Saturday, January 22, 2022

“God So Loved The World” - January 23, 2022

Text: John 3:1-21

The NFL playoffs are well underway, and that brings back memories.  How many big games have we watched where the kicker is getting ready for a field goal, the camera focuses on the end zone, and somebody holds up a big sign that says John 3:16.

You don’t see that much anymore, and I kind of miss it.  The John 3:16 sign was presumably an attempt at evangelism, or at least it started that way although after awhile it may have become just a fun tradition.  But in recent years they have tightened up on security, and it is a little harder to carry a big sign into the stadium.  (Although having said that, somebody will probably hold up that sign this afternoon).

But don’t fear!  Others have taken up the mantle.  If you shop at Forever 21, it turns out that John 3:16 is stamped on the bottom of their shopping bags.  To be honest, I don’t shop at Forever 21 a lot and I just learned this - it's been going on for years.)  And if you go on Amazon this afternoon, Tin Haul Shoes sells a John 3:16 cowboy boot.  It has a crown of thorns circling the top of the boot and a cross and John 3:16 on the bottom.  They have it in stock in my size for $326.99, with free Amazon Prime shipping.  In the reviews, one person said that he bought the boots for evangelism – he sits and crosses his leg so people can see the bottom of the boot.

The problem with these efforts is that the intended audience would seem to be people who in many cases would be completely unfamiliar with the Bible.  Some probably would not know John 3:16 from John Deere or John F. Kennedy.

On the other hand, a good number of folks, whether they are particularly religious or not, may be familiar with John 3:16 because it is probably the best-known verse in the Bible.  Can you say it with me? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  Most of us memorized that verse in the King James, of course.

Our text today begins when Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, comes to Jesus at night.  If it had been a chapter earlier, he may have come in the daylight, but after that incident with driving out the money changers from the temple, Jesus’ popularity has dropped significantly, and Nicodemus doesn’t want to publicize this visit.  Jesus tells him that no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born anew, born from above, born again.  As Jesus explains what this means, you may have noticed some pretty 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.”  

We may have memorized John 3:16, but most of us haven’t memorized that verse.  This refers to an 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.

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

We need to hear these words – maybe more than ever.  It is easy to fall into the idea that God loves us, and while God may 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, 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?  God so loved the world.

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, now in his 90’s.  He is an Emeritus Professor at Harvard.  Coles’ life’s work was 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.  So as the school year began, here was a six-year-old black child going to a school all by herself in the fall of 1960.  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 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 been listening to this line of inquiry.  “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 living as though God loves part of the world – our part of the world - instead of thinking of other nations as threats  to be feared and defeated, what if we thought of them as part of this world that God loves?

I’m thinking there are a lot of places that could use those John 3:16 signs.  As our Congress deliberates, and our state legislature and city council meet, maybe we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make decisions that impact the environment – our land and water and air – as we face the prospect of increasing climate change - 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.  We have lost some of that.  We need to be reminded, God loves the whole world.

It’s not just a sign to hold up at the Super Bowl, or put on shopping bags and boots.  It is a sign that we maybe need to put on our desks, and post on our refrigerators, and dangle 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.  Democrat.  Republican.  Christian, Jewish, Muslim.  American.  Iranian.  Haitian.  Mexican.  Russian.  Guatemalan.  Even Hawkeyes.  All of us.  No exceptions.

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

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