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OMG! We’ve Got to Quit Using John 3:16 as a Threat! (March 11, 2018)

Here’s my goal in this sermon. I want you to dislike John 3:16. You may have it memorized, or are familiar with it. Chances are good you’ve at least heard it, “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.”

I’m not trying to get you to dislike it because I’m just mean (not too much anyway). But I want you to dislike it because the way that it is normally used is not only contrary to the message of John’s gospel, but to the entirety of the scriptural witness in Jesus. Far too often this text is used as a threat or a weapon (believe, or else!). John uses it as part of a call to action!

So really, my goal is not to make you dislike the verse, but dislike how it’s been used to convey a message that counters God’s mission in the world, counters the role of Jesus, and counters the call of the church.

Let’s take a step back and consider the gospel of John as a whole. The author was part of a small Jewish believers-in-Jesus that had been expelled from their local synagogue. They were being harassed and persecuted by their neighbors for continuing to push Jesus-as-Messiah. Regardless of how much they try to convince the majority group that Jesus is the one chosen by God, they continue to be harassed over it.

And, perhaps, some of that persecution is beginning to work. This gospel was written first of all to a small minority group of Jewish believers in order to encourage them to continue Jesus’ mission even though they are being persecuted for it. Their life witness of self-giving sacrifice is the way they reveal Jesus as Messiah, bringing light into a dark world. Following in the way of Jesus of Nazareth is their purpose as a group.

Like pretty much any verse, if we look at John 3:16 as an isolated verse, separated from the rest of John’s gospel, we’re gonna lose something, miss something, read something into it. And that’s exactly what has happened. We been taught in recent decades to put the emphasis on “everyone who believes” part. Meaning that if you, personally, believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for your sins, you’ve got yourself a bona fide ticket to heaven when you die. That is the last thing the author of this gospel ever intended. That thought never occurred to him.

He and his little community are facing all kinds of pressure to give up on following Jesus. In the midst of the daily persecution they are facing, they need encouragement to keep going if they are going to continue Jesus’ mission of being light in the darkness.

For this community, the author is saying, Jesus is lifted up, like the bronze serpent in the first reading, for healing. Not as a punishment for sin or anything else, but as a sign which provides healing and life. Jesus was given by God as a sign of God’s love for the world. Look on him and be renewed. See on the cross how far God’s love for the world actually goes. Let that love encourage you. See? God won’t give up. Keep trusting God whose loves for the whole world extends that far. That love is light in the darkness. The light has come into the world, and Jesus is the one chosen by God to shine that light.

If people understand the light of God’s love in the world, they will be drawn to Jesus. They will follow him and attempt to shine that same loving light. If they believe that light exposes darkness, that love drives out hate, that giving one’s self away defeats evil, they will come to the light that is Jesus.

But, the author writes, there are some who continue to believe that darkness doesn’t matter, or that it can’t be overcome, or maybe even that darkness is better. Those who believe that what hides in the darkness is tolerable won’t be drawn to the light of God’s love in Jesus. It’s not that they’re going to hell, it’s just that their opposition to you as disciples comes from a place of darkness, not light; a place that is hidden, not revealed; a place that won’t recognize Jesus as a sign of God’s loving light. Their persecution and opposition do not come from God’s love and therefore can’t rid the world of evil. Only love can do that. Jesus is the ultimate sign of that love. Keep believing that. Keep living that. Keep shining that light. Let the world see your acts of love.

John 3:16 is but one verse of a much larger piece that is a radical call to action. Believing in Jesus means trusting in God’s love as the response to evil. Believing in Jesus means trusting God’s love revealed in him so much that you are willing to follow the biggest sign of its presence—Jesus himself. “Everyone who believes in him” includes all those who will not hide in the darkness, but will give of themselves in love for the world.

That call to radical, loving action is still given in John. There are still those who love the darkness and hate the light. There are still those who do evil and keep their deeds hidden. But that is not the way of God. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son—not to condemn the world, but to save it. And you who recognize that, who believe that only love casts out evil, you will be the ones to overcome the evil of the world by loving the world. Jesus shows us the way. Jesus shines that light. Keep believing that. Keep loving with God’s far-reaching love. Keep on doing it in the face of persecution and harassment. Keep showing the world Jesus, who shows us what God’s love looks like. Because that’s where life is to be found.

