Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.
My favorite movie has a plot familiar to most fantasy stories – the most beautiful woman in the land, destined to marry the prince, has been kidnapped. As the bad guys escape with her across the sea, a mysterious stranger, dressed in black, pursues them. At every turn, as the stranger keeps up with them, despite the traps they set... and every time, the leader of the bad guys exclaims “Inconceivable!” At one point, one of his henchmen says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
If you are familiar with the rest of the movie – I’m taking about the great cult 80s classic “The Princess Bride” – you’ll remember that this is a different kind of fairy tale - the princess doesn’t want to marry the prince and the prince turns out to be the bad guy. As it turns out, the mysterious man is an infamous pirate, but he is also the princess’s actual true love. He pursues her and overcomes every obstacle to rescue here… perhaps a bit similarly to the mother bunny who assures her child that there is nothing that he can do to outrun her love (I read The Runaway Bunny for the children's sermon). …which if course is exactly like the love that God has for each of us, God’s beloved children.
All through Lent, we have been exploring the depths of God’s love and how far that love will go for us.... and today we have the mother of all Bible verses about love to explore, don’t we?
If someone in your daily life stopped you and asked you to recite a Bible verse by memory, I would be willing to bet that you could do a decent job with John 3:16, right? This is a pretty familiar one. We see it a lot of places OUTSIDE the church, too – like sporting events and billboards - and hear it quoted in books and movies often enough. But, do we have something in common with the lead bad guy in the Princess Bride in our misunderstanding of the familiar? Do we understand the wealth that is contained in these twenty-eight words? Does this verse mean what we think it means?
Supposedly the whole Bible, and the whole Christian faith, is boiled down to this one verse. Martin Luther once said that this is the whole Gospel in miniature. But unfortunate, how our chosen readings for today are selected might make us forget that this one verse – as important as it is – does not exist floating around by itself in a vacuum.
Like famous sayings that we love to misquote, what happens when we put the word of John 3:16 back in Jesus mouth, where they belong? What happens when we put these words back into the Gospel of John in it’s entirety?
John 3 begins right where last week's Gospel reading left off. Jesus has just driven the money changers and all the animals being sold at unfair prices out of the temple, throwing over tables and chasing people out with whips … all very dramatic, if you recall.
After this, a man came to talk to Jesus named Nicodemus. A Pharisee and a leader of Jews, Nick here was part of a group that was against Jesus… and yet, here Nick was, wanting to have an in-depth conversation about who and what Jesus is. Nick even admitted “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who as come from God; for no one can do these signs (he means the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple) apart from the presence of God.” Jesus’s response to this could be a paraphrase out of Princess Bride – Jesus is not exactly who Nick THINKS Jesus is. Jesus is not just a rabbi, or someone who does signs. Jesus is the son of God, sent to save the world.
John 3:16, as it turns out, is only one small part of a larger conversation – well, fairly one-sided really, since Jesus ends up doing most of the talking – that ranged all over the map, from being born from above, the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, the judgement of God, believe in Jesus, light and darkness. Most of which goes over poor Nick’s head… and over ours too.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is continually opening wide the horizons of people’s notions about God. It is here in John, that Jesus says all of his famous “I am” statements:” I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the way, the truth, and the life.
In John, his gospel starts in such an epic way as to emulate the great poem at the beginning of Genesis itself: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the word of God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth.”
In John, Jesus gives hope and living water to the woman at the well, and she opens her mouth to testify to this encounter. Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and calls him out of the darkness of death. On the last night Jesus spends before his crucifixion, he humbles himself among his followers – the very ones who would later betray, deny, and abandon him - and washed their sweaty, travel-worn feat.
All through John, Jesus challenges people to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the fact that the Word of God became flesh and was walking among them.
But why did Jesus come to us in this way? And what did Jesus arrive here to do? Perhaps that is why we cling to John 3:16 so much, because we get a who, why, and how… which are actually pretty few and far between in the Bible.
Who did God send? Well, that would be God’s son Jesus…. But to whom did God send the son? Jesus says to Nicodemus… and to us… and to the whole world…. God loved the whole world, just to certain people in the world … not just people who have seem to have it all together, or who mentally subscribe to all the right doctrines, or even just for those who come to church every single Sunday. The whole world MEANS the whole world, and Jesus proved that in every part of John’s Gospel.
Why did God send Jesus? “So that …. whoever believes in him... may have eternal life.” And, dare we go past verse 16 into verse 17, we find out that what God has in store for us is NOT judgement, but instead that we might be rescued through our rescuer, SAVED through our SAVIOR Jesus. Saved, that is, so that we may have eternal life NOW. Present tense. Not just for some far-off time when we need to reserve our place in heaven. Not someday, in the sweet by-and-by. Eternal and abundant life happens NOW. We get to truly live before we die AND after we die.
How we can participate in this eternal life gets a bit tricky. Jesus tells us, “all who believe” in him may have this eternal life. All throughout John’s Gospel, and all throughout Jesus’s life, belief is not a box that gets checked off. Belief is a road that is created by walking in the footsteps of where Jesus has gone before us. Believe in Jesus is actually a verb, and action, a way of life, where we live as Jesus lived, and we choose love over hate, we choose compassion over fear, we choose to place our hope in the coming dawn rather than trust that the night of sin and brokenness have the final say.
Inconceivable, you might be tempted to think, as we sit here in our own dark times and dark nights, even as dawn has come an hour earlier because of Daylight Savings. Well, perhaps that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. Perhaps we don’t have to fully conceive to believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.