Why do you think people come to church these days? Years ago parents and kids attended regularly. Good church habits were formed, even if some feared church attendance and getting to heaven have a positive correlation. Today researchers say people come to church wanting a place and community to belong, where they know you and love you, and where you find a purpose by working to make this world a better place. People come and join here for many reasons: the church is beautiful; God speaks to them in this room; the music is uplifting; the sermon is reasonably short; and some wonder if an inner emptiness is a longing for God. I hope people find that God so loves them and the whole world, in our words, lives and worship, regardless why they come here.
Some years ago a fellow appeared at televised professional sports events, dancing wildly in front of TV cameras. One day, while watching a TV evangelist, he says he was “born again.” Then he held up a sign for the cameras with words Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, John 3:16. I’m not sure about his motive, if he understood the verses’ meaning, or if anyone knew it’s a Bible verse, but he did get “John 3:16” onto national TV.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that to see God’s kingdom takes another birth – from above. Nicodemus doesn’t get it either. So Jesus borrows an image from Numbers. God’s beloved, chosen – forgetting all God did for them, complain against Moses and God, “The food service stinks and we don’t have enough water.” God allows poisonous serpents to bite and kill the whiners. Quickly, they get religion, confess their sin, and beg Moses to ask God to call off the snakes. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and hoist it up on a pole for all to see as a remedy against certain death.
Does God act in such ways? The writer of Numbers wants us to think so. Maybe poisonous serpents are more like inner demons that bite and kill the spirit. People grow depressed, feel unworthy, discontented, so angry all they see is their misery – and get so inwardly focused they can’t see anyone else may suffer, too. They become blind to God’s blessings, healing, salvation and providence. They gripe, yet cannot find words of gratitude. As for the Hebrews, God provides a remedy. Jesus says God heals and saves by lifting him up, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Whoever will look and believe will be drawn out of darkness into God’s new way of life for the world – eternal life.” God comes not to condemn. God so loves everyone. That love is our life. Filled with divine love from above, we are drawn into God’s reign.
Some people treat John 3:16 as a litmus test for salvation: believe or perish. Just say you believe. Many a person has checked the box, signed the card, prayed the prayer, or said, “Yes, I believe,” thinking that’s it – “I’m in the kingdom now.” But that’s not “it” exactly. They even join a church – but that no more makes someone a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car. When we truly believe in Jesus, we stake our lives on him, trusting God heals us by loving us. We look up and see in a strange sign – a cross of death, how God so loves us – not removing death and darkness, but through death and darkness into light and new life.
But does God condemn those who refuse? John thinks so – but keep in mind, wrath is not the opposite of love. In God’s hands wrath leads to love and healing. God loves us so much as to hate how people ignore the needy; oppress others; wage violence and war; try to play God for others; act ungrateful and mean-spirited. We live in darkness, the opposite of divine love, not by God’s choice.
We cannot create our healing or love ourselves out of death and darkness. It comes from above. Funny how people trying to discover their true selves fail to face and notice their inner darkness. Only by confronting our inner darkness do we find God’s light, life and loved waiting to heal our inner wounds.
We need to discover that sense of true self each day – we are beloved of God. We don’t just say we believe it in our heads. We believe and trust that God is love that we so act with that God, bearing divine light and love to others. Jesus never said believe four spiritual laws, or affirm a verse of scripture and be saved. Belief is not the mastery of faith. Belief is the evidence God’s love masters us.
Back to the “born again,” evangelist of John 3:16. Some years ago he believed the Rapture was coming and the world would end. So he plasters John 3:16 placards all over his hotel room windows. But in the process he kidnaps three people. He’s now serving three consecutive life sentences in prison. “For God so loved the world” God doesn’t reject anyone of us – even misguided zealots who don’t really get how God so loves – or even us when we don’t fully understand either and miss the mark. God’s reign arrives when we live we believe.
So try to love this world and one another as God so loves – that’s kingdom life. Doesn’t look at all like the world. Look up and see Jesus: bearing God’s gift of everlasting love, and be healed.