Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Jesus the Rescuer” (John 3:16-17)
March 12, 2017
Philip Ryan

I hope you all can forgive me this morning, as I begin with yet another illustration involving my daughter. However, it is hard not to learn a great deal of theology from children. In this case I learned that she was learning the great story of God’s love for us and it was encouraging, humbling, and beautiful all at the same time. Most mornings after we’ve finished breakfast, I read Greta a story from the best children’s Bible I’ve ever read, The Jesus Storybook Bible (I highly recommend it). The book repeats certain key phrases and words over and over again to help children learn the biblical story. One of the keywords/phrases is “rescue.” Often the narrative will read something like this, “One day God will send a better rescuer” or “God’s people were once again in need of rescuing.” As we were reading one of the biblical stories, we came across this keyword “rescue.” Amanda looked at Greta and asked, “Greta, who is the rescuer?” And Greta lit up and she scrunched her face and belted out “Jesus!” completing the acclamation with a solid fist pump in the air.

In today’s gospel reading, we learn why Jesus is a rescuer on a rescue mission. Before we get to the main verses I wish to preach on, which are verses 16-17, I want to provide some context on the conversation we heard between Nicodemus and Jesus. Right before verse 16, Jesus makes a parallel between a famous Old Testament story and the future of the “Son of Man.” The serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness occurs in Numbers 21. Israel once again complains to God for their wandering in the desert and so he sends a plague of poisonous serpents. The people are in need of a rescuer and so cry out to Moses to intervene. Moses asks for the people to be rescued and God instructs him to make a bronze serpent and set it on a pole, “and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num 21:8). While this passage is a sermon by itself, my purpose in summarizing it here is to ask the question, whom did Jesus come to rescue? The bronze serpent rescued Israel but the implied question here is “who will the Son of Man rescue?” Jesus gives the answer but it is so quick that John chooses to expand it and so we arrive at one of the greatest verses in the Bible, the most often memorized, and the heart of God’s rescue mission in Jesus Christ.

Jesus tells Nicodemus in verse 15, that “whoever believes in him (Jesus) may have eternal life.” Then we come to verse 16 and If you don’t mind I am actually going to read the King James version because it is what I memorized when I was a child and it is still the most memorized version of this verse, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God loving the world is biblically unheard of until this verse. We know before the fall God calls the creation good, we know that after the fall God loves Israel, and we know that he cares for those outside of Israel, but Scripture never says he loves them. So does Jesus come to rescue the whole world or just Israel? We get hints that God might love the world and is on a rescue mission throughout the Bible. We heard it in our Old Testament reading today, “in you (Abraham) all families of the earth will be blessed.” All the earth will one day be blessed through the descendants of Abraham. With Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that promise is fulfilled. Now the grace of God expands to the whole world. But why does God love the world? We didn’t know he loved everyone until Jesus comes. Why everyone? God loves the world not because we are great, not because there are so many of us, not because we are all unique, but because he created us in his image and that image was marred by our sinfulness. He loves us not because He needs to but because we need his love. Without his love we stay stricken by our own serpents of sin, death, and separation from the love of God. Thankfully, he does love the whole world and so sends a hero.

A rescue mission implies distress, the world was and is in great distress and the only way to be rescued is Jesus Christ; God in human flesh coming to us and saving us. I don’t think it is too hard for us to admit that the world is in need of rescuing. We only need to look at the news or worse our Facebook feeds to see sickness, anger, hatred, violence, and the like. The thing is God has faced the evil of humanity before and dealt with it in a very different way than rescue. In Genesis 6, we learn that the world was so wicked and full of violence and that nothing but evil resides in the human heart that God decides to send a flood and wipe everyone out except Noah and his family. A promise was made never to destroy the world with a flood again. A promise that is kept and fulfilled in the cross of Christ. God could have judged the world instead he rescued it by sending his Son. Jesus could have come to condemn the world but as we see in verse 17 that his mission wasn’t condemnation but rescue. The cross is a rescue mission not a revenge mission. God’s story for the world is rescue and the hero is Jesus Christ.

I struggled this week with how to end this sermon. I usually like to close with another illustration something for everyone to visualize the point of the sermon. I immediately went to the news, movies, and literature for great rescue stories. I read dozens of harrowing sea rescues, human trafficking rescues, and military rescues. However, I kept struggling with a greater story of rescue than the one in John 3:16. I thought of my own story and how God has rescued me. I thought of Amanda’s story and how God rescued her. I thought of countless people I knew who all experienced rescue by the work of Jesus Christ. For some, the rescue was from dangerous behaviours like alcoholism and drug use. For others, it was a growing awareness and trust in their baptism (you know the people who never knew a time in their life when they didn’t follow Jesus). I thought the truly remarkable part of God’s rescue story is it is for everyone. The drug-addict and “the perfect person.” The beauty of God’s rescue story is that it saves those who don’t even know they are in need of rescuing. God saves all who look to Jesus lifted up on the cross. The rescue operation is for you, for me, for whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.