(this is the script of the sermon I preached on BBC Radio Ulster for their Morning Service on May 30th 2021)
My friend Rev Tracey Cowan Henry asked on social media recently what people’s thoughts were on 3:16. She didn’t even have to add John. 3:16. It is like a brand.
I was fascinated by the responses and a little surprised at my own. There was uncertainty if not a little confusion.
John 3 verse 16 is Bible gold. It is this wonderful verse that expresses it all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
It is the good news. The best news. It is this unbelievable truth that God loves his world. That God loves people. That there is hope of eternity.
It might be the verse that I have used the most in my forty years sharing my faith. As I said, Bible gold.
Yet, when Tracey posted I was not at all elated. I sensed that this mighty verse had been tarnished. It is such a concise verse that in recent decades it has been so over used that we have somehow abused it.
Seeing it at sports events, music events, every kind of event and on the side of buildings and buses. Bible gold has been reduced to a cheap cliche. Oh it is impossible to lose its truth but it might have lost its impact.
Perhaps the truth has been dulled too. It is a verse that has been domesticated and confined. The breadth and depth and height of this cosmic truth has got almost entirely personal.
It is as if this great love and giving of God was simply for me to ask for forgiveness for a few bad words and sneaky cigarettes when I had my Damascus Road with God in May 1979. It is like I was handed a little formula to put in my pocket so that I could pray for help when the exam paper looked a bit tricky.
Oh, thank God all of that is included in this verses truth BUT 3:16 and the chapter as a whole is so much more than that. This is God loving the cosmos. For God so loved the world…
The words of 3:16 and the entire chapter are the record of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is a late night chit chat. Yet Jesus is full of theological insight. Let us unpack some of them, starting with the Trinity.
Lectionaries all over the world use this as a pericope on Trinity Sunday.
You can see why. Vesre 16 has God the Father giving his son to save the world. Those who Nicodemus is told will be reborn as a result of this work of Jesus will be born of the Spirit and what a bunch of unpredictable mavericks they will become - v 8 “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
As believers, and churches and the church world wide this needs to be a verse to ponder every day. The unpredictability of humans filled with the Spirit of God. People always refreshed, always throwing a curve ball to the states quo of the fallen wold. Yet I often ask is this how the world would define us?
THE DIFFERENT GOD
God three in one, weaving a dance, harmonies all different but one. This is a different God. And there is a whole lot more different about this one.
This God that Nicodemus hears about is so different than the other gods of the day. So different that it impossible to imagine a human coming up with such a mad radical thought.
The gods in the world of Jesus’ day, and that first century of the early Church, were not gods who loved. Roman gods needed loved and more than that appeased. They didn’t visit or sacrifice themselves.
As a teacher Nicodemus should of course have been well aware of this God. There is that incident in the Temple in Isaiah 6 that gives us that amazing scene of a holy God high and exalted and a human being (Isaiah) feeling his unworthiness is the presence. When Isaiah thinks all is lost and he is ruined… God moves… God acts… the Holy God reaches to the unworthy human and saves.
God moves first towards those he has enmity with. He does it because he is love. He does is by his grace, not our works or religiosity or sacrifices.
We too should move towards anyone we are enmity with… first… and with the unmerited favour of grace. God didn’t wait until humanity repented. That is work, an appeasement. Ephesians 2: 8 & 9 reminds us For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. Repentance comes after God has moved towards us, lives being turned around and upside down by that Holy Spirit.
If there is a theology of the Trinity and the Spirit and a different kind of God in this conversation, there is also a theology of humanity. John 3:16 itself tells us that humans are precious to God. This makes sense. God made us in His own image. After what we call the Fall, where we reached to be more than human and ended up less than human in that temptation to be like God, God never stopped loving humans.
It is a truth that we need to take to heart. They say that a nation’s humanity can be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable. Those most vulnerable are those made in God’s image. Jesus told us to feed them, give them water, shelter, visit them. Anything less is disobedience but it is all driven by our theology of humanity
Could I add that I think any nation can be judged by how they treat and love their enemies. If we dehumanise the other whoever the other is in our particular eyes then we are out of sync with the heart of God.
This is why Jesus said in Luke 6: 27 & 28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Of course he did because the Trinity loves our enemies.
Let us turn then to Jesus. In John 3, Jesus is again the God of the manger, the donkey, the towel and the cross. As described in those inspirational verses in Philippians 2:6-8:
Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
“God so loved the world that he gave…” Here is a theology of Jesus humility and giving. As John put it earlier in his first chapter, “The Lamb Of God who takes away the sin of the world”. There is hope for life and eternity, through a loving, humble, giving God
The cosmos - God loves it. This is not just about people. It is about the world. As Paul tells us in Romans 8 verse 22 “the very earth is groaning for new birth”.
I love the great Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper’s quotation - “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Jesus mission and the mission that the church continues is one of redemption for the world. Salt on earth. Light in the world. These verses are huge with universal and eternal implications.
Care for the environment comes into this too. Our commitment to recycle and hatred of plastics come back to this theology of how God loves his earth.
A sign of our spirituality will be our hearts beating with the same heart of God. God loves what he created. That we would have a deep love for our Father’s art in the environment around us.
BACK TO MY FEARS
Back to my fears over the over use and abuse of 3:16.
I often fear that there is a danger that we could and maybe have domesticated, tamed, confined this massive far reaching theology. A danger we have made it to personal and lost that societal, world reach.
I was impressed and at time distressed when I read the Presbyterian Church in Ireland publication about The Troubles called Discovering Grace.
It is a book full of stories of the wide range of people impacted by the troubles. It was hard reading the accounts of first responders and ministers who were first on the scene at some our worst atrocities. It was also disconcerting to read that church services went on in the same streets as bombs had been going off on and it wasn’t even mentioned or prayed for in the Sunday worship. That is a shrunken Gospel. A very diluted 3:16.
Jesus conversation with Nicodemus is so full of truth and Jesus call is always the call to follow. The entire conversation but particularly 3:16 tell us of a huge ginormous and love lavished Gospel. It is wonderfully good news. Let us protect it. Let us give it its all. And marvel that in this cosmic encounter us humans get the hope of life and eternity. More than anything let us live the radical ways it calls us precious humans too.