The Fourth Sunday in Lent (3/18/2012)

Lessons:Numbers 21:4-9 Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 Ephesians 2:1-10 St. John 3:14-21

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

St. John 3:14-21New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

John 3:17

While most Denver football fans want to talk about nothing but Peyton Manning these days, this weekend’s Gospel lesson has me thinking about Tim Tebow. During a college championship game in 2009, and a Denver Broncos win early this January, John 3:16, one of Tim Tebow’s favorite Bible verses (and the third verse of this weekend’s Gospel lesson), received the focus of football fans from coast to coast. It is often described as the best known or the most loved verse in the entire Bible. Tebow is not the only fan. Martin Luther himself, in the 16th Century, is said to have referred to this verse as “The Gospel in Miniature,” and “The Heart of the Gospel.”

I am reticent to speak on behalf of people I don’t even know, so I’ll refrain from universal declarations here, but I am struck by the fact that many people I know who have also identified this as their favorite verse, have been drawn to it by its simple, straightforward message. It is as if the 27 books of the New Testament, or the 89 chapters of the Gospel accounts can be boiled down to this one verse. Yet that sort of Gospel reductionism is always problematic, especially when it is dialed down even further to the four words at the center of this verse: “whoever believes in him.”

Contrary to how this verse is sometimes understood, it is not a formulae that communicates everything we need to embrace about the Gospel. In fact, it comes towards the end of a fascinating narrative about a Pharisee named Nicodemus. (As you prepare for this Sunday, I encourage you to study John 3:1-21.) This religious official, well schooled in theology and praxis, arrives on the scene with great certainty, yet soon is puzzled by Jesus' words. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” (verse 4) “How can these things be?” (verse 9) Nicodemus, this confident and experienced believer, soon finds out that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows. There is mystery in this story. The Spirit blows where it chooses, and there is no predicting when and how and where God will turn the heart of an unbeliever. (verse 8 )

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that this eternal life comes from a God who loves the whole world. (In the Greek: “the cosmos” — meaning not humans, not the church, but the whole of creation.) God’s reach goes far beyond what common wisdom might suggest, and what church doctrine might define. This verse is not so much about those who believe the right stuff, as it is about God who loves the whole cosmos.

For my money, if I was going to select a passage from John 3 to be displayed beneath my eyes, I might lean more towards verse 17 than 16: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” This exchange with Nicodemus doesn’t lead us to a formulae about what we must believe in order to be saved. Instead, it invites us in the awesome mystery of a loving God, whose passionate embrace of what has been created includes loving it enough to die for it. God’s relentless love is constantly chasing us down, embracing us with love, and transforming our lives. Now that’s the Gospel in miniature!

Oh, and Nicodemus? Eventually the Spirit blows him to a place he never could have anticipated. In John 19:20, Nicodemus approaches Pilate in broad daylight (with Joseph of Arimathea), and asks for the body of Jesus. For God so loved the world. Indeed! Amen.

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What does Nicodemus seem to want to learn from Jesus?
  2. What good news does Jesus share with Nicodemus?
  3. When did that good news find a place in Nicodemus’ heart?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. How has God’s love captured my heart, and strengthened my faith?
  2. When have I been aware of the Holy Spirit “blowing” through my life?
  3. In what ways does God’s love expand my understanding of what it means to be saved?