Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 15, 2015

2015.03.15 Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes – Love – John 3: 14 – 21

Central United Methodist Church
Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes? 
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 14 – 21
March 15th, 2015


And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“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.

“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. 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. 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 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.” – John 3: 14 – 21, New Revised Standard Version

BlueMarbleThe Blue Marble, it is called. The Blue Marble is a photograph of earth taken from space on December 7, 1972, by the crew of Apollo 17, at a distance of about 28,000 miles. It was not the first clear image taken of Earth, since similar shots from satellites had been made as early as 1967, but it is one of the few to show a fully illuminated Earth, as the astronauts had the sun behind them when they made the picture. To them, Earth had the appearance and size of a glass marble, and hence the name. The photograph is one of the most famous and widely distributed photographs in history; because – for the first time in human history – here was a stunning photograph demonstrating Earth’s frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space.

We should probably take a minute to reflect upon this photograph, for three reasons: First, because it is stunning; secondly, to put into perspective our privilege as citizens of spaceship earth, and thirdly, because it makes what we heard in this morning’s Gospel even more surprising – that God, the Creator of the universe, so loved the world and all its inhabitants – people and creatures, plants and animals – that God was willing to give us Jesus the Christ, that no one might perish but have abundant, overflowing, eternal life.

Surely, if God loved the world so much and gave Jesus to demonstrate that love, then those of us who follow Jesus must demonstrate this same self-giving love in our lives as well. Love then – along with discipline, sacrifice, and passion – would be the fourth quality in this year’s Lenten series: “Following Jesus: Do We Have What It Takes?” At least, according to one of our favorite verses in the Bible, John 3:16.

If you were to ask someone on the street to quote a Bible verse – any Bible verse – quite likely you would get a blank look.  But if you were to ask them to name a Bible verse, quite likely they would say, “John 3:16.” It’s the perfect bumper sticker, and fits well on a sign to hold up at a football or baseball game. For some Christians, John 3:16 has become a way to reduce and simplify the Gospel of Jesus to a bumper sticker or sound bite. (Lance Pape, Working Preacher, March 15, 2015)

In some ways, it is justified. After all, in this conversation in John chapter 3 between Jesus and the Jewish teacher Nicodemus, Jesus does offer a kind of summary of God’s purposes for the world. Keep in mind, however, as you read your “red letter” Bible, in which the words of Jesus are marked in red, it is not clear exactly where Jesus’ words end and the author of John’s Gospel begins. And in any case – whether it is Jesus speaking or the author of the Gospel – he does “zoom out” here – kind of like we do when we look at the photograph of the Blue Marble – to offer a summary of what God is doing in the world, and even more importantly, why God is doing it. Eugene Peterson comes closer to getting the emphasis in the text right as he translates it in The Message:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

But – on closer examination – as usually the case with bumper-sticker theology – our favorite verse is less clear than we imagine.

Even the context suggests the simple truth about God’s purposes is not simple enough to be cross-stitch worthy, but confusing and even troubling, which was the way Nicodemus experienced it. All that stuff about being “born again” or “born from above,” about the wind blowing where it will, what’s that about? Then there’s that mention of snakes in the wilderness, a reference to an obscure verse in Numbers, (which we read earlier). What possibly could our favorite Bible verse have to do with snakes – definitely one of my least favorite things. Indiana Jones once expressed my sentiments exactly: “Snakes – why did it have to be snakes?”

And then – there it is: “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.” What is it about this simple Good News that we don’t understand?

The answer is, “Where do we want to start?”

In the interest of time, I’ll ignore that little three-letter word, GOD, assuming we are mostly talking about the same thing when we talk about HER, right?

And then, what about love, that word that we throw around so glibly. What can we make of a word we use to talk about our favorite dessert or drink and our spouses and sex and beautiful sunsets, and occasionally – the way we feel about our neighbors, if not our enemies. Did you know that the use of our word English word “love” only goes back to about the 12th century, likely stretching back to the Sanskrit word “lubhyati,” (“he desires”)?

