How many times have you seen signs in sports stadiums that say John 3:16? Does the average person even know what that means? It simply becomes a backdrop and is most often overlooked. John 3:16 takes on the character of background noise. We hear it so often, we don’t listen to it at all.
At the beginning of today’s gospel, we listen in on part of the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. Jesus references the story from the Hebrew Scriptures about the serpent in the wilderness. As the serpent was lifted up, so would “the Son of Man be lifted up” (v. 14). In John’s gospel, the verb “lifted up” has multiple layers of meaning. First of all, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross, then up from the tomb in his resurrection and finally up to the Father as he ascended. “Being lifted up” on the cross reveals God’s glory—because it is from on high—where God resides—that God sees and loves the world to send his Son.
Then we get to probably the best known, but perhaps least understood verse in the Bible, 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 have eternal life.” We often think of God “so” loving the world meaning, God loved us T H I S much. This may be true, but for John, it’s not as much about the amount God loved the world, but rather the how, in what manner God loved the world—so that he sent his Son.
We often equate eternal life with heaven. That is certainly part of it, but in John, eternal life begins now, in and among God’s people. Salvation is being born from above, redefining one’s "family of origin.” To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God (1:13).
To believe is to “trust and bond with…” So, everyone who trusts and bonds with Jesus will have eternal life. A couple of verses later we read “Those who trust and bond with him are not condemned…” (v. 18). This certainly makes the word “believe” more engaging. In other words, salvation is not by intellectual assent to a belief. Rather, it is all about the restoration of broken relationships, being restored to the proper bond and trust of a true relationship with God.
We are to continually trust and bond with God. Believing is not a hoop that we jump through to get to the other side once and for all, but it is more like taking a long journey through a tunnel. Believing results in having eternal life (vv. 15, 16), not perishing (v. 16), and not being judged (v. 18). Not believing results in being judged (v. 18) and judgment (vv. 17,18).
To clarify, John is not saying, if you believe, then God will love and save you. God’s salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God’s love, forgiveness, and salvation until we believe. Thankfully, God does not make a one time, take it or leave it limited time offer.
John 3:16 says that God so loved the cosmos—this earth, time and space. The church has often misunderstood and thought that God mostly loved us, or at best humankind. “Today’s gospel pulls us into a more profound understanding; that through Christ all the cosmos is being saved” (sundaysandseasons.com). As Paul wrote in Romans, “…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now…” (Romans 8:21, 22).
Jesus was sent by the Father “that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). God loves the entire world and is unwilling to settle for only part of the world or for only some of us. To save is the contrast of “to judge or condemn.” It is “to rescue from danger and to restore to a former state of safety and ” ( & Nida).
God chooses to save rather than condemn the world, which opposes and does not know God. Rather than condemning all that is not pleasing to God, God gave his Son, so that everyone may have eternal life. Among the logical consequences of a relationship with God, being part of his family, is we become heirs to the family estate: heaven, Spirit, light, truth, love, salvation and eternal life.
According to Genesis, light is the first creation of God. In John’s gospel, Christ not only brings light: he is the light of God. What happens when we shine light into dark places? We see things, don’t we—like the dust bunnies under the bed?
The coming of Jesus created a crisis. “And this is the judgment, that light has come…” The Greek word for judgment is , from which we get the English word “crisis.” The crisis separates light from darkness, truth from evil, faith from unbelief and those humans on God’s side from those opposed to God. A crisis is a decisive turning point. What God has done for us in the lifting up of Christ, the visible sign of God’s grace poured out for the world, creates for us a crisis, a turning point, a decisive moment that we might perceive and receive God’s redemptive, life-changing love.
We live in a world that likes to judge others. We thrive on it. The sin of superiority reigns supreme. We think we could do better if we were in the same situation. When we see someone in dirty, ragged clothing, we make a judgment about the person. What about those that act really odd? We don’t do well with those who suffer from mental illness. How can we do better? We can educate ourselves about homelessness and mental health issues. Love Inc. works with people getting ready to move into their own places. The Mental Health Association obviously works with mental health issues. St. Susan’s feeds the hungry. 5 & 2 feeds hungry school children.
Why are we so eager to condemn others and think that somehow we will escape condemnation? How are we so willing to withhold forgiveness and to what extent does that mean that we ourselves are in desperate need of it?
“All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed” (v. 20). People want to cover up their misdeeds, not have them laid bare for all to see. Don’t we see this when it comes to political scandals? The worst part of a scandal isn’t the initial crime or act, but the act of covering up the crime or misdeed. Don’t we find that we too like to cover up, justify or explain away our own misdeeds? We don’t like to admit wrong-doing, but prefer to call such behavior “mistakes.”
The problem isn’t as much what we do or don’t do. The problem is with us—sinful human beings. As Pogo long ago noted, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” God invites us Sunday after Sunday to confess our sins and to hear life-giving words of grace and forgiveness.
For John, sin seems to be concrete and structural (such as injustice, hate, lack of mercy, etc.) rather than individualistic. God desires to transform the dark places in this world into places of light, healing, and salvation. And God wants to also transform us into people of light, healing, and salvation. God goes to such great lengths to make us his own, so that we may serve God and our neighbors.
How do we live transformative lives that bring light, healing, and salvation? We could be called to develop efforts of inter-religious dialogue with our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers. If we don’t know any of other faiths, go to Chautauqua Institution. Take on joint community projects.
Trusting in God, some of us could reach out to immigrant communities and neighbors to invite them to join our church membership and leadership. This could even allow us to stand up for their rights—to allow for a more just and peaceful society, to help further the reign of God.
In the end, what follows John 3:16 are the after effects of our response to John 3:16—whether or not we are willing to believe that “God loves the world” might actually be true. And if we are willing to live as if it simply has to be true (Lewis).
You know, I’m not always the most graceful person around. I have stumbled and fallen because of not being aware of where my feet were going. I can’t help but wonder, “Where are we walking?” Are we walking in the light or in the darkness? May our hearts cry out with the hymn writer:
Christ, be our light!Shine in our hearts.Shine through the darkness.Christ, be our light!Shine in your church gathered today. (ELW 715)
David Ewart, holytextures.com
Mike Gable, asmweb.org
Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org
David Lose, davidlose.net
Marion , Thomas & Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, Lent/Easter
Brian Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes, crossmarks.com