Saturday, 10 March 2018

A sermon on John 3.16




John 3.16 is probably the most famous verse in the Bible.  

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life”.

If you only ever learn one verse by heart from the Bible, then apart from the Lord’s Prayer, this is that verse

Billy Graham, whose funeral was a week ago, and who was one of the most influential Christian evangelists and preachers of the C20th (he even preached here in Moscow in Soviet as well as post-Soviet times) used to quote John 3.16 when asked to do a sound check before speaking. He said that even if the sound operator was too busy to listen to what he had to say during the actual event, if he heard John 3.16 then he will have heard the gospel: the good news about Jesus.

For God
There are a few people who would claim to be out and out atheists, and a few more who would claim to be agnostics, but most people are aware that there is something or someone that is beyond themselves, that cannot be seen, heard or touched, but that is bigger than them.
That is why things like Star Wars and the idea of the Force that is out there touches something deep in here.
It is why, as someone put it, there is no such think as an atheist in a rubber dinghy in a storm in the middle of the Pacific

And it all begins with God.
Creation begins with God - ‘In the beginning, God ..’  (Gen 1.1);
Revelation begins with God - ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1.1)
Salvation begins with God - 'For God so loved ..' (John 3.16)

so loved
We have devalued the word ‘love’. I recently read an article by a Member of Parliament in the UK saying that the Church of England should forget about all the faith stuff, because that divided people, and simply preach a message of love and peace.
But when people say that, and quite a few do, they haven’t really thought through what they mean by ‘love’. The deepest it goes is that they think that we should tolerate each other and be nice to each other. It is a good message, and an important message, I guess, but what orthodox biblical Christianity has to preach is so much richer.

Biblical love is so much more.
It is about delight in the other
– seeing the other as created in the image of the divine, with the potential to become like the divine, and delighting in them.
Zephaniah 3.17 says, “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you but will rejoice over you with singing.”
One thinks of a mother holding her baby in her arms and singing over her child.

And it is about desire for the other
– a deep heart desire to be united, in the right way, with the other. It is a longing for union. Not just that they can get on and live their life while we live our life, but that we can be part of them, just as they are part of us, and that if we are without them, then we are not whole. And so, Jesus, for instance, speaks of how like a mother hen he would gather his children under his wings (Luke 13.31-35)

And it is about blessing the other
– that is not about simply wishing them well but seeking the absolute best for them. It is blessing them so that they can become the person who God made them to be.
It is why God blesses us with his law – to show us the sort of life that is good and true and perfect.
It is why God blesses us with his discipline – to draw us back to himself, to show us that if we pursue the things of this world we are not pursuing the absolute best for us.
It is why God blesses us by giving us himself.

For God so loved .. At the very heart of God there is not anger, not rejection but this rich deep love: a love that delights in us, that desires us and that would bless us.

the world
And it is not just about love for you or me, or even the church.
God created this world of matter, and he loves it.
At the very beginning, after creation, he looks at the world and he saw that ‘it was very good’.
And the reason that he acted to save us was not simply because he delights in us, but because in some mysterious way the destiny of humanity is tied in with the destiny of this planet and, dare I say, even of this universe. And the day that will see the final public revelation, the making known, of the sons and daughters of God will be the day that this creation is set from what the bible calls ‘its bondage’ to decay and death.

that he gave his only son
If we truly delight in the other, desire union – fellowship - friendship with the other, and seek blessing for the other, then we will give. We will give sacrificially. We will even be prepared to give the most precious thing that we have for the sake of the other.

And God gave his only Son for us, the Son who was absolutely one with him and part of himself and without whom he could not be Father; the Son who he had delighted in, and who delighted in him, from before the beginning of time.

The story is told that Martin Luther was reading to Mrs Luther the account of how God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son. And Mrs Luther interrupted, ‘God would never ask that of a person; God would never ask them to sacrifice their child for him’.

But actually parents do, in some sort of way, sacrifice their children.
We love them, we cherish them, we grow them to give them away, to let them go.
You see the consequences when a parent refuses to let go of their child and tries to cling on to them.
That is why one of the very traditional rituals in a wedding is when a father, or someone from the family, ‘gives away’ their daughter. And as someone who has stood at the front and watched this happen on many occasions, I can see how bitter sweet that is for the parents. There are tears of joy at weddings, but there are also tears of pain as you emotionally give away, let go of your child.
And what of parents, for instance, who give away their children to go and fight for their country – knowing that they might suffer and die, knowing that they are potentially giving them up to death?  

As parents we don’t really have the choice of letting our children go.
But Father God loved us and the world so much that he chose to give his only Son.
And he knew that his son would choose to take onto himself our sin and the sin of the world, that his son would suffer and die. There was no question about what would happen.
And yes, there would ultimately be joy, but he knew that in sending his Son he was allowing into his heart the wrenching pain of separation and overwhelming grief, a pain and grief that would be with him for eternity.

I can’t really explain it, and I’m using words – probably foolish words - to try and describe a reality that is far beyond the reach of words.
But what John 3.16 tells us is that the love of God, and the love of God for you, is unimaginable. We will need all of eternity simply to begin to understand the love that God has for us in giving up his only son.

that whoever
This is really simple.
‘Whoever’ potentially includes everybody. It includes everybody who currently lives on this planet who has had a birth mother!
It includes atheists and agnostics; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs; Methodists and Roman Catholics and Orthodox and free Church and Evangelicals and Pentecostals. It includes Anglicans! It is for people who have been coming to church for many years. It is for people who have only just started coming along
It even includes you.
This is an invitation that is open to everyone

believes in him
That is, who believes in Jesus, who puts their trust in him.

It speaks of the moment when we put our trust in him and are saved.     

Jesus, in John 3.14, has reminded Nicodemus of an event that happened when the people of Israel were wandering through the wilderness. God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt, and yet they grumbled against God. They said, ‘You only brought us out into the desert to kill us – oh, and by the way, we hate the food you have given us to eat’. They had stopped trusting in God.
And so God sends – and it is God who sends – the plague of serpents. There are snakes everywhere: in their tents, in their rucksacks, in their shoes. Whoever is bitten by one of these snakes will die. There was no medicine, no antidote, no treatment.
And the people cry out to God, and they ask him to have mercy. They realise that they have turned from God, that they are perishing and they repent. So God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a pole, and whoever turns and looks at the snake is saved.

That is all that they need to do.
I can imagine some saying, ‘But that is stupid. That can’t do anything. I’m not going to humiliate myself in that way.’
But others said, ‘God says that if we look at the serpent on the pole we will live. I’ve got nothing else to depend on. I’m going to trust him and do it’.

Listen, says Jesus to Nicodemus. Just as Moses lifted the serpent on the pole and the people were saved by looking at it, so I am going to be lifted up – and whoever believes in me, whoever puts their trust in me, will be saved, and will have eternal life.

But ‘believes in him’ or ‘trusts in him’ speaks also of an ongoing relationship.

In verses 19-21, Jesus speaks of how he is the light who has come into the world, and that if we believe in him as the eternal Son of God, if we listen to his words and daily put our trust in him, then we will be people who come to the light and allow the light of God to shine in our lives.

‘Philosopher Nicholas Beale and scientist John Polkinghorne use the following story to illustrate the nature of biblical faith:
A philosopher, a scientist, and a simple man—none of whom could swim—were trapped in a cove with sheer cliff faces. They split up, but the tide kept coming in. Rescuers lowered a rope with a safety harness. The philosopher said, "Ah, this looks like a rope, but I might be mistaken—it could be wishful thinking or an illusion." So he didn't attach himself, and he was drowned. The scientist said, "Ah, this is an 11 mm polyester rope with a breaking strain of 2800 kg. It conforms to the MR 10-81 standard," and then proceeded to give an exhaustive, and entirely correct, analysis of the rope's physical and chemical properties. But he didn't attach himself, and he was drowned. The simple man said, "Ah, I'm not sure if it's a rope or a python tail, but it's my only chance, so I'm grabbing it and holding on with my whole life." He was saved.

should not perish
This is the bit that people find difficult. It is hard.
It means that without Jesus we are without God.        

We’ve chosen to cut ourselves off from the source of life, of truth.
It is, if you forgive me for twisting an illustration adapted from current news stories, a bit like a country choosing itself to cut off the pipeline that brings the oil that it needs into the country. For a long time, there doesn’t seem to be a problem because it is living on reserves. But there will come a day when the reserves run out.
And although we’ve cut ourselves off from God, there are sufficient reserves of the goodness and blessing of God in this creation for us to carry on as if nothing has changed. But there will come a day when the reserve runs out. And we will perish.

Without God we are building a wall around ourselves. We’re cutting ourselves off from light and life. And it is not only our physical bodies that will die. Our souls are shrinking and shrivelling up. JK Rowling’s description of Voldemort when his soul has become an eternal whimpering foetus-like baby discarded under a railway station seat is one of the most chilling metaphors of what we are becoming without God.

but have eternal life
God loves us, and he does not want that to be our destiny.
He does not want anyone to perish.
Instead he delights in us and desires for us to come into communion with him, to know him; and he longs to bless us, so that we begin to live as we were made to live. Because that is life.
Eternal life in the bible begins when a person turns to Jesus in trust, when they look to him, when they receive him, invite him to come and be their friend, even to come right deep within their lives and to shape what they desire and how they think.
That is when the connection is made, that is when the pipeline is turned on.
And this life is so rich that not even physical death can destroy it.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life”.

So, my dear friends, learn that verse, reflect on the verse.
But of even more importance, please I beg you to receive the gift.


When I was a vicar in inner-city London, in Holloway, we ran a mission. We invited an evangelist called Andy Economides to speak to different groups that we already ran. One of those was a Wednesday afternoon service, mainly for people who were older. Frank used to come to those services. In fact, he had come to St Mary Magdalene for most of his life, and he was in his late 80s. But as Andy spoke, I don’t know what it was, but something just clicked. He heard the message. He heard that it wasn’t church going that would save him, it wasn’t receiving communion that would save him, it wasn’t even being good – and don’t get me wrong, Frank was a good man – that would save him. He heard that what he needed to do was to look to Jesus and put his trust in him. Trust him that he was the Son of God; trust him that he had died for him; trust him enough to live for him. And for the first time, Frank asked Jesus into his life.

I hate it when that happens. I’d been vicar of St Mary Magdalene for 10 years. I’d been preaching that same message for 10 years, and Frank had been there for 10 years. And nothing happened. And then someone else comes along, says the same thing as me, and Frank hears and is converted!

But the reason that Frank sticks so clearly in my mind is that 3 days later I received a phone call from Avril his daughter telling me that Frank had died in his sleep. Talk about leaving it to the last minute! And at his funeral we were able with great thanksgiving and with great confidence to say that Frank had gone to be with the Lord Jesus? Why? Because he had heard about Jesus, he had looked at Jesus, and he had believed Jesus. He had received God’s gift of eternal life.

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