Diane Ackerman, in her 1994 book, A Natural History of Love, expresses it well when she says:

“What a small word we use for an idea so immense and powerful it has altered the flow of history, calmed monsters, kindled works of art, cheered the forlorn, turned tough guys to mush, consoled the enslaved, driven strong women mad, glorified the humble, fueled national scandals, bankrupted robber barons, and made mincemeat of kings. How can love’s spaciousness be conveyed in the narrow confines of one syllable?” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of Love, 1994)

Next – whatever this thing called love is – who and what exactly is it that God loves? White Protestants? American Protestants and Catholics? All religious people? Everybody who has ever lived? That Blue Marble hanging in space? You know what the word used is: “cosmos;” God loved the “cosmos.” Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, all space, in short, the universe; the whole cosmos, God loves it! (Except maybe snakes, but that’s just me). And why not? After all, God created it.

To use language we understand, God has become so attached to it, so desires our happiness and fulfillment, that God gave God’s Beloved Son, that whoever believes in him. . .

Wait – “believes” – what does that mean? To intellectually know and assent to the facts of the case? Do you know we have wrongly translated and understood that, since the early translations of English Bibles? What the underlying Greek word and grammar means is not to “believe”, as in “to assent to something,” as we understand it in English, but something more like “belove”, a word coming from the same roots, which means to put our trust and confidence in Christ as Lord and to follow him, which means – yep – to love as he loved.

Just as we take the long view when we look at earth from space, this verse in John’s Gospel takes the long view of who Jesus was and what he did, how he demonstrated God’s love in the world. Because the problem with love is that it’s an ethereal concept, which only gets fleshed out in actual words and deeds. So the way Jesus was born, in a manger at Bethlehem first announced to shepherds, that demonstrated God’s love. The way Jesus lived, what he said and how he lived and whom he hung out with, that demonstrated God’s love. Even the way he died: that too was an extreme demonstration of the love of God for the cosmos, the world, and all of us who inhabit it. His resurrection was God’s vindication of the way of love – not just over evil – but all the other ways of living in the world.  This is what we believe, Jesus was God’s love made real.

In 1962, German theologian Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the 20thcentury, visited the University of Chicago, and spoke in Rockefeller Chapel. During the Question & Answer time after his lecture, a student asked Barth if he could summarize his life’s work in theology in a single sentence. Barth said, “Yes I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

What about us? Love: do we have it? Can we do it? The kind of love we’re talking about is not a feeling; it is words and deeds expressed in action. What we may be surprised to find is, that when we love people in this way, the feelings will follow.

It is a love that encompasses not just our friends and our family and our people, but all our neighbors, whether they live down the street or on the other side of the planet – which, as we can see on The Blue Marble – is not that far away. Love can mean tending to their bodies and their souls, but it can also mean working for peace and justice. Love can mean caring for individuals, person by person, but it can also mean caring for the planet, which will have a greater effect upon the quality of life of future generations than we can imagine. We may say, “What can I do about any of these things; I’m just a tiny speck on that big Blue Marble?” Remember the words of Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things, with great love.”

Nobody ever said it was easy; even Jesus got nailed to a cross for it. But at work, at school, in the hospital, even at home, don’t get embroiled in the same old personality conflicts and struggle of “me vs you;” take a step back, and look at your co-worker or classmate or neighbor not only from the perspective of The Big Blue Marble, but from John 3:16: another needy person, who happens to be our temporary neighbor on this planet as we ride it on our brief adventure through space, another person for whom God gave his Son.  This changes our perspective.

I have always loved (there’s that word again) how Robert Kennedy once expressed it:

“But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can. ”

As for that photograph of The Blue Marble, Apollo 17 was the last manned lunar mission; so no human has been far enough from Earth to take such a picture since, although whole Earth images have been taken by unmanned missions. Such as this one of the Earth from Mars, which provides us with an even more startling perspective.  Or this one, an artist’s rending not only of our planet Earth, but our entire solar systems place in our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Is it possible that God could love this tiny speck in space, including those of us privileged to live our brief shining lives in its light and warmth?

Is it possible God loves us so much to become one with us, to live and die and rise from the dead among us?

Is it possible that we who are the inhabitants of this planet – and specifically those of us who call ourselves Christian – could practice in our lives what the Creator practiced not only in birthing us, but in redeeming us, which is self-giving love? Only time will tell. Not only our future, but the future of the human race and the planet depends upon it.  Amen.


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