John 3:14-21, “For God so loved the world . . . .”
If you grew up in a church setting, you probably know the rest of this by heart. Although, depending on what church and when you grew up, you may say it with all of the “begotten” and “ believeth” language rather than some more modern translations. But no matter the words we recite, we have heard this message again and again. “For God so loved the world . . . .” For many of us this sums up the gospel, the good news about Jesus. These verses tell us that God is good, that God wishes good things for us, that God loves us unconditionally. But no matter how many times we say this verse, no matter how many times we read it together, no matter what translation we have memorized, we struggle to know that this verse is really for us. The other struggle is to understand that this verse is for everyone. “For God so loved the WORLD . . . .”
Well the world wasn’t there the night that Nicodemus went to see Jesus. This scene with Nicodemus is the setting, the context for these verses from John. You see, Jesus was talking to Nicodemus and attempting to get this point across to him. Nicodemus was asking questions about who Jesus was and what he was teaching. This Nicodemus was a teacher himself among the Jewish leaders. It makes sense then that he came to Jesus at night to ask his questions, to seek to know Jesus. There was some risk for a Jewish religious leader to come to Jesus. And Jesus tells Nicodemus of the love of God for him, for everyone, and for a world that does not honor the values of God. Jesus talks about a world that is perishing and a God who is offering life instead of death. And Nicodemus has a hard time understanding all of this.
And it is hard to understand. Many of us are asked to make judgments every day. We may be asked in our jobs or at school or at home to make decisions about what is good and what is not.
Is this the right person for my daughter or son to date?
Am I going to hang out with that person that no one else seems to like very much?
Our world is set up with certain values that tell us that this is the right shirt to wear and this is not. This is the right vehicle to drive and this is not. These are the right people, and these others are not. And we all are asked to live in that world. And if the values of that world are to make as much money as you can, the pressure is on you to do so. But if the values of your God are to give as much as you can, then you are in a quandary; you are in a pickle, so to speak. But the words of this text challenge us by saying that God did not give Jesus to the world in order to condemn it, to judge it, to destroy it. God gave Jesus to the world so that the whole world might have life, might be saved, might not perish. This is not a God who is in the business of condemning; this is a God who is trying to reconcile the whole world to God. This God is loving us and asking us to believe in that love.
But believing in love is hard to do sometimes.
When my wife and I lived in Richmond, Virginia, we adopted our first dog together. Her name is Lucy, this black and tan, basset hound and dachshund and beagle and God-only-knows mutt. People ask us what kind of dog she is; we reply, “She is a Lucy.” But when we first adopted her, it was like we were new parents or something. We went to the pet store and bought a spacious kennel that had a top over it for her to sleep in. The kennel is called a FURR-ari, after the car . . . seriously! We put a pillow inside of it so that she would be comfy, just did what we could for this dog who was going to be coming into our home. Lucy was five years old when we adopted her. She had five years in homes that we did not know about. But it became clear that in those homes she had been mistreated. Lucy was not at all friendly. To be accurate, she was slightly friendlier to women than men, but not especially friendly to either one. And in the beginning, when I came into the room with so much as a piece of paper in my hand, Lucy would scurry off to her kennel, her safe place, for fear that I was about to hit her. I would never have hit her, but she did not know that. She never growled at us and never barked. It might have been less pitiful if she had. She just sat in the kennel and would not come out unless we reached in and pulled her out. She was just that scared. I honestly wasn’t quite sure that she would ever come out of that kennel when we first adopted her. But Dena thought she would eventually come out, “if we love her enough,” Dena would say.
But it can be hard to believe in love.
In the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, he writes about having a class with his professor, Morrie, about twenty years before. It was a class called “group process”; and in that class the students were asked to study their reactions to different exercises. Well one of the exercises involved wrapping your arms around your chest and falling backwards toward someone who was designated to stand behind you and catch you. Just imagine, you are to hold your arms in, so that there is no way you are going to be able to stop yourself or break your fall if that person behind you changes their mind or something. You are just supposed to fall. The author tells how person after person starts to do it, starts to fall, and then stops themselves after maybe going a few inches. Then this one woman wraps her arms around herself, closes her eyes, and falls. Another student catches her just in time, grabbing her arms under her shoulders just in time to keep her from hitting the floor.
The teacher of the class smiles and says to them, “You see, you closed your eyes. That was the difference. Sometimes you cannot believe what you see, you have to believe what you feel. And if you are ever going to have other people trust you, you must feel that you can trust them too—even when you are in the dark. Even when you are falling . . . .”
Henri Nouwen writes that sometimes we assume that God’s love is like the love of other people in our lives. We assume that God’s love has limits, that it is tied to something else, that we have to earn it in some way. We mix up the love we expect from God with the love we have known from human beings. This is a misunderstanding, this is not really trusting the love that God has given us.
“God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
But sometimes I think we have a hard time trusting God’s love because this is a world of pain. We experience sickness, loss, and death. These are things in our lives that challenge us and challenge our trust in a good and loving God. But one thing that we can learn from this story of Moses and the snakes and the people in Numbers 21:4-9 is that sometimes we have to face the pains that are in our lives in order to move through them. Sometimes we have to acknowledge the pain caused by others, the pain that we have caused ourselves, the pain that has been ours due to death and losses in our lives.
Sometimes we have to face this snake that has bitten us. And in this story from Numbers, it is through facing the pain that they were healed.
In the gospels, it is through facing the love of one who would be killed, who would die on a cross for you that brings us new life. To misunderstand that love or to not acknowledge that love is to continually live in a world where you are condemned already. You are judged by everyone you meet. You will always want the perfect car, the perfect body, the relationship that someone else has, the family that someone else has. You will always live in hell and despair.
To know the love of God for you is to know that God loves you deeply. That is a light that fills your heart with peace despite the trials in your life. That is a light that allows you to know God’s great love for you so that you can show that love to others. But it takes courage to push through the pain in our lives, trusting that God is there with us. But there is such healing available when we trust God. There is such peace when we know that this God loves us no matter what. This is a God who loved us first. This is a God who so loved the whole world that God gave us Jesus.