was 
a Christian community preparing people to help the church make Christians.

The man's letter was never answered nor even acknowledged.  It was as if the matter 
had never been raised.  Of course, the principal was a very busy man and this was one 
of the most prestigious institutions in the country.  The principal was chair of 
several important committees for the college and university, a recipient of several 
honorary degrees and contributing editor to a number of erudite theological 
publications.  Not only that, but as often is the case with religious institutions 
these days, the principal was extremely occupied in a fund-raising campaign for the 
college.  You might well say that his post even demanded that he spend his time this 
way.  He really didn't have either the time or the inclination, you see, to get 
involved in such mundane, let alone, shall we say, messy matters.


Faith is more than mere intellectual assent.  That, one might say, is the point John 
is making in that well-known story of the man named Nicodemus.

This week's text is not the whole story of that conversation between Jesus and 
Nicodemus.  It is the climax of what John wants to say and assumes we have been there 
listening to these two all along.  Nicodemus, who is presented as a leading member of 
the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, something like a professor of theology or 
religious judge, principal of a theological college, if you like, has come to Jesus 
in the middle of the night to discuss things. 

It is the first clue John gives us about Nicodemus. Of course, to assume that he is 
afraid of coming openly to see Jesus is just that, an assumption.  We don't know for 
sure, from the text.  Later (19.39), John is going to tell us that Nicodemus comes 
again to see Jesus.  But by this time he has been executed and the danger of being 
associated with Jesus has, for the most part, passed.  He comes with a friend of his, 
Joseph of Arimathea, "a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one," John tells us, 
"because of his fear of the Jews".  They were there to look after Jesus' corpse, says 
John, this Joseph and Nicodemus, "who had at first come to Jesus by night".  It is 
why I think it is fair to say that we are talking about a man who wants to keep 
himself in the shadows when it comes to Jesus, just out of harm's way and safe, not 

This first time Nicodemus comes, he comes because he appears to be troubled by what 
Jesus has been saying and doing, because he wants to question him, get into a 
debate.  It is what you should always ask yourself about people who ask you 
questions.  Do they really want to know what you think or just argue?  Also what 
you should always ask about religious people.  Do they really believe what it is 
they are saying? Or do they merely want to talk about it?  The learned professor 
wants to argue and a religious debate is exactly what follows in that well-known 
conversation about being "born from above" and the wind blowing where it will. 
Nicodemus wants some sign that Jesus really is from God and that the things he is 
saying and doing are true.  Or, so he says.

If you were a child of spirit, Jesus tells him, you would know who I am and 
understand the things I am saying.  But all Nicodemus can do in response is to 
ask Jesus more intellectual questions.  When Jesus responds to his questions 
and Nicodemus parries with more questions, Jesus appears to lose patience with 
him, as if he knows at that point he is dealing with someone who does not want 
to understand but merely to argue.  Nothing Jesus seems to say is getting through 
to Nicodemus; and it is here that this week's text begins.

	If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can 
	you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  No one has ascended 
	into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 
	And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the 
	Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal 

I'll give you a sign, says Jesus, the sign of "a man" being raised up the way Moses 
raised up the serpent in the wilderness.  Jesus is talking about a well-known sign 
of death for the people of Israel, a sign of death that became a source of life. 
You're going to see such a sign, Jesus tells him, and then you're going to have to 
decide whether or not you want to debate what I am about or start living it.  The 
people who live the life I am do so in the light, where everything they do and are 
can be seen.  The people who don't are the people who stick to the shadows.

	For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that 
	their deeds may not be exposed.

Now, if I were trying to dramatize this conversation for you as a kind of pantomime, 
I'd get you to see Jesus standing up there on a stage with a single spotlight 
illuminating him.  Then you would hear another voice speaking to Jesus from one side 
of the stage.  There is no light over there and the one who speaks starts to approach 
where Jesus is.  Jesus begins to beckon to the man in the shadows to come closer; 
and for a moment it looks like he might.  He hovers at the edge of the light Jesus 
is standing in but never steps into it.  The more the two talk, the more that second 
figure standing there with Jesus begins to fade back into shadows until finally he 
disappears back into the night from which he came.

