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On John 3:16
Reading for this service: John 3: 1-21
We’re sorry to have missed audio for Carla’s sermon due to a dead recorder battery. Here is her full text. Below, you may also download the PDF text file as usual.
A sermon preached by Carla Pratt Keyes
Ginter Park Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
January 28, 2018
Frances Taylor Gench, who teaches Bible down the street, suggests we be gentle with ourselves, if we approach today’s gospel with misgivings. John 3 is arguably the most “sloganized, billboarded, bumper-stickered chapter in the New Testament. It provides the rallying cry of ‘born again’ Christianity, as well as the New Testament’s most frequently quoted verse: John 3:16.” That is possibly the most famous verse in the entire Bible; it’s like the hit single everyone knows, even if they don’t listen to the rest of the album.
John 3:16 is so often referred to, this year I decided to Google it, to see how it’s been used recently. Amidst the advertisements for T-shirts featuring 3:16 and Bible studies related to 3:16 was a headline announcing that “Tim Tebow’s Shocking Story” about his “John 3:16 ‘Coincidence’” had gone viral. It was the first I’d heard. I decided to take a look! Turns out the story is old – though the “viral” sharing is new. Y’all know more about the NFL than I do, guaranteed, so you may have heard how, back in 2009, Tim Tebow felt led by God to write “John 3:16” under his eyes (actually on top of his eye black) for a championship football game. It caught lots of attention. Some 94 million people Googled 3:16 during the course of that game. This year’s story was about how, three years later, Tebow had been part of another big win, after which a colleague pulled him aside to point out a “shocking coincidence.” This colleague said, “Tim, it’s been exactly three years since you wrote John 3:16 under your eyes.” Cool, though Tim. But that wasn’t all! His colleague said, “During the game, you threw for 316 yards! Your yards per completion were 31.6. Your yards per rush were 3.16. The time of possession was 31.06. The ratings for the night were 31.6, and during the game 91 million more people Googled John 3:16! It’s the top thing trending on every platform!” Tebow was stunned. He said, here I’d been thinking “the night was about a football game. It really wasn’t. We serve such a big God.” Tim felt certain God had done something miraculous that night. And God would do it again. He said, “I just have to be willing to step out and say, ‘Here you go, God. I’m going to give you my fish and my loaves of bread and watch what [you do] with it.”
As I read the story, I noticed it was making me nervous, though a couple of weeks ago I actually spoke about moments like this that we think must be signs. “Signs” are big in the gospel according to John; they kindle belief, like the belief this “coincidence” deepened in Tim Tebow. I agree with everything Tebow concluded, too: that God is amazingly big . . . that, when we give God what we have, God can do wondrous things, even with small gifts. Tebow isn’t wrong! I realized his story was making me nervous because Tim Tebow himself makes me nervous. He’s been outspoken about his faith in ways I think are dangerous. His advocacy has been at odds with my advocacy. We play for very different “teams,” you could say. That’s why his video had not gone viral on my Facebook wall. Most of my friends want nothing to do with him.
I’ve spoken before about John 3:16, and the way it seems to divide people into different camps. There’s an insider/outsider thing happening, often, with this verse, because for some Christians it functions like a litmus test. If you know it and can say it a particular way, you’re in. If you can’t, you’re out. I’ve seen it on posters at street-corners and rallies and on college campuses. Do you know where you’re going? the signs ask. They don’t just mean today. They mean ultimately. Are you going to heaven or to hell? John 3:16. Because whoever believes in Jesus has a kind of ticket to heaven. And whoever does not believe might just be going to hell . . . . It bothers me, the way people have used this text to draw lines between themselves and others. It was kind of painful to realize that, in my reaction to Tebow’s story, I was doing much the same thing.
It’s human nature to draw lines, form groups, and distinguish ourselves from people with whom we disagree, and from people who threaten us. Actually some of the insider/outsider line-drawing that happens in relation to this particular verse can be traced to the gospel writer and the community for whom he wrote. The earliest Christians (the people to whom John wrote) often felt threatened and pushed to the outside. They were a minority in the ancient world. Their belief about God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ had alienated them from Judaism, which was the religion they’d been born into. And those first Christians were faced with the daunting task of carving out a new place for themselves in the world. They had to distinguish themselves from people like the Pharisees, like Nicodemus, who had cast them out of the synagogue. And that was hard for them to do.
That’s one of the reasons John wrote for them in such clear categories. He wanted to help those struggling Christians find their place and feel secure in that place. So John made it plain. There was above and below, day and night, light and dark, accepting or rejecting Jesus. When those early Christians read John’s stories and understood things that the characters in those stories didn’t understand, it reinforced their sense of being enlightened and of belonging to Christ. They needed that! To feel in (not always out).
So . . . you can see how a member of John’s community might read this story about Nicodemus and think, Oh, poor Pharisee just doesn’t get it. But I do! I’m gonna stick with Jesus. And that matters, you know? It may be hard, but life with Christ is worth it! They’d feel good about that. I think John (and Jesus!) would want them to feel good about their place with Christ – the safe and meaningful place he’s made for them. It’s good for us to feel that, too. But much about this story cautions us against using it to shut others out, while we celebrate Christ drawing us in.
