Year A, Second Sunday in Lent: John 3:1-17 March 20, 2011 The Rev. Adam S. Linton
“What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”
“The wind blows where it chooses.” This is one of my favorite phrases in all of Holy Scripture.
Our appreciation of it is made even more vivid when we recall that in the original Greek of John’s Gospel, the word for “spirit” and the word for “wind” are the very same. The spirit blows where it chooses. The wind blows where it wills. Helpful for us to remember: Last I heard, it was not possible to have a franchise on God. It is not for us to predict or manipulate or control the ways of the Spirit. It blows in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. But we have to admit to ourselves that as we see it, as we perceive it, the ways of the Spirit can often seem rather hit or miss.
Why do some seem to be touched by the Spirit’s working, and some not? At different times, we can be either caught up in the wind—or passed by. The same scripture verse that once resonated with power and energy later can leave us wondering, “What does this have to do with me?”
Pondering the wind/spirit connection, I thought of tornados, oddly enough. A tornado is the most violent manifestation of wind’s force on the planet. But if we look at the narrow path of a tornado’s destruction, there’s a great mystery to it. One house, right in the middle of the path of destruction, reduced to splinters. Another one, maybe two houses away, virtually untouched.
How come, at least as we see it, the Spirit touches some and not others? How come that we ourselves feel both connection and alienation? More mystery. But we’re called to keep attentive, to keep moving forward (plodding along if we have to); through all the times when the Spirit is obvious and even when, to our perception, it’s not.
Today in the sermon, I’m going to invite us to focus on John 3:16, perhaps the single best known verse in the Bible. In many motel or hotel rooms one can open up the drawer of the bedside table, and find one of those Gideon bibles. At the very beginning of a Gideon bible, John 3:16 is printed out there in many different languages. Sometimes when Lori and I are travelling I’ll open up the Gideon bible just in honor of those who worked to put it there, and I’ll look over John 3:16.
There are Christians from some traditions that will unroll a great big banner at a sports stadium, and on it one can see:
J N Period Three Colon Sixteen
For better or worse, we Episcopalians aren’t usually quite so exuberant, but it’s still a verse that’s close to our hearts. I’m going to invite us to look at it closely today. But to do that, first we have to back up two verses, to John 3:14.
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
John 3:14 references what has to be on of the oddest passages in all the bible, from Numbers, chapter 21. The people of Israel, after they’d been set free from their captivity in Egypt and after they’d received the law at Mount Sinai, have some work to do. Forty years worth—before they enter the Promised Land. It often doesn’t go so well. They’re in one of their characteristic periods of grumbling and complaint. So there’s some retribution coming. The text of Numbers says that poisonous serpents enter the camp and afflict the people of Israel in a deadly way. What Moses does—at God’s direction—is to cast a bronze sculpture of a serpent, put it on a pole, and lift it up. The people of look at it, and they’re healed.
What’s going on here? A bit of idolatry that got past the warning system? Maybe an ancient example of homeopathic medicine? Well, we’re not going to be able to sort it out today, except to note that it’s the background to John 3:14, and also that this very odd passage in Numbers was seen by earliest Christian writers as a prefiguring image of the Cross. Jesus is lifted up on the Cross in his sacrificial death. And those who in faith look to him there, lifted up for us, are healed.
Now, after that detour, let’s take a look at John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
Let’s take a look at it, piece by piece.
That’s where we begin. In our theological language, we would do well to make God the subject of more sentences than we do, and God is certainly the subject of this sentence.
What do we mean when we say the word “God”? That’s a very practical problem. We have to admit that sometimes even the most cherished vocabulary of faith gets compromised. It has to be cleansed and sorted out and reengaged. What do we mean when we say the word God? The one who made us—the source of our being. The one who is closer to us than our own hearts. The one who is our life, our health, our peace, ultimate beauty and goodness and truth. The one before whom we always give ultimate account. God.
“For God so loved.”
