Sermon for March 14, 2021
John 3:16 is perhaps the New Testament’s most fondly remembered verse. Still, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with this verse. I do love it, of course, because on the one hand, John 3:16 is as William Barclay describes it, “Everybody’s text.” On the other hand, whenever someone mentions it, the image that pops up in my mind is not the verse itself, but some guy holding a sign with that text reference emblazoned on it as he sits in the end zone at a televised NFL football game, or at least that was how it was before the pandemic emptied the stadiums. You see, the problem I have here is that this person, like so many others including some rather judgmental preacher types, have almost turned John 3:16 into some kind of confessional faith test – on this side God loves you, on the other side you’re not in the circle.
That’s a crying shame as far as I am concerned. Because John 3:16 is not a “stand alone.” While it certainly is a foundational verse for us, our faith cannot stand or fall on a single verse alone. We need to dig deeper. While John 3:16 tells us some great things about the essence of the Good News, it ought not to be yanked out of its context. That, by the way, is pretty true of every verse in the Bible. Proof-texting is no way to read the scriptures. Contextualism needs to guide us.
And this verse, of course, arises in a context. The context is Jesus’ encounter with a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, named Nicodemus, who under the cover of night comes to talk with Jesus. But what is clearly evident from the larger setting is that John 3:16 is part of a commentary that John makes about this conversation Jesus had with this man. Many scholars believe the conversation between them ends with verse 13. Others say the Jesus-Nicodemus dialogue ends at verse 15. But the point is, John 3:14-21, our Gospel text today, is not some red-letter, Jesus-uttered material. It is John’s commentary. And interesting commentary it is!
John’s commentary begins by taking us back to that very strange story which we heard from the Hebrew Bible this morning as our first reading from the Book of Numbers.
On their journey out of Egypt’s bondage, and caught in seemingly never-ending wilderness wanderings, Israel murmurs and complains to Moses that they regret ever having left Egypt in the first place. We’re going on decades out here, Moses, decades in this God-forsaken desert with too little to eat and drink. Egypt is looking pretty darn good right now.
Well, according to Numbers, God was pretty ticked off with all this ingratitude and sent a plague of deadly, fiery serpents to afflict them. The whiners quickly repented and cried for mercy. God then instructed Moses to make an image of a serpent out of bronze and hold it up on a stick in the midst of the camp. All those who looked on the serpent were healed, we are told. Bizarre, right, especially for a people averse to making graven images? The rabbis later tried to explain this problem away with some rationalization that satisfied themselves, but I’m still not buying it. This seems like a meander down the “golden calf” path to me. But no matter, the fact is John uses this story from Israel’s checkered past and reads it back into the Jesus-Nicodemus conversation, talking about those in darkness and those who are or are not condemned.
Which brings me back to the danger of isolating John 3:16 from the rest of the passage, because in a few words and a couple of verses, John manages to create one of the great paradoxes of his Gospel. This is the paradox of love and judgment. One minute John 3:16 has us thinking about how much God loves us, and then suddenly with verse 17 and following we are confronted with judgment and condemnation. John has just said that it was because God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world, and yet this same Jesus is quoted later by John in chapter 9 saying, “For judgment I came into this world” (Verse 39).
What’s going on here? We’re in about as much darkness as that night Nicodemus himself disappeared into!
These verses need some bright light to help us understand. How can God love the world enough to give the only begotten Son and then be a God who condemns people? How can both things be true?
We cannot read John 3:16 in isolation, as if it were an unambiguous sign that can be held up in a stadium end zone for instant crowd recognition. John 3:16 and 17 and the rest remind us that there are no straight forward distinctions to be made between darkness and light, judgment and salvation, death and life, doubt and belief. We rarely reside only in one.
Salvation is simply not to be found at the end of some cosmic, moral yardstick called John 3:16. Salvation, yours, mine, ours, the whole world’s, involves a strange mixing of crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, all wrapped up in a wonderfully bizarre message of God’s love.
Perhaps a story William Barclay tells in his commentary on John 3:16 helps us dig into this seeming paradox of eternal love on the one hand and judgment and condemnation on the other. Barclay related that “A visitor was being shown round an art gallery by one of the attendants. In that gallery there were certain masterpieces beyond all price, possessions of eternal beauty and unquestioned genius. At the end of the tour the visitor said: ‘Well, I don’t think much of your old pictures.’ The attendant answered quietly: ‘Sir, I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them are!’”
Just like Nicodemus when confronted by Jesus, we too are “judged” if you will by our response to the wonder of God’s love which Jesus came to display. If we embrace that love in its fullness, understanding that it is not just for us and for those like us, but for the whole world with no exceptions, then we are on the way to salvation. But if, when confronted by that wide and mysterious and strange and outrageous love of God, we cannot take it in as a universal gift for all, not just for me and my kind, well then, we stand condemned, but not by God, you see, but by our own selfish selves, by our own unwillingness to be as extravagant as God is. As someone once said of the Ten Commandments, we do not so much break them as we break ourselves against them. And so it is here. We are not so much judged by God as we judge ourselves when we shut out Love.
To be puny and protective of God’s expansive love is to love the darkness more than the light, is to stand revealed with our souls laid bare, is to be killed softly by the divine song, if you get my drift.
God’s love is real, God’s love is true, and God’s love is for the whole world, no exceptions. God’s grace, love and mercy are not up for judgment by us or anybody or anything. When we say yes to that yes of God for the world, the power of the good news gets unleashed in our lives, a reality that can change everything.
Love, God’s love for the whole world, is not a judgmental, conditional sign, meant for display in an American stadium. Rather, love is a radical message that carries a big universal promise. Love is not some privately held commodity. When we embrace it, accept it, that love is hope, hope for me, hope for you, hope for all of us, and hope for this whole world. But compartmentalized, tucked away in some private, personal recesses, this same love becomes a self-imposed judgment.
In September of 1954 a young black preacher name King, fresh out of seminary, preached his first sermon in his new church in Montgomery, Alabama. His text was John 3:16. He said:
“God’s love has breadth. It is a big love; it’s a broad love…God’s love is too big to be limited to a particular race. It is too big to be wrapped in a particularistic garment. It is too great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.”
Indeed. And so it is, my friends, that we are loved and judged all at the same time by a great Love that is big enough and vast enough to be for me and for you and for all of us. To embrace it is to set our feet on the path to salvation. To pretend it is not so, to tuck it away in some personal lockbox for me, myself, and I is to misread the promise and to stand judged, not by God, but by our own narrowness.
A Swedish hymn writer has captured it this way:
Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
Wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
You leave us free to seek you or reject you,
You give us room to answer “yes” or “no.”
O judge us, Lord, and in your judgment free us,
And set our feet in freedom‘s open space;
Take us as far as your compassion wanders
Among the children of the human race.
Anders Frostenson, 1968 (UMH 120)
Yes, God so loved, abundantly, unconditionally, and we are but invited to participate in this good news so that not only ourselves but the whole world might be saved. Amen.