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. [John 3:16]
Today we pick up the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, begun yesterday in the Gospel reading from John. At this point in the conversation, however, Nicodemus has gone silent, and Jesus goes full steam ahead into a monologue highlighted by the best known words in all of Scripture [see above].
Martin Luther called John 3:16 “the heart of the Bible, the gospel in miniature.”
Most of us know it by heart. We see it posted on signs, and people show up at athletic events with a cardboard poster that has John 3:16. We don’t have to have it written out, we know what the numbers mean.
Luther, by the way, went on to say that if he were the Lord God, “and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world to pieces.”
So thank God that Luther was NOT God. Because God does not condemn the world but through Christ, God saves the world. God sent Jesus into the world not to heap more accusations on us, not to pile up more guilt, not to bury us in shame, not to condemn us, but to save us.
As Jesus continues his soliloquy, he says: 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. [John 3:17]
For me personally, this verse of the Gospel reading happens to be my all-time favorite. Everyone remembers John 3:16, but I feel John 3:17 should share equal status with the verse that precedes it. I include this verse in my email signature. If I still had a need for business cards, I would include it in there also.
God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We Lutherans have a word for this. We call it grace – sheer grace. The shame of it is, however, that not many people understand that message of grace.
Nicodemus had the same problem. He was trying to understand God, so he comes to Jesus and he wants to understand. And he is to be commended for his interest. But we, like Nicodemus, have so many questions about God. God’s love and grace are strange to our normal way of thinking.
We want to understand God, but at the same time, make God fit into our image – not the other way around.
There are some things about God that I will never fully understand. And through this inability to know everything about God I have learned something important about the nature of God – that is, if I understood everything about God and could give answers to the simplest and also most complex questions about God, then God wouldn’t be God.
God is greater, more powerful, more mysterious, and even more loving than I could ever imagine or explain or describe to another human. I don’t have the words to describe the greatness and majesty and grace of God. I am experienced only in things of this world and there is nothing in this world with which I can compare God.
We serve a God of boundless and eternal love – a God that gave God’s only Son to die for us. God loves you. God is clear about that. And God makes that point in today’s Gospel and this verse. God’s very being has no limits to love.
Sadly, we, being the sinful human beings we are, have fallen victim to judgmental, exclusivist practices.
As a society, we have created more ways to divide ourselves than ever imaginable – by religion, by politics, by race, by skin color, by ethnicity, by nation, by language, by occupation, by age, by gender, by sexual orientation, by the kind of music we like, by wealth, and any other category we can think of.
As individuals and as worshipping communities, we have found means to exclude people who were not “our kind,” or “don’t share our values.”
There are those who align themselves behind a political candidate, ignoring that person’s own reprehensible conduct, so long as that elected official supports their divisive thought process.
We see it daily as we watch politicians in Washington. We saw it play out in full force on January 6.
I can’t help but think often of the words attributed to writer Anne Lamott, “You know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates the same people you do.”
But that is not the God we are called to serve. As we have received the boundlessness of God’s grace, mercy, and love, we are called to be a reflection of the same. God’s love is made known to others through us.
Our aim as Christians is to break through the limitations of our judgmentalism, to destroy all reasons that we might offer to treat one person as less than another, and to enter into relationships with each other that are based upon our equality before God.
The Lenten season is a time of preparation for the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord, a time for reflecting on why our Lord had to go to such extremes to save us.
And this is why. He wants to save us from our sin and allow us to live the life that God has given to us. Apart from love, there is really no other relationship we can have with God.
That is the grace that we believe in, that is the greatest gift that God gives us, that is the good news that we share.
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