The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost June 28, 2015
71, 572, 388, 54
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish buthave eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
In the name of Jesus Christ, who also said in the Gospel of John, “As I have loved you, so you love one another” (John 13:34)—Dear friends:
I remember this as if it happened only yesterday. My son Andrew, perhaps four years old at the time, climbed into the family car with crumpled artwork in one small hand and a Power Rangers backpack dangling from the other. “Daddy,” he said, “I learned a new song at school today. Wanna hear it?” “Sure I do,” I replied. “Let’s hear it.” And without any fear of forgetting the lyrics or singing off key, Andrew began, “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” The song ended with my four-year-old son giving me a peck on the cheek and a hug around the neck.
Were you to ask Andrew, now twenty-three, about this preschool episode, he would likely say, “Nah, that never happened. Dad is losing his memory as rapidly as he’s losing his hair.” But it did happen. I could never lose or confuse a memory that precious. “I love you a bushel and a peck, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.”
“I love you.” It’s hard to imagine a more powerful, uplifting, and important expression. Yet, what does the expression really mean? Philosophers and poets, lyricists and songwriters, have attempted to define and memorialize love for millennia. How many popular songs can you list with the word “love” in the title? Our Love, Tommy Dorsey, 1939. I Love You, Bing Crosby, 1944. Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley, 1956. She Loves You, The Beatles, 1964. Stop! In the Name of Love, The Supremes, 1965. You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, The Righteous Brothers, 1965.
Love also comes in various forms: the love between spouses, the love between parents and children, the love between siblings, the love between good friends, romantic love, puppy love, and tough love. The definition of love can range from serious commitment to mild infatuation. People profess: “I love the National Football League. I love Florida in the winter. I love Tom Hanks in Forest Gump. I love to grill hamburgers and hotdogs on the Fourth of July.”
I used to think this casual use of the word love was unique to our modern culture, until I stumbled upon the words of Isaac to Esau in Genesis 27:4, “And make me savory food, such as I love; and bring it to me that I may eat, that my soul may bless you before I die.” Apparently Isaac “loved” venison stew.
Scripture is overflowing with expressions of God’s love, as if even God Himself cannot say “I love you” enough. One of my favorite Bible passages is Jeremiah 31:3, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness” (NIV). Or consider the heartwarming words of Psalm 103: He “crowns you with love and compassion…the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love…as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear Him,” (Psalm 103:4, 8, 11 NIV).
What does God mean when He says, “I love you?” What kind of love is God’s love? While the answer is given from Genesis to Revelation, nowhere is it more eloquently stated than in today’s text: “For God so loved the world.” When we hear this phrase, we almost immediately equate “so loved” with “so much.” God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son. This is certainly true. However, a more literal rendering of the phrase in the original New Testament Greek is: “in this manner God loved the world.” So John 3:16 really describes the characteristics of God’s great love for us. What are those characteristics?
In answering, let’s begin with God’s language of love. Ancient Greek used three words to describe love, each with a different meaning: philos, eros, and agape. Philos is the love of devoted friendship. Jesus used this word saying to His disciples, “You are my friends, if you do what I command” (John 15:14 NIV). Eros, while not used in the Bible, is the love of romanticism and intimacy; and, not surprisingly, the source of our English word erotic.
Agape is the highest form of love, far transcending emotion to embrace deep, unshakable commitment. It is a complete love, not lacking in any area or resource. It is a determined love, incapable of letting go or giving up. It is a sacrificial love, willing to expend self in service to others. It is a purposeful love, focused not on want but on true need. It is a perfect love, used in John 3:35 to describe the love of God the Father for God the Son and in John 14:35 to describe the perfect love of God the Son for God the Father. As someone has said, “Agape is the type of love that recognizes everything wrong with someone and yet insists on loving that person anyway.” This is God’s great love for the world. This, dear friend, is God’s great love for you.
While there are scores of Bible passages that describe the characteristics of this highest form of love, Agape, one of the most endearing is found in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a NIV). Patient—that is God’s love. Kind—that is God’s love. Not self-seeking—that is God’s love. Always protecting and persevering—that is God’s love.
John 3:16 is one of the first Bible verses I memorized as a child. It is also one of the first verses I taught my own children. To this day, whenever I worry about their well-being, happiness, contentment, and safety—whether physical or spiritual—I remind them, “Remember John 3:16. Remember that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This simple verse encapsulates the entire Gospel. If you knew no other message from God, believing this message alone would bring you eternal salvation.
The very first sermon I wrote in seminary was based on John 3:16. The truth is I find this text as daunting today as I did in 1976. One reason is the vastness of the subject. How can one begin to describe the infinite love of the infinite God in one sermon? Another reason is the familiarity of the text. You know this verse of Scripture as well as I do. What can I tell you about God’s love that you don’t already know? That’s the “preacher” in me talking. The “Nicodemus” in me knows better.
Despite the global scope of the message, “God so loved the world,” remember that Jesus delivered this powerful description of God’s love and salvation to one individual. It was to Nicodemus who, as John explains in the third chapter of his Gospel account, was a Pharisee and member of the Jewish Sanhedrin—a man drawn to Jesus, but who still had doubts about Jesus; a man so worried and frightened about what others would think that he came to Jesus at night.
