Sermon – March 11, 2018 – Fourth Sunday in Lent

Our gospel reading for today contains what is probably the most well known verse in all of scripture: “For God so loved the world that God gave their only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” John 3:16 is everywhere. It is on billboards, bumper stickers…it is on the faces of pro-athletes. Christendom, especially American Christianity, has a fascination with this verse.

It is true that we worship and romanticize this verse but in doing so we are missing a fuller picture of who God is. A simplistic reading of his verse gives us a simplistic view of God—That God sent Jesus to earth to save the world with his body without actually addressing brokenness and evil, and that if people only believe in him, whatever that means, then they will be magically saved. My beef with this interpretation is that it relies too much on individual choice—that even though God so loved the entire world, our own individual beliefs and choices are what dictate salvation. So quickly in this interpretation do we forget that God is always the One that acts first—that God acts not out of our ability to choose the right path but because of God’s desire to save the world out of love. God’s radical love is the impetus for saving the world, not our own individual beliefs.

This concept of individual salvation would have been completely foreign to the gospel writers and early followers of Jesus. There was no self outside of community. Salvation was and is always communal, all the way from Genesis to Revelation. Furthermore, all of scripture is about relationship, not the individual, particularly humanity’s collective relationship with God. So no, Jesus’ death on the cross was not some last ditch effort by God to save individual souls from burning. Instead, it was a part of God’s love story to the world—one where God has been reaching out to us since the beginning of time. If we really want to give this passage life, if we really want to understand just how magical John 3:16 is, then we must see it in light of God’s redemption story, one that started as the earth began to take shape, continued through the lives of our biblical ancestors, and is still working within our communities today. God’s work in the world has always been about maintaining a relationship with God’s people.

Let’s go back, way back. Digging into our biblical history, we are reminded that God’s beloved people are kind of a hot mess. The story goes that the very first humans, being brought into a world in which it was easy to thrive, couldn’t help but seek out an alternative option. Yet God was faithful and picked up the broken pieces. Then there was Noah— who was chosen for this faithful obedience to God to build an Arc and save creation from destruction. He does well with that, sure, but later we find out that he becomes drunk and causes his son to be cursed. Yet, God doesn’t end it all there. The story of God and God’s people continues. Then, one day, God’s people decide that they want to take charge of their own story and build a tower to the heavens. There are stories of slavery, murder, kings, and kingdoms. No matter whom God chooses things go wrong. There are consequences, yes, yet, not once, do we stop being God’s beloved. And then there’s the story of Jesus. Of his chosen disciples, one betrays him, another denies ever knowing him…all fall asleep when Jesus needs them the most. God’s beloved children are the ones who end up killing God’s own beloved son. Yet resurrection happens. New life happens.

God works through our holy mess to make something beautiful. The redemption of God’s people is written into the fabric of our history. God’s love story is in the air we breath. God is faithful, God keeps God’s promises, God hears God’s people, God will not stand for injustice. Our individual actions, beliefs, or choices have very little to do with God’s desire to love and save us, God has been doing this from the beginning of time. It’s not magic. It’s not like we can say the right words or have just the right feeling in our heart to get what we want from God. It’s not magic; it’s pure, unrestrained, unconditional love for the world. Sure it’s maybe a little bit about us, but also so is not. This is just who God is.

I run a lot and I think about God a lot when I run. At one of my recent races I had set out an ambitious time goal that I wanted to achieve. I had put in the hard work, I had done the miles, I had eaten right—I knew I had done everything I could to run this time. But distance races, much like life, are unpredictable. About two thirds through the race my legs began to get heavy and my mind foggy. My pace slowed a bit but I kept pushing towards that goal. A little further down the road, my legs began locking up, my stomach began to reject everything I had consumed, and my vision blurred. My pace slowed again and I saw my goal creeping farther away but I kept putting one foot in front of the other. With a half a mile left in the race, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I slowed to a walk…more like a sad limp..I couldn’t move my legs anymore. I started to cry. I imagined the goal that I had worked so hard for slip away. Just then, an arm hooked my arm and began dragging me towards the finish. Surprised, I looked to my side and saw a complete stranger look me in the eye. The older woman, who was still dragging me along, looked at me and said sternly, “Come on, I’m not going to let you finish like this.” I wiped my teary face and began running a little faster. The stranger let me go and ran on ahead. In a quarter mile I finished the race and somehow met my goal by 45 seconds. I tried to find this woman whom I had never met, to thank her, but she was gone.

This is how God is to us? Despite our own failings, even though we may have given up, even when we have done nothing to deserve it…God shows up. God shows up in our hurt and failure and pulls us into something better. Sometimes God even needs to drag us. There is a concept in the world of theology called proleptic theism[1]— it’s the idea that God creates from the future—that God does not push us from the past but pulls us into God’s big promise for redemption, a redemption that has already been decided.

So what does this all have to do with John 3:16? Picking out a verse and making it about us—our choices, our actions, or worse, using it self select who is in or out in God’s eyes—it neglects what God has been doing forever. Even though we love evil, hang in shadows, and do not deserve it, God’s intention for the world always been redemption. How we react to God’s presence in our life is often inconsistent. God, though, is not.

If we remember the fullness of God’s story, then we get to this verse in John and are able to say, yes, yes, yes God loves the world. Yes, of course, God is always going to new lengths to reach God’s people. Of course God would not give us up or break God’s promise. Of course God would take the cross and turn it into something beautiful, something that would help pull us along into the future—into a relationship with God that is more full, redeeming, and healing than we could ever imagine.

There is something about humanity, though, that resists God’s future. There is something about humanity that doesn’t like to be pulled. Just like God’s redemption, this has also been present from the beginning of time. So maybe we have a choice after all. Though we may not dictate God’s desire to save the world, perhaps we do have the choice in whether or not we would like to participate in what God is doing within the world. To save the world that God so loves, we’re going to have to replace hate, injustice, and oppression with justice, compassion, mercy, and love…the gospels are pretty clear about that. And though we surely will fail, God promise and God’s story is that God will always keep extending God’s hand to us, asking us to try again and pulling us along when we think we collectively cannot take another step.

 

For God so loved the world that God gave their only Son, so that we might not resist, but allow ourselves to be pulled more fully into God’s redemption of the world. To take God’s hand when it is extended to us and say, yes, I am ready to help.

 

 

[1] See Ted Peters, God: The world’s future