The Fourth Sunday in Lent (B)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“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. 17“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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
John 3:14-21 NRSV
Prayer for Courage
O Lord, open our eyes that we may see the needs of others;open our ears that we may hear their cries;open our hearts so that they need not be without succor; let us not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich. Show us where love and hope and faith are needed, and use us to bring them to those places. And so open our eyes and our ears that we may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee. Amen.
Alan Paton, South Africa, 20th cent., United Methodist Hymnal, p. 459
When I was eleven, my family moved to a neighborhood that was across the street from a grocery store. That year, or maybe the next, I got permission to ride my bike up to the main street, down the sidewalk until I was directly opposite the store, walk my bike across the street when the traffic cleared, and ride into the shopping center. Let’s take some time to laugh at me a little bit. A normal kid would have scrounged up fifty cents, ridden to the store, bought a candy bar, and come home. You’ve known me for a year and a half: do you think I did what a normal kid would do? I figured out that if you bought a six-pack of candy bars—the existence of which my parents had kept hidden from me until this new stage of independence—then you paid much less for each one. And, there are actually coupons in the paper on Sundays for those six-packs. I further noticed that if I was discreet when I came back home, my parents wouldn’t know I had six candy bars in my room, and so the speed at which I ate them was completely up to me. Plain Hershey bars, which is what I always got, now make me a little sick to my stomach—they just quit looking appetizing somewhere along in there. The same thing happened with those candy canes with red, yellow, and blue stripes that are cherry-flavored instead of peppermint. One Christmas season, I got some of those. I can’t remember how many boxes, but I know I got more than one because, after all, they were only going to be available for a limited time, and who knows: I might have had a coupon for multiple boxes. One candy cane is nice, one dozen are quite satisfying. Two dozen could make you hate Christmas. I hid what I couldn’t finish somewhere in the back of the closet. It might still be there.
Why do I tell one more embarrassing story of my childhood as a nerd? Because scripture verses, apparently, are like Hershey bars and candy canes. Nice to hear, reassuring, maybe even inspiring at first, but if you hear John 3:16 enough times, your ears slowly become deadened to the beauty of the language and the comfort in its promise. You know the passage I’m talking about: the football verse. Evangelical Christians everywhere paint “John 3:16” in big, bold letters on poster-board and then hold up their signs when the TV camera gets near them at football and basketball games. I would be willing to bet, although of course betting is wrong, that either the citation “John 3:16” or the verse itself has been printed on more t-shirts than any other part of scripture. In fact, not only have the words of the verse become empty to me: they give me something like indigestion because when I hear them, I get the feeling somebody’s trying to convert me, and I have a hard time swallowing that.
This passage is often quoted as if it contains the entire Christian faith:
16“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.
John 3:16 NRSV
But there is more to our faith than belief in the saving power of faith in Christ—important as that is—and there is more to this passage than that one promise. Jesus continued speaking past the football verse:
17“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. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
John 3:17-21 NRSV
It’s pretty hard to get the big picture about being a Christian from just a few verses of scripture, but we’d sure be getting a lot closer if we invited people to read on past verse 16 to Jesus’ explanation of how we respond to the promise of eternal life. Christ does not condemn people, he explains, but people condemn themselves because they turn inward and aren’t willing to trust anything outside themselves, including and especially God.
Maybe more often than we’d like to admit, we fit Jesus’ description of people who back away from the light because we don’t want anybody to see who we really are. The other kind of people he describes, the kind Jesus would prefer us to be, are not exactly who you might think. They aren’t the do-gooders of the world, and they might not even be the people wearing the t-shirts that say John 3:16. They might have never asked themselves, “what would Jesus do?” and they may not have ever bought anything from a Christian bookstore. “Those who do what is true,” Jesus said, and he didn’t mean the people who would pass any kind of test we have for what makes a good Christian, but rather those people who do as their hearts tell them—or, to use different words, people who try to live as God leads them. Those people come to the light, so that what they’ve done is not hidden and, even where they’ve done wrong, God and all of us can see that they’ve sought to do God’s will.
It takes a special kind of faith to know that because God sent his son not to condemn, but to save, what God demands of us is not that we do the right thing at every moment of every day, but rather that even when we have sinned, we open ourselves to God’s presence—to God’s light—so that people can see that we are living our lives for God and that God accepts that wonderful gift despite our failings, and fills in the gaps of our ability with the grace of Jesus Christ.
The closing hymn today talks about the response to God’s grace.
What wondrous love is this,
that caused the Lord of life
to lay aside his crown
for my soul, for my soul.
To God and to the Lamb
who is the great I AM,
while millions join the theme
I will sing, I will sing.
“What Wondrous Love is This,” United Methodist Hymnal, p. 292
And maybe, just as the poet spoke of singing to express the amazement and joy he felt at the gift of God’s grace, singing is good way to understand what the scripture is all about. Jesus wasn’t concerned that we live lives completely free of sin—at least not in this passage—but rather that we live our lives in the presence of God. Though people are often afraid to let others hear them singing, no human person sings without mistake. God’s expectation and the only thing we can ask of each other is that when we sing, we sing for God.
We could even look to John Wesley’s directions for singing and find suggestions for how to live what is true.
III. Live all of life. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.
IV. Live with a good courage. Beware of living as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but live your life with strength. Be no more afraid of your life now, or more ashamed of its being seen, than when you did the deeds of Satan.
VIII. Above all, live spiritually. Have an eye to God in every thing you do. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you do, and see that your heart is not carried away with your achievements, but offered to God continually; so shall your living be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Adapted from John Wesley, “Directions for Singing,”
United Methodist Hymnal, p. vii
We often talk about Lent as if it is all about being reserved, fasting from potato chips, and praying more often than usual. In fact what it is really about, and what hopefully all of those things would help us to do at least a little bit, is being more aware of God’s will for our lives. Whether you’re a child, a parent, a senior, a youth, a preacher, a singer, a truck driver, or a hermit, part of God’s will is that you live boldly. For
17“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.
John 3:17 NRSV
An older version of the Methodist Book of Worship said:
Grant to us the precious gift of faith, that we may know that the son of God is come, and may have power to overcome the worldand gain a blessed immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Methodist Book of Worship (1965) reprinted in United Methodist Book of Worship, §251
What Jesus wanted to be sure the people heard was that through faith they would have the freedom to act as they were led by the Spirit, and the “power to overcome the world,” which would tend to teach us to hold back the truest expressions of ourselves. We can’t love each other the way Christ intended without realizing that the son of God is come. We can’t live with the courage we need without knowing that we have gained a blessed immortality. We can’t do God’s true justice unless we have the power to overcome the world.
Jesus wanted us to live as God’s people. We seek God’s will, we share the good news of salvation with others, and, quite literally for Christ’s sake, we live and even sing boldly: illumined, warmed, and comforted by God’s light.
O God, rich in mercy, you so loved the world that, when we were dead in our sins, you sent your only Son for our deliverance. Lifted up from the earth, he is light and life; exalted upon the cross, he is truth and salvation. Raise us up with Christ that we may walk as children of light. We ask this through Christ, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God, for ever and for ever. Amen.
The Methodist Worship Book, p. 536