3/11/2018 Fourth Sunday in Lent The text is John 3:14-21.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This is the fourth Sunday of Lent and in the past, this Sunday was known as “Rejoice Sunday” or “Refreshment Sunday.” No, it wasn’t called this because it was the week for hot cross buns. It wasn’t even called this because of the lessons for today. It got its name from being the midpoint of the season of Lent. It was and is a time to pause and think about what God is doing for us and for all people in Jesus Christ. So, before we slide into Easter; before we get to the empty tomb; before the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we marvel at God’s love as we see Moses raising the serpent in the wilderness so that all might look to God and be saved. And, we see Jesus connecting this saving act to God to his future, giving us a glimpse of Jesus being lifted high on the cross so that all may see and believe and in believing, might be saved. For, God so loved the world.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” These words are very familiar to most of us and within this one sentence we find the most comprehensive statement of the gospel in the New Testament.
The first part of the verse contains the greatest miracle of all: “God so loved the world.” When we consider who God is – infinitely holy, infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, infinitely just – and then we consider what the world is like toward God – shamefully rebellious, stubbornly selfish, wantonly unrepentant, woefully disobedient and forever hampered by sin – isn’t it the miracle of miracles that “God so loved the world?” Luther said it well when he wrote, “If I were God, and the world had treated me the way it has treated him, I would have kicked the wretched thing to pieces long ago.” And Luther is not alone in his thoughts. Most of us would do the same thing if we were so ignored, so abused and so miserably treated – that is, if we were treated the way we have treated God. Yet, scripture insists, that in spite of all that the people have done and will ever do, “God so loved the world.”
In fact, God so dearly loves you and me and everyone else, as frail and as rebellious as we are, that he does whatever is necessary to save us. God’s love is eternal with people like us, a people bent on destroying ourselves and our world, indifferent toward our God, consumed by a sense of our own importance, neglectful of the gifts of neighbor and all creation. We cannot change God’s love. We cannot stop God from loving us. We may flaunt his love, reject his love, spurn his love, throw his love back in his face, but we cannot stop God from loving us as long as we live. His love shines through our troubles. It is even behind his judgments upon us. For God doesn’t condemn anybody. We condemn ourselves by our refusal to believe and trust in the Lord and our refusal to accept his love. God doesn’t condemn. God loves. God loves you and me and he wants us to have the fullness of life in him. This is the greatest miracle of all!
And this greatest miracle of all is followed by the greatest gift of all: the gift of God’s only begotten Son. Actually, God gave, that is handed over to us for our benefit, his very self when he gave his Son, for the Father and the Son are one. That’s exactly what the Greek word for “loved” means in this context. It is a self-giving love, a self-sacrificing love which continually is given throughout all generations. God gave us this love by giving us himself in his Son. God did not have five sons from which he gave one and kept four. God did not have two sons from whom he gave one and kept one. God had only one Son. God gave everything he had and God continues to give all.
It is through his only Son, Jesus Christ, that God freely gives us salvation. We cannot earn our way into God’s favor by doing good stuff, for even our very best is done with mixed motives. We can only accept reconciliation with God as is free gift for the sake of Jesus, and Jesus’ atoning death and victorious resurrection, or we cannot have it at all.
Once again, Luther said it well as he told of a monk who was lying at the point of death. The other monks reminded him of the good works he had done in his life, saying, “Bear in mind that you are a member of the Order of St. Francis, that you were a pious priest, that you diligently prayed your Psalter and read many masses.” The dying monk picked up a crucifix, held it high and replied, “Why should I put my trust in an order? This Man (meaning Jesus) did everything. I know of no work and merit other than that of this Man.” It is by the cross of Christ that God kissed away our sins forever. It is by his cross that Jesus reconciled a lost and hopeless world which has not known peace. It is by the cross of Jesus that God showed the depth of his love for humanity. This is the greatest gift of all.
And so, the greatest miracle of all, God’s love, is followed by the greatest gift of all, Jesus, and that is followed by the greatest purpose of all: “That whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” You and I are in that word, “whoever.” And whoever believes in Christ has a future. It is Christ alone who provides for our salvation. All we need do is believe and trust in the Lord – not in ourselves and our own abilities, not in technology and modern medicine, not in money or family or faithful friends – but in Jesus… and in so doing place our very life in Christ’s hands for safe keeping.
There’s an old story that I have told you about a man who walked across a wire stretched high above Niagara Falls, pushing an empty wheel barrel. He walked across and he walked back. On his return he asked a man in the cheering crowd of spectators, “Do you believe that I am able to push this wheel barrel over and back again on that wire above the falls?” “Yes,” the man stammered. The high-wire walker then said, “Get into the wheel barrel.” Now it was one thing to say that he could do it. But it was quite another thing to get into the wheel barrel. Yet, isn’t that what faith and trust, belief the power and love of Christ, really means for us – for us to get into his wheel barrel of grace and to let him take us over the raging falls of this life, through death and divine judgment, looking for no other help or support by his mercy and his power to save us? W the help of the Holy Spirit, those who place that kind of trust in Christ have the promise of eternal life.
Eternal life means more than life after death. It means life here and now and in the hereafter. It refers to the quality of life rather than quantity. It means the happiest, fullest, richest, deepest, most satisfying life anyone can live here on earth, and a thousand times happier and fuller in heaven with God forever. Drugs and alcohol can’t make this promise. Money can’t purchase it. Success can’t assure it. But Christ guarantees this when you and I are ready to climb into his wheel barrel and trust ourselves to him alone for our lot in this life and in eternity. Christ doesn’t guarantee a life without trouble or problems or tragedies or pain, but he guarantees life to its fullest in the freedom of God’s grace.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” These twenty-four words, just one sentence, proclaim the greatest miracle of all, the greatest gift of all and the greatest purpose of all. And it is on the hill top, at the apex of Lent as we get ready to slide into Easter that we hear them again. May we believe these words and place our lives into the hands of this loving God, and in so doing, may we be lifted up in body, mind and spirit. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.