March 12, 2017 – To save the world

Lent 2    March 12, 2017   Psalm 121, Genesis 12:1-4, Romans 4:1-5,13-17;

John 3:1-17  To save the world

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Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. And maybe he’s had a long hard day. Nighttime might be the only time he has to get away from all his duties… and come, see Jesus… But…

John’s gospel is famous for its night and day, dark and light contrasts – between those who see Jesus for who he really is, and those who don’t…

So it’s more likely this dark of night setting is a not-very-subtle sign of misunderstanding… As Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, comes to Jesus by night. Representing not only himself, but also others like him – who, on the one hand, are attracted to Jesus, on the other hand, reluctant to be seen with Jesus. (Who has begun to have a reputation as both an amazing Godly guy – and also as a potentially dangerous radical with a reputation for rocking boats…)

It’s also possible Jesus has been having a long day… He may be a little less patient than usual today with this after-hours visitor, as he responds to a respectful-sounding greeting – (Rabbi, all the stuff you’re doing – you’ve got to be from God)… But here’s Jesus, cutting his visitor off, almost mid-sentence, saying “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born anew.” The phrase (“born anew”) also means “born from above…” But either way, Nicodemus really doesn’t get it. And Jesus seems deliberately provocative now – challenging Nicodemus to deal with the radical nature of Jesus’s mission. Telling him –

‘The Kingdom of God is about everything made new. Born anew. Born from above. Its about new birth…Flesh, blood, water, Spirit… ’ But Nicodemus isn’t getting his drift… And Jesus questions his credentials as a leader – (are you really a teacher of Israel?) – as he goes into deep-theological-reflection-mode, building, with a reference back to the book of Numbers, building up to – “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.”

And this is the last we hear from Nicodemus. (At least till he resurfaces again in John 7 and again in John 19, where we see him again in cameo appearances, again in dark place, but now starting to see the light…)

Meanwhile, this conversation isn’t over even though Nicodemus is silent. Jesus is still talking…Speaking the most famous verse in the whole bible… But John 3:16 is not the last word from Jesus. And there’s more in this conversation than we can unpack in the time we have… But I’d like for us to spend the time we do have today mostly considering the verse that comes right after the famous verse, “For God so loved the world…”

Noticing how, in this last verse today (John 3:17), we hear yet another, even stronger confirmation of God’s love for the world – the whole world.

And yet God’s love for the world – especially as expressed in John 3:16 – is of course sometimes taken for granted. (Good old, good old-boy Jesus. This week I heard a song video on You Tube called “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16″ – a portrayal of Jesus as American icon, next to a classic American tractor and classic aging rock singer… pop culture trinity made simple…)… And with some of the weirdly over-familiar ways the verse John 3:16 has morphed into a virtual gospel subculture all its own – perhaps we are now in a cultural place in time in which God’s love for the world is often taken for granted in not-so helpful ways…

If so – we do well to be remembering…

This world God so loves is still the very same world that so often hates and opposes Jesus. The more so, the more the world sees what Jesus is up to – as he challenges all our sacred cows and golden calves.

Yet of course God really does so love this world… And the term “world” here in John’s gospel includes the physical world – but especially it’s John’s way of talking about the world system. The way the world works. “This filthy rotten system,” as Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, liked to call it. This well-established ancient world system, in which so many go hungry while others aggressively accumulate power, possessions, and privileges – All the things Jesus said no to when tempted by the devil. (Things that can be heavenly, if shared properly. Things which become demonic when hoarded for personal advantage.)

And knowing all about the world, knowing all about those who oppose him – still Jesus goes on to say (NIV translation this time), “Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world – but to save the world through him.” God’s plan in the sending of Jesus is nothing less than to save all the world…

So what does this mean for us?

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So – here is where we see – who God really is.

But – can we really believe a love this deep? Believe God’s love knows no bounds – and includes everyone everywhere?

Sometimes I do believe. Sometimes I hear Jesus and say Alleluia.

Other times, I struggle to believe what Jesus says. Struggle to let what he says change my patterns of thought. Part of me would like nothing better than to believe that God will eventually save everyone. Another part of me has a list of people I’d much rather see saved (if this should be God’s will) at a safe distance – on another planet, light years away…

Because if I believe everything Jesus tells us here about the breadth and depth of God’s love…This changes everything. The love of God beyond limits… is the ultimate game-changer.

