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For God So Loved The World…

 

John 3:16-17

We all have our favourite author, our favourite book, our favourite food, our favourite athlete. And the all-time favourite text of scripture, I’m told, is the text of today’s sermon: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” I’m sure that the text elicits a visceral response from everyone. Some people cherish it as they cherish nothing else; others feel that the text is frequently used as a bludgeon with which to beat unbelievers. Regardless of the circumstances in which the text is uttered, regardless of the zeal with which it’s announced or the affection with which it’s cherished, the fact is this text enshrines the heart of the gospel; which is to say, this text bespeaks the heart of God himself.

 

I: — We are told that God so loved the world. What in the world is the world? The world, according to John’s usage, isn’t that globe which we call “the earth.” Neither is the world the earth plus all the other planets and stars; i.e., the universe. The world, in John’s use of the word, is simply people. Specifically it’s the sum total of disobedient men and women in their hostility to God and their contempt for his truth and their dismissal of his way and their postured superiority to his gospel. Plainly, the word “world”, for John, isn’t a pretty word: it bespeaks humankind’s arrogance and ingratitude, self-importance and pomposity. It bespeaks a disdainful defiance that imagines itself to be the soul of sophistication but in fact is the silliest folly. The world, for John, is the sum total of men and women in their tacit conspiracy to loathe, privately and publicly, the one to whom they owe their life, the one to whom they would cling if they possessed any sense at all.

A minute ago I spoke of “tacit conspiracy.” Both words are important. The world is tacitly conspiratorial in that there’s never been a formal agreement among humankind that it disdain the holy One of Israel. The world is tacitly conspiratorial in that its common defiance of him is plainly more than accidental; the world’s corporate posture with respect to God isn’t a random occurrence. When the next baby is born we can predict with perfect certainty that this child is going to mirror the world all over again. All such individuals, fallen creatures every one, are tacitly conspiratorial in that we — humankind — “pack” in our opposition to God the way a school class can pack on a teacher or a baseball team pack on an umpire.

 

II: — What is God’s attitude to the world in the face of the world’s attitude to him? Specifically, what does God do in view of the world’s having packed on him? We might expect him to do what a schoolteacher does when the class packs on her or what an umpire does when a baseball team packs on him. Since this congregation is “knee-deep” in schoolteachers, I shall let the teachers tell me what they do when the class packs. I will tell you, however, what an umpire does. He walks over to the bench where the team has tacitly conspired to give him a hard time and he expels a player, any player at all. It doesn’t have to be the player who’s giving him the hardest time; it doesn’t have to be the player who spearheaded the abuse. It can be any player at all; sometimes it’s the first player the umpire comes upon. And that one player is expelled, gone.

“How arbitrary!”, you say; “The umpire was simply making an example of that one player. He didn’t merit being singled out.” Your objection is correct. It’s also unavailing. The player arbitrarily singled out is expelled none the less.

The most astounding feature of the gospel is this: in the face of the world’s bombast and its ingratitude, God’s response isn’t to expel it but rather to love it. And not merely to love it in the sense of “feel for” it, even feel sorry for it, but rather to love it so utterly as to give himself for it.

Now right here we have to take a little theological detour. We have to journey back in time to the year 325; we have to journey to a different part of the world and visit the city of Nicaea in what is now Turkey . A huge theological debate was under way at that time over something that shallow people look upon as mere word-play but which in fact has everything to do with the integrity and preservation of the gospel. The Arians who supported Bishop Arius maintained that as Son of God Jesus is of similar nature to the Father, like the Father. The Athanasians who supported Bishop Athanasius insisted that as Son of God Jesus is of the same nature as the Father, same substance, same essence, same being as the Father. If the Son is only like the Father, said the Athanasians, is the Son a little bit like or a lot like? And even if he were a lot like the Father, almost the same as the Father, a miss is as good as a mile. The point is the Son’s suffering wouldn’t be the Father’s suffering; the Son’s identification with sinners wouldn’t be the Father’s; the Son’s weeping over the world wouldn’t be the Father’s. In short, unless the Son is of the same nature, same substance, same essence as the Father; unless the nature of the Father and the nature of the Son are identical and not merely similar, then ultimately what the Son on earth thought and felt and did had nothing whatever to do with what the Father above thought and felt and did. And if what the Son was about had nothing to do with what the Father was about, then the cross of Jesus wasn’t an act of God at all. The cross meant no more than the death of any person who died in a good cause; the world was unaffected; humankind was without provision for its sin; there was no gospel and never would be.