Greek has a few more words for love than we do in English. In English, the word “love” carries a lot of freight: from “I love that green bean casserole,” all the way to “I love you,” said to our life partner. We also have to acknowledge that much of what goes on in the name of “love” in this broken human life of ours can be possessive, manipulative—very proprietary. God’s love is not like that. God doesn’t have to ask, “What’s in it for me?” God’s love is perfectly other directed. God loves us not because we have something that we can help God out with; not because we’ve made a deal—but because Love loves.
“For God so loved the world.”
This world, the one you and I live in. Messed up—hurting and hurtful and broken. Including us.
I want to pause for a bit before we go on. “For God so loved the world.” How do we understand a God who “loves the world” in the aftermath of earthquakes and tsunamis? How do we think about a world which God “loves” in the ongoing cycle of strife and war and bloodshed?
Well, we’re certainly not going to get it tacked down. We have to acknowledge the reality of suffering: questions that we can’t answer and have no business trying to answer. Sometimes things are terrible. We acknowledge that honestly, but also affirm in mystery and paradox that God does love this world as we are. Although God has great intentions for us that we can barely begin to comprehend, God doesn’t merely love us as raw material. God loves us here and now—with all the brokenness and the joys, the consolations and the sufferings that we bring with us this morning, right where we are. And that’s true for the whole creation.
“For God so loved the world that he gave.”
Gave. The word just slips past our lips, and in spite of all the license that seems so characteristic of our human life, we forget the concept of grace. God gives. God gives utterly in generosity. It’s not a deal that we have to match ourselves up to. We’re never going to merit it. God gives what God gives purely out of generosity to the unworthy and the undeserving, and yes, that means he’s talking about us. What does God give?
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
Jesus, the eternal word made flesh. Jesus fully one of us, but not only one of us. Jesus, the Great Teacher, indeed, but much more than only a teacher. In this Jesus, we meet the eternal God made flesh.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone.”
Everyone. Once again, over against all notions of spiritual franchise, when we hear the word “everyone,” I think we’re invited to ask ourselves the question, “What part of ‘everyone’ do we not yet understand?”
“So that everyone who believes in him.”
Belief in the deepest Christian sense is not to be reduced to “I give my intellectual assent to this series of facts.” Belief in the biblical sense means to cherish and to trust. We’re going to walk with this Jesus whom we cherish—that we get to know as not only trustworthy, but ultimate trustworthiness. And specifically, going back to that odd citation two verses before: We believe, we trust, we cherish the Christ who was lifted up on the cross, whose death—in ways we can’t possibly perfectly understand—is God’s perfect provision for us and for our salvation.
“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish.”
The world we now see is a perishing world. But there’s much more to reality than what we now can perceive. What we see is not what we get, thanks be. God has more in store. And what God has in store is broader and deeper and higher than we can possibly imagine.
“So that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
Eternal life. Yes of course, that means life bigger than this present life. It means life beyond the threshold of mortality. Of course, it means that. But it doesn’t mean the good stuff is always after, away—and never here. The eternal life that Jesus is talking about, the eternal life that Jesus is giving, is bigger than the present life. It flows beyond the present life—but it starts here and now. Here and now—through the wonderful gift of God in Christ, we enter the eternal kind of life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
Now the ways of the Spirit—the Breath—of God, can often seem to us to be “hit or miss.” We hear the words of John 3:16. Maybe we feel touched; maybe not. Maybe we’re excited by them, maybe not. Whatever it is, we keep going forward, step by step, paying attention.
Lent is a season meant to foster our attentiveness. And if we feel—if we fear—that we’re one of those that the Spirit has missed, we need to be patient with ourselves and with that same Spirit. Our sense of lack could be, itself, a very good sign. Because the quiet Breath of God—often so quiet, so incremental, so barely noticeable; that quiet Spirit is more powerful than the most violent storm on earth.
“Breathe on us, Breath of God.” Amen.