Sometimes I wonder how I ever wrote a sermon without Google. I have often wondered why people at football games held up signs that said John 3:16. Then I suddenly realized, “Google probably knows!” And sure enough, this is what I found out on Wikipedia: It started with a man by the name of Rollen Stewart, also known as Rock ‘n’ Rollen and Rainbow Man because he often wore a rainbow wig. He became a born again Christian and was determined to get the message out via television by positioning himself strategically at sporting events in the 70s and 80s.
Doesn’t sound so bad does it? It’s a beautiful sentiment… “God so loved the world.”
But what is your visceral reaction to that text I just read. Is it one of love and acceptance… that God so loved the WORLD, or it is one that makes you sort of cringe because of how some of the verses have been used to exclude, ostracize and demonize persons or groups of people?
For me it’s one of those passages that have, in the past, made me reluctant to admit I am a minister or Christian. And sometime over the past 7 or 8 years, instead of standing mutely by while people use this passage to condemn all people who ‘don’t believe in Jesus,’ I have started challenging their understanding of this passage. My challenge is based on the overwhelming message of love, grace and covenantal relationship that spans the whole of our Bible… both testaments.
God so loved the world… God so loved the world… God so loved the world… Not just one little segment of it… not just Christianity… and not just a narrow understanding of what it means to be Christian.
One of the things that I love about the discipline of preaching each week is the opportunity to be surprised. Sometimes by something new, sometimes by something I have forgotten. For instance, I had forgotten that this passage about God’s love for the world is a continuation of the passage in which Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish people, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus by night with his questions. Questions that he might be afraid to voice or share in the light of day.
Let’s listen as the passage unfolds in John 3: 14-21
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 “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.
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.
3:18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
3:19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
3:21 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.”
I am going to explore a couple of questions that arose as I pondered this passage. I will come back to ‘God’s so loved the world’ but first I want to talk a bit about light and dark and how we perceive them. My reflection title ‘Go Towards the Light’ comes from accounts of people who have near death experiences, who have experienced dying as being drawn towards a beautiful light that they have interpreted as heaven. The inverse of that can be assumed that darkness is where heaven is not. So, light good, dark evil.
What does this, often unconscious, belief mean? Dark people are bad, white people are good. We call Jesus the Light of the World, again, the inference is anything other than Jesus is dark. Night bad, day good. Why else do we have Daylight Savings Time? Which I personally STRONGLY dislike and wish we just stayed on Standard time all year!
But is the idea that light is good and darkness bad logical, rational or even Biblical? At our Wednesday evening Spiritual Grounding Gathering of the Executive, it was Margaret Hines turn to lead the session. She chose to focus on Psalm 139, which also picks up on the theme of dark and light. Listen to these few verses:
7 Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Darkness and light are the same to God… And there is nowhere that God is not. In the light and the dark; they are one and the same to God. What are some wonderful things that need the dark? The most obvious is perennial gardens. The picture on the screen is one of my hyacinths poking its way out the soil, towards the sun. But long before I see it, there is much going on in the darkness of cold soil. With the softening ground, the bulb absorbs water and begins to swell… and eventually the flower seed inside of it cannot be contained by the bulb and bursts forth… heading towards the light. Which breaks through the crust of the soil and soon, become a beautiful flower. But it needed both dark and light to live and flourish. Darkness and light are neither good nor bad to a hyacinth, but both are necessary.
Another example is a baby growing in the darkness of her mother’s womb. Just like that seed that pushes its way out of the soil when its casing gets too small for it, so a human baby does the same. Both journeys involve leaving behind what once was in order to embrace the future. Both journeys involve risk and reward.
Brian Adreas of Story People says this, “When you start to crack open, don’t waste a moment gathering your old self up into something like you knew before. Let your new self splash like sunlight into every dark place & laugh & cry & make sounds you never made & thank all that is holy for the gift, because now you have no choice but to let all your love spill out into the world.”
Let your love spill out into the world. And the world is full of dark and light, not as good and evil, but perhaps more as yin and yang, both necessary for life to flourish. God so loves the world that darkness and light are the same to her. God so loves the world no matter how often we turn away from God, he doesn’t hold grudges… like the prodigal son who turns towards home to find himself already forgiven… God so loves the world that we are not abandoned or forsaken. God so loves the world that God sent messengers… down through the ages…Prophets and shepherd boys… queens and peasant girls. God so loves the world…. That God sent Jesus… God sends you… me… God so loves the world…
Thanks be to God, amen.
John 3: 14-21
Psalm 139: 7-12
March 11, 2018
Lent 4 – Elmsdale Cooperative Ministry