Fourth Sunday of Lent
18 March 2012
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
“Singing the Verses”
Based on John 3: 14-21
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer. Amen
We know it so well. “For God so loved the world.” We’ve heard it all our lives, whether raised in the church or not. For some Christians it is the one Bible verse that can sum up all of their theology. It’s like a song we’ve heard over and over again. It comes on the radio; we think we know all the words. We belt out the chorus—but when the verses come, well, we mumble a bit. Think of the song “White Christmas”—most of us could sing the chorus, but do you know the first verse?
The sun is shining
The grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway.
I’ve never seen such a day
In Beverly Hills LA.
But it’s December the 24th
And I am longing to be up North.
This text is like “White Christmas,” John 3:16 is the chorus we know so well, but the rest is rather unfamiliar. This morning’s lectionary text begins in the middle of Jesus’ clandestine late-night discussion with Nicodemus, a Pharisee. The lectionary divides this discussion into two parts: in the first, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one “can enter the Kingdom of God without being born from above,” which Nicodemus questions, saying, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’” Nicodemus fails to understand that Jesus speaks metaphorically. Jesus responds: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.*” It is at this point in the discussion that our text begins.
We are in the midst of Lent, and here we find as our text St. John’s first prediction of the crucifixion. We still wander in the desert, but even now, the cross looms in the distance. Fittingly, Jesus says that just as Moses lifted up a serpent on a pole to save the Israelites while they were in the desert, so he must be “lifted up”—on the cross, to save us from ourselves. We see the vision of Calvary, and in the words of hymnist Brian Wren:
Here hangs a man discarded,
A scarecrow hoisted high,
A nonsense pointing nowhere
To all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrows
Still bring a useful word
Where faith and love seem phantoms
And every hope absurd?
But this prediction that Jesus offers does not stop with being “lifted up,” but he continues with the promise of the Resurrection: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We are not left with Jesus remaining on the cross but raised to life, and us with him.
What follows is as close to Jesus interpreting his impending crucifixion (or John’s interpretation of it) as we get. The famous John 3:16 verse frames Jesus’ explanation of this to Nicodemus. “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.” Traditionally people have thought this verse to mean that God loved the world so much that he gave God’s only child. However, some scholars suggest that in the original Greek the preposition means rather that the way God chose to show such a vast love for humanity, that God sent Christ Jesus. God’s love is vast and deep and broad and never-ending, and God chose to demonstrate that love through sending God’s beloved, Jesus. Out of God’s infinite love for us, God sends us Jesus to teach us how to live in love, in order to, as the UCC Statement of Faith says, “save us from aimlessness and sin.”
Too often this one verse, which contains so much love and reveals so much about God’s character, has been wielded as a dogmatic weapon. How often do we fail to realize the import of the word “world” in all this? “For God so loved the world”! It is not a select group. It is not one nation of people, or even one people within a nation. It is not even God’s favorite ones. It is not those we like, not those we look like, or act like. It is the entire world. God’s love knows no boundaries. God sees our warring madness, mourns our hatred and greed, and sends to each of us, Jesus Christ, to teach us, to lead us into the Way of Life. Jesus reminds us: “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.” God is enfleshed and comes into our world, not angry and condemning of us, seeking to judge us harshly, but deeply sorrowful for our neglect of God and our neighbor and seeks to show us yet a better way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and martyr, wisely wrote, ““God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”
Jesus describes himself as the Light come into the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah ring in our ears: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” But we resist coming to Jesus. The ways of the world are comfortable for those who are comfortable—we don’t want to shake up the system, to disrupt the current order. We fear coming to Jesus, for his light will shine on the darkness of our lives—the ways in which we have sinned against God and neighbor, the hurts and pains we have caused. But we rationalize, we convince ourselves that we lead better lives than we do, that we are not in need of redemption. But the sad truth is that we are each, each and every child of God, is in need of redemption. Try as we might, in our own ways we fall short of the life God calls us to. But it is in confessing our shortcomings to God that we are released of their power. We need not fear coming into the Light for through Jesus Christ we are forgiven. All our transgressions are washed away and remembered no more. Grace and mercy rushes down in an ever-flowing stream from God’s throne. Again, the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith reminds us, “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, he has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to himself.”
Jesus says to Nicodemus, to us, and all who seek him: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But 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.” We are called into Christ’s light to receive his grace and mercy. God offers us this, the greatest of all gifts, but we must respond to the gift. It is not easy to turn away from the world’s way of individualism, materialism, greed, and rule of the powerful to the Way of the Cross. This Way, grants victory through vulnerability rather than violence. This Way teaches that try as the world might to stifle God’s message of everlasting love and reconciliation, God will always put a comma where the world puts a period!
Jesus challenges us to come into his light. Anthony Robinson, a United Church of Christ author writes, “The thing about the challenges that come from Jesus is that they are rooted and wrapped in love. He challenges us because he loves us. Sometimes our love of others is empty of challenge or the invitation to grow. And often our challenges are short on love.” To live in the Light is to demonstrate the same love God has shown to us in Jesus Christ. It is to love God and neighbor with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind. We must not forget that living in the light of Christ includes tending to our inner spiritual lives. Personal piety is as important as our works of social justice. We demonstrate our love of God through prayer, worship, reading and meditating on Scripture and the works of the saints, and other spiritual disciplines that have been passed on to us. In drawing our hearts and minds close to God we live in the light and grow in right relationship with God. We must remember that for a truly vital and living faith, and to truly follow Jesus we are called to both go up to the mountain to be with God and to come down the mountain and serve God’s people.
Look up and see the cross. Again hear again the words of Brian Wren:
Yet here is help and comfort
To lives by comfort bound
When drums of dazzling progress
Give strangely hallow sound:
Life emptied of all meaning,
Drained out in bleak distress,
Can share in broken silence
Our deepest emptiness;
And love that freely entered
The pit of life’s despair
Can name our hidden darkness
And suffer with us there.
Look up to the cross, and see the hope of resurrection in the distance, and remember that it is all in the name of God’s great love for you. There is nothing you can ever do or be that will make you unworthy of God’s love. Unlike the love we experience in this world, God gives no exceptions to God’s love. Jesus Christ turns none of us away—but welcomes us freely with open arms to be reconciled to him and to walk in the glorious Light.
One final word from Brian Wren:
Lord, if you now are risen,
Help all who long for light
To hold the hand of promise
Till faith receives its sight.
+To God be the Glory. Amen.