There are times in the life of a pastor when she sees the Gospel text appointed for a Sunday and thinks, “Well, that’s pretty straightforward. I should be able to say, ‘OK, folks, Jesus loves you,’ and sit down again.” Some of you out there might be happy with such a one-line sermon, because that means that we can get through the rest of the service earlier than usual and we can all go home and have more time to relax. So, for those of you out there who are thinking that way, here’s your one-line sermon: JESUS LOVES YOU. But, I think many of you are probably expecting a little more than that, so I will take the time to add my additional thoughts on this passage from the Gospel of John that contains probably the most well-known verse in the Bible, the one that Martin Luther called, “The Gospel in a Nutshell,” John 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.” By flashing this verse at sports events and embroidering it in needlepoint projects, we have tamed this verse into something that is ordinary, mundane, something that we shrug off and say, “Yes, OK, I get it already.” What I would like to do today is to get us to reimagine what a radical and heart-wrenching love this really is, this love that God has for us and for the whole world that he created.
In order to do that, we need to start with the image that Jesus uses in the beginning of this passage: the snake on a stick. And we have the Old Testament passage today where Jesus plucks that image from. It’s really a strange and frightening story, when you think about it: the Israelites are in the desert complaining about being in the desert, and complaining about the food, the manna, that the Lord is providing them with. So the Lord sends venomous snakes among the people, and some of them get bitten and die. When the people repent and Moses prays to the Lord, the Lord does not remove the snakes from among them: instead, he commands Moses to make a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and then whenever someone gets bitten by a snake he or she can look at the bronze serpent and live. So many questions from this story! Why would God send venomous snakes to punish the people? And then why wouldn’t he take them away? Why go to all the trouble of making a bronze serpent so people could look at it and live? And, coming back to our Gospel, why in the world would Jesus use this troubling image to describe what he was going to do? Was Jesus something that, like the snake, first caused death to the people and then brought life? The whole thing just makes no sense to us.
And so I think that in order for us to get this image, we need to not think so deeply about it. “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.” The bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, and the people who were bitten by snakes and looked at the serpent lived. Jesus, the Son of Man, would be lifted up on the cross to die for our sins, and those who look at him, those who trust in him, those who believe in him, will not die but will have eternal life. And the meaning is this: God is so great, God loves us so much, that even out of death, God can bring life. God can use even a horrible, tortuous death on the cross to bring life, not only to those who trust and believe in Jesus, but to Jesus himself, who would be raised from the dead after three days.
God so loved the world . . . despite all of the evil things that we humans do, God loves the world. The Greek word for world used here is κόσμος, which means not only “world,” but also includes all created beings, human, animal, and plant. God loves all of God’s creation, from you and me to our dogs, cats, cows, horses, birds, rabbits, and so on—even snakes!—which is one reason why we do the blessing of the animals each year—and even the trees and the grass. And God is heartbroken when we, stewards of God’s creation, misuse what he has asked us to care for. But God still loves the world so much that. . .
. . . he gave his only Son. God the Father gave us his only Son, Jesus Christ, to, as the hymn says, “walk upon this guilty sod and to become the Lamb of God.” Parents, think of how much you love your children. Then, multiply that by about a billion times. That is how much God loves Jesus, who is, in a mysterious way, also God. And that is also how much God loves us. And yet, he is willing to give Jesus to us, to teach us, to walk with us, to love us, and finally, to die for us, so that we can live abundantly. What costly and sacrificial love this truly is! We can never understand what exactly it cost God to do this for us, and we can never truly understand the immensity of God’s love for us. All we can do is ask God’s forgiveness for the wrong that we do, and praise and thank him for his love for us.
. . . so that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life. When we hear the phrase “eternal life,” we automatically think of going to heaven when we die. But guess what? Eternal life starts from the moment that we are baptized. In John 10, Jesus says that he came so that his sheep “may have life, and have it abundantly.” In John 11, when Jesus is speaking to Martha at the death of her brother Lazarus, he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” From the moment that we are baptized, we receive the promise of abundant life, both here on earth with Jesus and in the resurrection, also with Jesus.
Such wonderful love that God has for all of his creation! But from this beautiful sentence, full of promise, we descend in the next few verses to threats of condemnation for those who do not believe. If God does indeed love the world, we ask, why would he condemn anyone for not believing in Jesus? Here, I think, we need to remind ourselves that we are not God, and we do not know God’s mind. Therefore, it is not up to any of us to judge whether or not a person believes in Jesus as God’s Son. We are simply called to love others as God has loved us.
There is nothing simple about this command, however. This past Wednesday night, we discussed the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that says “Give us this day our daily bread.” Martin Luther’s explanation says that “God gives daily bread . . . even to all evil people . . .” And we asked ourselves if we would be that generous if we were God. Would you give bread to a member of ISIS, for example, if he were hungry? And we decided it was probably good that none of us were God. Just so, it is not up to us to condemn another person if it seems like he or she does not believe in Jesus. That is God’s decision, and we are not God. We are called simply to love one another, and to leave the bigger judgments up to God.
There is nothing “simple” about the love that we are to show for one another. For just as God loved the whole world, the whole creation, enough to give his only Son, so, we, too, are called to that same kind of self-sacrificial love. It is God’s love that stirs within a young woman, compelling her to go to a dangerous place to care for children in a war-torn zone, and whose life is taken from her by militants in the region. It is God’s love that compels a nun to go to the poorest of the poor in a place called Calcutta, India, and who spends her life living with these poor ones, being poor herself, and serving them, giving up her life for the sake of people whom everyone else would prefer to forget. It is God’s love that stirs within those who visit the elderly of our community in the nursing home, sacrificing their time and keeping them company even when they can no longer recognize anyone. It is God’s love that stirs within us, asking us to sacrificially give of our time, talents, and treasure so that everyone can have the abundant life that Jesus has promised us.
I wonder if people who flash John 3:16 at sporting events truly begin to comprehend what they are inviting people into. For if the Holy Spirit leads you to believe in Jesus as God’s Son, then the Holy Spirit will be inviting you to truly transform your life. And transformation happens in different ways besides being a regular church-goer on Sunday mornings, although it does include that. Transformation happens when the Holy Spirit compels you to imitate the sacrificial love that God has for you. Transformation happens when the Holy Spirit sends you to places you never thought you’d go: to the hospital bed of the child who is about to have life support withdrawn, in order to mourn with the parents; to the bedside of someone suffering from cancer; to volunteer in a homeless shelter to help people be fed; halfway around the world to care for those whom everyone else has forgotten. If people knew that these things lie behind John 3:16, would they so casually hold up those signs at sporting events? God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Now, let us find ways to show others that sacrificial love, not only in word but also in deed. Amen.