Sunday, March 15, 2015
We see it on billboards, license plates, on signs at sporting events – it’s probably the most-often quoted, well-known Bible verse of all time: John 3:16. Say it with me, “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.” It’s a good one! I’m tempted to just sit down now and let the gospel speak for itself. But when I read this passage from John this week, a question came to my mind…Do we really believe it? Do we really believe that God LOVES the world? Or, let’s start smaller – can we simply believe that God loves us, that God loves me – “Yes, Jesus loves me”, we learned when we were kids, right? Do we believe that sinners though we may be, God loves us enough to give his only Son for us so that we might have eternal life? And if that is true for us – are we living it, and sharing that good news so that the world may know?!
For God so loved the world…We could look at what is happening around the world today and think that perhaps God has forgotten the world that God supposedly so well-loves. ISIS continues to promote a message of hate and violence, dramatically beheading Americans and Christians around the world, recruiting and brainwashing vulnerable young people to propagate its message. Politicians in Washington continue to refuse to work together for the good of American citizens and instead cater to lobbyists and their own political interests. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma amidst perpetuated racism across our country in Ferguson, in Oklahoma, and yes, even here in Omaha. God loves the world, huh? God’s willing to give his only son to die on a cross for this mess? It may seem, if we watch and listen to the news, that God has abandoned us, that God’s love has reached its limit.
And then there’s our personal relationship with God – regrets about the past that we can’t get over, the ways we’ve neglected to tend to our relationship with God through regular worship, scripture study, prayer, and service to our neighbors, things about ourselves that we wish we could change or situations in our lives that are so difficult we start to wonder if God is still there – if God has given up on loving us. God’s willing to give up his only son to die on the cross for this mess? God loves me enough to die for ME? It can be a hard thing to believe.
For as many times as we have read and heard John 3:16, we may not have paid attention to what it truly means for us. That’s something I am totally amazed at with scripture – we can read the Bible over and over again, and yet God continues to speak to us so that we hear and see new things through the same old verses and stories. This time, I noticed that God’s action is past tense. “For God so LOVED the world that he GAVE his only son…” Already happened, already done. The verse doesn’t say, “IF you behave and measure up to all that God wants you to be, then God will love you, “ or IF you can fully comprehend and rationalize in that tiny human brain of yours how it might be possible for God to love you, THEN God actually will love you.” God did, and God does already love you and this world. God sent his only son Jesus not because the world was good enough and the people were ready enough to receive him, but precisely because we were sick, dying, and in need of a savior. After all, Jesus goes on to say in verse 17 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.” A Christian once said (we don’t know who, exactly) that “a church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” And Jesus says in three different gospels, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” This is the awesome, astounding grace of God, that God so loved us, that God so loved the WORLD, that he sent Jesus, healer of the sick, savior of us all. That means that eternal life is not just a future hope that if we’re good enough and smart enough God will like us enough so that we can get into heaven, but eternal life is a current reality, a gift from God through faith that God already loves us, already walks with us night and day, and will be there with us and for us forever – not because we have it all together, but because God knows we need him.
Jesus is essentially saying to us in this passage of John that HE is how we know that God loves the world: God sent his son Jesus to die for us and be risen for us so that we would know we are already loved. God has already shown us how much he loves us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the first congregation I served, there was a woman who was very active at church. She was in worship every Sunday. If there was a special church event, she was there. Her husband, John, had Alzheimer’s. He was on the prayer chain, and we prayed for him every week. I didn’t meet him until he came for the Christmas Eve service – but his wife had told me that he never had come to church regularly and with his deteriorating condition probably never would again. But one day in the spring, after church John’s wife said that he had asked for the pastor to come visit him at home, so I did. As we talked, it was clear that he was wracked with guilt. He confessed to me that he thought God was punishing him with this terrible disease of Alzheimer’s because he had not been a more faithful Christian. He was not good enough for God, he thought. I told him basically that that was hogwash. I told him that God forgave him, God loved him, and that he was good enough because Jesus said so. Every month, I would come visit and tell him the same thing, because unfortunately, because of his Alzheimer’s, he would forget. That monthly ritual of hearing John’s confession and telling him God loved him anyway was incredibly powerful for me, because it was also a reminder for myself: God loves me, God loves John, God loves all those people out there –“for God so loved the world.”
There are plenty of people in our world who have trouble hearing and seeing that God loves them. The news likes to show us God’s absence, so it’s our job as Christians to notice God’s presence for ourselves and for the world God so loves. At Pastor Rich’s internship congregation, every week at the beginning of worship we had a time for sharing “God sightings.” People would share how they saw God that week – whether it was a beautiful sunset, in a stranger’s kind words, in unexpected healing of bodies and relationships. Every week, we heard different, powerful stories about God being there for people. If we had forgotten in those six days between Sundays, the church community was there again every week to remind us of God’s presence. In Jesus Christ, God has shown us how much he loves the world, and to what extent he is willing to go to save us. God sends us reminders daily of that love – we only have to open our eyes and pay attention, so we can help others notice and believe as well. For God so loved the world. Amen.