Saturday, March 3, 2018

“God So Loved the World” - February 4, 2018

Text: John 3:14-21

Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  The New England Patriots always seem to be in the Super Bowl, and to be honest I’m getting a little tired of it, but I think the story here is the Philadelphia Eagles.  They were pretty mediocre, with losing records the last couple of seasons, but last year their rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, showed promise.  I had actually seen him play in college.  I went with Wallace Sanders to see Iowa State play North Dakota State.  North Dakota State is in a lower division than ISU, but they are always great.  They had a bunch of fans here in Ames and with quarterback Carson Wentz, they beat the Cyclones.  So I drafted him for my fantasy football team this year. 

Wentz had a spectacular season and helped me to finish first in my fantasy league, but he tore a ligament in his knee and was lost for the season.  It looked like the Eagles’ playoff aspirations were over, but with their backup journeyman quarterback, Nick Foles, they managed to make it to the Super Bowl.

(Person in congregation holds up John 3:16 sign)  OK, OK, I’ll get to John 3:16.

It seems that every year at the Super Bowl, some guy hold up a sign that says “John 3:16.”  I guess the person holding the sign up expects that everybody will know it.  Although presumably, the intended audience is people who need to know Jesus, people who may be completely unfamiliar with the Bible.  Some probably would not know John 3:16 from John Deere or John F. Kennedy, but whatever. 

Now it is true that John 3:16 is probably the best-known verse in the Bible.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him (I memorized it in King James) shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

When we read the context surrounding this verse, there is some weird stuff going on, particularly in verse 14.  “… Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” 

Most of us have not memorized that verse.  It refers to a strange and obscure story in Numbers about a time when after the Israelites escaped out of Egypt, the people started complaining about all of the hardships, and about then there was an outbreak of poisonous snakes.  It was the conviction of the people that God had sent these snakes because of their complaining, so they asked Moses to pray for them.  God told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole.  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whenever someone was bit by a snake, they were to look at this snake on a stick and they would be healed.
The comparison drawn is that just as those who looked at the snake lifted up would find healing, those who look to Jesus on the cross will likewise find healing.

Many of us are familiar with John 3:16.  We often relate to this verse in terms of how – it tells us how we are to come to faith, how we are to come to eternal life - by believing in Jesus.  This morning, I would like for us to think about this most familiar of verses in terms of the why question.  Why does God send Jesus?  Why does God provide salvation?    The answer to the why question is, “God so loved the world.”

We need to hear these words more than ever.  Some of us were privileged to attend the NAACP banquet this week.  Aiddy Phomvisay was the guest speaker.  As part of his presentation, he told his own family’s story, of coming here as a child in 1979 as part of Gov. Ray’s outreach to refugees from Southeast Asia.  He told about some of the bigotry and prejudice his family faced.  And he said that as they stepped off the plane at the Des Moines airport, nobody would have guessed that these little kids would grow up to be an attorney, an architect, a humanitarian, an educator and principal.  That family’s story has been repeated time and again, and unless you are a Native American, at some point that was the story of all of our families. 

But for some reason, we can have a hard time remembering that God loves the world – all of it.  In our fear we can easily retreat into the idea that God loves us, and while God might love others, it is probably not as much as God loves us.  There is a long history of signing God up to cheer for one’s own side.  It’s funny, but in wars, everybody seems to think that God is on their side.  And that includes wars of words.

It is the conviction of our faith that God created the world, indeed, God created us and everything in this world.  Even those snakes – whether you put the snake on a stick or not, God created it.  God created the continents and the oceans, the mountains, the forests, all the plant life – corn and soybeans as well as daffodils and honeysuckle.  God created the birds and the fish and deer and chipmunks and you and me.

God created this world, and God loves this world.  Not just parts of it, all of it.  God so loved the world.  Why did God take on human flesh?  Why was Jesus born and walk this earth and heal and teach and love?  God so loved the world.  Why did Jesus die on the cross?  Because God so loved the world.

Peter Arnett was a CNN television commentator and reporter.  He told about being in a small town on the West Bank, when a bomb exploded.  Bloodied people were everywhere. A man came running up to him, holding a little girl in his arms.  He pleaded with Peter to take her to a hospital--as a member of the press he would be able to get through the security cordon.  So Peter, the man and the girl jumped into his car and rushed to the hospital.  The whole time the man was pleading with him to hurry, to go faster, heartbroken at the thought the little girl might die.

Sadly the little girl’s injuries were too great and she died on the operating table. When the doctor came out to give them the news the man collapsed in tears.  Peter Arnett was at a loss for words. “I don’t know what to say.  I can’t imagine what you must be going through.  I’ve never lost a child.”

It was then that the man said, “Oh, that girl was not my daughter.  I’m an Israeli settler.  She was a Palestinian.  But there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or a son.  There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (story told by Tony Campolo).

That man understood that God loves the whole world. 

