Eternal Life, Now and Then

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.

If you haven’t already noticed, our nave, chapel and narthex have new light fixtures, thanks to a generous and anonymous donor. Following the advice of an interior designer, they do not call much attention to themselves. Except for the four new fixtures in the narthex, which are considerably different in appearance from the wooden-boxed downlights which they replaced, the new lanterns in the nave and chapel are quite similar in appearance to their 1950’s predecessors, which will be finding a new home at our local Seventh Day Adventist church. You may notice that they have a bronze-colored metal band on their tops and bottoms, and that they are suspended, not by a silver-colored metal rod, but by a bronze-colored chain. They also have a concentric ring insert attached to the bottom which is designed to eliminate the distracting and irritating glare that those of you sitting at the proper angle would otherwise have to contend with.

The most significant difference between the old and the new fixtures, however, is internal. Though you may not notice it, since light fades exponentially and not linearly as a function of the distance between you and the lanterns, they propagate five times as much light as the old fixtures, using half the power. That’s because they employ six LED bulbs in the upper half of the lantern and one downward-pointing LED in the lower half of the lantern.

And the unique characteristics of an LED light bulb is where our new light fixtures begin to reinforce and illustrate the truth of today’s gospel, that “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.”

Our old lanterns employed incandescent light bulbs, which are grossly inefficient with a very short life span in comparison with an LED bulb. A typical incandescent bulb will last 1000 hours, which is roughly forty days of constant use, the length of our season of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. They also gobble up ten times as much energy, much of which is wasted in heat rather than light. An LED bulb, by contrast, will last 25,000 hours, or three years of constant use, or fifty years of typical use, at one-tenth the energy consumption of the incandescent bulb. For most of us, these bulbs will still be going strong long after our mortal bodies rest in peace, asleep in Christ, ready to be turned back on in a new resurrection fixture.

Some of you might rightly point out the fact that we could have put an LED bulb in the old fixtures and left it at that. But we would not have gained the advantage, which we now have, of a fixture that has seven bulbs instead of one, and a fixture where the six bulbs in the top and the one bulb in the bottom can be turned on or off independently of the other and can also be dimmed separately and independently for weddings or Christmas pageants or other special occasions. But the fact that LED lights have been designed to fit in existing sockets is true, and that fact actually highlights one of the other remarkable truths of the gospel, that we don’t have to wait for our new resurrection fixture to begin enjoying the new life which is available to all who believe.

“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” now, as well as in the future.

The fact that we can be retrofitted now with eternal life if we believe may be even more wonderful to contemplate than the reality of eternal life itself.

This is what Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus, who was in the dark about how this is possible, who came to Jesus precisely to better understand the unique light that was streaming out of him. This new eternal life, Jesus tells Nicodemus, is like the wind. You don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Just as physicists can explain how photons of light are emitted from the particular kinds of semiconductor diodes in an LED bulb, or explain how the wind propels a sailboat forward, they cannot answer the ultimate question of where light or wind comes from or where it will go, because its origin and destiny is beyond our reach. As Jesus said, no one has ascended into heaven. We can only hope to learn about heaven if someone should descend from that place.

Jesus goes on to remind Nicodemus of the amazing story of how a bronze snake on a pole was able to save all the Israelites who looked at it, who would have otherwise perished from the deadly snakes in their camp. How in the world did that work? How did that snake on a pole keep the deadly snakes at bay and heal those who had already been bitten? There is no way to explain it within the limits of this world. It was the movement of the wind, of the Spirit.

Let me offer another analogy. Consider the wireless charging pads you can buy for your cell phone. Just putting a cell phone in proximity to that pad is all it takes to transfer energy to the batteries in the phone. Likewise, that bronze snake on the pole had the power to provide a kind of spiritual shield and anti-venom to those who looked at it.

Jesus goes on the explain to Nicodemus that when he is lifted up on a pole like that snake was, anyone in the world who looks on him will not perish, but have everlasting life, a life that does not decay, that is not subject to dissipation or corruption, that is infinitely more robust and efficient than these LED light bulbs of ours.

That is God’s gift to us. That is why God sends his Son into the world, not to condemn us for stubbornly clinging to inefficient and transitory light sources, but to offer a life and a light for those who see in his death the only source of life and light that will never fade away.

And the Spirit of the Risen Lord comes to us, just as the wind must come to the sailor, especially one whose ship is in the doldrums through the proclamation of the gospel and through the broken bread of his body and the wine of his blood poured out to those whose lanterns need a new bulb and a new source of eternally renewable energy.

And it’s never too late to be retrofitted, as God promised Abraham in his willingness to believe in God’s promise of a new life, of a child and heir, even when his own biological filament and the filament of his wife had burned out and grown cold, by leaving his home and all its familiar fixtures for the new life that awaited him. Similarly, Nicodemus was drawn to Jesus, acknowledging the signs of his unique power, even though he was at the pinnacle of the obsolete, incandescent faith of Judaism as a revered leader on the Sanhedrin and could so easily have clung to that light, such as it was, or even tried, like the other members of the Sanhedrin, to put Jesus’ new light out of business, rather than seeking the eternal life that Jesus’ turning water into wine, for instance, demonstrated was not subject to the corruption he knew was at the heart of his own nation that had been called by God to be a light to the world but was failing to even enlighten its own people, citizens who were streaming out to the Jordan River in response to John the Baptist’s radical call to prepare for a new life by repenting of their provisional, incandescent life as they awaited the Messiah, who would offer them eternal life.

May we also, in this season of Lent, turn and return to Christ and may our lives glow with the light of his presence and in the hope of those new resurrection lanterns that will adorn heaven and eternity even more than our new lights adorn this holy place. AMEN.