And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “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. 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. 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. 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.”
So, today’s scripture probably includes the most famous verse in any scripture of any religious tradition, of all time. If you know it, you probably know the King James version: For God so Loved the World that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believed in him shall not perish but gain eternal life. We see it on bumper stickers, we see it on jewelry, and it seems like there’s always some super excited guy in the background on College Gameday waving it around on a poster.
And it’s a great verse. It’s a verse about hope, and love, and grace. It’s a verse that, in many ways, sums up our faith. You know, if you asked me what does it mean to be a Christian, I might say that it means that we believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. And that’s good . . . but it’s not as easy as we make it. Those of us who have been hearing this verse for a long time probably feel like it’s familiar at this point, and so it’s comfortable, but it’s not as easy as it seems, because it takes away my ability to decide who is loved and who is not. It takes away my ability to decide who gets in and who doesn’t, and man, I don’t like losing that ability, because it very well might mean that I am not in charge.
So often, we make this verse about me, about my life and my faith and nothing else, as if what John really meant to say was “For God so loved Dalton that he gave his only begotten son.” We do that at the expense of everything and everybody else, and certainly at the expense of the context of the verse. That’s why I like that this morning’s Gospel lesson is about more than just this one verse. It’s a passage not just about you, not just about me, but about Jesus, about why Jesus was sent to earth, why we had the experience of a savior. And as we continue in Lent and prepare for Easter, I think it’s a useful thing to think about, just why it is that Jesus broke through the veil of humanity and shared himself with us.
And the reason is this. God so loved the world. God so loved the world. The whole world. I mean, can you imagine, worshiping a God like that? We can get behind the idea that God loves the church, or that God loves me, but this isn’t what it says. It says God loves the world. In fact, God so loves the world that God sent God’s son Jesus to earth: not just for you, but for everyone.
I mean, this may sound weird to people who have heard about this stuff their whole lives, but this is pretty scandalous. It’s pretty scandalous to think about the ways God loves the whole world. Not just you, not just me, but the orphaned kid in China. The hungry woman in Mozambique. And, I suppose, it’s ok to us that God loves these people. If you’ve been around folks who are suffering, you start to understand the power that this kind of love can offer. But what about Bernie Madoff? How do you feel about the fact that God loves Bernie Madoff? What about ISIS? The passage goes on to say that God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save it. To be honest, most days I want to condemn the whole thing and hole myself up and ignore everything but my little bubble.
I mean, you start thinking about it, and the business about God so loving the world is pretty powerful. It’s pretty incredible. It’s pretty scandalous, because God’s grace does not work like we want it to. Notice that the Gospel of John does not say that God so loved the righteous part of the world, or the Christian part of the world, or the repentant part of the world, or the part of the world we don’t regularly bomb. It says that God so loved, God so loves the whole world.
And it’s scandalous, and it’s a lot, but there’s a word for it. That word is grace. Grace. It’s one of the biggest words I know. It’s what we’re about around here, grace. It means that God loves us even when we don’t deserve it. It means that God forgives us. The Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton says that grace is God’s own life, shared with us. Even before we can call on God’s name, God is there, offering us grace, because God so loves the world.
I think it is telling that in the Sundays of Lent we are talking about baptism here at North Decatur United Methodist Church, about the vows we take at baptism, because I can’t think of many times in which this kind of gracious, all-encompassing love is more evident than during a baptism. I had sort of a crazy week but I got to have two conversations on Wednesday about baptisms we’ll be doing in the coming month or so, and if you or your kids haven’t been baptized, I hope you’ll come talk with me about it. I have to tell you, it’s just one of my favorite things, whether it’s an adult or a child, to experience the grace that happens in baptism, to watch the congregation enfold that person in love and promise to help support and shape the faith of that person, no matter who it is, no matter what he or she has done. It’s a small window into the heart of God, because it is the case that God so loved the world. Not just me, not just us, but the whole world.
When we stand before the church to answer the historic questions that are part of our baptismal liturgy, we confess Jesus as savior and promise to serve him in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races. I mean, that pretty much covers it. I guess I should say that if you fall outside the definition of people of all ages, nations, and races, you should probably leave. Anyone? Anyone? That’s what I thought. It’s pretty conclusive. God takes all comers.
