Pastor Joe Skogmo
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN
Lent 2 | 03.08.2020 | John 3
John 3:16…from the face-paint on athletes, to sign holders at major sporting and political events, to devotional favorites, John 3:16 is easily among the most famous verses in the Bible.
But why? Why is it so famous? I think for at least one reason: when read on its own, John 3:16 makes people feel warm. It’s often perceived as a sentimental verse. In a world with so much hate and darkness, and with so many images in history and today of the cold angry gods who strike their subjects down, John 3:16 presents something profoundly reassuring.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
How many know that verse now that I’ve read it again? A lot of you.
It is a very warm text to hear…on its own—and that’s usually how we get John 3:16…on its own. For some reason, the equally stunning verse 17 is not as well known, which reads:
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
How many know that one? Fewer. This proves the point that John 3:16 is often not understood in its full context.
Most of the time John 3:16 is presented to us without context, on things like coffee mugs, wall decor, coasters, billboards, and bumper stickers. This is by no means a bad thing. I think it is beautiful how much this verse is visible in our world.
I am just making the point that we rarely think of John 3:16 in relation to the rest of the story in the Gospel of John. The point I am trying to drive home is this: if we understood John 3:16 in relation to the whole Gospel of John, I think we would find this verse not just warm and sentimental, but deeply shocking. Perhaps because of that, it would be even more famous.
Here’s why: in the Gospel of John, there is a general antagonist consistently and frequently mentioned as pitted against God and Jesus. That antagonist that is often against Jesus throughout the Gospel of John is…the world, or in Greek the kosmos (κόσμος) (where we get the words, cosmic, cosmopolitan, and cosmology).
In the Gospel of John the world that God so loves is constantly referred to as a hostile and negative actor towards God. Anytime the world is mentioned in John, it’s almost always representative of that which opposes Jesus. In fact, the world in John, is consistently regarded is something that hates Jesus.
Now you may think ‘hate’ is a strong and dramatic word here. And it is. Jefferson often reminds us that we shouldn’t use the word ‘hate’ lightly. Right, Jefferson? You have to be very careful when you use that word around him, or he’ll let you know about it! But the fact of the matter is, the world in the Gospel of John is consistently depicted as something that hates Jesus. Listen to these outright examples acknowledged by Jesus himself:
John 7:7 – “The world…it hates me.”
John 15:18 – “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”
John 15:19 – “I have chosen you…therefore the world hates you.”
John 15:23 – “[They hate] my Father also.”
John 15:24 – “But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.”
John 15:25 – “They hated me without a cause.”
John 16:19-20 – “A little while, and you will no longer see me…[and] the world will rejoice.”
The world is often pitted against God in Christ Jesus. With that now established, is it not shocking that God loves that which hates him?
Now, not only consider the world in the Gospel of John, consider the whole of human history and the depraved things we’ve done and continue to do to one another and towards God. When you consider that, it becomes even more absurd and shocking that God loves and seeks to save and be in relationship with this world.
For God so loved the world…You mean God loves this world?—this world in which, in the words of songwriters, lives in ‘kingdoms built with the blood of slaves orphans, widows, and homeless graves,’ and where ‘slavery is stitched into the fabric of our clothes’?
You mean us who salivate over material possession? This world that desires economic growth and profit over people and the environment?
You mean this world? This world that has more weapons to destroy itself 50 times over? You mean this world that has committed genocide on every populated continent? This world, that has a seemingly infinite history and legacy of racism and classism?
You mean this world? Us?—we who subordinate genders, neglect the elderly, enslave the child, profit off of disease and destruction, lynch the minority, romanticize violence, sell violence? This world, this species that has produced torture, terrorism, sex trafficking, pyramid schemes, and the nuclear bomb? God loves this world?
When we understand the nature of the world both in the Gospel of John and in human history, when we understand and see the world for what it is…John 3:16 becomes jaw dropping. John 3:16 goes from a mere sentimental and warm verse, to a verse that ought to bring us to our knees with its proclamation of God’s radical mercy.
Think about what and who the world is. Think about who and what it is in the Gospel of John and in human existence…and, now, hear this:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order the world might be saved through him.
For God so loved the world…this world?! Yes. This world. So, if you ever doubt that the love and grace of God is for you, if you ever fear that the love and grace of God isn’t for you, if you ever see yourself as too broken and too messed up to be loved and claimed by God, or if your guilt and your shame is claiming to be insurmountable, think again, for God so loves this world. Amen.