Sermon In Lent: Wrestling With John 3:16

Grace be unto you from God our Father, and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

You’ve heard it! It’s been tweeted. Facebook can’t even with how many times it has been posted, liked and shared. It’s been shouted triumphantly, and whispered in fervent prayer. It’s been cross-stitched into wall hangings. It’s on bumper stickers. It’s glammed onto dorm-room walls. It’s embossed into commemorative bracelets. There’s always one low-rez self-proclaimed Christian that holds it up on a sign at sporting events. It has its own line of T-shirts. People have it tattooed on their bodies. I’ve even seen it on the bottom of coffee cups, and in football-player face paint. It’s John 3:16. It is the rockstar bible verse that everyone already knows and just plain gets by heart, and it is here to save the day in today’s Gospel lesson. God might as well have written a mic-drop in at the end of it. John 3:16 BOOM! I’m outta here.

For the two of you that haven’t heard it yet, John 3:16 says “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 one most famous bible verse is the battle cry of Christians everywhere. It gets trotted out like my Grandmother would trot out the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” for every single day for the entire month of December. You better not make a fuss now! You know who’s coming to town. “John 3:16 knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” God loved the world SO much he sent his Son to die for you….so you better believe in that Son and get you some eternal life, OR ELSE.

The implication is that this is a verse of judgment on all those who don’t have Christ in their hearts. If you haven’t believed enough, if you don’t decide for Christ, you aren’t responding properly to how much God loved the world. The story goes that John 3:16 judges those who don’t do the work of believing.

This is terrifying! If that is what this verse truly says, if the rockstar popular usage of this bible passage is correct, I don’t want any part of it. I want to take John 3:16 by the shoulders and shake it, saying NOO! Take it back, I do not want this fame and fortune for you, it’s like you’ve sold out the promises God, and now all that’s important to you is the money. It’s no longer about the music John 3:16, what happened to the younger you that loved to simply sit around, play guitar, and compose joy? Now it’s all about shows, crowds, and ticket sales. Fame doesn’t look good on you John 3:16.And that is precisely what our culture has done to John 3:16- it has made it devoid of the promises of God, and turned it into either judgment or something we want to judge like a washed up rockstar.

But if we were to truly look at the context of John 3:16, I think we might want to take it down off our walls and scratch it out of our bumper stickers. Because, here is something much more scandalous than Santa Claus coming to town. If we go back to the younger John 3:16 in its context, the only thing we would want to do with it, might be to whisper it to one another as if we just heard a juicy rumor. You see, this is a weak text, full of disturbing things and the promises of God. The promises of God are not, in fact, popular. They don’t go well on T-shirts. They can even get kind of ugly like we heard last week with the disturbance in the temple.

So let us go back to that younger John 3:16 back in its context. The first thing we learn is that this not a passage that is spoken directly to us! John 3:16 is spoken to Nicodemus. Remember him? He is the one that comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, and completely misunderstands everything Jesus says. Jesus talks about being born again from above, and Nicodemus is ready to crawl back into his mothers womb. Nicodemus’s mistake is that he thinks there is something to be done about faith. Faith, for him, is like a work that you have to do to get into heaven.

And then it is to this very misunderstanding, that Jesus speaks the infamous John 3:16. When we step into the shoes of Nicodemus, it becomes more and more clear that the idea that God Loved the world SO much, in John 3:16 actually misses the entire point of the passage. One problem is with the word “so.” That one little two letter word in “For God so loved the world” has caused more Nicodemus-like misunderstanding and woe in our reading of John, than a new gate causes consternation and bewilderment for a cow. We are tricked by it back into the very misunderstanding that it is meant to refute: that faith is something that we can do.

