“For God so loved the world…” John 3:16
Let’s begin with the snakes. When we meet Jesus today he is in the middle of a conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader who visited him one night to ask “Who are you?” They proceed to have a conservation where Jesus is on one level and Nicodemus on another, never quite connecting. Maybe you’ve been caught in similar disconnects. So, Jesus decides to use an illustration that Nicodemus would certainly know – the snake on a stick. We heard the whole story in our first reading for today – the people rebel, God sends poisonous snakes as punishment, Moses intervenes, God relents and tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake, put it on a pole and anyone who looks at it will live. We can almost see Nicodemus nodding in understanding and then Jesus makes the conceptual leap – so must the Son of Man be lifted up and whoever believes will have eternal life. Jesus will be lifted up on the stick of the cross.
In our sanctuary we have a similar symbol. Last Sunday when our newcomers went on a tour of the church we ended in the Choir Loft. Then the question was asked, “Why isn’t Jesus hanging on the cross?” Looking carefully at the pattern of the brass, someone said, “You can kind of see his body.” Another question, “Are they nails or the rays of the sun?” Could they be both? Death and resurrection together.
Now we get to John 3:16 – probably the most recognized verse in New Testament, if not the whole Bible, “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.” Martin Luther called this verse “the Gospel in a nutshell.” Let’s take it phrase by phrase.
For God so loved – here the Greek is agape, which is the highest form of love – love that is selfless, sacrificial and unconditional. Agape gives itself away freely no less for the murderer than for his victim. God love is unconditional. And that can be really scary – because if loves us no matter what, we are not in charged. God is. I’ve often shared that the first time my husband John told me he loved me, my reply was “No, you don’t. You don’t know me yet.” I said that because if he did know me, I was so afraid he won’t love me. We do the same thing with God, and if we are not careful our understanding of God can be way too small.
This Lent I’ve read two wonderful books, both by Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir. They are books about Homeboy Industries which provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community. Located in Los Angeles it is the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. In Barking to the Choir, Father Greg wrote: “God leans into us so that we will let go of the image of God as unreasonable parent, exacting teacher, or ruthless coach. God is not who we think God is… God is everywhere and in everything. Our sense of God always beckons us to grow, to reimage something wildly more breathtaking than where our imagination generally takes us… With any luck, we will keep landing on a better God, finally having grown comfortable with God’s tenderness.” God loves unconditionally.
For God so loves the world or the cosmos, as in the original Greek. God loves it all – from the earthworm earnestly preparing the soil for spring planting to the giant whales swimming in the sea to the new stars being born in stellar nurseries. We hear this in the very first chapter of Genesis where at the end of each day of creation, except the second in the week which was Monday, God declares that it is good and on the sixth day when human beings were made, very good. God loves the cosmos – no exceptions.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. Here the depth of God’s love is revealed. God never gives up. The scriptures are filled with stories of God’s love. From creation to Noah to Abraham and Sarah, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob to Moses and the children of Israel to David and Solomon, to the prophets and priests of Israel, God again and again loves the world and her people. The writer of Hebrews put it like this, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in any and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son who is the reflection of God’s glory; the exact imprint of God’s very being; sustaining all things by his powerful word.
The powerful word, the very being of God is contained in human flesh and blood, in Jesus. But instead of standing with the strong and mighty, Jesus enters the margins, goes to the lowly places, lives with the poor and forgotten, and makes their voices heard. Father Greg invites us to “imagine a circle of compassion; then imagine no one standing outside that circle, dismantling any barriers keeping anyone out. Just as God is so taken up in his compassion and love for us that he isn’t concerned with his own exaltation and he doesn’t have time to be disappointed with us. To Jesus, it’s all about us — community, transformation, and living in the truth that we are exactly who God had in mind when he made us.”
Again, for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him… Ah, for some here is the difficulty – it can be so hard to believe this is true. In part this is because our modern usage of the word “belief” demands our intellectual acceptance and we are reluctant to give that acceptance without proof. We want the scientific facts before believing. The Greek word literally is to “have faith” which is to be in a God-initiated relationship. We can certainly say, “No thank you God,” but that doesn’t stop God from loving us. Indeed, God keeps loving in spite of us. I remember when one of my sons was two or three and had done something that warranted a time out. He said, “Mom, I don’t love you anymore.” I replied, “That’s OK, because I still love you and always will.” Believing, having faith, opens our eyes to the love that is always there.
For God, you can help me, 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. When Jesus speaks about eternal life it is multidimensional, existing in all directions, not just in the future after we died. Eternal life is now and even into our past. Eternal life means without beginning or end, it just “is.” If we look carefully we see this eternal life, life rich and full and amazing all over the place. We can recognize it in moments of awe and wonder. Two years ago at my family reunion I had an awe and wonder experience as little babies were held by ninety year-olds. We had one a couple of weeks ago when Tyler Christopher Thompson was born. He came quickly, in the Thompson’s living room, attended by his father, a neighbor, some of Phoenixville’s finest. And there was another last Monday at the first meeting of our Gun Violence Prevention Action Team when someone said, we needed to remember Joshua and Jason, two young men killed by guns in our town along with the 17 killed in Parkland, acknowledging that guns are our problem too and speaking honestly about it because that is the only way change begins.
Martin Luther, “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels,” in Luther’s Works, 35:118-19.
Frederick Buechner: Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, New York: Harper & Ros, 1973, 53.
Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2017,15-16.
Gregory Boyle, http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/the-jesus-strategy.