I invite you to take a few moments with me to reflect on today’s Upper Room Devotional below.
Thank you for sharing this early moment of your day with me, with God, and with the thoughts and words of this reading that I hope you will carry with you throughout the coming day and night.
John 3:14-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[a]
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”[b]
Tim’s Devotional Reflection for Today
When I was in Junior High School in Dover, Ohio, a Billy Graham film came to town and I got three free tickets from a Bible study class I attended at the public library across from the school. My mother wanted to go. She was the one in our family who took us to church and taught us about the faith. My father did neither. He never went to church and it was a principle of his never to talk about religion. We were able to talk my father into going to the movie. It was, after all, free!
As we left the theater after the movie, my father just walked in silence. After a time, he said to me, “That movie was real nice and everything, but I want you to know that the real world just isn’t that way. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and that stuff just doesn’t work. Growing up, I always heard the question, ‘What will happen if you die tonight?’ That’s all religion is concerned with. When someone asks me the question, ‘What if you don’t die tonight?’ and then says something about life, I’ll listen.”
I’ve thought many times about what he said. I wish that he had been able to hear the gospel–I mean truly listen to it. I’m sorry that he went through most of his 58 years without really hearing the fullness of the Good News of the Gospel. It was only near the end of his life that he started to experience something of the fullness of life offered to us in Jesus Christ. But, for most of those 58 years, salvation was for him only an other-worldly concept.
Now that I have mostly grown up, I know he had a point. It is so often a “dog eat dog world”. It is precisely the world my father knew so well that is in such need of the full understanding of the saving grace of God—of all the facets of salvation. So, the more I have thought about it, the more I have come to believe that the question my father asked gets to the heart of the matter: “What if you don’t die tonight?”
It’s an important question and one that I have carried with me ever since. Isn’t that just a version of the basic question of life? What if I’m still here tomorrow? next year? in ten years? What can I do with my life? How can I live? What can I hope for? What does God have to do with it?
Today’s scripture reading comes from a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which means that he probably did his best to keep every word of the law.
In addition to being religious, Nicodemus was also wealthy, powerful, well-known, and influential. He went to visit Jesus because he had noticed the amazing things Jesus had done. But I wonder—did Nicodemus also go to see Jesus with some version of my father’s question on his mind? What if I don’t die tonight? What about my life? Where am I headed? What about the future? What about the emptiness I feel? What does my life mean? He had everything that was supposed to make life complete: money, political power, family, and the approval of his religious group. Yet, there was something gnawing at him—some need, some hunger that would cause him to go out at night to seek Jesus Christ.
Perhaps Nicodemus had experienced the world in the dark, “dog eat dog” way that my father had experienced it. He needed some answers to his life’s riddles. Maybe Nicodemus visited Jesus with the this-worldly question on his mind: what if you don’t die tonight?
Earlier in this chapter (John 3:3) Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be “born from above” or “born again.” He must be transformed, made new, set on a new path.
To be “born from above” or “born again” is to begin again in a new relationship with God. It is about transformation and it is a recurring theme of scripture. Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, that one is a new creation.”
The apostle Paul even speaks of salvation as an ongoing process when he refers to the message of the cross as “the power of God for those who are being saved.” Being saved—that’s a process that happens as we live—not just after we die.
Today’s reading begins with the reference to Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness. The story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness is found in Numbers 21:4-9. I’ll leave you to read that strange story, but point is that the bronze serpent saved people who looked at it from death. John is looking back at that story and comparing it to Jesus being lifted up on the cross so that we may have life.
At the heart of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus is the verse which Martin Luther called “The Gospel in Miniature”: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.” This verse tells of God’s radical love. It tells us about the way that sets us free to live that special quality of life which is called “eternal.”