We read the word so as saying: “God loved the world very very very much. But in the Greek it is actually a so, like saying “I so placed that banana peel there with the idea that someone would trip on it.” It would be a better translation to say “For God IN THIS WAY loved the World, that he sent his only Son.” And that isn’t even the half of it. If we look at the larger context of its use in the Gospel of John the word kosmos (or world) also makes a problem for a SO MUCH LOVE reading of John 3:16.For the writer of the Gospel of John, world is a four letter word! For John the world is the most un-lovable, opposite of God-like, rotten place you could imagine. As one of the pastors in our pericope group put it: “It’s not Heaven or Hell for John, it is Heaven or the World.”

What does all this mean? It means, a truer paraphrase of John 3:16 would be: “For God in this way loved the unlovable God-hating World: God loved us by sending God’s unique Son, to die and be lifted up so that we get, without our deserving it, everlasting life.” Does it still sound like something you want on your bumper sticker?

Suddenly, this is no longer a passage about judgment of non-believers, but about promise. After all, the very next words in 3:17 say that “Indeed, 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 the promise of God; it tells us how the Son came to this rutting world, so that God could experience life with us, and save us. God did not come to judge, but to save! And that is where we get this beautiful passage from Ephesians: “3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our sis, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

Dear Nicodemus, this is the promise of God: we do not have to believe! We don’t have to do anything; undeserving though we all may be, God promises to save us through Christ. Salvation comes from above! And this then, is the scandal of John 3:16: that the great way in which God from above loves us is not in power and in might. Not as a judgmental Santa Claus with a naughty list and a nice list. Not in writing us beautiful sonnets or arias. God loves us just so, in this way: by dying for us, by being lifted up on a cross like a bronze serpent so that we may live. God loves us by taking on our very brokenness, death, sin and hatred. And God lifts them up away from us, by grace, and sends us back into God’s loving arms, and into the arms of one another.

And all at once, we become believers when we weren’t even looking. That’s what the promises of God do, they shine so brightly through the grime and dark that by the time our vision clears we don’t even notice how much we have changed. When we hear God’s promises, we become people with things to do, and lives to live. We become filled with faith, because God has been faithful even in dying FOR US. We no longer have to worry about our own salvation; we no longer have to worry about coming to the light and doing things that are true. Because that is the work of God, using our very brokenness. It is then only with this promise ringing in our ears that we can hear the judgment in the following verses as John continues:

10 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.

My friends we are all both of those people! We are all haters of the light, and those who do what is true in the light. The Judgement surrounding John 3:16 is not something that we do, nor particularly that God does; God doesn’t zap us for not believing. But the judgement is an expression of this very crisis: that in Christ we are made to be the same time sinner and saint. Same time unbeliever and believer, same time heathen and faithful. We are the unlovable world, loved by God through God’s death and lifting up. In this way, John 3:16 expresses what is real, it shows us for who we are. But do you hear the promise? God promises to bring us into the light.

Or again, in John 3:13 just before our reading today, it says “No one, [dear Nicodemus] has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” We don’t ever get up to God. We don’t ever become by our own strength the people that love the light. Instead, God comes down to us, brings the light and just plain shines it through us whether we like it or not. And usually, we don’t like it. That’s the Judgement: faith stings. “Please, would someone turn off that spotlight? I don’t want to see my sins. Thank you very much!” We don’t like to be made new, and we are comfortable with the way things have always been: sinful and dark and safe. But God promises to lift up that darkness, and through Christ’s lifting up, we are dragged through the waters of baptism, lifted up, kicking and screaming out of the water, to become people of faith.

So, if you remember one thing today, John 3:16 may not be a story about how God loved the world SO MUCH. But about how God loves the world, despite the world. Like it or not. Tough Cookies. Hell or high water. So must the son of man be lifted up. For God in this way loved the unlovable world, that God lifted up our darkness that we may have eternal life. We are every terrible one of us, lifted high to be a new people of faith. As we sing in the hymn Lift High The Cross: “O Lord once lifted on the glorious tree, as thou hast promised, draw us all to thee.” That is good news indeed.

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