The main thing, I think, it that John 3:16 makes it clear God loves insiders and outsiders, both – that for God, actually, there’s no in-group or out-group. As Tebow suggested: our God is too big for that. For God so loved the world. In the Greek, it is the cosmos God loves; it means heaven and earth – all created things. As Jesus’ story unfolds in John, we see how the cosmos is beautiful and worth cherishing, but at the same time fallen and corrupt. This is the world that misunderstands and fails to recognize Jesus. The world where darkness is powerful, and evil threatens everything. The world that rejects and crucifies Christ. To say God loves it is not to say God thinks it is all so wonderful (like, “the cosmos can do no wrong”). It’s to say that God treasures the world – even in all its messy complexity and brokenness and rebelliousness.
It isn’t just a feeling, the way God loves the world. It’s a choice. It’s a commitment. Like walking your dog on a rainy day is a commitment, or showing up at work on a Monday morning is a commitment. God’s love is a choice for the world. God shows God’s determination to stick with the world, to heal the world, and finally to save the world. God so loves the world. Related to that, I guess, is a third thing I should say about God’s love for the world – that we can’t win it, and we can’t lose it. It’s gift God freely gives.
There are no winners or losers, when it comes to the love of God. There are no insiders or outsiders. God’s love is for evangelicals and liberals, for Jews and Christians and Muslims and all manner of believers and unbelievers. God’s love is for Republicans and Democrats, for citizens and unauthorized immigrants, for people we like, people who make us nervous, and people we just hate. God is big. God’s love is all-inclusive. That’s central to this story.
Also evident in this story are some big ideas about belief – bigger than we typically imagine. Because often in relation to this text, people get the impression that believing in Jesus Christ (and securing Christ’s salvation) is as simple as signing a pledge or praying a particular prayer. But this story points to something more complex.
“For God so loved the world, God gave God’s only son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life.” Jesus said that either to Nicodemus, or just after he left. It is definitely in response to that encounter with Nicodemus. Notice the verbs. The first couple of verbs in the verse show completed action. God loved the world. God gave the son. Done and done. But the verb for believing is different. In the Greek you see it even more clearly than you do in English: it’s a tense that shows on-going action. Believing, here, is continuous. It progresses. It’s a process.
And for Nicodemus it certainly does seem like a process! Here in chapter 3, he walks away from Jesus puzzled. Maybe he understood some of what Jesus had been saying. Not all of it. Not enough to stay or to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. But enough to stay engaged, because this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Nicodemus. He shows up two more times in the gospel according to John. The first is in chapter 7, when the chief priests and Pharisees have sent out police to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus defends Jesus in front of his fellow Pharisees. He insists that Jesus be accorded due process under the law. That’s not a clear profession of faith in Jesus, but it shows that Nicodemus is willing to act for Jesus – to speak up for Jesus. That’s more than some of the disciples manage to do.
Then he reappears after the death of Jesus. Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea,
whom the gospel says is “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he was afraid of the
Jews.” Together they wrap and bury the body of Jesus in a garden tomb. Nicodemus
brings an expensive gift to the grave – a mixture of myrrh and aloes, a hundred pounds of
it! His gift is too weird and too late, according to some. On the other hand, it’s a gift! It
shows Nicodemus wanting to be in a relationship with Jesus. And also: these are gifts for
a king! You could see in this story Nicodemus acknowledging Jesus as king.
There’s no way to be sure, but Nicodemus certainly seems to grow in his understanding of Jesus. More important, though, he shows us that believing in Jesus may not just be an intellectual thing. We see Nicodemus stand up for Jesus. We see him say uncomfortable things to his friends about Jesus, even suffering some ridicule because of Jesus. Then he does something for Jesus; he gives a tangible gift to Jesus. These actions show movement toward Christ. Nicodemus may not get the words right, but he does what a believer is meant to do.
When we hold that picture of an “outsider’s” evolving understanding of God and God’s intention for him, alongside the assertion of God’s great love for this whole beautiful and terrible cosmos, we have, I think, abundant reason to be patient with each other and the different ways we hear this story or read this verse. We have reason to keep reaching out across the lines we’re tempted to draw.
I think of Nicodemus that night he could no longer contain his curiosity about Jesus Christ. His friends, the Pharisees, would never have understood this; probably that’s why Nicodemus went to Jesus after hours. He went to Jesus, seemingly ready to learn something new. Nicodemus was pretty invested in “Team Pharisee.” He was coming at the conversation from a position of privilege, and I can’t really say how open he was to Jesus that particular night. But Nicodemus did expose himself to a new encounter. He went to see Jesus.
I think of our church member Kimberly Carswell’s latest blog, where she wrestles with the disappointment and hurt and even anger that can rise in us when the lines people draw seem unfair and mean and ignorant. Kimberly stands firm in her own position, yet she’s willing to reach out. “Come sit with me on my porch,” she invites anyone who finds her perspective confusing or offensive. Let’s have “a real conversation [she says]. I’ll make tea. Or we can eat some really good cheese. Proximity to one another makes the name calling harder. When you see my face, and I see yours, the divide becomes a little smaller.”
Sometimes the divides feel impossible to bridge or even make a little smaller. But we serve a God for whom, we say, nothing’s impossible. A big god. A god to whom we can offer our fish and loaves (or our tea and our really good cheese). A god who just might do something miraculous with such gifts! God has done so before.
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