Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God So Loved the World” (John 3:16-17)
March 8, 2020
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today’s gospel passage is one of the high water marks of the whole Bible, a passage that states with absolute clarity the heart of the gospel. John records a nighttime conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a brilliant Old Testament scholar and quite wealthy. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish equivalent of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem. Unlike the vast majority of the Pharisees, Nicodemus did not pester Jesus about healing on the Sabbath or quiz him about the Old Testament law. Rather, Nicodemus was intrigued by Jesus, as he said to him, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2). The two of them had a conversation, likely on a rooftop in the cool of the evening, looking out over Jerusalem.
In this conversation Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the necessity of being “born again” or “born from above” in order to see the Kingdom of God, that is, being “born of water and the Spirit”—experiencing baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. And then Jesus reveals the heart of the gospel in perhaps the most famous passage in the whole Bible:
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 that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).
Jesus emphasizes, “God so loved the world”—that God loves the entire world—every person of every race, every creed, every nationality, every political party, every profession (or lack thereof), every sexual orientation, every social economic group—the whole world, no exceptions. As we sing in Preschool Chapel every Wednesday morning, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world—red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight—Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And “all the little children” includes you.
God loves you more than you could imagine, has always loved you more than you could imagine. God loved you before you were born, loved you when you were born, loves you this second—and will love you when you draw your last breath and then love you throughout eternity. God has loved you during every positive moment in your life—when you learned to ride a bike, when you had your first ice cream cone, when you saw the ocean for the first time, when you saw snow for the first time, when you held your first amazing puppy or kitten, when you had your first kiss and you could neither eat or sleep afterwards because of your dizzying excitement, when you got married, when you had that moment when the reality of the love of God for you suddenly warmed your heart for the first time.
I will never forget the first time I felt the love of God for me. I was ten years old and it was November of 1979 and I was baptized on a Saturday morning at a Baptist Church because the Episcopal Church our family was attending met in an elementary school cafeteria—no sanctuary, no baptismal font. Several of us were baptized that morning and I volunteered to go first because, honestly, I wanted to get it over with. And as I was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, immersed into the water and lifted out of it again—as I experienced personally what Jesus described to Nicodemus as being “born again” or “born of water and the Spirit” I literally felt the love of God for me, a neurotic ten year old kid with bucked teeth and a really strange sense of humor (braces were the solution for the former; there is no solution for the latter). I felt what John Wesley famously described as my heart “strangely warmed” and I knew in the moment that God was real and that God loved the world, and that God loved me.
And God has also loved you during every negative moment in your life—when you witnessed or experienced abusive behavior as a child, when you were bullied at the bus stop before school every single morning, when your friends in middle school turned out not to be your friends at all, when you got your first speeding ticket, when you saw an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend or ex-spouse holding someone else’s hand and your heart broke all over again, when you lost your job, when you got that dreaded phone call from the doctor, when you got into serious trouble and it was all your fault, when the worst case scenario turned out to be your scenario. God has still never stopped loving you, and never will. I will spare you the details from my life but looking back I can see the faithful love, the tender love, the unconditional love of God for me even in every negative moment.
Scripture assures us that the love of God is so vast it defies being quantified or measured or even understood—as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:18-19). Did you catch that?—“to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge”—the most powerful oxymoron in scripture.
There is a refrain in Psalm 136 about the never-ending love of God repeated in each and every verse—“his steadfast love endures forever…his steadfast love endures forever…his steadfast love endures forever…”—twenty six verses in a row. Scripture tells us that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love—“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39)—and throughout eternity “his steadfast love endures forever.”
“God so loved the world,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “that he gave his only Son.” And what is true for the whole world collectively is also true for you individually—God so loved you that he gave his only Son. It was this individual aspect of God’s love the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And this same Son of God who loved Paul and gave himself for Paul loved you and gave himself for you—and he would do it again if he needed to.
