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Is God In A Box?

March 13, 2015

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This Sunday’s Lectionary Gospel reading includes one of the most well known and memorized verses in the Bible, John 3:16. However, as my buddies Rev. Mark Sandlin and Rev. David Henson noted in today’s “Distilling the Gospel Podcast” on “The Moonshine Jesus Show”, how many of us know the “rest of the story”… How many of us know what John 3:17 says or even what the context this particular verse is a part of?

I have been preaching using the Lectionary, since 1987, which means I have had this passage come across my desk multiple times in nearly 28 years. And I will admit that each time it comes up, I cringe a bit. How do you preaching such a well known passage without sounding like a purveyor of “bumper sticker” theology? From conversations with many colleagues throughout the years, apparently I am not the only one who has this question.

In the middle of the night, the Pharisee Nicodemus came up to Jesus for a “chat” about life and theology. Now our ol’ buddy Nicodemus was putting his personal and professional reputation on the line for even talking to Jesus. Normally, his folks would be found arguing with Jesus and trying to trip Jesus up. And what Nicodemus said to Jesus in the opening conversation would have his buddies ripping up his “Pharisee Membership Card” quicker than lightning! “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2) Wow, Nic, you actually recognized the power and authority of Jesus? If Caiaphas the High Priest heard you speak such words, he would have your head, figuratively and literally!

From that conversation, comes the dialogue and teaching moment about how does one become born again (or anew or from above). The Greek gennethenai anothen is literally to be born from above. Nicodemus had trouble understanding all of this and who can blame him? He was a literalist as a Pharisee and the concept of being born anew or from above didn’t make sense. I can sympathize with Nicodemus as he wrestled with Jesus’ words. And if we are all honest, haven’t there been plenty of times when we have also wrestled with the words of Jesus? I know I have.

The culmination of this discussion occurred when Jesus told Nicodemus why all of this had to happen. Remember the story of the bronze serpent being lifted up in the wilderness by Moses, Nicodemus? Why did the serpent have to be lifted up? Because the people of the Exodus, their spiritual and literal ancestors, had whined and complained in the wilderness to such an extent that their own poison and the poison of snakes burned them! In the Numbers 21:4-9 passage, we read this story. And one of the things that stood out for me was the fact that even though the bronze serpent lifted up could heal, the snakes were not removed. Instead, a way through their sin and complaining was made by God.

Well, in the case of the Son of Man, he too must be lifted up that all who believe in him will have eternal life. And then, with a roll of drums (not really), the BIG verse came out of the mouth of the Lord: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”. And that is where so many Christians stop! BAM! There it is! As Luther said, the Gospel in miniature!

So all we have to do is believe in Him and we will have eternal life! You will be saved from the fiery furnaces of Hell! You have your Eternal Life Insurance policy and all is well. Sadly, too many “christians” (yes, lower case is intentional) immediately turn around and start judging the living daylights out of everyone else! Really? You have the gift of eternal life and the first thing you want to do is judge and condemn others? Is your “god” (again, intentional lower case) really that small? In my study and reflection, I have discovered that those were the exact type of believers Jesus challenged. And, sadly, in the very writing of these words, I become the Pharisee I don’t want to be…

“God sent the Son into the world, not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Yes, that is the rest of the story! I believe that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dead of night precisely because he wondered if the Pharisees had it all wrong.

So, as I continue to ponder the rest of the passage, I do so with a fresh set of eyes. The basis for the judgment in verse 19 and following reveals a sad truth for all of us. “The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear their actions will be exposed to the light.” (vss. 19-20) I don’t know about you, but when I let these words sink into my soul, I know and recognize the truth. Too often I know that my judgment, my harsh words, my thoughts are not what the Lord asks of me. And, as I said before, I become the very judging Pharisee that I don’t want to be.

So, I focus once again on John 3:17 AND John 3:21 — “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him…. Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

In the mid 90’s (1994-1997) I was stationed in England with the Air Force as a chaplain. One of the pilgrimages I was able to make during that time was to St Michael’s Cathedral in Coventry. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that impressed with the modern structure. However, I wasn’t there to see that particular Cathedral. I was there to see the ruins of the old Gothic Cathedral of St Michael which was destroyed during World War Two. The ruins are a stark reminder of “humanities inhumanity towards humanity” and they deeply touched my soul. I remember standing in the midst of the ruins which had become a memorial and praying the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me show love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born anew.”

The cathedral ruins were not a monument to hatred and bitterness. Rather, they were a monument to hope, peace, and reconciliation. The cross was fashioned from two charred roof beams. A stark reminder of the horror of war and the necessity of peace.

Someone had to think outside of the box as this memorial was designed. “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Are you willing to let God out of the box of your own making? I can tell you that it isn’t easy. But I can also tell you that the reward is so much greater than you can imagine. The reward isn’t about you. It is about being God’s instrument of peace… Of love… Of forgiveness… Of mercy… Lord, make me an instrument… Amen.

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