God So Loved the World
The New Testament is a collection of twenty-seven different writings. It contains biography, history, theology, philosophy, ethics, poetry, prophesy, and even some economics. But, first and foremost, it is a love letter – God’s love letter to God’s children. Our Gospel reading for today gives us that letter in condensed form. It says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 … one of the best know and most often-quoted verses in the entire Bible. Martin Luther once called it the “Gospel within the Gospels.”
With this sentence as our guide, then, let’s take a brief, but serious, look at God’s love letter. First a bit of background.
This verse is found in John 3. Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus quietly at night. Jesus tells Nicodemus that a person must be born anew, or born again, in order to see the kingdom of God. “How can one be born when one is old?” he asks. The sentence we are considering this day is a part of the answer that Jesus gave to Nicodemus.
Notice first that God’s love letter is addressed to the whole world. It is sent to the entire human family. No one is left out. For many of us, this is a truth that is almost worn smooth by pronouncement. We can say it, or hear it, without feeling its traction on our lives. This means that we need to remind ourselves over and over again of the bigness of God and the oneness of our world.
Our tendency is always to make God too small. That was the failing of the Pharisees in the first century, too. Their God was too small. They wanted to build a fence around God and keep God in Palestine. They wanted God to love all Jews and reject all Gentiles. Then Jesus came into that narrow, provincial environment and began to talk about God’s love for the whole world. And, not only did he talk about it; he lived it. He started loving people, even the ones whom the righteous and respectable avoided.
It was the scandal of the first century – a prophet, a man who claimed to speak for God, and yet he was utterly indiscriminate in his choice of friends. He went to banquets that nice people did not attend. He befriended despised tax collectors. He championed the cause of a fallen woman. He made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous stories. He talked comfortably and freely with prostitutes. The ministry of Jesus, from start to finish, was a revolutionary movement of love. He simply started loving people that until then had been ignored or despised. Everything he said and did challenged the existing concepts of God.
If we take Jesus seriously, his revelation of God is as radical today as it was in the first century. We deal with it in all of the delicate and complex relationships of life. 1) In questions of race, we remember the color blindness of God. God loves us all. 2) In business dealings, we remember that our competitors are included in God’s love. That God is as concerned for their dignity and well being as God is for ours. 3) In domestic relationships, we look at that frustrated and frustrating teenager, or pre-teen, through different eyes. We remember that to God, that one is of more value than the material universe and everything in it.
It is a difficult idea to take in, but the statement in our text is clear. God’s love is universal. It includes all people, everywhere. And any serious attempt at Christian discipleship somehow comes to terms with this basic truth about God.
Notice next that God’s love letter is personal. It speaks specifically to individuals. It declares God’s love for the world, and then it switches to “everyone”. And, not only that, but God’s letter was hand-carried. and personally delivered, by God’s own – and only – son.
God, in God’s majesty and power, created a universe that is large and complex beyond imagining. And yet, God can focus God’s love on one person who may think that no one understands or cares. And, here is the most beautiful part – God’s love is a love for which we do not have to audition. God accepts us just the way we are.
Now I ask you, how many people do you know who, if they knew all there is to know about you, would still love you? To how many people would you dare to reveal every secret thought and every secret deed? We know that to really be known is to run the risk of rejection. And we wonder if there is any one that we don’t need to impress, if there is any place where we can afford to just be ourselves.
God’s letter of love gives us the freedom to do that very thing. With God there is no need to pretend. No use to pretend. God knows everything there is to know about us, and God loves us still. Many of us have misunderstood the Gospel at this point. We have thought of opening ourselves to Christ, but we are afraid. We think, if we did that, God would come tromping through our sensitive souls in hobnailed boots, and we would be done for. But, my friends, we can afford to open ourselves to God. We can afford to be ourselves with God, for God loves us in a very personal kind of way!
Notice finally that God’s letter of love is purposeful. It is intended to redeem. It tells us that “he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” – that is to say age-abiding life, life with an eternal quality.
In John’s Gospel, eternal life is not an extended quantity of life that begins at death. Eternal life, rather, is a new quality of life, a new kind of life. And, those who believe in Jesus receive the gift of eternal life. That is the answer to the question of Nicodemus … that we receive a new kind of life, eternal life, when we look in faith to Jesus. That is how we are born again.
In an age such as ours, love may seem a weak companion. For, this is a power-oriented world. We are geared to think of everything in terms of power; and, we are geared to ask: “who’s in charge” of the world’s current economy! What chance has love in a time such as this? The answer to that question is simple. Love let loose is still the most powerful influence in the universe. It can lead people where force could never drive them. It can open doors that hate could never batter down.
Love is the most powerful, most permanent, most redemptive force on earth. It is God’s plan for redeeming the world.
Yes, that is God’s plan. You see, God does not love us because we deserve to be loved. God just loves us. That’s all. No reason. Just loves us. Loves you. Loves me. No matter who we are. No matter how we have lived our lives. No matter how great our sins are. God loves us. Now! In this very instant. Therefore, by faith we are born again with a new kind of life that triumphs even now, in this time and in the time to come.
God so loved the world … this world! our world! And us!
Now, go – and do likewise!