Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
(Click above link for the Scripture texts upon which this sermon is based)
The questions of why.
We people of faith are great at them.
Why does a bad thing happen to someone we care about?
Why is that wonderful parent sick?
Why can’t I find a job?
And then, on our more hurried days, what seem to be the questions we get caught on:
Why am I stuck in traffic when I’m so late? Every red light? Really?
Why do I always choose the SLOW line at the grocery store?
Or, before last year, that timeless question:
Why do the Royals always seem to be out of it by late April?
If God is a Good God we won’t revert to our old form this year.
We are good at asking questions. It’s a faithful thing to do, I think.
It’s what we human beings are inclined to: we ask questions; we seek understanding.
It is part of our what makes us human,
an innate desire to understand and to know God
a yearning to fit into a larger design for the world, for our lives.
Sometimes, though, as we are searching for why,
whether the big questions, or the lesser ones,
we might miss what is perhaps the most important question:
Why this—God so loved the world that God gave the only Son.
Why would God do that?
Why would God sacrifice the only Son? Now THERE’s a why question.
Why in the WORLD does God love us?
Why DOES God so love the world? Why does God so love me?
Best as I can tell, there isn’t much logic to it.
Why does God love this reluctant-to-trust,
A quick read through the news websites or fifteen minutes watching the Daily Show
tells you all you need to know about how messed up we seem to be sometimes.
All too often, it seems God loves the world, in spite of the world.
Could it be that God is simply more loving than our logic can figure—
so loving that God would sacrifice the only Son
that we might have life eternal, and life abundant…
Questions of faith…
Sometimes we come across a verse in the bible so familiar, or so identifiable,
that its hard to really think about it very deeply.
I think that’s the case with John 3:16.
It is the most quoted verse in the bible.
You find banners saying “John 3:16” at baseball games and football games.
I didn’t get to watch of the Big 12 tournament this weekend,
but I guess if I had I would have seen John 3:16 signs-a-plenty.
I remember watching the Orange Bowl appearance several years ago
where Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, had John 3:16 written
in white ink over those black smudges that players put under their eyes.
For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish,
but may have eternal life…
Some consider this to be “The gospel in a nutshell.”
Martin Luther, in fact, called this verse “the gospel in miniature.”
The whole story of God’s saving love, packed into one little verse…
God so loved the world…
How would you describe love? Your loves?
What words would you scribble to give it shape and form?
When Brook and I were married, almost sixteen years ago now,
we put an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem on the inside cover of our bulletin.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
for the ends of being and ideal grace…
We also quoted from the Song of Songs:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
Efforts, feeble really, to try to describe our love.
I imagine that you could think of some words, or songs, or poetry
that speak to your deepest loves:
whether it be your partner
or your kids
or your parents
or your closest, dearest friends.
These tender words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning,
and these powerful words from the Songs,
were my effort to reflect a bit of the all-encompassing character
of our deepest examples of human love for another.
At its deepest and its best, however,
we believe that human love is a reflection of divine love.
Our love participates in God’s love.
Our love deepens and grows because of God’s love.
Our love is POSSIBLE, because GOD loves first.
And no-where, in the entire bible,
do we get such a clear, succinct, powerful idea of divine love,
than in this verse, this gospel in miniature.
So I’ve been thinking this week about this
paradigmatic verse of the Christian gospel,
and I think it would help us to pick it apart a little bit.
To think together about why it is so powerful for us,
beyond the signs in the arenas and the lip-service of athletes.
What does it mean to us as a church, as a people of faith,
to understand God in this way?
Lets look a bit more closely:
“For God SO loved…” Did you catch that word SO?[i]
Most of us glide over it, I think.
That one little word “so” expresses intensity
– the dramatic intensity of God’s feelings, God’s intention.
The Greek word for “so” is houtos.
And like English, the word ‘so’, the word houtos,
can be used in many different ways.
For instance, “Are you going to church today? So am I!
But Pastor Chad’s sermon? It was so–so.
But hey, you learned that God loves you. So what – I already knew that!
SO you see how that one little word “so”
can be used in SO many different ways, to name a few.
But, only RARELY in Greek is this word, houtos, ever used to express deep feelings.
Feelings of love to the depth and breadth and height that a soul can reach
The you-want-to-burn-a-seal of it into your arm, your heart kinda feelings…
In fact, there are only two places in John’s writings
where houtos is used to express this sort of deep and intense emotion –
In John 3:16, as we read today,
and in the letter we call First John, were the author writes:
“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
(I John 4:11)
There is that intensifier, that houtos…
reminding us the extent of this Love God seems to have for us…
Now what if I say to you, “I love my wife SO much. I love my daughters SO much.”
Would that not reveal the inner intensity of feeling I have for them?
That would be the point, what I am trying to convey.
But what if I said to you “I love you SO much.”
That might make you feel a bit … uncomfortable – a little uneasy.
Because we both know that we don’t love each other quite THAT much.
I mean we love each other, but not that much, or not quite like that.
This one little word SO expresses such intense feelings and emotions for someone
we don’t just use it on everyone.
We save it, for our deepest, closest, most intimate relationships.
But, in this context, this is PRECISELY how John explains
God’s love for you and for me. Just so.
Lets not jump too far past that intensifier: God SO loves you, and me.
Accordingly, we note a special thing going on here.
Fair enough. Lets keep going.
“For God SO LOVED –
LOVED. Greek has all sorts of words for love:
Brotherly and Sisterly love
The love of intimate people toward each other
The LOVE I have for a nice big bowl of Apple Crisp. Ala mode.
