A Sermon preached on 11th March 2018, Lent IV, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
“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)
This is one of the most widely quoted verses from the Bible and has been called the most famous Bible verse. It has also been called the "Gospel in a nutshell." It certainly plays a huge role in popular Christian culture in the US. The American Football player Tim Tebow is famous for having painted “John 3:16” on his face at a football match and some companies print John 3:16 on their packaging. While I am not convinced that being adorned with this text helps you win football games, I know that Mr. Tebow is genuinely sincere about his faith and not afraid to speak about it. How printing John 3:16 on a pizza box or a billboard is supposed to bring people to Christ escapes me.
But there is no question that this is a key statement about our faith, and worth unpacking, so that we can use it properly when we engage with others about our faith. That is after all how Jesus used it. This section of John’s Gospel is an account of his encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and so this passage is part of their conversation about who Jesus is.
The verse starts with God’s love, and that is where everything starts, including our existence. God created us out of love, to share in God’s creation. And out of love and out of God’s desire for a real relationship we were created with free will, with the ability to make choices, even bad ones. John has Jesus say not only God loved, but God so loved. The Greek allows for two meanings of “so”: Both the degree to which God loved the world – very much - as well as the manner in which God chose to express that love—by sending God’s only Son. Not just any messenger, not another human prophet, but God incarnate, God made human. That is a measure both of our importance, and of our desperate need for guidance, for salvation. Jesus’ role is not to condemn or judge, but to extend an open invitation to all who will listen to follow him into a new life in God.
But it is not just about us. Jesus does not say God so loved humanity, but that God loved the world, in Greek “cosmos,” which can also mean all of creation, not just the world, and certainly not only the human family. That is important because our behavior and our choices do not just impact us. As Paul writes in Romans (8:22), the whole creation has been groaning in pain and expectation of redemption. To accept God’s love means also to accept God’s love for all of creation and to care for it as God does: not just as something to be used, soiled and far too often wasted. That is the path of darkness, not light.
Now we come to what sounds like a condition: “So that everyone who believes in him.” What does it mean ‘to believe’ in this context? To believe is to have confidence or faith in something, or someone, in this verse in God’s only Son. What we are supposed to have confidence in, is that Jesus shows us who God is and that Jesus is bringing a message, a promise from God. Salvation, as Paul explains in his letter to the Ephesians, is a gift. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (2:8) God’s gift of the Son comes first, not anything we do, including the act of believing. That can change over time, can weaken or waiver, or grown, but the promise does not change. God’s promise, God’s gift is always available for anyone at any time, if we choose to accept it.
The word translated as believe could also be rendered as trust. And as “believing” in this context is not about signing up to a series of propositions, but about entering into a relationship, we could also talk about "trusting" or "entrusting” oneself to God and to God’s Son. Believing is also about following Jesus’ example, doing what is true – the “deeds done in God” (John 3:21) the “good works which God prepared to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10) These are not conditions for God’s promise, but they are the means by which we can bring something of the eternal life, of God’s life, of the life of the kingdom into this this life, and not just for ourselves. Believing as action is also how we can lead others to this promise.
What is the promise? [That they] “may not perish but may have eternal life.” Let us start with what this is not. Believing, trusting, and following Jesus will not protect us from harm, from evil and death in this life. Good, well-intentioned, and brave people are killed every day: some by accident, some by violence and mayhem. Nevertheless, God’s promise is also for the here and now. This is not just about a life to come.
In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:5) The new and eternal life begins now, when we follow Christ. We share in his eternal, resurrected life today. On the other hand, we are as dead if we follow only our selfish and self-centered desires, or if in Jesus’ words we love darkness rather than light. This is the path to destroying both ourselves and many others at the same time. Instead of “perish,” the author Tom Wright translates this phrase as “should not be lost but should have eternal life,” emphasizing that salvation is about finding or being shown, and then taking the right way.
The choice between perishing and eternal life is ours. Jesus does not judge, we judge ourselves when, despite his presence, his teaching, and his sacrifice we choose to love darkness rather than light. In his book the Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.” And in that book Hell is a grey town, grim and joyless, seemingly empty as those living there seek to distance themselves from one another, as well as from God.
The “Shema Yisrael” or just Shema is the title of a prayer based on Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” Jews not only say this prayer at the beginning and the end of the day. During their prayers devout Jews will attach a little leather box containing this prayer on a piece of parchment to their arms and foreheads. This is in keeping with the injunction in verse 8 of that passage to “bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.”
It does sound a little like how some people use John 3:16, writing or even tattooing it on to their bodies, or having it printed on posters and, as I mentioned earlier, even packaging. John 3:16 is not all of the Gospel, and we already have a prayer to be said each day, the prayer that Jesus taught us. But as a Lenten discipline, try saying John 3:16 as our “Shema” every day this week “when you lie down and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) This verse is well worth learning – as reminder of how God loves us all, that God’s love was and is embodied in Jesus Christ, that we are called to trust that person and to follow him, and that choosing to follow Jesus is the path to a new life in and with God: today and forever.