Or the Epic Story Hidden in John 3:16
Sermon for Sunday, March 15, 2015 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21
We Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. There are generally two major categories that this mistake falls under. First, the limits of our language make describing God in any accurate way impossible. No word or combination of words that has ever been invented can do justice to the sublime combination of power, grace, and harmony that is our God. Whenever we say something true about God, we always have to add, “Yes, and…,” lest we think we summed up God’s character with what we said.
Second, we tend to remake God in our own image and likeness instead of the other way around. It’s true that the Genesis creation story says God created humankind in God’s image and likeness, but turning the mirror the other way around doesn’t work. God is not an old white-haired man floating on a cloud in the sky, despite Michaelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God is not like our own fathers or mothers, no matter how good and loving they were…or weren’t. Whatever good qualities we see in those we associate with holy living, those qualities are but a pale shadow to their perfected forms in God’s nature.
So because of the limits of our language and our self-centered inclination to see a drab facsimile of God when we look in the mirror, we Christians often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. And nowhere is this mistake made more often than when folks interpret the most famous verse in the Bible. I read it just a few minutes ago. Do you remember what it is? “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.”
Growing up in the Deep South, I saw the citation for this verse all over the place. “John 3:16” was emblazoned on bumper stickers, T-shirts, billboards, and signs at football games. Always without the actual words of the verse, the citation alone was something of a brand or logo for certain expressions of Christianity around which I grew up. Throughout the years, many well-meaning friends asked me if I were saved and when I had asked Jesus to become my personal savior. At the time, I got quite irked whenever anyone asked me this because it made me feel like my Episcopal expression of Christianity was worth less than theirs. But looking back from a vantage point of 15 to 20 years in the future, I bless their efforts – they were concerned enough, after all, about the state of my soul to invite me to meet Jesus in the same way they had been taught to meet him.
One night at the Fifth Quarter, which was held at Valley View Baptist Church after high school football games as an alternative activity to the hedonism that resulted when the Patriots of Hillcrest High School won, the church’s youth minister invited all the attendees to sit down. He then talked to us about Jesus, quoting from several verses of John 3, including the famous 16th verse, and in the end, prompted each of us to pray, and to ask Jesus to enter our hearts. So I did. I asked Jesus to be my personal savior. I now had a satisfactory answer for those acquaintances seeking to save my soul.
But while it was satisfactory for them, it wasn’t satisfactory for me. It felt too small, somehow. It felt like I had asked Jesus to be mine, sort of like a divine version of a valet on Downton Abbey. My personal savior. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this ritual formulation of asking Jesus to enter my heart was one way to discover he had been in my heart all the time and was in fact the one prompting me to ask in the first place. Thus, he wasn’t my personal savior. He wasn’t mine at all. I was his. The gift was that he wanted me to be his.
But to understand this gift God has given us, I had to thinker bigger than my own personal salvation. I had to read John 3:16 with a greater scope. But it wasn’t until my first semester Greek class in seminary that I had the tools to do so. (We haven’t had an ancient Greek lesson in a long time. I’m so excited!) The key to the verse is in the first couple of words: “For God so loved the world…” When we read those words in English, it sounds like God loves this planet we find ourselves on, this “fragile earth, our island home,” as Eucharist Prayer C says. Sure this love encompasses more than just me and my personal salvation, but we’re still not thinking big enough.
The Greek word that’s translated in this verse as “world” is kosmos. Do you know what English word we get from this? Yes. “Cosmos.” Not just this rock 92 million miles from the sun, but the whole universe! Space, the final frontier! All that God has created or will ever create is wrapped up in this word, kosmos. The Gospel of John thinks big; that’s why it has the temerity to start, “In the beginning…” and continue with the founding of Creation.
To even begin to understand the depths or heights of God’s love, we first must understand what God loves. It’s everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. It’s every atom in every cell in every organ in every being on every planet in every solar system in every galaxy in this universe that is still rapidly expanding, for all time past, present, and future. Nothing at all would exist if the love of God were not animating existence.
For God’s love of the kosmos, God gave the supreme gift – God’s own self in the form of God’s own Son. Thus, the gift God gave included an experience of the perfect relationship, which we name the Trinity: the Parent, the Child, and the Love between them. By giving Creation this experience of perfect relationship, God repaired the broken relationship between God and Creation. This is the epic story being told in those first few words of John 3:16.
The second half the verse and the verses that come after invite our response. Will we walk in the light of this great love or in the darkness, where we can hide in self-imposed exile? Will we choose to do all that we do “in God?” Will we choose to acknowledge that we belong to Christ, that we wish to shine in the light of the perfect relationship of the Trinity? I pray the answer to each of these questions, for each of us, will, with God’s help, always be “Yes.”
I began this sermon saying that we often make the mistake of making God much smaller than God is. Even though I’ve tried to use as expansive language as I could since then, these words still fall pitifully short of their target. But the good news is this: no matter how small we make God, no matter how much we reduce God to our level, God is always and forever seeking to expand us, to excavate more space within us for God to fill. The kosmos exists because the love of God animates its existence. That existence includes you and me, who are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, the love of God causes us to exist. And the gift of God – God’s only Son – causes us to love.