Sermon: God So Loved the World

March 11, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Lent
John 3:14-21

You know, I wish it were so simple.

“Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

It’s not clear that these words come from John the gospel writer or from Jesus. The Greek-speaking writers and copyists of the first and second centuries didn’t use punctuation marks; they simply didn’t exist in the written language. So translators rely on context to deduce where someone starts speaking and where they stop, and in this passage, some think Jesus stops and John starts between verses 14 and 15.

Whether it’s John or John quoting Jesus, though, the import is fairly clear: people who do the right things come to the light of God. Indeed, that’s true basically by definition. If you do good, you are living and working and acting in the light of God.

The other implication, though, is that those who come to the light come to Jesus. They become Christians. And those who turn away from the light do not become Christians. That makes it easy to understand the righteousness of any human being, because they’ve self-sorted themselves.

And that’s where I wish it were that simple. In my experience, that’s just not how it works.

Sometimes those who bear the name of Christian do horrible, horrible things. They abuse their spouses and children. They neglect their kupuna. They harass their employees. They lie. They steal. They lead nations into war.

And sometimes they justify all they’ve done with “Christianity.” The perpetrators of domestic violence frequently say they have the right to do what they do because the Bible places the man at the head of the household. Let me be clear: the Bible does describe the ancient notions of how a family works, which are not the same as we have now, but it does not justify domestic violence even then. Jesus was clear about violence in the garden as he was arrested: “No more of this.”

We’ve also seen broader injustices “justified” by Christianity. The experience of Jews under centuries of European Christian rule is a scandal, an outrage, and a profound grief to God. Popes led armies against Christians, and they summoned other armies on “holy” crusades against Muslim peoples.

Here in Hawai’i, Christianity was increasingly used to marginalize non-white people, and Christian leaders used Christianity to justify the overthrow of the government they had pledged their loyalty to.

None of that qualifies as doing what is true, or coming to the light, or pleasing God.

Christianity is not unique in this. Hindus and Buddhists, those practicing Shinto or Confucianism, Jews and Muslims, some among them all have betrayed their own best standards. They have all, to quote the apostle Paul, “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

And just to complicate it further, they have also done good.

So it’s just not possible to say, in truth, “This person is a Christian, so they do good. This person does good, so they must be a Christian.” It’s not that simple.

It’s not that simple.

There is something simple here, though. It’s the pair of verses, verses 16 and 17. “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. 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.”

You’re probably familiar with the reference “John 3:16.” It’s held up on cardboard posters at sporting events. It’s part of the general Christian culture of America. John 3:16: God so loved the world.

And it is a precious, precious verse. It testifies to the height and the depth of God’s love. It lays out the wonder of the Jesus event, and the powerful force behind it: the love of God. Not the wrath of God, or the righteousness of God, or the judgement of God, but the love of God.

A love broader than love for one chosen people: God so loved the world. The world.

How odd that this verse so often gets used to sort people into the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous, the saved and the damned.

That’s what some do. They read the rest of the passage and put two and two together and get twenty-five. “Everyone who believes in him shall not perish, but may have eternal life.” So if you don’t believe, you’re going to hell.

Except that it’s already clear that the title “Christian” does not mean the same as “loving the light.” For John, perhaps for Jesus, there’s something more to believing than simply taking on the title. For John, and for Jesus, you have to take on the life, and the light, and do what is true.

John 3:16 should never have been used as an article of judgement. Should never be used to dismiss or to condemn.

And it should never be read without John 3:17: “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.”

That’s what God wants. Not condemnation, but salvation. Not evil, but good. Not tragedy, but triumph. Not darkness, but light. Not death, but life.

I very much want those who’ve been criticized and marginalized by John 3:16 to hear John 3:17. God loves everyone in the world, indeed God loves the world itself, not just its human beings. I want all people to hear that God’s intent, from the beginning of Creation to the incarnation of Jesus to the present day and into the future is to embrace the entire world, and all of its people. God so loved the world.

I want you to hear and believe it. I don’t know if you’ve ever wondered about God’s love for you, but I would guess that you might have. We’re subjected to other people’s judgments nearly every day, and if you’re like me, there’s also a little judge in your gut that twists it even more often. That’s the judge that whispers, “You’ll never be good enough for God to love you.”

The good news is that you don’t have to be “good enough” in any way for God to love you. God already does. God already does. Whether you’re healthy and wealthy or whether you’re impoverished and sick. Whether you’re praised and successful or whether you’re criticized and haven’t achieved what you wanted. Whether you’re confident in your faith or whether you’re constantly questioning: God loves you. God loves you. God loves you.

God so loved the world, the world that includes you, to come into the world as Jesus. And God did not come to condemn, but to raise, redeem, and renew.

God so loved the world.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

As always, there are differences between the prepared text and what Pastor Eric actually said. Somebody just can’t stay on script, can he?

Photo by Doug Floyd used by permission under Creative Commons license.


Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on March 11, 2018

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