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, now an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Med School.  Coles has done a lot of research on children under stress.  Back in 1960, he was put in charge of a psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi.  One day, while in New Orleans, he passed by a school where there were a bunch of demonstrators.  He discovered that these people were protesting that an African-American child named Ruby Bridges was allowed to go to the school.  She was escorted each day to and from school by federal marshals to ensure her safety because the local police would not protect her from the crowds who yelled and screamed and threatened this six year old girl.

There was more.  The school had been totally boycotted by the white population.  Ruby was the only African-American student.  So as the school year began, here was a six-year-old black child going to a school all by herself.   This is part of our American history.

Coles was interested in doing a study of the social stress Ruby was facing.  With the help of Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clark, a black psychologist that he knew in New York, Coles eventually was able to make contact with Ruby’s family.  Twice a week, he would go to visit, sometimes with his wife.  He would ask Ruby how she was doing, and she always said, “I’m doing fine.”  He talked to her mother and found that Ruby was sleeping well, her appetite was good, she had fun playing with her friends, she was learning to read and enjoyed that, she didn’t seem to be anxious or upset.  This went on for months.  Coles thought at first that everyone was in denial, that this was their coping mechanism, but it went on.  A few months later, Ruby’s teacher told him that she couldn’t understand how the child could be so happy and cheerful after facing the mobs, 50-75 people, twice a day, every day she went to school.

Ruby lived in poverty.  Her parents were illiterate – they couldn’t even write their own names.  They worked long hours at menial jobs for little pay.  They were going through tremendous strain.  And yet, Ruby seemed better adjusted than the children of well-to-do parents facing significantly less stress that Coles saw in Boston all the time.  He couldn’t figure it put.

Then one day, the teacher told Coles that she had seen Ruby talking to the people on the street.  He followed up when he visited Ruby’s home that night.  “Ruby, your teacher told me she saw you talking to people on the street.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking to them,” she said.  “I was just saying a prayer for them.”

“Ruby, you pray for the people there?” “Oh, yes.”  “Why do you do that?”  “Because they need praying for.” 

Ruby’s mother came into the room--she had overheard the conversation.  “We tell Ruby that it’s important that she pray for the people.”  She said that Ruby prayed for them all every night.  Ruby had been told in Sunday School to pray for the people.  Coles discovered that the pastor at their Baptist church also prayed for these people.  Publicly.  Every Sunday.

Ruby told him that the minister said that Jesus went through a lot of trouble and that Jesus said about the people who were causing trouble, “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

She was six years old.  Six years old.  And better than most of us, she understood that God loves the whole world.

We could all learn a lot from Ruby Bridges.  Instead of demonizing those who are different, instead of thinking of other nations as enemies to be feared and defeated, what if we thought of them as part of this world that God loves?

Now, back to that John 3:16 sign.  I’ll be watching the Super Bowl today, and I won’t be surprised if while one of the teams is kicking an extra point, somebody in the end zone holds up that John 3:16 sign.  (They are playing in Minnesota, so an usher will probably be nice and let him take that sign into the stadium.)  Now, as far as I can tell this is done as a form of evangelism, but as said before, I think the guy with the sign makes a miscalculation: you have to already be familiar with the Bible for it to mean anything. 

So maybe the sign isn’t the best idea, but it has got me to wondering if there are other places where such a sign, maybe a sign that says, “God loves the whole world,” ought to be held up.  Like that snake held up on a stick, maybe we need to be holding up the idea that God loves the world.

As our Congress deliberates, and our State legislature and City council meets, maybe we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we watch news shows, with talking heads arguing back and forth, maybe someone needs to hold up a sign behind the commentators, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make decisions that impact the environment – our land and water and air, our climate – as we make decisions that affect future generations, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we think about children out there who may not be our own children, we need to be reminded that yes, they are our children – and we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make purchases and deposit checks and make decisions about what to do with our money, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign for us, “God Loves the Whole World.”

Taking John 3:16 seriously – taking the message of Jesus seriously – moves us from Me to We.  It moves us from concern for ourselves and those just like us to concern for others, concern for those who may be very different from us.

I think of the early Baptists, a persecuted minority who struggled for the right to worship as their conscience dictated.  Because of that history, because of that experience, they argued passionately for the rights of all people, even people they did not personally agree with.  Those days are in our distant past, and I’m afraid we have lost some of that conviction.  We need to be reminded that God loves the whole world.

It’s not just a sign to hold up at the Super Bowl.  We need to put a sign on our desks, and post it on our refrigerators, and have it dangling from our rear view mirrors, and most of all just get it into our heads: God loves the whole world.

You.  Me.  Friends.  Enemies.  Neighbors.  Strangers.  Old.  Young.  Men.  Women.  Gay.  Straight.  Republican.  Democrat.  Christian, Jewish, Muslim.  American.  Haitian.  Iraqi.  All of us.  No exceptions.

God so loved the world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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