The fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally known as “Laetare” (Rejoice) Sunday. In the midst of Lent, the liturgy reminds us of what we are about during this holy season. We rejoice because, as we hear in today's Gospel, we who look to Jesus have received healing for our broken spirits. And we believe that if we live by the kind of love Jesus shows us from the cross, we too can be life-giving for a broken and suffering world. We are called to mirror what we see in Jesus' life, death and resurrection - and we hope that those who are just as broken can look to us to find help and healing.
In the Gospel of John, "eternal life" isn't something that starts when we die. It begins here and now for us: it means having a meaningful life; a life rich in God's presence; a life that draws from a deep source within our very beings; a life of resolve and power to forgive others; a life of seeing by a light that is not of our own achievement, but has been given to us. Eternal life is all this and so much more - and it has been given to all of us who look on the Son of Man – the one "lifted up."
This week's text is not the whole story of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is actually the climax of what John wants to say and he assumes that we have been there listening to these two all along. Nicodemus, who is presented as a leading member of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem has come to Jesus in the middle of the night to discuss and, perhaps, debate things. But it is pretty fair to say that Nicodemus was a man who wanted to keep himself in the shadows when it came to Jesus... just out of harm's way and safe, not seen.
When Jesus responds to his questions and Nicodemus parries with more questions, Jesus appears to lose patience, as if he knows at this point that he is dealing with someone who doesn't really want to understand, but merely to argue. Nothing Jesus says seems to be getting through to Nicodemus; and it is at this point where this week’s Gospel passage begins.
Jesus will give Nicodemus a sign - 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 you want to continue debating or start living. The people who live the life that Jesus gives do so in the light, where everything they do and are can be seen. The people who don't are the people who lurk within the shadows.
This is Jesus at his best: “telling it like it is.” 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 are... even when they are less than what they want to be.
But the story of Jesus and Nicodemus is not that of a private conversation about theology. It's about the radical protest that 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, and expose it for what it is. It is not enough for us to be a Nicodemus - orthodox, well-connected and able to say all the right things. We have to be prepared to lay it on the line. We have to be prepared to step into the light for the love of God who sent his Son.
For us there can be no middle ground. The Son of God’s coming into our world requires a choice: do we believe in Him and, if we do, how do our lives reflect that belief? The Gospel tells us that the coming of God’s Son into the world has brought us light. If we see by that light we are guided by it and live the truth the light shows us.
The overall message of Lent is not about condemnation, but what we hear repeated in today’s Scriptures. Paul sums it up: “God who is rich in mercy because of the great love God had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.”
We have reason to Rejoice, indeed!