John 3:16……we see that everywhere in the Christian world. If there is one bit of Christian paraphernalia that crosses denominational lines and is truly ecumenical, this is it. I have seen it on bumper stickers, greeting cards, t-shirts, screen savers, baseball hats, memo pads, ball point pens, and yes, even tattoos. It was a scripture verse I memorized as a child for Sunday School, but it was in the King James version then, of course.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Like the 23rd psalm I can only seem to recite it in the King James version. But I can recite it, even though I sometimes fail to remember it.
The great Dr Martin Luther himself said that this one verse was the very heart of the bible—the gospel message in miniature. In truth, if we could say but one sentence about God, this would be the one! 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. It is the center around which everything else revolves. It is something to hold on to—to have faith in—something we can look to when we doubt, when we make mistakes and when others make mistakes, too.
But good as that is, true as that is, easy as it should be to remember that little verse, a Pocket-sized version of the gospel to take with us everywhere, a little thing to take out and look at when times are hard and, for that matter, when times are good. How Easy It IS To Forget. Maybe because it seems so small. How often we don’t look at it. Maybe we feel like we deserve God’s love anyway, so it isn’t that startling.
And yet the fact remains that God sent his Son to us to save us for himself. Not because of anything we did or could do. And certainly not because we deserved it. But because he loved the world. There is something about that which is so amazing, so startling, so different from everything else, that we cannot ignore it. We all read those bumper stickers or t shirts that say John 3:16 but do we realize what that means for us and for the world?
A little while ago [in the children’s sermon] I showed the children my Blood Donor’s Card. I worked for the American Red Cross before coming to Columbia and to seminary and while I was there, I became a regular blood donor. The first time I sat down to give blood was very frightening. I hadn’t thought all the way through the process and was mostly doing it because everyone who works for the Red Cross donates blood. As I sat looking at the poster across from me that said, in big bold red letters “Give Life”, the woman sitting in the chair beside me began asking questions of the nurse about where her blood would go.
Who would get it? How did they decided who they would give it to? What did the hospitals do to be sure that her blood would go to the right kind of people? The nurse told her that her blood would be given according to hospital policies, which meant that who ever needed her blood would get it. The woman asked her if that meant that she could specify that it only go to a baby or some good person who really deserved it or was there a chance that a criminal could get her blood. The nurse again said whomever needed her blood would get it. Angrily, she told the nurse to take the needle out of her arm because she was leaving. She would not have her blood given to just anyone. Only someone who was innocent. Only someone who deserved it.
This made a significant impression on me. Blood that I gave that day, and on many other days since then, could have gone to save the life of an innocent infant with problems during birth, a fireman injured while saving someone else, a mother hurt by a drunk driver, or the drunk driver who caused the accident, a woman who overdosed on drugs and abused her children,
or a criminal involved in gang violence. All could be recipients of my blood. There was, and is, something about this that is unsettling. It doesn’t fit with the way we think the world should go. Something almost unfair. Something dramatically different from the rest of the world. My best friend and my worst enemy could, in theory, be given my blood to save their lives.
It does not matter who it is, simply that they are in need.
God does the same thing for us. We all stand in need from God. The whole world stands in need of his love and grace. God so loved the world that he sent his Son to Give Life to us. Jesus gave his blood, all of his blood, because God loved his best friends and his worst enemies—us. It is easy for us to look at those we love and say, God loves you. It is easy to say because we can also say to that same person, I love you. But what about those people we, frankly, don’t really love. The woman who cut us off in traffic, the salesman who tries to overcharge us. The coworker or classmate who makes fun of us. Or the one we made fun of or gossiped about because they deserved it anyway. The people whom we once loved but broke our hearts. The people who have hurt us in ways that seem like they will never heal. The people whom we have hurt and damaged in our lives as well. All the people we would never choose to give our blood to save.
God so loved the world that he sent his only son so whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life. John says God so loved the world. He does not say God so loved the righteous, God so loved the good, God so loved the beautiful, God so loved the babies, God so loved the heroes or the hard working people or the rich or the poor or the criminals or the law abiding. The Gospel says God So Loved The Word. That he sent is only Son.
We know the story of what happens to his son, Jesus. We know what is coming at the end of this Lenten journey—the cross is coming. Humiliation and suffering and Blood and death are coming. This is what God sent his son, Jesus, to do for the world that he loved so much. But resurrection is coming, too. Life is coming as well. God’s permanent defeat of death is coming at the end of our Lenten journey. God so loves the world: Our best friends and our worst enemies. There were no qualifications before hand. There is nothing that we did to earn it.
It does powerfully change how we see the world. We know that God loved us even when we were dead through sin. Not after we became good people or after we straightened up. But even in our unlovelyness. When we look at those who have hurt us, those who have done wrong, those whom we have hurt and wronged, we know that God loves them as well, just as much.
I once read a wonderful thing about God’s grace—“Grace is savage and must be savage in order to be perfect.” To be savage is to be untamed, undomesticated, wild, fierce. I think these words describe God’s love and grace perfectly. There is nothing tame or mild about God’s love for us
It is fierce indeed. It is savage enough to love the whole world in spite of the evil and sin that we as broken people manage to accomplish. God’s love is the wild, fierce thing that takes hold of our lives at baptism. This fierce love gives us the grace to love as God loves—to see both our best friend and our worst enemy as God sees them—as ones for whom Christ is sent, lived and died—and to live our lives in the light of that truth. It is the amazing untamed boundless grace of Christ’s humiliating death on the cross for us—for nothing that we have done to earn it. That untamed grace we see and taste when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood broken and shed for us. For nothing that we have done to earn it.
The writer of Ephesians in today’s second lesson says “for by grace you have been saved though faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God.” It is the gift of God’s savage perfect grace in Christ that we hear of in John 3:16. For God so loves the world with a wild and untamed love that he sent his only son so that whoever believes in him, shall not die but live forever in that fierce love.