But the word for love here is agape love – a love that is gracious, giving,
free, unearned, undeserved, abounding, enduring.
The kind of love associated with the Grace
we heard in the first reading from Ephesians today….
So Its not just any love, but THAT sort of love.
But note where the Gospel author goes with this intense love, this DEEP love
this undeserved, abounding, overflowing love….
“For God SO LOVED … the WORLD.”
Not LOVED… just the church.
Not just Christians.
Not just good people who stay out of trouble.
Not just you and me.
But God SO LOVED the WORLD – the world!
Why, the world includes:
People in the world who don’t love God.
People who could care less about God.
People who reject God.
People whom those God loves themselves reject.
People who don’t have time for God.
People who say, “I don’t need God.”
People who say, “I don’t believe in God.”
The intensity of God’s emotion is not just directed towards Christians.
That intensity of God’s love is not just directed towards good people, safe people.
The intensity of God’s emotion – God’s love is for the WORLD.
And to be honest, I sometimes don’t get it.
I can’t comprehend or understand grace,
that God loves people who do not love God
that God loves people whom I cannot love…
But God SO LOVED the WORLD that GOD GAVE God’s only Son.
This word “gave” suggests a gift, unearned, free, undeserved, unmerited.
Jesus’ life, ministry, and ultimate death on the cross was for the SAKE of the world.
This next part is where we in the church all too often
start missing out on what’s going on here.
For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son,
that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
You know we often think of “eternal life”
as something we can only look forward to – heaven.
But the Jewish understanding of eternal life – a life without end
– begins with life right HERE and right NOW
– it refers to the quality of life we get to enjoy already
AND into the future…because we believe in Jesus now.
We hear this wonderful stuff about God’s
really hard-to-understand love for the WORLD
and then when we get to this second part, and we start limiting that love…
As if this verse restricts God’s grace, God’s love, for those who have
found enough answers in this journey-of-searching we call life
to come to unbreakable convictions about Christ Jesus’ teachings.
Those teachings are important.
Believing in Jesus is important.
We know that for us it is because of Christ that we FEEL, we GRASP
the depths of God’s love for us, our way and our truth and our life…
But the order is all wrong. God’s grace, God’s love is FOR ALL…
And it is FOR us, from before we have been able to understand and believe
and on those days where our belief isn’t all that easy…
and on those days we can’t grasp the fullness of God’s love…
AND when our belief is sure and sound and solid….
Apparently, God desires our hearts to not be troubled,
for us to get it, that it is because of this free gift of love, of grace,
in Christ Jesus, that WE are set free to love,
that we are forgiven and healed.
God wants us to get that, to believe that.
Even if we can’t figure out why in the world God would DO that?
And in those moments when we can understand that, when we believe,
our personal doubt and fear and pettiness and meaninglessness perishes
and we have a GLIMPSE of the eternal life God has given to us.
But this love of God in Christ Jesus, it is for all – those who believe,
those who struggle to believe,
those who do not believe …
And so it is that the next verse, verse 17,
goes on to say,
“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.”
The Gospel in Miniature points us to a God who—for whatever reason—
chooses not to condemn. Its just not who God is.
And whenever we make God into THAT kind of God, something is wrong.
Jesus did not come into this world to condemn the world that God SO loves.
But I read a lot this week of what other people have preached about this passage.
And too often, instead of presenting to the world this Jesus
who has come to demonstrate God’s love for all…
instead of that, too many people hold up a picture of Jesus as the Judge
who has come to condemn the world and most everyone in it.
Starting first with those who do not believe,
or who do not believe just the way in which THEY believe.
But here’s the rub:
THAT idea of God is foreign to the God we find in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The God Jesus reveals to us is a God who does not condemn.
The scriptures simply point out a basic truth: that human beings,
when stuck in the ruts of our petty ways, or our various sinful acts,
whether our jealousy or our egoism or, yes, our judgment
well…when we choose to persist in that way we condemn ourselves
we “are condemned already” the text tells us.
And that condemnation is to close our eyes to the love, the grace, the freedom
That God has for each and every one of us….
And even so, even so,
God loves us, so much that God sent God’s only son
to free us from living like that.
What does that mean for us, this LENT?
I’m not entirely sure.
But I think what it might mean, is that
we who claim the name of Christ need to be doing,
what God longs for us to be doing, what God himself does:
inviting, drawing people into a loving relationship
with this God who loves them SO much that God gave Christ Jesus for them.
To be imitating that love, to be so engrossed in that love
that we get lost counting the ways
in which God’s love compels us to love one another.
To realize that, even though we can’t really fathom WHY God
would love me, love you, quite so much,
that God indeed does…
You are loved.
My friends, it is often by belonging to a community such as this one,
where one can experience, can dwell in, can be bathed in the deep love of God
it is often by belonging to such a community that belief is gifted to us.
We are here not because we first believed, but because we first belonged.
And we first belonged because God loved us, unconditionally,
as testified in what God does in Christ Jesus our Lord.
All are welcome here, because we know that it is God who welcomes you here.
This is the God whom we worship. This is the God who is traveling to Jerusalem.
This is the God whom the world needs to know.
So may we love one another and show others a bit of this God,
that God’s grace might abound….
[i] Elements explored in Edward Markquart’s sermon “For God So Loved the World,” available http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_for_god_so_loved_the_world.htm (accessed March 14, 2015)
Image: the 2014 NEXT Church national conference communion table, constructed by artist-in-residence Shawna Bowman. Picture curtesy of nextchurch.net.