I’ve heard many sermons on John 3:16, from many different people, and most of them could be summed up as “turn or burn”. It’s one of the most quoted and one of the most preached upon verses of scripture, and dare I suggest one of the most abused. I’m tempted to dive straight in to that verse and dissect it, to try to help us all understand a little more of what it says, and also of what it doesn’t say. Our lectionary this morning is really helpful because it puts it in a proper context, reading verses 14-21, so let’s look at it all.
Verses 14 and 15 take us back to the strange story in Numbers 21, helpfully read as the Old Testament today. The Children of Israel left Egypt following the plagues, the Red Sea had parted and they were in the Sinai desert. It wasn’t long before they grumbled against God, and said they wished they were back in Egypt in slavery. God sent a plague of deadly, fires snakes. Many were bitten and died. The people repented and cried for mercy. God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake, place it on a pole, and put the pole in the midst of the encampment. Anyone who was bitten by a snake was to look at the pole, and they would be healed. The bronze serpent was only ever a symbol to point to God who gave healing. But by the time of King Hezekiah the Israelites were worshipping the bronze serpent, and so he ordered it to be destroyed.
John takes the story as a sort of parable for Jesus. The Children of Israel were afflicted by a deadly disease, they looked at the one raised up on the pole, that turned their thoughts to God and he healed them. Sin is the deadly disease that afflicts us, that leads us to certain death. When we look to Jesus, raised high on the cross, we come to God for healing from sin and restoration to eternal life. John talks of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. John uses exactly the same words to talk of Jesus being lifted up to glory at his father’s right hand following his resurrection. The cross and the ascension and glorification are inextricably linked. Jesus could not have been glorified without being crucified. Jesus was glorified by being crucified. Without the cross there is no crown.
“That whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There’s enough in this verse for several sermons, so let me just give a few brief thoughts. Believing in him could be very vague. I think there are a number of strands to what it means. It means believing in the love of God, believing in the will and desire of God to forgive us and restore us to fellowship with him, believing that Jesus is truly the son of God, God incarnate, believing in what Jesus said and did, and then crucially taking that and acting upon it. Belief is not simply intellectual assent, it must translate into a life of obedience.
Eternal life is the life of God himself. It is not life in eternity, it is life both now and then. In this life the key marker of eternal life is peace. Peace with God, peace with our fellow men, peace with life itself, peace with ourselves. And all of that points us to an even greater peace, it reminds us that everything in this mortal life is only a shadow of the life to come, a foretaste of all that is yet to be.
That leads us into the famous verse 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 me give you three things to reflect on from that verse. Firstly it tells us that the initiative in salvation lies with God. God reached out to the world and sent his Son to save us from sin and death. Sometimes Christianity is presented in such a way that it sounds as if God has to be pacified, persuaded to forgive. Sometimes the picture is of a stern, angry, unforgiving God and a gentle Jesus. Sometimes it seems as if Jesus did something to change the attitude of God. But read it again and you will discover these are all false pictures. God took the initiative to seek and save the lost by coming down and walking amongst us. I’ve often heard people talk about being saved as if they have done something wonderful for God, and God should almost be grateful to them. It is God who reaches out to us, and all we can do, all we need do is say yes to him.
The second thing it tells us is that the core of God’s being is love. God is not the angry tyrant looking down on those who fall into sin and waits to punish them. God does not want to bring the universe to heel, God is love and all he wants is love. God never smashes men into submission, because that is not love.
The third thing it tells us is of the depth and width of God’s love. God does not love the Children of Israel so much that he sent his son, or indeed any other nation, tribe or race, it is the world that God loves. Jesus was not sent for and to those who would love him in return, he was sent for and to the whole world. The unloveable and the unlovely, the lonely who have no one else to love them, the man who loves God and the man who never thinks of him, the man who rests in the love of God and the man who spurns it – all are included within the vast inclusive love of God. As St Augustine said, “God loves each one of us as if there was only one to love.”
Many preachers focus on the word “perish” and miss the words “should not.” If they read on into verse 17 it might help. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there is no judgement, no condemnation, no perishing. But look at it this way. We judge ourselves, we condemn ourselves, when we refuse to accept Jesus. God offers us love, we can accept that love, or we can reject that love. God does not judge us or drive us away, the offer is there, always there, ready and waiting for us. At the end of the day we then must make the choice to love, or not to love. And in that choice we make our judgement. God does not condemn us, but we can condemn ourselves if we refuse to respond to that love.
Verse 19: “this is the judgement, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” This is one of John’s great themes, light and dark. Jesus is the light of the world, the radiance of the splendour of God. We must choose who enter into that light, or remain in darkness. We must choose, not God. God makes an offer to us, we choose how we respond.
The entire gospel, in a nutshell, is that God loves us, God reaches out to us, God offers us eternal life. All we need to do is to make a decision, to accept God, or to reject God. We can’t have it both ways, we can’t sit on the fence. If we accept God we enter into light, and we live in the light, as people of prayer, worship, scripture, sacrament, people who not only hear the words of Jesus, but who shape our lives around those words. Or we reject God and do our own thing. We can walk out of this church in a few minutes and forget all about God for the next few weeks or months. I have often been asked to I believe in hell. I do, but not in the fiery furnace. I believe hell is a cold, dark place, because it is where we go when we put ourselves beyond the love and the light of God. The only torture is the torture of not allowing ourselves to be loved. God loves us, but love needs a response for it to mean anything.