God so Loved…; John 3:14-21
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; March 14, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Wrapped within this morning’s scripture is one of the most familiar passages to contemporary Christians—and perhaps to non-Christians, as well. The actual words of John 3:16 may not be known to the viewer who sees the two-toned-face-painted football fan standing in the bleachers at the endzone, holding his John 3:16 sign, but there you’ll see it, just the same.
It has been a favorite of elementary Sunday School teachers over the years, who want their young students to begin memorizing different sections of scripture and prayers, to help them understand what our faith is all about. Many of us could repeat the words together (join me, if you’d like): “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life.” You may have said something a little different from me, adding “begotten” or “whosever” but, this text is familiar enough that I think that we can repeat John 3:16 together with pretty much the same ease as we can together say The Lord’s Prayer.
We may be less familiar with John 3:17, which is equally important, and worth repeating along with 3:16. It reads, “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 a good word, too, isn’t it? Bottom line of both passages is that God loves the world, and that God gave Jesus in order that the world might be saved through him. Not condemned, but saved.
There is always this tug and pull as we work to figure out the balance between God’s love and God’s judgement: God’s grace and God’s justice. I don’t think we can over-emphasize God’s love (I mean, isn’t that what it’s all about?), and yet so often we’re tempted to minimize God’s judgement/God’s justice because we prefer not to talk about sin (particularly our own), and, we know how ready God is to forgive us. God proves that in the offering of Jesus. And I’m using the word “offering” very intentionally. God gave Jesus to us, offering him to us as our Savior—not forcing him on us, and then God received Jesus back as an offering/as the payment for our sins. It’s no longer necessary for us to sacrifice animals at an altar in atonement for our sins; Christ was the ultimate, final sacrifice for all of us, giving himself on our behalf. That may be hard for us to understand, but what’s important for us to know is that God gave Jesus to us as a gift and only asks that we receive the gift.
I’d like to spend some time walking through the text, placing it into its context, because we have the tendency to forget to do that. This text is so rich and full, that we’ll walk through it in a fairly detailed way, highlighting Jesus’ words, so we can better understand what he’s talking about.
The words that are so familiar to us come in the midst of a conversation that Jesus is having with Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, one who is accustomed to having answers and giving those answers to others. And yet, beginning in chapter 3, we read that Nicodemus has some questions of his own, and so he comes to Jesus for answers.
It seems that Nicodemus has been observing Jesus, along with other Pharisees, who have been paying close attention to his word and movements. As a group, the Pharisees haven’t been pleased or impressed with Jesus, and it doesn’t help that he so often speaks against them and their practices. But Nicodemus sees something in Jesus that troubles him. Something that makes the answers that he has given too easy. Nicodemus is a religious scholar, a learned man of training; he’s respected for his position. But now he has his own questions, and he needs Jesus to answer them…to settle his troubled heart and mind.
It’s better for him to not be seen talking to Jesus. His eagerness to learn from Jesus might be too obvious and that wouldn’t sit well with his colleagues. Besides, there are so many people around Jesus during the day. It’s hard to have an in-depth conversation with others around, also wanting some of Jesus’ time. It’s apparent that Nicodemus isn’t the only one who has seen the signs. He isn’t the only one who has come to believe that Jesus is filled with the presence of God.
So Nicodemus approaches Jesus under the cover of night. He begins the conversation, acknowledging what he’s seen in Jesus—he knows that Jesus is a teacher from God, that he has done things that couldn’t be done if Jesus wasn’t from God.
Jesus responds by teaching Nicodemus. He tells Nicodemus that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, but that’s confusing to Nicodemus. Being “born again” wasn’t common language like it is to us today. He can’t understand how an adult can return to their mother’s womb to be born a second time. Jesus goes on to explain that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit. Jesus is speaking not of birth water but of baptismal water, separating the human and physical act of giving birth to a spiritual act of God.
“You must be born from above,” Jesus tells him.
Jesus then speaks of the movement of the wind that blows where it chooses. Nicodemus would know Jesus is talking about Spirit, about its unpredictability, about its mystery. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” Jesus says.
But Nicodemus still doesn’t understand.
Jesus continues to teach, and this is what the RSV says: “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
I think it’s reasonable to hear these words again, changing “we” to “I” referring back to Jesus: if I tell you about what I know and have seen when it comes to earthly things and you don’t believe me, then how will you believe what I say when it comes to my telling you about heavenly things?