This is how we understand church. It’s how we understand grace. In fact, there’s a term for this. It’s prevenient grace. It’s one of our big things as United Methodists, even if the word prevenient is a little archaic. What it means is “coming before.” Coming before. Some people talk about that moment of decision to follow Jesus as the moment when God gives you grace, and there is grace in that moment, but one of the things we believe as Methodists is that God’s grace comes before you even know who God is. It’s why we baptize infants, because in that moment, God claims the child as one of God’s own, even though the infant isn’t ready to decide. The decision is important, but the scripture doesn’t say, “God so loved the people who decided to love him back.” It says, God so loved the world.
This is hard to explain to some people. When Emmaline was baptized, it took some explaining to my Baptist mother as to why we felt that this was an important thing to do. She was a little scandalized by the whole deal, because in that side of the family, we’re the only Methodists, and our experience and understanding of grace leads us to baptize babies. And I will tell you, there’s even this movement in some corners of the United Methodist church to privilege adult baptism over infant baptism. There are some who say, oh, it is so much more meaningful to wait to be baptized when you are an adult, and I don’t want to put down adult baptisms—we seem to have a number of them around here, and that is wonderful, because it demonstrates a commitment take all that we are and offer it to Jesus—but grace is so powerful that the meaningfulness isn’t in how you feel about it. It is in what God is doing. It is in the act of grace that takes place when the water is placed on your head or you are immersed in the waters of baptism, the moment in which God looks at you and says, this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
I guess I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but then, maybe, I do. I do want to be clear that the action in baptism is God’s action, not the pastor’s, not the person being baptized. And this mirrors the promise in scripture that God so loved the world, because there are no prerequisites to being loved, no requirements for being invited into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. All you have to do is be human.
In fact, after the verse we put up on posters, the Gospel of John goes on to say this:
“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. 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. 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. 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.”
Here’s the thing. I’ve seen it again and again. We have a tendency to read passages like this and assume that when it talks about people of the light, clearly it must mean us, and when it talks about people who love darkness, well, that must be everybody else, but the division is not so clear. I carry within myself a certain glee whenever somebody who I think deserves to fall falls. There’s a reason people watch Entertainment Tonight, and it isn’t to delight in other peoples’ successes. There are times when I watch a celebrity, or a politician, or even a famous pastor who ends up being surrounded by some scandal, and I think to myself, ha! That’s what you get. But the business of belief, of being a part of the church, of being baptized into the family of God is not so that we can suddenly think of ourselves as good in a world of bad. The business of following Jesus is about bearing light in a world of darkness, and there is a fundamental difference!
If we think of ourselves as good in a world of bad, we have a tendency to separate: to say, oh, those people don’t understand God like I do, but friends, if I learn anything from John 3:16, there are no those people in the kingdom of God. There is no one outside the bounds of God’s love.
And this is why I love the metaphor of light. It’s all throughout John’s Gospel. (turn off the lights)
Can you still see? This is how light works. Just a bit illuminates a room. Just a bit.
I will end with this. When I used to work at a camp in Arkansas, we’d take the campers on a side trip to Blanchard Springs Caverns, which was a gorgeous natural cave in the Ozark Mountains. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to tour a cave, but it’s gorgeous, just amazing what a little water can do over millions of years. And it just so happens that caves are some of the only places on earth where you can experience total darkness: no stars, no streetlights, no nothing. They did this thing where they sit you down and turn off the lights and you can put your hand in front of your face and not see it. It’s so surreal that when they do it, you think at first that you can see your hand because it is so rare to experience that kind of darkness. And I probably went on that tour ten times with various groups of kids, and inevitably, some little joker would have a little flashlight in his pocket and would pull it out, and it is amazing what you can see with just the tiniest bit of light. Give your eyes a minute to adjust, and that little bit of light illuminates the whole cavernous thing, the stalactites and the stalagmites, the floor and the ceiling, the pretty parts and the ugly bits.
This is who we are called to be: people who shine light, even when it seems like it’s a fool’s errand. People who take that experience of grace and mirror it to the rest of the world, for in the final analysis, light shines on the just and the unjust alike, for God so loved the world that he sent his only son that everyone, everyone believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life. Thanks be to God. Amen.