God loves us with a completely self-giving love. God loves the world with an utterly self-sacrificial love—even to death on the cross. It is through trust in God’s love and God’s gift of grace in Christ that we are made free in the life of the Spirit. All around and every day of our lives there are forces and structures and personalities which seek to rob us of our souls. Whether it is our fears or our prejudices, our nationalism, our trust in power or money, our tempers, our job situation, our family lives, or the pervasive “dog eat dog” spirit of competition all around us, each of us participates in and is influenced by many forces. These forces may rob us of our souls and enslave us.
By holding onto and trusting in the truth of Jesus, we will not lose our souls, but instead we will have eternal life. I know how my father would probably respond to that. He would say, “You see? Your answer is ‘eternal life.’ Here we are back to “pie in the sky by and by” when you die.”
But Jesus didn’t talk about death with Nicodemus. Jesus talked about life now—what Jesus called life in the Spirit. Jesus not only says, “You must be born from above,” but says that you must be born of the spirit. The fullness of life that is ETERNAL LIFE in the present, not at death. Note what Jesus says:
What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is spirit; Do not be surprised when I say: You must be born from above. The wind blows wherever it pleases; you hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with all who are born of the Spirit.
So, the key to the answer of the question, “What if I don’t die tonight?” is this: If you are to live a full, abundant, and meaningful life in a world that is often dark, you must be born of the Spirit. That is part of the Good News is what “eternal life” means. Eternal life is not only life that never ends. It isn’t only quantity. Eternal life is a quality of life that you can have even if “you don’t die tonight!” Eternal life is that free life in the Spirit that John talks about so much.
Jesus uses the image of wind to describe the life in the Spirit that is ours as we open our lives to God’s working in us—sanctifying grace. The Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words for “spirit” are the same words translated “wind” or “breath.” Jesus uses that image here to describe the life in the spirit that we have when we are born again—born of the spirit. To be born of the Spirit means to be truly free, like the wind, which is completely unfettered. It is to be like the wind, which moves where it wills. It is to be like the wind, which is powerful and free. To be under the will and rule of God is to be truly free.
God continually offers the gift of eternal life, a transformed life, that begins now. The response to that gift is to accept it and to follow Jesus’ Way of trust, love, and grace. Our response is to allow God to work through us, so that our lives will bear the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
There is a lot of theology woven into hymns. To enhance today’s reading, I recommend listening to “Lord, I Want to be a Christian”. I hope you will take a few moments to let the words of this message and the emotion that always connects us to music connect with your soul. List to this hymn on SoundCloud.
Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart, in my heart
Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my, oh, in my heart
In my heart, Lord, in my heart
Oh, yes, I do, yes, Jesus I, I, I want to be
Oh, Lord I want to be a Christian
Way down in my heart
Oh, in my heart
Yeah, in my heart
Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart, in my heart
Lord, I wanna to be more loving
In my heart, in my heart, in my heart
Lord, I wanna be, wanna be more loving
Way down in my heart
Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart, in my heart
Lord, I want to be just, just like Jesus
Whoa yes, in my heart
In my heart let it be so in my heart
For everyday and every way
I wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna be
I wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna be just like Jesus
Lord, I wanna be, wanna be just like Him
I wanna heal the sick, I wanna raise the dead
Even want Your people to be fed
By the words they hear that come out of my mouth
I want You to be in control
I wanna be, I wanna be, I, I wanna be, I, I wanna be
Just like You, Lord, just like You Lord, just like You
When people pass me on the street
I want them to know that You’re inside of me
When they see me on the stage
I want them to know the change You made
I wanna be now, I wanna be just like You Lord
I wanna touch them, I want to heal them
I want to give them whatever they need, Lord
I wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna
I wanna be, I wanna be, just like You Lord
Like you Lord, just like You
I wanna just like You Lord
Wanna be, wanna be, wanna be
Wanna be, I wanna be, I wanna be
It’s my desire
I am so grateful for you, for our church, and for the Love that will see us all through this very difficult time. Please stay safe and well and we’ll be together again in spirit tomorrow morning!
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster