Numbers 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3,17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-20
John 3.16 is perhaps the most well known verse in the New Testament. Many people know it, and we often find it quoted all by its lonesome. Luther called it “the gospel in a nutshell.” Yet even alone, and even more certainly when we read it in context, this verse is more than just a quotable moment or a memory verse - it is a story.
It is a story that begins like our reading today from the book of Numbers - mumbling and grumbling, sin and brokenness. There is no denying the presence of evil and sin in our world, and as much as we may want to point fingers, there is no denying that we also find it within ourselves. We are the world, in the sense that John means it. Usually in this gospel, ‘the world’ refers to those people who are oriented toward the world instead of God - human beings who are at odds with Jesus and the kingdom he brings. The world is problematic and distracted.
And to this world, to us, God says ‘I love you’. Love is why God does what God does in the world. Love is the logic by which the kingdom of God runs. The story at the heart of John 3.16 is a love story. God’s love for us, though it often feels wonderful, is about so much more than feelings. God’s love for us is about commitment and promise, it is unconditional in a way that is incomparable to any love we experience in this world.
We see God’s commitment to us lived out in the story of the cross - the ultimate example of God loving us in spite of our sinfulness. God’s love for us is so great that God came to be with us, incarnate in Christ Jesus. And Jesus’ faithfulness to God was so great that living out God’s kingdom on Earth resulted in crucifixion. Not because this was God’s intention. Not because this was the pre-ordained purpose for Jesus, but because the humiliation of the cross is how a sinful and broken humanity, how we, reacted to God’s radical love.
The story thus far is one that many of us have heard again and again. Sinfulness is met by God’s love and grace. God’s actions in Christ, culminating in death and resurrection, are for us, done out of love. But the story doesn’t stop there for John.
Throughout the entire gospel, John is fervently focused on what Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension mean for humanity - right now, in the present moment. Who people are is determined by their response to Jesus. It matters because eternal life is already here. Eternal life isn’t about going to heaven when you die. And boiling John 3 down to the simple dichotomy of ‘believers go to heaven, nonbelievers go to hell’ does a great injustice to the story that John is telling. Eternal life, as John understands it, is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God - and it begins in the believers present - eternal life IS, right now. And if it starts right now, then it makes sense that John is so focused on choosing to follow Jesus, on being a believer. The consequences aren’t imminent, they are already here. Every moment we wait to make this decision is a moment less living out eternal life.
Then our story starts throwing around the English word judgement. Even after John makes a special note to remind us that Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. While we connect the word judgement with pronouncements and punishments, the greek word here, at its root, is more about separating and revealing than it is about punishment. The greek word is also the root of our English word, crisis. The judgment that John is writing about is more about decisive moments than about accusations. These verses describe reality, they are not a threat of “believe, or else”.
Because a crisis is exactly what happens when we don’t come out of the darkness into the light. Maybe we are scared, or defiant, or lost, but no matter the reason - it is a tragedy to remain in a dark corner when God has lit up the world. A tragedy, a loss, but not a punishment.
This is the part where our story becomes like those “choose your own adventure” books. The light is always there, but we can hide in the darkness. We can choose to panic about the snakes at our feet, or choose to look up to the one lifted high, knowing it will heal us. We have been baptized into the gift of eternal life, but how we live into that, how we let it shape who we are - that is up to us.
But, it can never shape who God is. How God loves, who God loves, how much God loves, none of that is determined by our responses, our choices, our actions, our beliefs. No matter how much time we spend in the dark, afraid and missing out on the eternal life already begun, it will never change, negate, or lessen God’s love for what Christ did for us.
Like it or not, God’s love will continue to be the logic by which the kingdom of God runs. Like it or not, in the face of unconditional love, we are powerless. This is the one relationship in our lives over which we have no power, which also means it is the one relationship we cannot screw up - the one relationship our sin can never touch. This is the only story that can truly end with happily ever after, because God is the one in control. This is the story of saved by grace. A story that begins with and always comes back to love.
We’ve been singing a great song about love in preschool chapel lately. And as complex as trying to wrap our intellect around God’s presence and love and work in the world can be, it’s a good reminder that God’s love is in many ways very straightforward.
Love, love, love.
That’s what it’s all about.
‘Cause God loves, we love each other.
Mother, Father, Sister, Brother.
Everybody sing and SHOUT,
‘Cause that’s what it’s all about.