God loves the world. Jesus shows how great that love is. Trust that. Believe that. Follow that. And shine that in the world. That is life in Jesus. That is life in God’s love. And that love never ends.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2018 in Sermon

 

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“When You’re Right, You Don’t Have to Listen to Anyone” [Sarcasm Warning] (March 12, 2017)

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.

The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who believes they know everything? Someone who won’t listen to your perspective because they believe they have all the answers? I heard someone say one time, “When you’re right, you don’t have to listen to anyone.”

That’s Nicodemus here. He, a leader in the Jewish Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus in the dark (one of the gospel-writer’s ongoing metaphors for “not getting it”). Yet, his comment to Jesus indicates he thinks he’s got it all together. “Rabbi, we know,” he says. “We know you are from God.” I’m representing a group of people who understand you. We’ve got this. We’re on board. We have it all together. It’s you and us, Jesus.

Yet the ensuing conversation reveals just the opposite. Nicodemus doesn’t get it at all. And he can’t seem to grasp the reality that he doesn’t get it. He simply can’t get that God’s perspective is so utterly different than his that he can’t begin, with his current awareness, to see it. And in order to even begin to understand, he has to start over, to be born into a new perspective. He would have to be born anew. Otherwise, he couldn’t even begin to understand anything.

It’s like this: I have always tried to keep a broad perspective and to be open to new ways of understanding on a variety of topics that matter to us. Different interpretations of scripture, perspectives on sexual orientation, religious starting places, and also racism.

But no matter how hard I thought about it, my perspective on race obviously always starts as a white person, a white male specifically. Although I believed I was non-racist (that has always been my intention), I am unable on my own to see life realities from the perspective of an African American, a Latino, a Muslim Arab, not to mention an Immigrant or a Refugee/Asylee.

When I began to listen to my Black friends, however (at least those with the patience to share with me), I heard a completely different perspective on race in America. My views on what life is like for African Americans had to start over. And even more so, my views on life as a European American had to start all over too.

Our Black sisters and brothers point out that the societal playing field isn’t level on a whole cultural level, and the overall power clearly favors whites (and always has in this country). There’s a whole cultural power structure involved that African Americans, in order to survive, are forced to be more attuned to. As a white person, it continues to be a long and slow learning process for me.

I had no idea. As hard as I had been trying, and as much as I wanted to, I needed others outside of my white view to share their perspective. It was like I had to start over, to be born into a different point of view. Regarding my views on race relations in America, I had to, in fact, be born anew. Otherwise, I couldn’t even begin to understand anything.

It’s when we quit listening, quit learning, quit being opened that we quit understanding. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of believing that when you’re right, you don’t have to listen to anyone.

This makes me wonder about where in my life I believe I’ve got it all together. Where in my faith do I believe I’ve got it all together. Where with God do I believe I’ve got it all together. Chances are, those are the areas where I’m in the dark. Those are the areas in which I may not be listening. Those are the areas where I need to be born from above.

I don’t think this is a text about how to get to heaven when you die. If it was, Jesus would be saying this to everyone. But it’s part of one conversation with one Pharisee. Rather, this is a text about how to see the Kingdom of God, how to see things from God’s perspective. Once you begin to see things from God’s perspective, you can begin to see what God is doing and be part of it.

I’ve learned over the years that especially when it comes to God, I don’t have all the answers. But here’s what I do know. The more I listen, the more my eyes are opened. The more I am opened to God’s perspective, the more I understand how differently God sees things. Which means the more I want to be see the Kingdom of God, the more I need to be born from above.

And there’s an overall direction to all of this. Consistently, every time I get my eyes opened, every time my perspective with God is changed, every time I am born from above, I see more and more that God includes those I exclude. I see more and more that God loves those I don’t. I see more and more that God values those I consider to be expendable.

Although I don’t know how to change racism in our culture, I do know that I have to continue to be open to the perspectives and experiences of my African American sisters and brothers. That means I will continue to change, to be renewed, to be born over again.

