Rick Sweeney
8 min readApr 3, 2020
Photo by Arya Praditya on Unsplash

I have a sermon for Palm Sunday on You Tube. It’s at Reverend Dr.Richard D. Sweeney.

Here is another sermon from a few years ago.


JOHN 3: 14–21, MARCH 18, 2012


A. You have probably seen signs at ball games that read, John 3:16. But I was at a game with the long losing Pittsburgh Pirates and I saw a sign that read, Luke 23: 34. I had to go home and look that one up. It read, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Even people who are not religious and have no interest in the Bible know what John 3:16 says. Did you have to memorize the verse in Sunday school in the King James Version? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son; that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

B. This verse is at the heart of this passage. It is at the heart of the gospel. It is perhaps at the heart of the entire Biblical account of God’s love story with us. But there is a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” kind of question in this story. Which came first, God’s grace or our faith? John approaches the question from two different angles. The first is in language used in many religions to talk about good and evil. It is in the images of darkness and light. The Gnostics of his time would have influenced his writing. They saw history as a great battle between the darkness of ignorance and the light of understanding.

C. John tells us that if you are doing what is evil, you prefer the darkness. And if you are not, you want to come to the light of salvation in Christ. But it begs the question. Does God shine the light of Christ only when we have faith? Or does the light of Christ create faith in us? Theologians have wrestled with that chicken/egg question for centuries. But I think John is explaining that grace and faith are inseparable aspects of the same jewel. Grace and faith are where the will of God and the will of humanity become one.

D. In the other angle in this passage John recounts this obscure story from Numbers. The people are beset by poisonous snakes as a result of their unbelief. Moses makes a bronze snake and lifts it up on a pole. If any of the snake-bit Hebrews look at it and believe, they will be saved from death. The analogy is obvious. Jesus is lifted up on a pole. And anyone who believes is saved from eternal death. The salvation event occurs before anyone believes. It does not say God so loved the ones with a strong faith. It says God so loved the WORLD!


A. God shines the light of Christ into a very dark world. But there will be no forced march into the light. Some will prefer to stay in the dark. John explains that if you are doing evil, the last thing you want is for your action to be brought to light. One of my favorite cartoons has one man saying to another, “I know it is better to light one little candle than to curse the darkness. But I find it so much more emotionally satisfying to curse the darkness.”

B. The shining of the light of Christ is good news; unless you are trying to hide from the truth. And we do. We become experts at hiding from what is true. We find dark corners where we hide the truth, even from ourselves. One of the great baseball movies of all time is the morality play entitled The Natural. An evil villain called the judge has conspired to steal the team away in conjunction with gamblers. The hero is Roy Hobbs. He comes to the office of the judge and it is very dark. The judge explains that he prefers the darkness. Roy refuses to be a part of his evil plot. As he is leaving, he turns on the lights, infuriating the judge who cannot stand the light.

C. Of course none of us are hatching any evil plots. But we have our own distortions of the truth that we would rather not have exposed to the light. We sometimes fall victim to the banality of evil. Since we are not as bad as some, we might get comfortable with our own little self-deceptions. We might even choose to stay in the dark. That, says John is self-condemning. God does not have to do the condemning. When we refuse to come into the light of truth, we condemn ourselves.

D. I came home after dark one evening and my neighbor Todd was looking for something in the grass. He said he had lost the key to his house. I said I would help him look for it. I asked if this was about where he was when he dropped it. He said, “No, I dropped it over there on the other side of the driveway.” “Then why are you looking for it over here?” He said, “The light is better over here.” That’s not how it works with God’s grace. Christ shines the light exactly where it is needed. Our response of faith draws us to the light where we find the truth.


A. John sees light as that which exposes a crisis in our lives. Those who remain in the dark are liable to the judgment. The Greek word for judgment is KRISIS. It’s where we get the word crisis. Every person faces a crisis of authenticity. That is, are you living the truth? Are you living in such a way that the light does not threaten you? So the light exposes us to truth.

B. This whole teaching moment comes from an encounter that Jesus has with Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus by night. It would not be politically expedient for him to be seen visiting Jesus in the daytime. But he is in the dark in a more significant way as well. He seems kind of dim-witted for a PhD. In religion. But he has this going for him. He is seeking the truth. There is something in him that whispers in the dark, “This is not who you really are.” The judgment is a crisis of authenticity. He doesn’t get it yet. But Nicodemus will re-appear twice more in the gospel of John. Once as a quiet defender of the possibility that Jesus is innocent. And then as a bold supporter helping with the funeral arrangements right out in broad daylight.

C. I’m guessing that every one of us has a crisis of authenticity at some point. Are you real? Is the person that walks around in your shoes, the person that everyone sees, is that the real you? Are you interested in the truth? Or do you decide again and again to stay in the darkness? We can get pretty good at lying to ourselves when we have been in the darkness. When Jesus beckons us into the light, he is inviting us to do what is true, to be authentic, to love the truth.

D. Now it takes some faith to step into the light. Every one of us has some part of our lives that we would hate to see exposed to the light. But that is why this whole discussion is based on grace. For God so loved the world that he gave. Stepping into the light exposes our sinfulness. Then God is able to wash it away. God sent the son into the world NOT to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. God did not send the light to expose our sin and say, “Ah HA! I caught you. Now you will go to hell.” That is the opposite of the purpose of the light.


A. The gospel of John never uses the noun belief. It is always the verb to believe. So, do you believe that God shines the light of grace on you not to condemn you but to save you from falsehood? It would be too easy to confuse the noun faith with the stale inorganic darkness of legalistic religion. That’s where Nicodemus was stumbling around in the dark.
But at least he understood enough to search for a greater truth.

B. Do you really believe the light of God’s truth which is God’s amazing grace? It is not always easy to do. Brian knew for a long time that he was not like the other guys. In high school he struggled with feelings that he had that would have made him a target of scorn and even violence if they were known. So he pretended. He lives in the darkness. Striving constantly to keep his issue secret from his family and his friends and his church. He had heard them say at church that being what he was placed him outside the grace of God. Legalistic religion is another form of darkness that people hide in. So he continued to pretend. He even tried to convince himself that the lie was true. Then one day at a retreat he heard someone say that the best gift that God gives to those who believe is the freedom to be who they really are. So with great fear and trembling, he came out. His parents said that they loved him no matter what. Some of his friends still in their own darkness condemned him. But true friends knew him as a whole person, and cared about him regardless of his orientation.

C. The most significant result of his coming out was a sense of freedom. He felt free to be the person he really was instead of pretending to be something he was not. Believing the light of God’s grace reassured him that God so loved Brian that he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him would not be condemned but saved and loved and accepted.

D. Wherever you are, whatever you struggle with in the dark, whatever crisis you are facing in secret, come toward the light. Come into the loving presence of Christ who does not condemn, but redeems. So often the sign, Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing , applies to us. The only condition for coming to the light is the truth. Say it with me if you know it. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Brian is a whosoever, and so are you. Believe it, come to the light of God’s grace, and don’t be afraid anymore.



Rick Sweeney

The Reverend Dr. Richard Sweeney, Rick, is a retired Presbyterian pastor and author. Rick lives with his wife, Prudy, in Greensburg, PA.