By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
MAY THE WORDS OF MY MOUTH AND THE MEDITATIONS OF MY HEART BE ACCEPTABLE IN YOUR SIGHT, O LORD, MY ROCK AND MY REDEEMER. AMEN.
John 3:16 was a flamboyant character. I never knew what his original name was (I think it was John Cook) but he changed it to John 3:16 when he became an evangelist in St. Petersburg, Florida. I don’t even know if he is still preaching, but years ago when I was an intern pastor in Florida, he was very well known. He dressed in flashy colored suits with a diamond pin spelling John 3:16 on his lapel. He was a former convict who had become a Christian and then decided to work with alcoholics, addicts and other ex-convicts in Christian rescue work. He changed his name to John 3:16, he told the newspaper, because everyone knows what John 3:16 is and what it means and he made it the motto for his work.
I’m not sure that everyone knows John 3:16, but it is perhaps the most famous of all Bible verses: FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY BEGOTTEN SON, THAT WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH ON HIM SHOULD NOT PERISH BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE. This is the Christian Gospel in a nutshell; the Gospel in miniature. John 3:16 is the one Bible verse which tells us most succinctly of God’s intention to save us and how God accomplished what God set out to do—God saved us through the life and death of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. This verse also tells us clearly what should be our human response to the Gospel—we receive in faith what God so graciously and freely offers us and in receiving it, we have eternal life. Martin Luther once said that if he were the Lord God, “and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world to pieces.” But God does not condemn the world but through Christ, God saves the world.
“For God so loved the world…” God’s attitude towards us is love and that love is most clearly shown in the gift of Jesus. The word, “world,” is important here—KOSMOS in the Greek. God does not just love some people, just people even, but the whole creation which groans awaiting its redemption, has received its redeemer in Jesus Christ. God’s love is so deep for this world and for each one of us that God sent His Son to die for it, for us. The holiness and righteousness and justice of God demands a sacrifice from a wicked and sinful world, but only the Holy, Righteous, Son of God could satisfy that need. God fulfilled the demand to Himself by offering Himself to die.
“For God so loved the world…” Christ’s death on the cross shows the love of God for each. It is our sin which sent Jesus to the cross. But God’s immeasurable love has turned this horrible crime into humanity’s good. Just as Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole so that the Israelites who were suffering from poisonous snakes could look upon this symbol of death and find life, so Jesus is lifted up on the pole of the cross. We look at the cruel death of the sinless Son of God and see God’s love for us. We who are suffering from sin, evil, death itself look upon Christ crucified and hear the promise of forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.
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Paul Tournier in his book Guilt and Grace, speaks of the good news of the Gospel. The Swiss psychiatrist writes, “The proclamation of Jesus Christ is about the love of God, a love which is all inclusive and unconditional. And here we impinge one of the most important themes of modern psychology. Freud has shown us that guilt is awakened in the infant’s mind by the fear of losing the love of parents; and also the traumas of the child’s mental life are connected with this doubt about being loved. The infant feels rejected and no longer loved. The anxiety of guilt is just this anxiety of being loved no longer. The child has the impression that the parent’s love is conditional, that the parents will love the child only on the condition that the child is good.”
“The truth is,” Tournier continues, “that because of their zeal to train the child up and keep the child away from wrongdoing, the parents give the impression that this is the case. They even go so far as to say to the child, ‘I don’t love you any more because you’ve been a bad boy; you’ve been a bad girl’. But it is not true. They love their child even when naughty and their care to keep the child from wrongdoing is itself the guarantee of that love. Yet, even if parents refrain from a lie of this kind, their children attribute the idea to them and imagine that their parents love them on condition that they are good.”
Many people have the same idea of the Christian religion that God only loves people when they are good or that God loves us better when we are good. St Paul wrote, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” The purpose of our life is good works, but in the same passage we have the reminder, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works so that no one may boast.” Good works will come from our faith, the result of following Jesus, but God does not love us because we are good or do good works. God’s love for us does not come with any conditions at all. The Christian message is perverted by pastors and Sunday School teachers, parents, when they tell children that Jesus will love them IF they are good. It is not true. You are not good; I am not good. The Bible says that none of us are good—we cannot be good; we are sinners in need of a Savior. Christ is good, God is good, but we are not. It is while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us, the ungodly. Santa Claus may only like good little girls and boys, but God loves every one of us. God so loves each of us, the whole world, that God sent Jesus to die and rise again that we might have forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.
God loves each one of us just the way we are. Jesus died for the whole KOSMOS, the sun, moon, stars, birds, animals, and every human being. No matter whom we are or what we have done, no matter what other people think of us, we are loved by God. We are forgiven in Christ and offered life and salvation. “Since Christ accepted the thief on the cross just as he was,” Luther writes, “and received Paul after all his blasphemies and persecutions, we have no reason to despair. Good God, what do you think it means that he has given His only Son? It means that God also offers whatever else He possesses.” The Gospel is the free gift of God’s acceptance, God’s love, God’s life through Jesus.
Free grace is not cheap grace. John 3:16 puts that so very clearly. God’s love and forgiveness come at the price of His Son’s life. There is nothing we can do to merit God’s gift and there are no strings attached but it is important to receive this free gift.
Our Gospel for today is both good news that tells us of God’s grace to us in Christ, but also some very hard news that troubles me greatly. The text says that there will be some people who turn away from the love of God, who refuse to accept the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life. John puts it this way: There are some people who love the darkness rather than the light because their deeds are evil—these people condemn themselves because they refuse Christ. There are many who see Jesus and come to faith; others will scoff and deride. They love darkness and reject the light.
According to our text, those who do not believe do so not out of ignorance or lack of knowledge or a bad experience in the church so much as their love of the darkness. John says, “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come into the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” How God must grieve over those who reject the good news! God must be sad that there are those who give back His free gift of love and life. And in some way, we all love the darkness rather than the light, we love ourselves and not others, we love our sinning more than the Savior. Even in our religious life, we want to save ourselves rather than let Jesus save us. Like all other people we have sinned and fallen short; none are righteous, no one is good. Yet we hear again what a wonderful gift God gives us—the gift of faith which receives the greater gift of grace in Christ. God so loves—put you own name here—that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Amen.