This week, we continue our mid-Lent excursion into the Gospel of John by listening in on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. I always feel a bit like a fly on the wall when I read this text. Maybe it’s the time of day or the fact that the text presents us with only two interlocutors: Jesus and Nicodemus. How often does Jesus have one-on-one conversations in the gospels with seemingly no one else around to listen? That’s not to say that there weren’t people there listening to their conversation, but the gospel writer doesn’t give us any indication one way or another. That is probably why I always imagine this as an intimate, private dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, gathered close around a lamp or fire, as humans have done for millennia when night falls.
Granted, our passage today picks up in the middle of Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus’ question, so it is up to us as worship planners to set the stage for how our people will encounter this text. Consider sitting down as you read this text deliberately and wonderingly, giving the richness of Jesus’ words time to germinate in and among the gathered body. Place this text in context for the congregation. Remind them that this is part of a conversation, not a sermon given to a crowd. If you are accustomed to standing during the reading of the Gospel, invite the congregation to lift their hearts to God as they honor the reading of the scripture by listening intently for what God might say to us today.
Also think about how you can draw the congregation into worship and prepare them to encounter this very familiar text anew. Perhaps you begin with playing with light and dark in the space through the use of fabrics, candles, rocks, water, or other natural materials. Of course, we need to treat John’s language of dark versus light with care, given the way it has been used oppressively in the approximately 2000 years since this gospel was written. So, consider how you might use the call to worship or prayer of confession to name the harm done by such language and separate what John is saying underneath that metaphor from the metaphor itself and the way it has been used to condemn our neighbors throughout history, most especially our African American neighbors.
Of course, as much as we might like to immerse ourselves in John 3:16—and should—John 3:17 is as challenging as the previous verse is familiar. If God didn’t send Jesus to condemn the world, then we aren’t called to condemn the world either. Ouch! Seems like another opportunity for confession. But also, perhaps it is an opportunity to introduce a spiritual discipline. If we’re going to follow Jesus by choosing love instead of condemnation, then we’re definitely going to need some opportunities to practice recognizing condemnation internally and externally and turning toward love instead. And while worship is an important place to rehearse our repentance, we also need worship to give us tools to keep rehearsing throughout the week. So, consider where in the service you can lead the congregation in a breath prayer or short liturgy for releasing condemnation and filling up with love. Is this part of the prayers of the people? Or a gathering meditation as the service begins? Or do you use it as a benediction, sending people out with a blessing and charge? Whatever it is, ponder how worship might equip the people of God to be the people of God throughout the week as we continue to learn to turn from condemnation and love the Light.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.