I suspect everyone here today is familiar with John 3:16: “God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You may have learned the verse in Children’s Sunday School, at Vacation Bible School, or memorized it from NFL end zones when some religiously inclined fans held up the citation. You get it.
Believe in Jesus. Bingo – you get heaven. Cross that off your bucket list, relax, do whatever – you’re safe. So I’ll understand if you yawn or need a nap during the sermon since you know all you need. For you who may want more, just in case, if someone seated by you starts napping, nudge them if they start tipping over or snoring. No one gets hurt during my sermons, please.
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and teacher, visits Jesus one night. Jesus says to enter God’s kingdom takes a second birth – one from above. In other words it is impossible to get there, apart from God’s intervention. Jesus’ teachings spin Nick’s brain. Remember, once God sends poisonous snakes to bite and kill his griping, whiny chosen, freshly freed children from Egypt. Scared, they pray and repent. God tells Moses to lift a poisonous bronze snake up on a pole for all to see. Get bitten, still alive, look at it and you won’t die. Jesus is the same – be lifted up, on a cross, and if we look and believe – we live, too.
The cross is no mere accident or unfortunate event. It becomes the sign of how God so loves this world. It’ll take a birth from above to believe that God would suffer and die for us, exalting Jesus, helpless victim into cosmic victor. Crucifixion and resurrection are one seamless piece. So, if I fail to warn you to be here for Good Friday, I should be charged with gross negligence. People will show up for Easter who haven’t descended with Jesus into suffering, death and tomb. They’ll leave thinking Easter is one happy church celebration without knowing why. They’re not alone. All of us must be grasped from above by what God is doing. Moving up the ladder, those who fit in, get it – are rewarded in this world. God’s plan is so counterintuitive. As Richard Rohr says, the cross shows us that the way up is first down. Jesus is lifted up in death so that heaven can come down and lift us up.
All of this is God’s great plan to draw us into divine life and love now, not later. We’re the ones with the problem, needing deathly poison sucked out of us. God has acted. We believe – easy enough. Yet repeating the right doctrine is insufficient. Some who say they believe in Jesus, live like they don’t. They go to church, are good citizens, yet treat some people as if they don’t exist or shouldn’t still be existing. Instead of including, they exclude and shun those they deem unclean and unworthy. They don’t ignore them. They point out their deficiencies and failings, in case others haven’t noticed. God so loves this world – but do they?
Those who say, “I believe in Jesus,” render that belief meaningless if their words never reach their hearts. What we believe transforms us – shapes how we live and act – our very being. I remember once being a guest at a men’s Bible study. I am sure each could quote John 3:16 from memory. They believed in Jesus. Yet after pouring over their lesson, they start swapping stories – a litany of all the worthless groups and people they hate and why. If you aren’t white, male, straight and an American Christian who agrees with them, well, you’re why God created a hell. I wish I’d challenged them – but I was the guest. I felt overwhelmed with, well, let’s just say a lack of charitable feelings. How do I challenge without condemning them? I realized later, by first loving them as they are. That’s so counterintuitive to love as God loves – even those who we believe are so wrong. God doesn’t send Jesus to condemn this world – and I don’t think we need to either. None of us qualifies to throw stones at anyone. Our inner, secret darkness, those things we don’t want others to know – the blame we pin on others; our actions and words expose how far we live from God’s love – God already knows what we want to keep in the dark. When we remember that, remember as well, God’s love has already forgiven us – everyone. That’s how God loves this world. God would rather suffer and die than give up on anyone.
Fourth Sunday of Lent – we’re going to make it through again. When we keep our eyes upon God to love as God does, we’ll be more patient with others. We’ll feel less a need to prove or defend ourselves. We’ll listen and support, more than instruct and fix others. We’ll hear an inner voice that may stop us before we condemn or speak harshly – “you don’t know their entire story.” We’ll learn that hate and revenge only multiply hate and revenge. Keep praying God will help us love as God loves.
Will darkness ever end? Probably not on this journey – but one day it will – in God’s time. For now, we look up and see the union of darkness and light on a cross – our darkness exposed in divine light. One is transforming the other – not condemning or destroying. It’s one piece – suffering and exaltation, death and resurrection. God so loves the world – and we are people who not only believe it – we live it. Are you with me? If you are, forgive me. Right now, I feel like saying that forbidden in Lent “A” word. Easter is near – all over again. (Jalapeño!)