Sermons

"For God so Loved the World": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

"For God so Loved the World": Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B

Mar 15, 2015

Passage:John 3:14-21

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Robert Pace

Series: Lent

Category: Love, Discipleship

Keywords: belief, darkness, eternal life, lent, light, love, practices

Summary:

John 3:16 is perhaps the most famous Bible verse there is. It is often described as a "summary of the Gospel." It is a wonderful description of God's love for God's creation in sending God's only Son. However, seeing the verses that follow it "flesh out" the context of the community of the Gospel of John. This is not a verse about "who is in" and "who is out." Instead, it's about God's overwhelming love for creation from the beginning. Our response, then, is to continue in the "belief" of that overwhelming love of God for all.

Detail:

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

“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.”

This is probably one of the most famous single lines of New Testament scripture—John 3:16. Many of you probably memorized it as children. You’ve seen posters at major sporting events with “John 3:16” pasted on them, advertising the verse. It has been touted as a basic summary of the entire gospel.

I’ve got to admit, I think it’s a pretty good verse. But I also have some struggles with it…

My first struggle is that it brings up an embarrassing memory from my childhood.

When I was about ten years old, my parents went to a church conference for a couple of days and took us kids with them because there were to be activities for children. The kids’ activity at the conference was something known as “The Bible Bowl.” When we arrived, we got team tee shirts—the boys’ team was the “Bible Boys” and the girls’ team was the “Gospel Girls.” For two days we memorized sections of scripture and went to the “scripture stations” to recite them to the adult there to win points for our team. There were individual prizes for the kids who memorized the most scripture (I didn’t come close to that—there were a lot of big city smart kids there!) The grand prize at the end for the winning team was a gigantic banana split with sparklers on it. The Gospel Girls won! But they shared the ice cream…

But this wasn’t the embarrassing part. When we got back to our little church in our little town, my mother, who was the Children’s Sunday School Director, decided to put on the Bible Bowl for our kids at the church. She used the same format, the same tee-shirts, etc. I was very excited because I figured I was now a shoe-in for the prize for memorizing the most scripture. Heck, I had already done it in the big city! I was a veteran at this competition!

We started the event. My friend Jimmy arrived at the church excited to be in the competition. Jimmy lived with his mother and two siblings in a modest trailer home. He had walked to the church. Like me, he was ten years old. Jimmy started out memorizing John 3:16. Feeling like a mentor, I told him that was a good place to start. He went and recited it in the recitation room, then came back to memorize more. I didn’t really pay attention to how Jimmy was doing after that. At the end, we Bible Boys had won! But then, it was time for my mother to announce the winner of the award for memorizing the most scripture. I was ready to take my due prize. But then…she announced Jimmy’s name.

I’d like to say that I congratulated Jimmy. Or, short of that, I’d to say that I sat quietly and said nothing. But, instead, I threw a fit. I stood up and ran out and yelled about the injustice of it all. I said that I deserved the prize because I had done this before. I was basically horrible. I separated myself from Jimmy. I separated myself from my mother. I separated myself from the group. And I separated myself from the love of God that was offered in that celebration.

But, when I hear “John 3:16” today, I don’t always think about that incident. The remembrance of that time so long ago is not the only reason I struggle with this verse. I also struggle with it because I often want us to “keep going” when we read it. I want those signs at the football games to read: “John 3:16-17-18-19-20 & 21.”

You see, the rest of the reading we heard today “fleshes out” the verse for us in a way that is tremendously important. We hear, for example, that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That is so powerful in this world where we often get the message—especially from some church folk—that we are “less than.” In other words, this God who created the world has “so loved the world” and is continuing to love it!

We can see the entirety of the history of the scriptures through this lens of God’s love for all of God’s creation. God heard the plight of the slaves in Egypt and lovingly called Moses to free them. God listened to the confusion of God’s people as they wandered out of the Red Sea and lovingly provided laws and boundaries to guide them. Once God’s people were in the Promised Land, God saw injustice and suffering among them, and out of love called up prophets to speak truth to power and to bring hope to the hopeless. And in the midst of cultural turmoil and Roman occupation, it was through the love of God that Jesus became the incarnate Word of God in the world.[i]

Jesus was able to teach and to show that the love God brought into being with creation is the same love that is available to all of God’s creatures.

This is what makes me struggle with this John 3:16 verse. So many Christians take it and use it to make exclusionary statements about the love of God. They say: “This is the proof that you must follow this path, or else you will burn in hell!”

“After all,” they say, “whosoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” They go on to say that verse 18 adds: “those who do not believe are condemned already, because they do not believe in the only Son of God.”

And, reading these verses raw, with no context, sounds pretty tough on people who do not “believe in Jesus.”

But if we look at these verses in the context of the Gospel of John, they take on a new meaning—a very specific kind of meaning. For the Johannine community (that community for which this book was written), they truly “lived” their faith together in the belief of the risen Lord.

So when they heard “believe in the Son of God,” it was more than a simple intellectual enterprise. Belief, for them, was part of their entire being. Belief incorporated their actions and their behaviors as well.

So they understood when they heard: “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil deeds hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.”

You see, they got that. They understood that they may have temptations to treat each other with envy or anger or jealousy. They understood that they might be tempted to be petty or rude or impatient with one another. They understood that they might be too proud or too ashamed or too boastful in their interactions with one another.

They knew that when dealing with others they might be tempted to lie or cheat or steal or shade the facts about something if it changed things to their advantage. But all of these deeds cannot stand up to the light of love. In the face of outright love, it’s hard to be evil. Practicing loving one another unconditionally as God loves us it what Jesus demands. That’s the “belief” that these verses call for.

People can, of course, reject loving one another, and being loved. If they do so, they live in a kind of condemnation that makes life pretty horrible. It’s a type of living in perpetual darkness. God wants to show us a better way. Jesus came to change our paradigm: “Love one another as I have loved you.”[ii]

As Christians who have inherited the mantle of the Johannine community, we must also listen carefully to these verses. On the one hand, it’s clear that we all still fall short of the goal of constantly living in the light and remembering that all of our deeds are “done in God.”

I wish that I could say the last time I ever threw a temper tantrum, or even behaved badly toward another human, was that time when I was ten. But, that’s simply not true. I think we all find ourselves in the darkness from time to time. But we’re also the Body of Christ, and we are called by virtue of our baptisms to walk in the light.

This season of Lent, especially, we are recalled to the practices that enhance our connection to the sustaining love of God in Christ. But, these Christian practices are not simply about us being insiders versus the outsiders. Instead, our Christian practices strengthen us as believers and embolden us in our understanding that God’s love is real. God’s love is present in a world where there is oppression and pain and darkness. Knowing that Christ is the light of the world, who did not come to condemn the world but to save it is key for us. As believers—as the Body of Christ—we are to be that “light of the world” in showing God’s love to each other and to all whom we encounter. “For God so loved the world…”

 

[i]Some of these ideas are from Paul C. Shupe, “John 3:14-21: Pastoral Perspective," Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 118-120.

[ii] John 13:34—The “New Commandment”

 

[i]Some of these ideas are from Paul C. Shupe, “John 3:14-21: Pastoral Perspective," Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 118-120.

[ii] John 13:34—The “New Commandment”