Sermon on John 3:16

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(This sermon is going to make a lot more sense if you hear it. And hey, you know what’s cool? you can totally click the thing right above this and listen along. It’s internet magic)

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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. –John 3:16-17

Isn’t John 3:16 like, the rock star of Bible verses. It’s like the lead singer of the band whose name everyone knows. And if John 3:16 were a singer it would only need one name, like Cher, or Bono. We know it by it’s verse number because it’s like, famous.

But perhaps like all celebrities, we think we know it because of it’s image being worn into our brains, it’s ubiquity, it’s press packet. But in the end, perhaps none of us really know John 3:16 just like none of us really know Cher. Except Stuart. Stuart might very well know Cher.

I asked you guys this week what comes to mind when you hear John 3:16

Sure, a couple of you wrote about love. And there were an inevitable handful who wrote about signs held by weird rainbow wig wearing dudes at football games. But most of you spoke of exclusion and judgment and the tyranny of never knowing if you have the right belief in the sufficient quantity in order to be saved. In other words, for some reason, a verse about the love of God is heard by so many of us as a verse about judgment which then produces anxiety and that’s a drag.

So tonight, I’m offering a brief but unbelievably snarky synopsis of the Sunday School understanding of John 3:16 followed quickly by an alternative to it.

So first a snarky Sunday School synopsis:

Basically God created us and all that is, but because the first woman ate something she shouldn’t have we are basically screwed for all of time. And since we are all so terrible at following rules God needs to punish us. But here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus…as the story goes so many of us were told, well, Jesus is like, God’s little boy — and he only had one! I’m not sure why – fertility issues I guess…but the point is that God had this one little boy – and he loved that little boy so much… but he had to KILL that little boy because you stole a candy bar, or lied to your mom, or felt up your girlfriend or maybe you used swear words or looked at dirty pictures. The important thing to know is that God killed his little boy rather than punishing you, because let’s face it, someone had to pay and you should feel so grateful about all of this that you believe and (most importantly) you behave. But the good news is that if you believe all of this and if you try really hard to be good then when you die you get a special all-inclusive vacation package called Eternal Life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Ok, I warned you. That was pretty harsh.

I’m not saying all of you carry around this Sunday School version but enough of us do that it feels like this story is what we hear when we hear John 3:16.

But honestly, I need something beautiful not scary.

I need something that doesn’t seem so fear-based and controlling because fear-based and controlling just sounds like something I could come up with myself and I desperately need God to not be like me.

So if you’ll give me some license, I’d like to offer an alternate interpretation of John 3:16. Not a definitive one, just one for us today, as who we are, in this place and as these people. And since I’ve been reading a book by Francis Spufford (Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense) this week that speaks of God as love song and I couldn’t shake that image, here’s another way of hearing John 3:16:

In the beginning God – the source and ground of all being – set the universe into motion through sound and self-giving in a love song that set it all into motion. saying, Let there be Light.

God so loved the world that God gave God’s own breath to speak into existence that which was not – and then God so loved the world that God gave God’s breath another time, breathing into dust to create humanity. Through dust and the very breath of divine love we were created. In the image of the songwriter we were created, and we too were given voice and language and breath and song.

And that love song of creation continued, but we tended to create our own melodies in another rhythm, in another key, in our own scale.

So there is the song of life which rings through eternity and then there are human-generated temporary alternate songs. With our own breath, language, voice, we still tend to create our own rhythm and melodies – that we think that we think will save us, songs of domination, violence, greed, and power.

And so once again, God’s breath was given to us…through sound and self-giving: only this time, the sound interrupted the din of the Roman empire. This time, God’s divine love song was heard in the cry of a new born baby. For God so loved the world that God gave God’s self to it in the form of a son. This was such a big deal that angels sang back up – the heavenly hosts joined in the divine love song interrupting our regularly scheduled program of soldiers and taxes and purity codes.

God so loved this corrupt world of empires and victims and violence that God gave God’s self to us. God so loved the world that God came to us in the most vulnerable and fragile way possible. God so loved the world God created that God walked among us as love.

But not the us kind of love. Our love is limited by self-interest, biology and time. No, this love takes no account of opinion or history, but insists on ignoring information we think of as important: data about worth, beauty, status. This love has quite ignored the Kelly Blue Book Value on us.

For God so loved the world, for God so loved soldiers and prostitues and traitors and unwed mothers and soccer moms and CEOs and ex-cons and Burger King janitors that God gave of God’s self in the form of Jesus. And Jesus was like a clearer set of lyrics so that we might be saved from the noise of sin and self-preservation. So that we might not perish. But be reminded again of the true beat, the real rhythm, the clear lyrics of the song of creation and salvation that is life and that is eternal.

And those who heard this tune, began to sing it to others, they wrote about it in Gospels and hymns and we here in this room, maybe for only a moment a breath a flicker, hear it for ourselves and we know it is life and it is here and it always has been and always will be. It is eternal life and it is for you. Don’t try and believe it. Just hear it. After all, Brother Martin Luther once said, “a person becomes a Christian, not by working but by listening”

Because it is inevitable that you will go along, singing the wrong thing and thinking it beautiful, you will start to not hear God’s love song anymore. That’s just how it goes. We have so many alternatives to the life that is offered to us in the song of love that beats out the rhythm of God. Other other tunes, other cries, other songs…like the one that tells us that we are alone, or the song which sings of reaching for our own glory, the song of condemnation that says we are not worthy to be called children of God –there are so many in fact, that they form a layer of white noise drowning out the still, small voice of our Lord. But the things that drown out his voice can never last as long, the competing songs are really of no consequence, they can never out last the one that has rung since the beginning of time. For they are not eternal, nor are they life.

But that which was from the beginning and is in this very moment and will be forever, the divine love song calls us back. Again and again. It takes time to hear this song, and that is not a cause for concern, but one for rejoicing.  What is the point in a song whose truth and beauty can be exhausted all at once?

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s self to us as Jesus so that all who hear God’s song of what is real and true and everlasting – will know that it is their song and that it can not be taken away. None of our alternate anthems can compete with God’s truth and in response to this what can we do but fall on our knees in worship?

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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

About Nadia Bolz Weber

I am the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. We are an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org