“With every head bowed and every eye closed.”
I hear that phrase, and a flood of memories comes back into my head. Maybe for you, too. I went to lots of rallies, lots of evangelistic worship services when I was growing up. Services would usually end with the pastor making an impassioned, logical, case for why everyone not saved should come to Jesus. Then he’d offer a prayer, saying that to be saved, all we need do is pray with him in our heads. Then, after the prayer, came the phrase: “with every head bowed and every eye closed, raise your hand if you just prayed that prayer” so the pastor could see who’d just been saved.
Now I have a confession this morning. I always peeked. I have a natural curiosity that won’t quit. And so I had to know: who got saved?
The rooms of these evangelistic rallies would always be dark at this point, to convey a sense of privacy. A band would play softly in the background, seemingly to try and cover any noise of someone raising a hand. The whole scene said, “this is private; don’t worry, no one will judge you, no one has to know you just got saved, it’s just between you, Jesus, and the pastor.”
That’s salvation today for much of evangelical Christianity. Salvation is personal, a private affair, something between you and God. Keep it to yourself; that’s best for everyone, seems to be the prevailing social wisdom. Indeed, the rules of polite conversation say: don’t talk about politics, and definitely don’t talk about religion. Keep your beliefs to yourself. And so, with our heads bowed and our eyes closed, we practice our faith.
Perhaps that’s why Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. At the opening of chapter 3, not long before our scripture this morning, the Gospel of John tells us that Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, comes to Jesus by himself, at night. He’s clearly a very religious man, some scholars think he’s not just a leader of everyday Jews, but a leader of a Jewish faction. Think, perhaps, of the equivalent of a bishop. He’s a high-ranking, influential, Jewish official. Not a man who would seem to need to keep religion private and keep his beliefs to himself.
And yet, here he is, sneaking up to the place where Jesus is staying. I can imagine him walking softly down the street to a lonely house where a few candles offer a warm glow through the window. He knows that there’s a special man inside, someone who is capable of doing signs and wonders, who seems to be sent directly from God. He’s curious. He wants to know more. With every head bowed and every eye closed in sleep, he’s peeking to see what this Jesus character is all about.
Nicodemus is clearly very interested in Jesus and thinks Jesus is connected to God in a special way. We know that’s the beginnings of a salvation experience! So here’s Jesus’s moment! A chance for a solid conversion! Even if Nicodemus is the lone hand in the audience that goes up saying he prayed the prayer silently in his head, he’s influential, a religious leader, a bishop type of figure, and so could lead many other Jews to convert! Jesus, like the preachers at rallies making the pitch for salvation, needs to convince Nicodemus of his need to get saved.
We might be tempted to think that’s exactly what happened. John 3:16 is so famous, so often quoted, so often held up at sports games like a cheer for the team, that we would think it’s clear to Nicodemus. Believe in the Son of God, and you will be saved and have eternal life. Nicodemus hears those words and our minds automatically assume that he’s converted. He is, after all, standing face to face with the Son of God.
Except Jesus, nowhere in his encounter with Nicodemus, identifies himself as the Son of God. He speaks long and thoughtfully about the Son of God, but never tells Nicodemus that he’s talking about himself.
Then, after the climax of their conversation in the famous verse 16, Jesus talks about the nature of what the Son of God is about. The Son of God is about salvation, not condemnation. The Son of God is the light to the world that the darkness cannot overcome it. But some will still choose the darkness, and that’s the judgment: that the light of God is in the world through the Son of God, but some will reject it. Jesus continues by saying those who do evil seek the darkness so their deeds can stay hidden. Those who do good stuff, conversely, want to be in the light, so they choose the light, and in doing so, they reveal God.
This is an odd way to seek to convert someone. Rather than revealing his status, Jesus obscures his identity and talks cryptically about light and darkness.
In being cryptic, it seems Jesus is blowing his big opportunity to get this influential leader of the Jews saved! If he did, Nicodemus could start a domino effect with everyone he influences. Jesus seems to be passing a huge opportunity by. Nicodemus has sought Jesus out, has come under the cover of darkness with every head bowed and every eye closed in sleep so he can peek at who this Jesus character is. Here, in this private moment, Jesus appears to have great opportunity! Why doesn’t he take it?
He doesn’t take it because salvation is a public affair for salvation is about shining light.
Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness is just like raising your hand while no one else looks in a dark room. Both seek the cover of darkness out of fear of being judged. You just raise your hand, say you did it, and now you’ve got your fire insurance. No hell for you.
But that’s not what salvation is about. Jesus notes in verses 17 and 19 that salvation is for the whole world, not just individuals. His phrasing is “in order that the world might be saved,” not just some people. And why? So that “it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
Jesus’s cryptic language in our scripture this morning makes clear that salvation is about light. Salvation is for the whole world. It’s about shining the light into the darkness, about everyone having the opportunity to know God, which comes only through bringing our deeds into the light and letting others see our good works. This means salvation can’t be private. It must be public. It must be, for the light to shine into the world. How else do those who live in darkness find out they’re in the darkness?
