(Sermon for Sunday, March 18, 2012 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21)
I’d like to go to a Red Sox game and hold up a sign that says, “John 3:17.” Perhaps, a row-mate would ask me why my sign is wrong and I can say that the sign’s not wrong, but a different verse entirely. The verse after the most famous verse of the Bible says, “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.”
Now, before we really get down to the business of this sermon, let’s talk about this “world,” a word John uses three times in this one verse. For John, the world is the creation that rebelled against God – the good works, which God made, but which fell into disrepair because of bad human choices. One of the reasons that John starts his Gospel with, “In the beginning,” is so we readers might make the link back to the story of creation in Genesis, in which God created the heavens and the earth. Three chapters into Genesis, things start to fall apart because of Adam and Eve’s dreadful choices.
Fast-forward to John’s time or even to our own, and the broken state of the world is evident – there’s no need to list all of the broken things in relationships or in society or in the environment (for we know them all too well). Much of the brokenness stems directly from bad choices made over and over again. And because these decisions are made again and again, they become part of the system, the machinery of brokenness, and we feel helpless in the face of a crumbling world. Nevertheless, God so loved this world that God chose to send God’s Son into the brokenness in order that he might show us what is broken. And in showing us, he gave us the gift and duty of helping him restore the broken world to wholeness.
But even though John expands the Son’s salvation to include the whole world (literally the “cosmos” in Greek), the restoration starts taking place in the hearts of God’s children – in us and ever other person who has every walked the earth. The brokenness began in the hearts of Adam and Eve; thus, the healing, the saving of the world takes hold at the origin of the brokenness, in the hearts of all people.
Just like Adam and Eve had the choice to obey or disobey God, each of us has a choice, which Jesus names using the imagery of darkness and light: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” he says. “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 have a choice to stumble in the darkness or to walk in the light, to be part of the problem or part of the solution, to add to the brokenness or to participate in the healing. And we don’t make this choice just once. Rather this choice is part of every single decision we make. Every decision either pulls us back to the darkness or pushes us further into the light. Perhaps you can remember a choice you made that turned out to be the wrong one – failing to stand up to a friend’s bully or taking out your frustration on your spouse or deliberately not noticing the homeless veteran on the street or knowingly purchasing a product that was fabricated under unbearable conditions, or…or…or — the list is endless. I don’t know about you, but when I make a choice the pulls me towards the darkness, I feel just a little bit unmade, like a little bit of me has eroded away. If I continually choose the wrong path, if I continually embrace the darkness, I wonder — will there be anything left of me?
This question points to the condemnation that Jesus talks about. God does not condemn; rather, we condemn ourselves when we choose the darkness over the light. Indeed, each time the verb “condemn” happens in the middle of our passage, the word is passive. God takes no active part in our condemnation, but only patiently and constantly calls us back to the light. And I firmly believe this call is what keeps us from eroding away entirely, what keeps us from total annihilation (which is another way of talking about hell). God’s constant call back to the light gives us a beacon to turn to, a lighthouse, if you will, that can guide us through the darkness and keep us from breaking up on the rocks. God does not force us to choose the light, but rather invites us to steer toward the harbor of God’s radiance.
As we answer God’s call and choose the light over the darkness, we discover that we can be part of the healing of the world. In our own experiences of the darkness, in our own vulnerability, we find the common ground of brokenness that Christ found when he came to earth and when he was lifted up on the cross. When we choose the light, we choose to be partners with Christ in healing the brokenness of the world even as Christ is healing our own brokenness.
So how do we translate the imagery of walking in the light into our everyday lives? What does choosing the light look like on the ground, in our day-to-day lives, at the office or at school or at home? Everything comes back to inviting God into our decisions, about orienting toward the light in each choice so that we do not feel like we are being eroded away to nothingness.
Here’s one practical way to help make decisions. Margot and I have been participating in a Lenten devotional series done by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Boston. Each day, a brother of the order talks about a piece of their Rule of Life, and about how each of us can benefit in our walks with God by writing a Rule for ourselves. A personal Rule of Life helps you to figure out how to be the best version of yourself, the version that God created you to be. When faced with a choice, remembering your Rule can help you walk in the light.
Writing out a Rule for yourself could be a simple as praying for clarity about the five things that are most important to you, then writing them on an index card and trying to live with those priorities in mind. Or perhaps, you might feel called to write out a longer, more in-depth set of guidelines for how you relate to yourself, to others, to the world, and to God. I’ve been working on my own Rule, and I’d like to share a few short passages with you so you can see how I am, with God’s help, trying to choose the light.
“I will nurture my relationship with God through praying, listening, serving, and loving.
“I will love my family. I will be loyal, honest, caring, and present to my wife and our (future) children.
“I will live my life with an attitude of thanksgiving, always seeking to choose abundance over scarcity, trust over fear, and relationship over isolation.
“I will live my life with an attitude of invitation, always seeking to choose engagement over apathy, encouragement over criticism, and listening over selling.”
In each of these pieces of my Rule, God has given me guidance for how to choose the light over the darkness. Does this mean I will always choose the light? Of course not, but the Rule will help me see when I have failed and help me turn back to the right paths. I invite you to consider making your own Rule, so that you may more effectively choose light over darkness. Please come see Margot or me if you’d like guidance in doing this incredibly fruitful practice.
Speaking of practice, spring training is going on, which reminds me of my sign from the beginning of this sermon (like that segue?). John 3:17 – “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Christ’s saving of this world began in his life, death, and resurrection, and continues in the hearts of all people. When we choose the light over the darkness, we choose to be part of the healing of this world, we choose to show the world that God is moving in our lives. In this witness, we bring God’s light into the darkness of this world. And do you know what happens when light is introduced into darkness? Darkness flees.