Tell me: is the Son’s nature the same as the Father’s or merely similar to the Father’s? Only if the same as the Father’s is there a gospel; only if the same as the Father’s is the suffering of the Son in his body the suffering of the Father in his heart; only if the same as the Father’s is the Son’s solidarity with a world he won’t abandon regardless of how badly it abuses him at the same time God’s selfsame solidarity with a world he won’t abandon regardless of how contemptuously it dismisses him.

When the apostle John writes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” we must never think that God is giving his Son in place of giving himself; we must never think that God is giving his Son as a substitute for giving himself. Quite the contrary: just because the Father and the Son and are one in nature, substance, being, the Father’s giving his only Son is simply the Father’s giving himself; always himself, never less than himself.

Someone knocks on my door asking for a donation to the Diabetes Association. I give her $25. To be sure, the $25 I’ve given her I now don’t have for a new CD, but in any case I already have so many CDs I can’t keep track of them. Next day someone knocks on my door asking for a donation to the Cancer Society. I give him $25. To be sure, the $25 I’ve given him I now don’t have for a new book, but already I own hundreds of books that I haven’t read yet. Next day someone knocks on my door asking for a donation for the Heart and Stroke fund. I give her $25…. And so I should, in view of the suffering that never relents and my financial resources that never diminish (apparently.)

And then one day there’s a different kind of knock at the door: my daughter needs a kidney. Now a different kind of “contribution” is involved. The $25 contributions, however many there might have been, never entailed any risk for me. Now the gift asked of me does. Still, she’s my daughter, and therefore I’ll gladly do what I can for her at whatever risk to me. Years later will she appreciate it? Or will she joke with her friends, “My old man relinquished a bit of plumbing for me some time ago. His health was never good after that. He must’ve been crazy. But then, he always was odd, you know, a ‘nerd’”. Silly fellow.” If out of love for my daughter I have resolved to surrender that kidney which I might need myself years later; if I have resolved to surrender my kidney then I’ve also resolved to surrender all control concerning her response. Still, at least I haven’t been asked to give up my life for her.

John tells us there’s a love so very loving that someone doesn’t even stop short of giving himself, all of himself, only himself, for those whom he loves unstintingly. Precisely where we’d expect God to withdraw in tit-for-tat coldness he instead pours out himself without remainder or reserve upon those who pull their carriage-trade robes of self-righteousness a little closer and tell him, “Would you mind not bleeding on me? It stains, you know.”

 

III: — But not all respond by cloaking themselves more tightly in those disguises which can’t even be recognised as disguises; not all respond in this way. Some respond so as to illustrate the text in its entirety: God so loved the world…that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Plainly the self-outpouring of God quickens faith in some at least. “Whoever believes in him.” We must be sure we understand the precise force of “believes.” To believe in him doesn’t mean to have correct ideas about him in one’s head. To believe in him doesn’t mean to have mental reservation give way to mental assent. To believe in the one given for us, to believe in the one given to us, is simply to trust him for that pardon which we can’t generate for ourselves. It’s to trust him for that way apart from which we are going to meander for the rest of our lives. It’s to trust him for a contentment that will steal over us again and again as surely as our superficial pleasures have left us unsatisfied. It’s to entrust him with our life when no one else is worth it, and to entrust him with our death when no one else can defuse it, and to entrust him with our future when no one else can fill it.

The faith of which John speaks when he writes, “that whoever believes in him…”, is simply entrusting as much of myself as I know of myself to as much of Jesus Christ as I know of him. The faith of which John speaks is finally my unreserved self-giving to him whose unreserved self-giving to me is my only hope and my only plea, my only future and my only good. The faith of which John speaks is my embracing in gratitude the one who first embraced me in grace; it’s my pledging myself to him who has promised never to fail or forsake me.