It is the way it is, says Jesus.  Those who hate the light always have something to 
hide.  Those who love the light are not afraid of being seen for who and what they 


We know from many other references in his gospel that the author, John, was writing 
for a Jewish Christian sect that still maintained its primary identity within larger 
Judaism.  At the time John wrote these words, these Jewish Christians were being 
persecuted and expelled from the only religious home they had ever known, the 
synagogue.  It is a safe bet to say that his story is about the kind of discrimination 
and persecution that goes in religious communities.  He's talking about the kind of 
evil that gets perpetrated by religious people against their own kind.

Those kinds of dark deeds did not come to an end in first century Palestine.  They 
have continued down through the tragic centuries to today.  Some of us who profess 
faith in God continue to do evil things to our brothers and sisters.  John doesn't 
identify what those evil deeds are. He doesn't need to.  Anybody who has lived for 
very long in a religious community knows what kinds of cruel things religious people 
are capable of doing to each other.  The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is not a story 
about private religious experience.  It's about the radical protest Christ was and is 
against the evil we do to one another in the name of religion.  It's about the need 
to drag such evil out into the light, expose it for what it is. I t is not enough to 
be a Nicodemus - orthodox, well-connected and able to say all the right things.  You 
have to be prepared to lay it on the line.  You have to be prepared to step into the 
light. For the love of God who sent his Son.


Numbers 21.4-9 - The region around Edom near the Red Sea was famous for its
lethal serpents. In this desolate area of the Arabah, the Israelites make the
mistake of "murmuring" against both Moses and God for ending up in such a 
seemingly "god-forsaken" place. They are immediately plagued by venomous 
serpents and many lose their lives. The antidote used to save those who remain
is the effigy of a serpent raised on a pole. All who look upon the serpent 
recover from the deadly bites. There is no easy interpretation of such a 
passage. It reeks of superstition and magic, the kind that was prevalent among 
many of the people of the ancient middle east. What we may have here is a crude
attempt by the ancient writers to portray dramatically the life-death 
relationship that exists between Israel and God.

	1.	What disturbs you about the story?
	2.	What saving value do you see in it?
	3.	In what sense is our relationship with God a life or death issue?

Ephesians 2.1-10 - Ephesians is a cosmic book, an attempt to speak about the 
life of every believer in the context of the Paschal ministry, the life, death 
and resurrection of Jesus, and in the context of God's saving acts from the 
beginning of time. Not surprisingly, these powerful, poetic texts were often 
used in baptismal liturgies during Lent when catechumenates prepared for baptism 
and their new life in Christ.

	1.	What is the author trying to say about our life before Christ?
	2.	What does he mean by "the ruler of the power of the air"?
	3.	In what way do believers get "raised up" with Jesus?

John 3.14-21 - It is important to notice that the text assumes that both judgment
and grace are one act of God. That act is sending Christ into the world.  Christ 
did not come to judge; but his coming is a judgment in the sense that turning on 
a light exposes whatever is there: those who are not afraid of the light and those 
who are. A saving presence, like Christ, can also be a disturbing presence. Only 
those who prefer to live in an illusory world think that turning on a light will 
not create shadows. Anyone who has ever preached the Good News of Christ, to voice 
the love of God for all people and things, knows that such an effort is hardly ever 
greeted with unanimous praise and blessing. There are forces in the world that love 
deeds done in darkness, as there are those who love those things that are done in 
the light. All who are serious about following Christ must be prepared to step into
the light.

	1.	What is it about Nicodemus that reminds you of some kinds of 
	religious people?
	2.	What is dangerous about such a text for all those who consider 
	themselves in the light?
	3.	Why has it been so difficult, historically, for Christian people 
	to acknowledge the abuses and injustices that occur within Christian 
	communities to their own people?
	4.	Where are such abuses happening within the church now?
	5.	What would it mean for you to step into the light?

HYMN  God of Freedom, God of Justice  (Voices United 700)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551

copyright - Barry Robinson 2003
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2003
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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