For God So Loved the World…

John 3:1-21

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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. 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.”

Jesse and Christian’s lives were both transformed 4 years ago. Jesse was on a bicycle and was hit by Christian who was driving a car at 45 mph.

Before he was hit by a car, Jesse was a 21 year old, living just outside Portland, Oregon. He’d just graduated from college and had a job but spend most of his time at music festivals and getting high with his friends. His heart stopped at the scene of the accident and he came to in the hospital 17 days later after being in a coma, and awoke partially paralyzed.  The life he had dreamed about was gone. He didn’t want to be alive. Yet he survived.  And. Began to feel grateful for the memories and now a future. A new future. Everything became new again. “If I had an apple,” he says, “it was like the first time eating an apple. Every day got better and better. And it was easier to see a life forward. So every day was like a 2nd chance.”

The narrator, Jonathan Goldstein of the podcast, Heavyweight, cuts in at this point in the story, “You’d think this spiritual awakening would fade, that it would have an expiration date. But it didn’t.” Over the next 5 months, Jesse came to see that his previous life was not a life lived very deeply. It was a life distracting him from living. So to mark the ending of one life and the beginning of another, he changed his name from Jesse to Jovanna, Sanscrit for “giver of light.”

Jovanna now walks with a cane and moves slowly.  He lives with constant pain, is deaf in one ear and is more grateful than ever for this new life he’s living. And so he wants to thank the driver of the car that hit him. He wants to tell of his increasing gratitude for how beautiful his life is now. The narrator is suspect of the Jesus-y vibe Jovanna is giving off. And Jovanna gets that and says, “Oh people think you’re trying to love everybody because you want people to look at you and praise you. But loving feels like a selfish thing because it feels good. I don’t know why we shame people for wanting to be that generous.”

Outside of the day of the accident, Jovanna and Christian have never met. But now Jovanna wants to meet Christian so that he can hear about that day. He can’t remember the day. And he wants to tell him that it’s ok.

In these past 4 years, while Jovanna’s life has been transformed, Christian’s life has fallen apart in bits and pieces. He dropped out of school and lost his business and suffers from PTSD. He feels like a completely different person.

Both Jovanna and Christian have been told by everyone in their lives to not revisit the day. To not re-live it. To not stir things up. Yet, they agree to meet in a hotel room in Portland.

Christian arrives late. He looks like an amiable guy you’d see in a sportsbar, with a crew cut and jeans. Jovanna is thin and tall with long, red hair, wearing flowing, loose clothes. They sit across from one another and quietly watch each other, waiting to share about the most transformative day of their lives.

Christian can’t forget it and Jovanna can’t remember it. Jovanna needs to reclaim the day and Christian needs to lay it to rest. Christian shares his memory of the day, always referring to the crash as “when we met.”  “I saw the moment when you hit my windshield.”

He shares with him that everyone there huddled around Jovanna, trying to cheer him on, to fight for him to stay alive. “It was very scary”, he says choking up. “I was very worried about you.”

Soon, it’s Jovanna’s turn and he wants to know how Christian has been and to let him know that he is ok. They both share that they are ok. Jovanna apologizes for his part in the accident and then reassures Christian that where he’s at now is better.

And he says, without hesitation, “And it leads me to believe that I love you. With all my heart.”  Christian says back, immediately, without hesitation, “I love you too.” He gets up on his feet and they embrace. Christian is the one who initiates the hug. A full-on embrace. Jovanna later describes it as feeling like a hug that had been saved up for a long time. They sit back down but continue to touch each other’s fingers across the coffee table and they stay quiet.

“And it leads me to believe that I love you. With all my heart. I love you, too.”  I gasped as the story took this turn. Even with being introduced to the transformation of Jovanna, this surprised me. And Christian’s immediate response, the return of love. I was stunned as I listened.

These 2 young men came out of the shadows into the light to face the day that changed both of their lives, one having renamed himself a name that means light. And they left knowing each other, loving one another. They left reconciled, changed, whole.  Not more damaged, as their friends and family feared but filled with love and even peace.

There is a similar story in our gospel reading today. Of two men meeting. There is fear there too, just like there was for Jovanna and Christian. Nicodemus is afraid. Perhaps afraid of being seen by the other Pharisees, talking to Jesus. So he goes under cover of darkness. But perhaps, too, he’s afraid of what Jesus says to him, the potential Jesus has to shake up Nicodemus’ occupation and his whole life, his heart, the way he loves, the way he communicates the way God loves. But yet, he initiates a meeting. He seeks out Jesus. He faces his fear, this man who has changed water into wine and who disrupted business as usual at the temple and pointed to his own body as the temple. This is world-changing stuff. He had to have been afraid. Would he be changed too?

But thank God his fear didn’t stop him from asking questions. Questions that exposed his lack of understanding of the very thing his life was said to be about as a Pharisee: the love and worship of God. And Jesus tells him a whole new way. Jesus and Nicodemus collide at this intersection and this changes everything: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Indeed, God sent his son into the world not to condemn it but to save it.” This intersection of God’s love through Jesus and the world – none of us will leave the same.

We’ve all got some Nicodemus in us. That fear of change that rattles our bones and stops us in our tracks as we face unemployment or uncertainty; as we ride out the disease or the relationship. What will happen to us on the other side? We’re going to be different aren’t we? It might even feel like we have been made brand new not by another physical birth but by God’s work on our hearts. God’s transformation of our whole lives always involves our hearts.

In the wreckage of a bicycle vs. motorist crash, transformation happens. Light and new life emerges from broken bones and broken lives. The light exposes the past for what it was and reveals richer, deeper, harder, better living now and into the future. It’s the transformation that you can name only after it’s happened, after the light has faded. Everything looks different and feels different.  It’s a miracle, isn’t it?