We don’t know whether Nicodemus ever got it. My hope is that he could experience a new perspective, and new awakening, a new birth. I hope in his lifetime he could finally begin to see the Kingdom of God, and be part of it.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2017 in Sermon

 

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John 3:16 is Not a Weapon! Sermon: 3/18/12 (Lent 4 B)

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

John 3:14-21

 I think I’ve figured out why the gospel of John is sooo not my favorite: there’s so much in it that it’s overwhelming. I prefer gospel writers that take a whole lot of verses to make one point, not take one verse to make a whole lot of points. John is deep, thick, rich, multi-faceted, and operates on several levels at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in this gospel. You just can’t read it quickly or superficially. If you think you understand the gospel of John, take a step back and look again. Because chances are you’re missing multiple layers that God can open up for you.

Which is why I’ve never been impressed by the “John 3:16” craze, which is one of the verses in this text. To take one verse out of John reduce it to a single, shallow, sometimes judgmental rallying cry not only does a tremendous disservice to the complexity of this gospel, but misses almost every layer of what John is conveying here. This isn’t a verse about trying to get people to believe in Jesus; and it’s especially not a verse threatening them if they don’t. It’s a verse that fits into a whole gospel, rich in its own context and overflowing in abundant grace. What was a word of hope and life for John’s little church overrun by Rome can quickly become a word of condemnation in our world where Christianity has long been a dominant institution.

But that’s not the part I’ve been wrestling with. We get so hooked on John 3:16 that we often miss the rest of this section. Verse 18 is the splinter in the bannister for me. 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.

“Those who do not believe are condemned already.” Seems harsh, doesn’t it? I think there are assumptions we make here that are simply too shallow for the gospel of John.

We have to understand that John’s little community was insignificant in its neighborhood. So the author making contrasts between those who believed and those who didn’t had very few consequences because it wasn’t a statement of power. But today, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries. From that position of power, we have used these words in John to exclude people, judge them, and coerce them.

John was attempting to encourage his overlooked little community to be faithful, to keep at it, to persevere in the face of overwhelming persecution. There is life eternal with Jesus, so hang in there. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to the darkness. Don’t let yourselves be separated from the community of faith. What was meant as encouragement for those inside the church has in our day become a word of judgment against those outside of it.

Here’s what concerns me about all this today: that we have settled for a superficial interpretation of this verse, and believe our own hype that we are on the inside track in God’s favor because we believe. If that’s not bad enough, I’m afraid those outside the church have only heard our shallow interpretation of this verse, and based on centuries of church power, have further reason to stay away from the church and the light of Jesus.

If we are to live out the gospel, we owe it to the world to dig a little bit deeper in order to be authentic to this text. We can’t afford to a shallow voice of condemnation and judgment. If the gospel message of forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity is to be lived by us, we can’t let a superficial understanding of one or two verses get in our way.

What John means as inspiration to those inside the church, we cannot use as judgment of those outside the church. You may has a little bit of an image problem around being judgmental.

In the face of a world power that was focused on destroying them, John encourages his tiny little church to hold on to their faith, to continue to trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to band together as believers without giving up hope. We can’t be true to this text when we make it nothing more than a benchmark of who’s in and who’s out.

Instead, John’s message of trust and encouragement is still for us. When faced with insurmountable odds, we encourage one another to continue to trust in the One who brings life out of death. I have a friend whose husband just died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). What astonishes me about her journey through his diagnosis, deterioration, and ultimately his death is that she continued to trust in the promises of the God of life. This isn’t because she’s so much more faithful than I would probably be, but because she, like John’s little church community, banded together with people of faith and clung to them. For her, these verses in John are not a relief that her husband was “inside,” believing in Jesus and therefore not condemned. Rather these verses are an encouragement that even in the face of death, when all else is falling away, the light of Jesus continues to shine brightly. And she can trust that. It is for her; it is for her husband; it is for us.

Our witness isn’t judgment of those outside the church. No, our witness is that no matter what we face, no matter how difficult or painful or shameful, the light of Jesus shines in truth and in life. As we encourage one another with the light of Christ, we are then a witness to the world—not in judgment, but in truth and love.

Don’t settle for judgment and condemnation. Seek the light of Christ, the truth of God’s love. For part of this text also includes verse 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. That is our witness. That’s what the world needs to hear. That’s what they need to see in us. Because that’s what we trust God has done for us.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Sermon

 

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