Lent 4B/03.22.09/Fort Q/John 3:16
“God So Loved the World That…”
John 3:16. Luther called it “the Gospel in miniature.” It has been called the Gospel in a nut shell. It is likely the most well known portion of the Bible apart from Psalm 23. People paint “John 3:16” on posters and hold it up at football games - I suppose because in John 3:16, in one sentence, is a summary of the entire Gospel. Many of you have a picture or plaque hanging on your wall at home with this verse written on it.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Simple. Clear. Understandable.
How come we mess it up so badly all the time?
“For God so loved the world…” We don’t do too badly on that part. We like to think that God loves the world. We don’t mess that up too often I don’t think.
“That he gave his only Son…” Well, this is what we celebrate at Christmas, so we don’t do too badly with this. We may not always understand it as we should, but generally speaking we understand that Jesus is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. Though it is a great mystery of the Faith - We don’t mess that up too often I don’t think.
“…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Hmmmm. Now here is where we often run into trouble. “…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The words are clear enough - But we stumble here – even as Lutherans. “that whoever believes in him…” Our natural tendency is to reject that statement. In fact part of us hates that statement. “that whoever believes in him…”
Our Thursday morning Bible study group has been going through a study called A Longer Look at the Lessons where we study the texts for the upcoming Sunday . One of the statements in the study this past week was: “It is said that everyone wants an insurance policy that guarantees eternal life, but most want it to be at least 10 percent deductible.” Our sinful and prideful selves rebel against this sort of thing. You mean all I need to do, all I can do, is receive eternal life by grace through faith?
When we hear what St. Paul says in the Epistle we almost get angry – it hurts our pride and illusions of self sufficiency. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” This is where we mess it up. All of us. Yes, even Lutherans who pride themselves on being Gospel centred. We all have a tendency to mess this up because we are all by nature prideful. Because of our sin we tend to read John 3:16 a little different than it is written:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever gives enough money to charity deserves not to perish but have eternal life
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever goes to church regularly is better than other people and deserves not to perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever prays often can look down on those who do not and deserves not to perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever is not addicted to alcohol or drugs is better than those who are and deserves not to perish but to have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever looks and sounds like us deserves not to perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever puts big cheques in the offering plate at church deserves not to perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever does not do “all those bad things” deserves not to perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever has not murdered a person deserves not to perish but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever…
Oh, I am sure you would never be so crass to say such things. But you think them. Even if you don’t want to – you do. You look at how others live and the bad things that people do around you and you think to yourself: How could they? What’s wrong with them? Why are they so bad? We have a tendency to compare ourselves to others – to rank others. We like to see how we “stack up.” And invariably we find that we stack up quite well thank you – better than those people that do that and this and all those terrible things. I am certainly better than they are. And, since almost everything else in life works on the merit system, we imagine God does also. And so we imagine that we merit God’s grace and eternal life – certainly more so than “those people.”
But what this shows is not so much our superiority over others or our holiness against other’s wickedness. What this shows is an astonishing lack of self knowledge. St. Paul writes in the Epistle: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins” In your sinful state you are dead - Dead! A dead person can do nothing. Nothing! In your sinful state you can do nothing to merit anything from God. Nothing. Nadda. Zilch. Nicht. Let’s get this clear in our minds. It is essential if we are indeed to understand the Gospel in a nutshell.
And so to explain this St. Paul writes: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” St. Paul did not write: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of how righteous and holy you are, made us alive together with Christ.” No! By the moving of the Holy Spirit St. Paul wrote the divinely inspired words: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” That applies to you. It applies to me.
We are saved by grace through faith. We are made alive together with Christ because of His mercy. Our sins are forgiven. No, we did not earn or merit this forgiveness - Jesus did. We receive this forgiveness that Jesus earned for us through faith. Faith is the hand that takes hold of the gift given by God. Faith simply receives. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling” we sing. “By grace you have been saved through faith”
It does not happen inside us – it happens outside us. Just as we say in the Small catechism in the explanation to the third article of the Creed: “I believe cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” This is not something we “muster up” from within ourselves, this is not something we come up with in our minds or by reason – it happens outside of us, it happens to us by the grace of God.
One of the great theological terms we can learn is the Latin term extra nos – “outside ourselves” Our salvation comes not from anything in us – it comes from outside us – it is GIVEN to us. We receive it by grace through faith.
Notice in the following who is the active participant and who is receiving:
We are baptized and in that blessed water God reaches out to us, makes us part of His family, washes us of our sins, and grants us the Holy Sprit
We are called to faith and into the family of God, the Church, by the Holy Spirit and in that Church we hear the Word of God - In response to the Word of God we confess our sins and believe the Gospel
God, through the Office of the pastor, speaks His Words of forgiveness in the Absolution and when God speaks He accomplishes what He says – the forgiveness of your sins
God comes to you in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, His Body and Blood, feeding and nourishing you in your faith and forgiving your sins
It is God acting in all these ways for your benefit. It is God coming to you and giving you what you need - Faith. Forgiveness. Love. Mercy. Grace. Extra nos. It is outside you. It is given to you. Receive it dear Christian with thanksgiving and joy.
But maybe you are beginning to ask: “But what about me? Can’t I do something?” Yes. After God has acted, after He has made you alive together with Christ, after you have received from God’s gracious and bountiful hand – you can say “thank you.” We can “pray, praise, and give thanks” as the Small Catechism instructs us. And we do this with hearts, and hands, and voices, as we sing in the hymn. How are you saying thank you in your life?
Friends, receive from God His incredible gifts. That is why He has called us together here this morning – so that He might give to you what you need through His Word and Sacrament. Let’s rejoice in the good news of the Gospel. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is simple. It is clear. Thanks be to God!