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. With all of his parishioners and professional colleague’s heads bowed and eyes closed in sleep, Nicodemus wants to peek at belief in Jesus without actually committing. He wants to raise his hand for the moment, but have no change affected in his deeds.
Jesus knows it and calls him out. The cryptic light and dark imagery Jesus uses doesn’t just mean that the Son of God is light to the world, revealing the darkness. It’s also a rebuke of Nicodemus. Jesus is in effect saying, “you came here in the dark so that your deeds won’t be exposed. When you’re serious about committing, about really believing, come back when it’s light, that all may know you believe.”
In rebuking Nicodemus, Jesus has a clear message for us this morning: salvation requires public profession of belief and public practice of deeds done in God. Which means, by default, we open ourselves up to judgment. We don’t like that, it’s uncomfortable, it’s why evangelistic rallies put the emphasis on privacy at that call for folks to get saved. But if every head is bowed, and every eye is closed, the deed of salvation is done in darkness and no light emanates from it. This, Jesus makes clear, is not salvation.
And so we must grow accustomed to the judgment we invite upon ourselves in order that the light of Christ might shine through us.
That’s a tough message. We like not being judged, we like our privacy, and our society reinforces that religion should be kept quiet. But keeping our faith quiet amounts to doing deeds in the dark, so that we will not be exposed as the Christians we are. That, Jesus is clear, is not how his believers should act. There’s no other way for the light to shine into the world except for public belief. The call on our lives as disciples of Christ is to profess our faith openly, to do our deeds in the light, that others might know Christ through us.
But that begs the question: what do we mean by public faith? What does Jesus mean by public faith?
Certainly not the holding up of John 3:16 signs at ball games. Not the forceful evangelism that’s gotten our religion in so much trouble over the last few hundred years. Not the collusion of religion with political parties. Nor the placing of hope for the future in political office holders or elections. Not the pushing of a particular morality through politics and media. Jesus would not subscribe to the moral majority, he would not be seen at political rallies either as an enthusiast or as a protestor, he would not be a talking head on a cable news channel nor an angry polemicist on the internet mocking and railing against a political party. He would not be a Congressperson, Senator, President, or any other elected official and he would not currently be running for any office and he would endorse no candidate. When we think of public profession of faith, pushing morality through candidates and the media is what usually comes to mind because politics and Christianity have become so intertwined that, in the public sphere, too often one cannot be distinguished from the other. But that’s not the way of Jesus.
Public profession of faith that the whole world might know salvation through Jesus means none of those things. Jesus has a simple, yet profound standard for public faith: “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.” In other words: do things that are Godly and have no reason to hide any of your deeds.
That’s as simple as what we do in everyday life. In meetings, speak up for what’s ethical. When hunting, encourage rather than discourage. In the workplace, be a servant leader. At home, put your family first. Never act in such a way that you must hide what you’ve done. Never give anyone any reason to question or judgment, morality, or ethics. Above all, as Jesus says elsewhere, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Professing our faith doesn’t mean being forceful. It simply means having the courage to own our belief when asked. It means being brave, choosing to act Godly in social situations, even if we think we might invite the judgment of others. It means always doing what’s right such that our deeds proclaim the message, “Yes, I believe.”
Such a lifestyle looks like being the most generous, the most kind, the most ethical, the most respected, the most loving, person people know. That’s a lifestyle that conveys the light to others, and it’s a lifestyle that, if we’re serious about being Jesus’s disciple, naturally exudes from us the more deeply we get to know Jesus. Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi, the twelfth century monk, put it best when he said, “Preach the gospel to all the world and, if necessary, use words.”
If this sounds naive, or if it sounds too small, like these simple acts done in the light aren’t enough to convert the whole world, consider the example of Jesus. At any point in his ministry, he could have used first century versions of Roman politics and media to push his message, to create mass conversions, to increase his popularity, or to force his morality. He could have tried the top-down approach utilizing the worldly powers of government and media to establish himself as a center of power and save the world in that way.
But he didn’t. He chose a subversive way, a simpler way, that defies logic and makes no use of worldly power. He chose the power of salvation spreading through one-on-one relationships between human beings because that’s what God desires with us, one-on-one relationships. And history has validated Christ’s approach. Every time Christianity has colluded with worldly powers, especially governments and media, Christianity has declined and decayed. And our greatest example of that is this: The Roman Empire, the greatest power the world has probably ever known, is dead and in the history books, while Christianity lives and reigns across the earth.
The church will rise again in this country when it gets out of its alliances with the democratic and republican parties to instead focus on producing the most generous, most kind, most ethical, most respected, most loving, people communities know.
Doing so as a church here in Eastman is the task before us. And so our charge is this: practice your faith publicly in Dodge County knowing that it makes a world of difference. Choose to share the light. Live such a lifestyle that those who experience you know for sure that you know the light. Don’t be afraid to have your deeds exposed, for if they are of God, God will use them to save others. Religion is not a private affair; it’s a public affair, one very much worth revealing to the world.
With every head up and every eye open, we are to profess our belief, because God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who comes to us under the cover of darkness, might discover the light of Christ.