Maybe we might explain that saying—if you can’t trust what you see me doing here and now in this place and in this time, then how can you trust and believe when it comes to me talking about heavenly things? Then, calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he is the only one who has both ascended into heaven, and descended from heaven, which refers to both his being born into the world as God’s Son, and his ascension which is yet to come.
We come now to verse 14 that begins today’s reading: here, we read of the serpent in the wilderness which seems random at first, but Nicodemus would know the story, even though at this point I don’t think it’s possible for him to fully understand how it relates to Jesus. He will understand later.
This reference takes us back to Numbers 21, where the oft repeated cycle of God delivering the people of Israel as they journey through the wilderness, followed by a period of impatience, lament and complaint against Moses and against God, followed by God’s response: this time God sends poisonous snakes among the people who bite them! Many die. At this, the people acknowledge their sinfulness and ask Moses to pray that the snakes will be sent away from them. Moses prays and God responds, instructing Moses to make a bronze snake, to place it on a pole, and hold it high. Anyone who is bitten can look at this snake and live.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that in the same way, the Son of Man must be lifted up and whoever believes in him will be saved. Will have eternal life, he says.
Perhaps Nicodemus heard this and thought that Jesus being lifted up meant that he would be exalted. But we know the rest of the story, and see not only Christ’s exaltation, but his very literal lifting onto a cross.
Now, let’s look at the part of this text that is most familiar to us. I want us to see a couple of things and really hear them:
Jesus says in 3:16, God SO LOVED THE WORLD. God didn’t (and doesn’t) love just bits and pieces of it…but God loves the whole world. All of us. And I think we can even be literal and say that God loves the earth that God made and that sustains us, that provides us what we need, that cares for us as we care for it. I think God must look at us and say, ah, that is good, so very good. (Oh, yeah, I think that the beginning of Genesis says something like that!)
FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD. Not just those who we know or who we like or who we love. It feels a little awkward and like I shouldn’t be saying it, but God loves bad guys. Think of the baddest kind of guy that you can come up with, and think about God loving that person. Hard to do? But God does. God loves the whole world.
God loves the whole world SO MUCH that God gave us Jesus so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life.
EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES IN HIM.
I want us to think through a bit—what does “believing in him” mean? Does it mean being obedient to him? Following him? Doing his work? It might be a good thing here to be cautious to not divide people into 2 groups: those who are “in” and those who are “out.” “Those who believe” and “those who don’t believe.” Refer back to verse 16: GOD LOVES THE WHOLE WORLD. ALL PEOPLE.
You and I are not in a position to judge. It seems that perhaps this is a reminder to us of our task to make disciples so all have the opportunity to know and to believe. I heard a story from someone this week that was a good reminder that we tend to assume that everybody in today’s world has the opportunity to know Jesus and to follow him, but that isn’t true. Not everyone has heard…so if believing in him means following him and being his disciple, then perhaps we’re called to respond to that fact that not all have been introduced/not all know/but we have all been called to be a part of the solution to that problem.
Verse 17: God didn’t send Jesus into the world to CONDEMN the world but in order that the world might be SAVED through him. Again, refer back to the beginning of verse 16: It’s about LOVE, it’s about redeeming, about saving, about offering grace… As God does that for us, so too, are we called to do that for others.
I might be wrong, but I perceive that in verse 18, that those who do not believe are condemned already, possibly because they’re living without the knowledge of God’s grace and love. They don’t know the experience of forgiveness. That’s a loss. Those are things I would hate to live without.
The final verses in this text have to do with light and darkness. Darkness covers evil and light reveals truth.
The light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
That’s good news. It was good news for Nicodemus, and it’s good news for us.
As the story continues, it seems that Nicodemus remains timid in stepping out of the old and into the new. We hear of him a few more times in scripture: he’s a part of a conversation about Jesus’ identity. He offers a word of defense but is quickly put in his place. After the crucifixion, he brings myrrh and aloes and helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus for burial. He clearly didn’t expect a resurrected Jesus. But who did? How could they have known? Jesus’ disciples who were closest to him didn’t know what to expect.
Nicodemus’ last words are, “How can these things be?” and then he disappears into the shadows.
Let’s you and I keep asking questions, I think questions are a good thing. But let’s not let our uncertainties hold us back from the mysteries of faith that we may never fully understand.
Let us step forward through the light, that we might live fully.