And after being crystal clear about God loving the world so much he gave his only Son, Jesus went on to tell Nicodemus something we often forget, “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.” Jesus is not in the condemning business; Jesus is in the saving business. Jesus did not come to condemn you. The Greek word for “condemn” here means “judge.” In other words, God did not send Jesus to judge the world but to save it—and yes, again, what is true for the whole world collectively is also true for you individually—God did not send Jesus to judge you but to save you.
This is very good news, because your entire life you have been judged by others and/or you have judged yourself.
Maybe as a child you were judged by your parents for not being as smart or accomplished as their friend’s kids or your siblings. Maybe you were judged at school because all your clothes were knock-off brands instead of designer brands, or because you lived in “that” neighborhood, or because of the kind of car your parents drove, or because you had horrific acne. Maybe in high school you were judged because you were in or not in a certain group, or because you did not make the team, or because you did not make the honor roll let alone the National Honor Society, or because you were not accepted into the college you were expected to attend. Maybe in college you were judged because you were a part of a certain fraternity or sorority—or because you were not accepted into one and you won’t admit it but you have still not gotten over it. Or maybe you have been judged because you never had the opportunity to go to college at all.
Maybe you have felt judged physically because the “six pack” abs you had when you were young are now just “a pack” or “a blob.” Maybe you have felt judged online because someone has been trolling your Facebook or Instagram accounts with snarky, mean-spirited comments—or someone is always one-upping you reminding you with their projected social media image, which itself is a mirage, that they have somehow outdone you in their life.
Maybe you have felt judged because your career has not gone the way you expected. Maybe you have felt judged at work because your efforts never seem to quite measure up, and your boss makes frequent comments about how amazing others are at their job and what you could learn from them. Maybe you have been judged because you got passed over for that promotion, again. When performance review season rolls around you get knots in your stomach every time. There are exceptions to this of course, as in the case of Angela Martin on the NBC television hit The Office, who is hands down the most judgmental person on the show and who bragged in one episode, “I actually look forward to performance reviews. I really enjoy being judged. I believe I hold up very well to even severe scrutiny” (from “Performance Review”, season 2, episode 8). If you have never watched The Office, perhaps you remember the impossible Major Frank Burns on the hit show M*A*S*H, which is still one of my favorite shows. Frank Burns has the same delightful judgmental persona as Angela Martin. Somewhere along the line every single one of you has worked with an Angela Martin or a Frank Burns—or perhaps you yourself have been Angela Martin or Frank Burns, though I hope not.
Which leads to the harshest judge of all in your life…you—for many of you the person you see looking back in the mirror judges you more harshly than anyone else, which can be very hard because as you know, wherever you go, there you are.
Again, Jesus assured Nicodemus that God did not send him to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. In fact, later in John’s account of the gospel Jesus says this about judgement, “The Father judges no one but has given all judgement to the Son” (John 5:22), and “You judge by human standards; I judge no one” (John 8:15), and to others he later repeated what he told Nicodemus, “I came not to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47).
When confronted with the woman caught in adultery, after all her accusers walked away because they took a look in the moral mirror of their own lives, Jesus simply told her, “Neither do I condemn you…go your way” (John 8:11). Then shortly before his passion Jesus said, “Now is the judgement of this world…and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31-32). And that is exactly what happened on Good Friday when Jesus was indeed “lifted up from the earth” on the cross and the One to whom God the Father had given all judgment took that judgment upon himself, was condemned in your place because he loved you that much and because he came not to condemn you but to save you.
After Jesus’ death the same Nicodemus with whom Jesus spoke on that rooftop helped take his body from the cross to wrap and embalm him (John 19:39-40). Nicodemus no longer cared what this would do to his reputation because he remembered what Jesus had told him, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”, because he knew Jesus was indeed a teacher who had come from God, because he knew the Son of God loved him and gave himself for him—and that was all that mattered for Nicodemus.
What was true for Nicodemus is true for you. Jesus loved you and gave himself for you. Jesus was condemned in your place in order to save you. Because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1) you are free from the judgement of others and free from the judgment of yourself—so instead of using all that energy to judge, you can use it to love.