March 11, 2018 – 4th Sunday of Lent/John 3:13-21
That one verse in the Gospel of John has to be the most well-known in all of scripture. Even us Presbyterians who didn’t grow up memorizing Bible verses and competing in Bible drills can easily recite John 3:16. I’m sure someone out there has it etched on their license plate – and unlike other, more obscure verses, none of us has to look that one up to know what scripture this person holds dear. The verse is so ubiquitous that even in its abbreviated form – Jn 3:16 – it is immediately recognizable. The words do not need to be said, the signs do not need to spell it out, for us to know just what is being referenced.
What is it, I wonder, that makes this such a favorite, that makes this the verse that every Christian, no matter what background or denomination, knows implicitly?
Maybe it is the overwhelming revelation of God’s love that the words communicate. “For God so loved the world …” So loved the world that God intervened in our human history because of God’s great love for us. And not only for us, but for the whole world – for all of creation, for the entire human race. A love so encompassing that no one is left out because they are just so evil or such poor disciples or so blatantly living the opposite of what God calls us to live. “Jesus’ descent from heaven, his servant life, and his death on the cross are the supreme expression of God’s great love for the world.” That certainly is reason enough for us to memorize these words, to carry them close to our hearts.
These words are “first of all a statement about God’s actions and only quite secondarily a statement about the consequences of those actions for human beings. … The central assertion being made is that God ‘loved the world.’”
Maybe it is not so much the love as the result of that love that holds us captive. “God loved; God gave. The goal of the gift is eternal life – eternal life [that] begins now – … abundant life as well as eternal. A loving God has not left the world to its own destructive devices.” Only in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, born, crucified, and resurrected, can we have this promise of life. “God acts again and again for the benefit of human beings because God loves the world in spite of itself. Even as the world resists and opposes God’s Son, God persists in loving the world.”
The next verse reinforces God’s good purposes in sending Jesus Christ – “not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” The use of those two words together in the same verse – condemn and save – reminds us that it is from condemnation, after all, that we are being freed. We are saved, not destroyed. We are given life rather than left to perish.
This verse forces us to recognize that we are called to respond in some way to this overwhelming love of God. We must choose. Those who believe, receive life. Those who do not believe are condemned. Our very human response to this loving act of God is what finally determines whether God’s love will have the effect God desires for us. “Not to believe in Jesus is to reject the essential quality of God, in whom all of time is now, so that rejecting him is of ultimate significance.” As Presbyterians, we don’t like to talk much about condemnation. But the “light of Jesus exposes what everyone is: ‘Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a [person] is.’ … In the penetrating light of Jesus, there is nowhere to hide.”
So we must choose. We must decide. Is this Jesus – called the Son of God and the Son of Man, described as the light of world – is he really who the Biblical witnesses say he is? The love of God does not, after all, force itself upon us. “There is a judgment, says Jesus. There is condemnation, but it is not the judgment of God. God does not damn. The judgment occurs whenever we choose to hide from the light of God’s sacrificial love. Choosing to stay in the darkness is an act of self-condemnation.”
Though this passage is familiar with its words of eternal life, being saved, being condemned, it also is difficult. Some of us hear these words, and we do not feel worthy of such all-encompassing love. We do not feel good enough to be saved. We may, in fact, feel that condemnation is the only thing for which we are suited. If you feel that way, I want to remind you this morning that John’s words begin with a strong affirmation of the unending love of God. It is not a conditional love – if you do this, then I will love you. It is not a sometimes love – when I’m in a good mood, then I will love you. It is not a temporary love – until someone better comes along, I will love you. This love is without conditions, without time limits, without guidelines. It is not reserved only for the select few – or even for the church. It simply is. “God so loved the world.” Later, Jesus will tell his disciples: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13).
Others of us hear the words of John 3:16, and we scoff at the notion of judgment, of condemnation, of hell. How antiquated, we might think. How quaint. If you feel that way, then I want to remind you that this love of God “demands a decision to believe, or not to believe; to live in response to the sacrificial love of God for all people, or not. To say no to the love of Jesus … is to be condemned to the living hell of the ‘real world.’”
Immediately before Jesus utters these words of promise – of the expansive love of the God who longs to live in communion with the whole world – he is visited by a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness, unwilling to let others see him interact with Jesus. Even so, he clearly professes his belief that Jesus has come from God. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus responds that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. Nicodemus totally misses the point. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
It is after this exchange that Jesus speaks those life-altering words that we all know so well. “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.” Only love enables us to gain a new life. Only God’s love can lift us out of the muck of our lives. Only God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ, given to us freely, can erase our shortcomings and bring us again into the presence of God.
When we come together at the Lord’s Table, we celebrate our reconciliation with God and with one another. The “Confession of 1967” tells us, “by participation in [this sacrament we] have communion with him and with all who shall be gathered to him. Partaking in him as [we] eat the bread and drink the wine …, [we] receive from the risen and living Lord the benefits of his death and resurrection. [We] rejoice in the foretaste of the kingdom which he will bring to consummation at his promised coming, and go out from the Lord’s Table with courage and hope for the service to which he has called [us].”
For God so loved the world.
 Lamar Williamson Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John, 37
 Walter Brueggemann et. al., Texts for Preaching, Year B, 228
 Williamson, 37
 Brueggemann, 221
 Williamson, 37
 Edwin Searcy, Feasting on the Gospels: John, Vol. 1, 70
 Ibid., 72
 Book of Confessions, 9.52