The Gospel Goes Up to Eleven (John 3:26-36)

The film This is Spinal Tap follows the exploits of heavy metal group Spinal Tap.  The film is shot “mockumentary” style.  That is, it’s a comedy masquerading as a documentary, much like the television series “The Office.”  In my favorite scene, the interviewer speaks with Nigel (the band’s guitarist) about their amplifiers:

Nigel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and…

Interviewer: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel : Exactly.

Interviewer: Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel: Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You’re on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you’re on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Interviewer: I don’t know.

Nigel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Interviewer: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Interviewer: Why don’t you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel: ……These go to eleven.

There was a time when John the Baptist faced a popularity contest.  Jesus’ other biographers tell us that John was originally a pastor’s kid, but later in life emerged from the wilderness smelling like Grizzly Adams and talking like Billy Graham.  His major achievements weren’t about himself.  They were about his cousin, Jesus.  But as Jesus’ popularity grew, John the Baptist’s popularity began to fade:

 John 3:26-36  26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness–look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”  27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.  28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’  29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete.  30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Too often life becomes nothing more than a big popularity contest.  We fool ourselves into thinking ambition is the fuel for our achievement.  We live and die by our promotions and our accolades.  But John the Baptist wanted none of this.  His whole life was spent pointing toward someone else, someone far, far greater than he.  And it was of this person that John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  At Tri-State Fellowship, our own High School ministry uses this verse as the basis for their name: “Amp,” short for “Amplify.”  Our students learn that John the Baptist offers a very different message than that of the world.  In a world that thrives on self-promotion, John the Baptist offers a message of self-denial.  In a world of self-satisfaction, John the Baptist offers a message of self-sacrifice.

The things our world offers—pleasure, wealth, satisfaction—these are all the things that beg—nay, scream—for our attention and our devotion.  But amidst all the clamor and noise, the gospel is even louder.  The gospel goes up to eleven.

John the Baptist continues to address his lingering supporters:

31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.  32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.  33 Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.  34 For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure.  35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.  36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

John drives home that Jesus is far more significant than he could ever be.  And John—that is, John the author of this gospel—wants to include these statements for a strategic purpose.  John had been assembling his gospel in the city of Ephesus, a city where Jesus’ later followers knew only some of the basics they’d heard from John the Baptist (Acts 18:25).  John the author wanted to fulfill John the Baptist’s mission: to point people to something greater than the fragments of knowledge they possessed.

In our own world, we face many challenges.  Many things will compete for our attention.  The desire for achievement, the seduction of “celebrity.”  Other things will wound us deeply.  But the common thread in all of these things was simply this: they focus on ourselves.  On our best days, we like to think that our lives are vibrant, successful, full of life.  But John was onto something important: nothing is more damaging than self-absorption.

The world around me, the thoughts within me—these things are all ramped up to the level of a “ten.”  But the gospel goes up to eleven.

Are you listening?

Born Again (John 3:1-21)

What do you think of when you hear the words “born again?”  For me, I can’t help but think of Ned Flanders, the uptight religious neighbor of Homer Simpson.  An all-around nice guy, but someone whose religious views and narrow moral code are a constant annoyance.

Ned FlandersBut who needs to be born again?  We might think of those who come from a shady background who need to “see the light.”  It’s certainly not for the educated, or the sophisticated.  And it’s certainly not a need for people like Ned Flanders.  If you’ve grown up in church, there’s a possibility that you think you’ve got the Jesus thing figured out.  You grew up in Youth Group.  You go to church every week.  You listen to Hillsong in the car.  You even attend a small group.  What else is there? 

Let’s meet Nicodemus.

John 3:1-21  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.  2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Remember how earlier Jesus had basically started a small riot in the Temple?  It was a public way of saying: “The Messiah is now here.”  The religious leaders wouldn’t have missed this—and certainly not one so prominent as Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews.”  So it’s understandable that Nicodemus would come under cover of darkness—why risk his reputation by being seen talking to this rabble-rouser?

3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”  5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’  8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus had spent the better part of his life serving the Temple.  Yet he fails to grasp what Jesus is saying.  Jesus isn’t offering another religious program to attend.  He’s proclaiming radical spiritual renewal: being “born again.”

Do you see the irony?  The Temple was the one place where you’d expect to experience the presence of God.  Yet for Nicodemus, the Temple was what he used to hide from God.  And we live in the same danger.  It’s very easy to get caught up in church activity and the “busyness” of our faith—and miss the radically transforming power of Jesus.  In fact, in many ways it’s easier to hide from God in church than in a brothel(!).  In the latter, it’s easy to know that you’re far from God.  But in Church, you can hide from God while looking like a pillar in your community—a man of great respect.  But inside you are dying.  You have all the religious language, but none of the spiritual intimacy.

9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”  10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?  11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And 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.

Nicodemus is still baffled.  So Jesus does what He does best: He tells Him a story.  In the film V for Vendetta, an police inspector is trying to unravel a massive governmental conspiracy.  As his search nears its end, he meets with an unnamed informant.  “I believe you have some information for me,” he says.  “No, inspector,” the informant replies.  “You have all the information already.  All the facts are inside your head.  What you want—what you really need—is a story.”  Nicodemus didn’t need another sermon.  He was one of the smartest men in Israel.  No; what he needed was a story.  He needed some way of organizing the separate pieces into a cohesive whole.

Jesus tells him the story of the snakes in the desert.  Israel, during their years of wandering, was afflicted by a plague of poisonous snakes.  To deepen their trust in Him, God tells their leader Moses to craft a bronze snake and attach it to his staff.  If you were bitten, you had only to look at this raised staff and be cured.  Do you understand what Jesus is saying?  He’s saying there’s something wrong with each of us—something poisonous inside our hearts—that no amount of religious duty can cure.  John goes on to editorialize this very point:

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.  21 But 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.”

Our hearts are darkened. Poisonous.  The great tragedy is that men like Nicodemus had become numb to this fact because their lives were so clearly defined through religious observance.  But Jesus says: That’s not good enough.  You need to be born again.  Into the darkness of man’s heart, God speaks a wisdom unsearchable, a love unthinkable, a grace incalculable, and a mercy unending.  When Jesus is exalted in His death and resurrection, the poison is drawn from the wounds of our soul, and into those same wounds Jesus pours the water of His Spirit.

Are you like Nicodemus?  Have you been active in church activities your whole life, but have no true experience of the gospel?  Don’t let moments like this one pass you by.  Today could be your day to experience God up close.