(a sermon for April 2, 2017, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 3:14-21)
John Rottman, professor of preaching at Calvin Seminary in Michigan has asked what I believe to be a defining question for 21st century Christians, and it’s this: why is it you never see anyone at a sporting event holding up a sign that says, “John 3:19?” Don’t misunderstand; we’re not talking John 3:16 here, because that’s been seen at just about any event you can name: in the stands right behind home plate during the World Series; or right about now, courtside at the final four! And why not (!); that particular piece of scripture is unabashedly and blessedly good news – it’s the centerpiece to everything we believe as Christians – and it’s good news worthy to be shared, even if it’s only for a fleeting moment before the network goes to commercial! “God so loved the world,” indeed!
John three nineteen, however, is another matter; odds are you won’t be seeing that verse displayed during any part of March Madness! And this is because John 3:19 is more judgment than inspiration; in fact, truth be told, these are words that come off as more than a little bit foreboding! And what makes it all the more difficult is the fact that it’s Jesus himself who’s speaking: “This is the judgment,” he says, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” To be sure, there’s not a whole lot in that verse that sounds much like good news at all, and that’s why you’re not apt to see it painted on the cheeks of some NFL running back; the bottom line is that we’d simply rather not hear about it!
And yet, I would say to you that there’s as much truth in this rather harsh word of judgment as there is in the incredible divine affirmation that precedes it; and as much need for its proclamation (though maybe not in quite the same way as we’ve been talking about!). Because whether we’d care to admit it or not, the fact remains that darkness is as real in this world as is light; that there is evil in this life that both exists and that is all too often allowed to run rampant; and that there are, in fact, people who do love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil! What we’re talking about here is the very nature of our sinful humanity; and while that’s a difficult thing for us to confront, it’s in fact how we’re wired; and the thing is, if we’re going to proclaim the coming of light into the world, then we also have to acknowledge that there was and is darkness into which that light has shined; which is, admittedly, a hard thing indeed, especially given how pervasive and overwhelming this darkness can be!
I remember back a few years ago now when the Iraq war was at its worst talking with a woman whose daughter and son-law were both in the armed forces; he was already in Iraq at the time, and she was stateside awaiting deployment. Now, as you can imagine, for their family at home, this was something on their minds and hearts just about every moment of every day; and one way they were responding to this was to glean every little bit of information they could about the situation in Iraq: endlessly watching the coverage on all the cable news networks, searching for anything they could find on-line; contacting others they knew who’d been over there. This went on for a long time; but she told me that eventually they came to the conclusion that for the sake of their emotional and physical well-being they had to stop, because it had become just “too much” to deal with everything that could possibly happen to these people they loved!
It occurred to me at the time that this is how most of us end up dealing with evil in the world; it can seem so overwhelming to us we try to keep a safe distance from the darkness and the people who dwell there, even when at the end of the day we can’t. That’s the nature of darkness, you see; it becomes for us just that pervasive!
But here’s the good news of the gospel: just when we begin to fear that darkness has gotten the upper hand, here comes somebody holding up that other sign, and once again it’s Jesus: “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.” God so loved the world …and, mind you, Jesus doesn’t say God so loved just the good, polite and right thinking people of the world, or for that matter, of the church: Jesus says “God so loved the world,” all the world, and that includes all those people mired and overwhelmed with the darkness of human sin and degradation. And when you know that, then you begin to get a sense of the incredible scope of God’s love, of how God chose through Christ to pierce the darkness in which we dwell.
One of my favorite songs from back in the ‘90’s was “From a Distance,” written by Julie Gold and recorded by both Bette Midler and, in the quintessential version, by Nanci Griffith. You remember the song I mean: “From a distance, the world looks blue and green and the snowcapped mountains white …from a distance, the ocean meets the sea and the eagle takes to flight.” I still love that song, but I have to tell you that I’ve always been bothered by one line in the middle of it. It’s the refrain that goes, “God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us …from a distance.” Now here’s how the minister thinks, friends: great song, bad theology! I know that what Julie Gold was trying to say here was that God views us as one people, one creation – and that is correct – but as I understand my faith, God does not do that from a distance but from right here where we are; and we know this because of Jesus Christ!