If such faith is what it is to “believe in him” (Christ Jesus our Lord), then what is the eternal life of which John speaks? Eternal life is life that arises in our immersion in the innermost depths of God himself. Eternal life is life that is characterised by utmost intimacy with God, utmost intensity, utmost inviolability (what could ever separate us from him now?) Eternal life is the life wherewith the eternal one blessed us in our creation, before we victimised ourselves in the fall, before our existence became a living contradiction of that which the Creator had pronounced “good”, before our existence became a dying scramble to deny what we couldn’t admit just because we couldn’t face it.

As often as I try to grasp the full import of “but have eternal life” I recall one of my favourite episodes from the written gospels where Jesus comes upon a man in the wilderness (don’t we all live in the wilderness?), who cuts himself (haven’t we spent our lives mutilating ourselves in some respect?), who runs around naked (don’t we all think we’re covering up what every last person can see in us in any case?), and who can’t be subdued (don’t we all fail to master ourselves as surely as we resent the attempt of anyone else to master us?)   At the conclusion of the gospel story we are told that the fellow is found seated, clothed and in his right mind. Seated, he’s no longer driven by his 101 frenzies, any one of which he thought would let him “find himself” and all of which only left him jaded and despairing. Clothed, he now belongs to the community of the people of God. (In scripture clothing is a sign of belonging, and the kind of clothing we wear indicates precisely where we belong. When the prodigal son came home his father clothed him in that robe which indicated he belonged in the family.) In his right mind, the healed fellow has had his reasoning restored by the grace of God.   Only grace restores reason to reason’s integrity; only grace frees reason from its bondage to ends that aren’t righteous. No one doubts that fallen human beings can still reason. Of course we can. But what does our reasoning produce, from the cunning of the three year old to the plotting of the self-serving adult to the rationalisation that is now second nature to all of us? Only grace restores reason to reason’s integrity; only grace frees reason from reason’s captivity to unrighteous ends. The fact that the healed fellow was found seated, clothed and in his right mind is God’s pledge and promise that the same sanity is ultimately guaranteed any believer. It takes root as we cast ourselves upon our Lord, and it will be perfected on the day that we are plunged into an intimacy and intensity so very intimate and intense and as to be indescribable. Eternal life includes the restoration of that reason whose reasoning we’ve never lost but whose reasoning has been too long in the service of everything but righteousness.

“That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life is life lived in relationship to God. It’s our creaturely, human existence now liberated to bring honour to God; it’s our creaturely, human existence now mirroring without impediment him whose image was always supposed to shine forth from us as brightly and unambiguously as a city set on a hill.

 

IV: — “Should not perish but have eternal life.” What’s perishing got to do with all this? Isn’t God light only, there being no darkness in him at all, to quote John once more? Isn’t God life only, death having no place in him at all? Doesn’t he come in Christ Jesus only to bless, there being nothing accursed in his nature or purpose? Then what’s this about perishing?

The purpose of light is always and only to enlighten; the purpose of life is always and only to enliven; the purpose of goodness is always and only to bless. Yet the truth is that as surely as light enlightens, anything that impedes light results in a shadow. The truth is, life rejected can only mean death. Blessing repudiated leaves one with curse. John insists that God’s purpose in sending the Son was always and only that the world might be saved, never that it be condemned. Had God wanted to condemn the world he had all the grounds and all the evidence he needed to condemn it justly without tormenting himself in his Son. Yet he tormented himself in his Son just because he is more eager to save the world than the world is itself to be saved.   And that’s just the problem: God is more eager to save than the world is to be saved. That’s just the problem. While it is never God’s purpose to condemn; while it is always God’s purpose to save, the outcome of his determination to save is that those resisting him, those fixated on remaining in their God-defying arrogance and grandiose self-importance, become fixed in it.

Then it behoves us all to hear afresh the word of grace: God loved the world so much as to withhold nothing of himself in his resolve to woo and win the world. He gave himself in his only Son, without limit, without hesitation, without qualification, and all of this inasmuch as he wanted, and still wants, to save the world from the condemnation it deserves. It behoves us therefore to abandon our perverse posturing before him and own for ourselves life eternal as we trust him today for all he longs to give us; trust him today, tomorrow, ever after.

 

                                                                                                  Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                  

June 2005