Wonderfully comforting on one hand… As Philip Yancey has written in his book What’s So Amazing About Grace – It is utterly astounding to realize – God’s love is deep enough, strong enough so that there really is actually nothing you or I or anyone can ever do – that could ever stop God from loving us – even just the way we are…And…

If God so loves the world – even in spite of all the world’s hatred, disrespect, and ignoring of God… This means God’s love is always there – for me and you and everyone – no matter what. Amazingly great good news.

Yet, on the other hand, if God’s love is unlimited, even by anything we do or don’t do… This doesn’t make life easier. If anything, it makes life more difficult.

If God loves even terrorists, serial killers, and delusional worldly leaders – doesn’t this also mean we should love them too? ‘You’ve got to be kidding, Lord,’ is still often my first response, whenever I ponder the implications of God’s love from this angle…

Now of course pretty soon I’m reminded – Jesus isn’t saying we have to like everyone… Isn’t saying we should agree or make nice with everyone.

But if Jesus is saying – as he sure seems to be – that we too should love everyone, as our heavenly Father loves us… (Remembering, if we need a second opinion, how, in the sermon on the mount in Matthew’s gospel, we also hear Jesus telling us, ‘love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…)

If Jesus is saying we’re supposed to always have the mind of Christ in us, always love the world the way he does… There are going to be times when, like Nicodemus, I’m going to be catching myself, saying, “How can these things be?” This kind of faith can feel like it’s way above my pay grade…

And again, Jesus is not done with this conversation… And as we read on, and keep listening… We hear in the next few verses after where we’re stopping today…How Jesus goes on to say – some people will so insist on rejecting the light that they will find their way into condemnation. This condemnation (please notice) won’t be from Jesus, won’t be from God… For (as we have been told–) God really did not send the Son to condemn the world, but to save the world…

But there is such a thing as self-condemnation. And if we insist long enough, stubbornly enough… We might succeed in sentencing ourselves to condemnation… God might eventually let us go there…out of respect for our free will…If we continue to insist… (And now I’m remembering… how…)

Back in my hippy days long ago, I hung out in Eastern religions for a couple years. And I’m remembering now how Hindus and Buddhists believe in being born again, big time. As in born again and again and again…in an unending cycle of reincarnations, according to karma. Depending on whatever we have done or not done in life, we will be reborn again and again (so it is believed…) either better off or worse off than we were…

Which can sound pretty good when you’re 19, and feeling like life is good and only going to get better… Feeling like hey, I’m a pretty good person, doing pretty good stuff – and maybe in my next life time I can be a little better off. More spiritual and more successful. Maybe like Hobbes the tiger in Calvin and Hobbes – next time I might get to be a saxophonist in an all-girl band…

One of my theme songs in those days of old was a song we learned in kindergarten – “Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar. And be better off than you are… You could be swinging on a star….”

But then as I got a little older, a little more self-aware…I began remembering…some of the less-good, more-awful, even rather despicable things… I had also managed to do… Now the soundtrack was still that same old song – but now I was hearing more the verse that goes – “Or would you rather be a pig? A pig is an animal with dirt on his face….he’s dirty, etc, etc and very, very rude….  And if you don’t care a feather or a fig – you might grow up to be a pig.

And who knows? If we’re not ready to commit to Jesus, but we’d like to be born again… and again… Maybe pigging out on whatever takes our fancy… could be an option… Though I’d have to say – buyer beware. No guarantees or warranties, implied or otherwise, come with that option… And in one sense we should be aware there is a certain reality to reincarnation theory, in that we do become in each next moment what we have been practicing in each moment before… We do create our futures… by the ways in which we live our present…

And the tension between God’s obvious clearly stated passionately persistent love for the whole world, and God’s equally clearly stated intention to save the world –all on the one hand – and – our humanly-created ability to opt-out of God’s love and fall into self-condemnation on the other hand – Well? Isn’t this tension also straight from God’s word?

Isn’t it true that this tension between God’s pure love and intent to save all – and our proven ability to flee from God’s love… is a life-saving and life-enhancing tension that we need to maintain in all our hearing of the gospel…and all our living by God’s word…?

Remembering scripture tells us God’s desire is that none should perish, but all be saved (2nd Peter 3)… And for all who believe – meaning learn to trust in God, trust in Jesus – nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8)… And remembering only God knows final outcomes…

Isn’t it true – we do best to pray always, for the saving of all this world God still loves…?

We do best to love always, as God so loves us…

For this is the word of God for all the people of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.