As Jesus so often did, He taught the great love of God to lost and confused individuals, not just massive crowds. This is how I’d like to approach John 3:16 today. Think of yourself as a Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night: worried, upset, concerned about everything from personal affairs to the affairs of the country. Perhaps you are facing a serious illness. Perhaps your marriage is in trouble. Perhaps you’re in pain or lonely or in search of a job or struggling to pay bills, and more than anything else you desire to know the certainty of God’s love at work in your life. You desire the certainty that God has not turned away from you or forgotten you, but rather loves you with all His heart. Approach Jesus this way, and then listen carefully to what he tells you.
First, He tells you that God’s love for you is unconditional. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus said. The Greek word for world is cosmos and it incorporates all the glitter, worldliness, and self-interest contained in the word cosmopolitan.
What kind of a world did God love? A lost and condemned world. A world that hated Him, as Paul describes it in Romans 1:29-30, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (NIV).
This is the world God loved—a world that failed to recognize the long-promised Savior, as John writes in his Gospel: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him” (John 1:10-11 NIV).
My son Andrew enjoys playing “stump the pastor” as much as anyone, and often corners me in the car with a deep theological question. One of his favorites involves Genesis 3 and the fall into sin. “Well dad,” he says, hoping this time I will see the inevitability of his logic; “if God knew Adam and Eve would sin, why did He create them?” And I usually answer his question with a question of my own: “If God knew Adam and Eve would sin, why did He choose to save them, knowing that saving them would cost the life of His only begotten Son?” The answer is, because God loved them and the world to be born from them. When creating an entire universe was not enough to demonstrate God’s love, He sacrificed His own Son, Jesus Christ.
Is that the course we would take? Not a chance. I’ve switched phone companies over poor customer service. I’ve given up on people who’ve failed to meet my expectations. I’ve stopped patronizing restaurants where the food was cold, as well dentists who caused me too much pain. If I had been God in Eden, I would have snapped my fingers, incinerated the first couple, and started over with Eric and Gladys instead of Adam and Eve.
And yet, the Gospel brings us the amazing words: “God so loved the world.” This sinful, unworthy world and everyone in it: You. Me. Everyone. God’s love is unconditional, meaning that it does not depend on us but entirely on Him. Oh, how different God’s love is from human love. Human love looks for a reason to love in others. “I love because he is my child. I love because she meets all my needs. I love because he is so handsome.” Really? If that is true, how much will you love him when he grows old and wrinkled and his hair falls out? God loves us for His own sake. Can you think of anything more comforting than that? Can you see why all the despised and rejected, the outcasts and notorious sinners of Christ’s day were so overjoyed when Jesus proclaimed God’s love and forgiveness to them? Being saved had nothing to do with social status or nice clothes or good deeds or large bank accounts. Being saved simply meant trusting in God’s great and unconditional love, as revealed in Jesus Christ, “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
In our text, Jesus also describes God’s love as a love of commitment and action and sacrifice. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” He acted. And what did He give? The very best that he had to give, His own Son. I find it both sad and amazing that so many churches today want to talk about God’s love—but never a word about sin or accountability or cost. “Oh, God loves you,” they say, failing to realize that the only way to truly understand the extent of God’s love is through the extent of his sacrifice. “This is how we know what love is,” John wrote in his first epistle: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16 NIV).
Truthfully, nothing flows more easily from human lips than the words “I love you.” But it isn’t enough just to say “I love you.” It isn’t enough to engrave “eternally yours” in a wedding ring. True love proves itself through action. Over the course of their forty-eight-year marriage, I heard my dad and stepmother tell each other, “I love you,” countless times. But when I saw my stepmother sitting for hours beside my dad’s hospital bed, or gently holding his hand, or swabbing his tongue with ice chips, or adjusting the oxygen mask, or bending through a maze of tubes to kiss his forehead, there was no need for her to say, “I love you.” I could see her love by her actions.
Does God say “I love you?” Of course He does. But He didn’t stop with mere talk. He proved that love in a way that should eliminate all doubt, all fear, and all worry. He gave His Son, Jesus Christ. He gave, not partially, tentatively, or regrettably, but completely and irrevocably. When I worked at the Lakeland Funeral Home, the sales contracts I used contained an ‘irrevocable’ clause provision. People who signed the irrevocable clause were saying, “I will never change my mind about this purchase. I will never ask for my money back.”
When God sacrificed Jesus for us, He was signing an irrevocable contract in the blood of his Son. He was declaring His love to be irrevocable. He was saying to each one of us, “You might feel alone, but I am always with you. You might feel lost, but I’ve saved you. You might feel unloved and unwanted, but no one will ever want or love you like I do. If you want proof, look at the cross. Look at the cross where I punished my Son so that I could save you.”
The Apostle Paul clearly saw the cross of Jesus as the proof of God’s love and why we should never doubt that love no matter what we face in life. He wrote in Romans 8: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39).
Believe it. Because God has proven it.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.