John Rottman expressed this same sentiment when he wrote that “John 3:16 informs us that God didn’t just love the world from a safe sentimental distance, [nor from] from outer space… out of love God plan[ned] to come in close, so close as to actually become a human being… and live among the John 3:19 darkness-loving people,” not to condemn them but to save them from the choices they have made. God so loved the world with a full and all-encompassing love; a sacrificial, risk-taking love, a love that came at the cost of rejection and the prolonged, excruciating pain of his Son on the cross.
And make no mistake, this is love on a cosmic scale; no less than the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan from the beginning of creation; a divine directive of light entering into the darkness that is as mind-boggling to us as it is awesome and wonderful. And yet, at its very core it’s also love as small and as intimate and as all-encompassing as our very breathing. God so loved the world… but what God does for the whole world in Christ Jesus, he does for each and every single one of us individually. God so loves you and me that he cuts through the deep darkness that all too easily overwhelms us; he brings light that pulls us from the sin that would enslave us. It’s a light that that illumines our way and sets us free; and moreover, it’s light that once it’s ours, needs to be shared.
Consider the story of a man whose name was Al Braca. Al Braca worked as a bond trader on the 105th floor of the first tower at the World Trade Center in New York in the days prior to 9/11. But what’s more interesting is that Al really disliked his job; he’d actually become increasingly uncomfortable with what he was doing because it felt terribly out of step with his own Christian values. Yet he remained working there, mostly because he was also convinced that God wanted him to be a witness to Christ in and amongst the people in that place.
Al would regularly share his faith with his co-workers, and basically he was mocked for that; in fact, around the office he’d been given the rather sarcastic nickname of “the Rev.” And yet, over the years he worked in that office, when horrible things happened to his co-workers, it was Al that they’d go to talk about it; it was Al to whom those in need would go for prayer and support; and it was Al who, in the midst of it all, would find a way to tell them about Jesus. And then came that fateful day of September 11, 2001, and when he never called home as he always did, his family’s worst fears were realized: Al Braca was killed that day along with 3,000 others.
But that’s not the end of the story! You see, over the next several weeks reports began to surface about the emails and phone calls received that morning by those who had loved ones on the 105th floor. Heartbreaking stuff, as you can imagine, but what was very interesting is a great many of these messages referred to someone named Al, this man who in the midst of all the panic was calmly leading some 50 people in prayer and telling them about Jesus! In quite literally the final moments of his life here was Al, bringing God’s light into the darkness; and you see, he could do that because he’d experienced the love of God for himself and could share that love with others.
God so loved the world; and God so loves you and me. And the same God who loves so simply and so deeply inspires us to share that love with those around us. That is something we would do well to remember as this season of Lent continues and as we journey ever closer to the cross of Jesus Christ. For this is a time for renewal; an opportunity not only for us to draw nearer to God in faith and true love, but also for us to bring light into the darkness.
Friends, I am certain that there is somebody, somewhere in your life right now that needs the light of God in the midst of their darkness. I am a sure that at this moment there is somebody you know, or maybe somebody you don’t, who needs prayer. And I know that out there today there’s a person along your pathway who’s never really heard about Jesus from somebody who knows. As the song goes, what the world needs now is love… and light! Maybe the one who can bring God’s love and light into this present darkness is you.
After all, says Jesus, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” Beloved, this world is not ours to save; indeed, that’s the work of Christ. But when we keep our eyes, our ears and our hearts open there will be so many ways that the light of love we’ve received can be shared in the midst of an encroaching darkness; and who knows? Hearts, lives… maybe even the world will be changed for the better; for God so love the world, and so should we.
Beloved, we are children of light, and love is our mission; so let us renew ourselves to Christ’s call to service.
And as we do, may our thanks ever and always be unto God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry