This sermon was preached at St Peters in Key West on on the occasion of the installation of a new chapter of the Daughters of the King. The date was Sunday, March 18, 2012
Text: John 3: 16
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Today’s Gospel lesson contains one of the Bible’s most cited verses. It is one of the first that we memorize during our years at Sunday School, it is a staple of themes that occur during Vacation Bible School, and often times it is used as a shorthand version of the Christian faith. We see it everywhere, and in recent years we have come to know it as one of the references a certain football player will put under his eyes as part of his uniform.
Like with many of the familiar stories and passages of the Bible, it is our challenge each and every time to hear them with fresh ears and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be trying to tell us at this particular moment and time. We are just over half-way through Lent, a time when we reflect on our own mortality, a time of repentance and decision making. Nicodemus has decided to approach Jesus in the middle of the night, wanting to know what to make of the different signs and wonders Jesus performed in his ministry. He comes to Jesus and is almost afraid that his curiosity has led him here because he is one of the religious leaders of the day. For Nicodemus to be seen talking with Jesus was quite dangerous because Jesus has by this time been identified as a threat to the establishment. Part of the way through the conversation, Jesus interrupts Nicodemus and says, “Hold on! you’re missing the point” and so he starts into a message that gets to the heart of why Jesus has come.
He starts by comparing his mission to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that the Israelites would not die when they were bitten by poisonous snakes. The serpents that assault us today are no less deadly for they come in the forms of our own vices and shortcomings. Part of the purpose of the season of Lent is to look inward and reflect on those things which keep us from trusting God and experiencing the wholeness that comes from being in relationship with God. These serpents may not only be the internal things we struggle with, but plenty of outside forces which seem to hem us in on every turn from which there may be no escape. But, as Moses fashioned the bronze serpent to show to the Israelites in the wilderness, God sends his Son to be lifted up for the salvation of the entire human race and all of Creation. This particular Sunday in Lent is different than the others. It is Rose Sunday, when the burdens and disciplines of Lent get a little lighter. We are able to look past the heaviness of being in bondage to the powers of sin and death and look forward to the freedom that comes on Easter morning. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man must also be lifted up just like that bronze serpent. We know that Jesus is speaking of his crucifixion where he is lifted high on the cross. However, he is also speaking of the resurrection where Jesus is lifted from the grave by the power and love of God, a love that is stronger than death itself. Because of our faith in what God has done in his Son, because we trust that God loves us, we inherit the promise, the gift of eternal life.
As we try to grapple with the nature of the gift of eternal life, many questions come up which have been asked and which the church has tried to answer through the centuries. Does the love and grace of God really extend to everyone, or does it just extend to the group of people who happen to be clued in? Does that love and grace extend only to the people God specifically calls to be his children? And what about those who for one reason or other say that they follow Jesus, and can recite the Bible chapter and verse, but they act like some of the biggest jerks ever to walk the face of the earth? What about those who are simply rotten to the core? We may also ask ourselves, “What about me? Is my own faith enough? What else do I have to do? Am I missing something?”
We could look at our dilemma like this: Let’s say that someone with whom you had a falling out sends you a gift out of the blue. Unasked for, unexpected, even unwanted. What do you do with that gift? Do you accept it with gratitude and seek to make amends? Or do you turn away from it and reject it? Regardless of what you do with it, nothing changes the fact that it is a gift that is meant for you. In the mind and heart of the giver, there is nothing to talk about! No scores to settle! Whatever caused the falling out is done away with, forgotten. The issue only comes when the gift recipient cannot take it upon themselves to receive the gift! But what a happy and joyous day that will be when the giver and the receiver are finally reunited and the friendship is restored.
We simply cannot reduce questions about salvation or eternal life to a multiple choice options because the relationship of God’s love and grace to that of human response is one of mutual interaction. Our faith is placed not in a book, a collection of sayings or even of a doctrine but our faith is in the person of Jesus Christ. Salvation is not to be found in simple watchwords or clichés. If we dwell on it too much, we begin to miss the point, just like Nicodemus did. He got caught up in the details of what it means to be born again or born from above and failed to realize that eternal life is an unconditional gift from God, much like God’s love.
Every time I get bogged down in trying to answer these questions, I recall a Charlie Brown comic strip where Peppermint Patty and Marcy are discussion about how a faucet works. Marci goes into the basics of plumbing and water pressure. Peppermint Patty looks thoughtfully at the faucet with the running water and says to her friend, “I don’t care how it works. I’m just glad it works.” And it works because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It’s like that old Southern Gospel Song with the Chorus that says “I cannot tell you how, and I cannot tell you why, but He’ll tell us all about it in the by and by.”
One could actually read the entire Bible as the ultimate love story that God has for his creation. The love of God is even embedded into the very fabric of the law that he gave his people on the slopes of Mount Sinai. It was love that moved God to send Moses to deliver his people from bondage and slavery. It was love that moved God to raise up prophets declaring and proclaiming God’s desire for compassion on the broken, the downtrodden, the foreigners, the widows, and the orphans. And it is the love of God that moves the steadfast women in the Daughters of the King to pray for people they may not even know and stand in the gap “For His Sake” and for those when the world comes beating down at their door. Their gift of intercession is an inspiration to us all, and we say a special thank-you to them for their ministry.
In Lent we are challenged more so than any other season to live into the life-giving love of God. The love of God and saving grace of God that is to be found in Jesus is a gift. Like all gifts, eternal life is a gift that that freely given … but it ain’t cheap. It costs Jesus everything. In life, Jesus could not overcome the powers of sin and death which occupy this fallen world … it was only done through his own self-giving death on a cross. The love of God proved to be stronger than death itself, and the way of life was opened for us all.
The great gift of eternal life is nothing less than knowing Jesus. It is not something that we have to wait to experience when we die but he begins to share it with us when we start walking with him. Eternal life is not simply an unending human existence. It is not us sitting up in heaven strumming a harp with the angels on a puffy cloud, but it is life lived here and now in the presence of God. It is the trust that you have when you realize that no matter how horrible things might be, that you are not alone for God is with you. When we know Jesus, our life is changed in the here and now. The poisonous snakes that make be slithering on the ground all around you may frighten you, they may bite you, they may hurt you, they may even try to devour you from the inside out, but they will not destroy you. Everything has been taken care of.
The gift of eternal life has been given for all to receive, and with this gift giver, there is no taking it back. God may accept us “just as we are,” but he loves us not simply as who we are now, but as the people that he has promised that we will one day be.
“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that through Him the world might be saved.” It’s almost as if we are the defendants in a trial that is rigged, a trial where the judge is determined to find us not guilty in spite of ourselves.
It is because of the life changing power of the love of God that we can say that we no longer live just for ourselves, but for him, in him and through him who died and rose again.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone … everyone … might come within the reach of your saving embrace.