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John 3:1-17 ((New Revised Standard Version)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.”
Everyone knows John 3:16: “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” (KJV).
But who remembers John 3:17?
John 3:16 has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Some time in the 20th century, it became the most famous single verse in the Bible. It was used as the shortest, simplest summary of the Gospel. You want to know what Christians believe? “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” (King James Version).
You see American Christians wearing John 3:16 like a badge of honor. If you scan the crowds in any major football game, you’ll inevitably find someone holding a homemade poster board with just the citation (“John 3:16”) written on it. They’re hoping they get spotted by the TV cameras so someone at home will see the Bible reference, look it up and go back to church or get saved or something.
The Bible is the Word of God, and the Word of God is living and active, but at the same time, it’s really interesting that we have elevated this one verse from the Bible to such a privileged status. It’s as if all you need to know is this one thing.
But as you may have noticed, John 3:16 doesn’t just drop into the story out of nowhere. We read John 3, verse 1-17 for a reason. The famous verse 16 comes in the middle of a longer conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus the Pharisee. We could spend a long time breaking down all that Jesus and Nicodemus say to one another in this long dialogue. A lot of it could reframe our understanding of John 3:16. But for now, let’s focus in on just the very next sentence.
If you’re going to memorize John 3:16, you should take the time to memorize verse 17 together with it:
“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” (NRSV).
We need verse 17 to help clarify the meaning of verse 16. God sent Jesus into the world because God loves the world. God is Love and all of God’s actions are love. Love is the center of the Universe and motivation for its creation. God sends the Son into the world because of love. That Love reveals itself as the opportunity for salvation.
Pay attention to what God wants and doesn’t want here. This helps us understand God’s heart and character.
God does not want anyone to perish or to die. God doesn’t want us to continue living and dying in this seemingly endless cycle of violence and self-destruction. God does not want us to hurt one another or hurt ourselves. God doesn’t want us to have terrible diseases that deteriorate our bodies and minds. God does not want war or genocide. God does not want murder or domestic abuse or rape or adultery or all the tragic, vicious things that happen to people. God is NOT trying to punish us.
INSTEAD, God wants to give us life. God wants us to have the kind of life that God experiences as Trinity. Eternal life is the self-giving Love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who dwell in perfect harmony. God invites us into that kind of life through Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son.
And that’s why verse 17 is so important. God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world. God does want us to change and rise to new godly life. But God’s judgment is not violent, retributive punishment. God’s judgment is love. God’s judgment is to show us a different way to live. God’s love is not condemnation. When we stumble, as we always will, God’s love is still there. God will still invite us to repent.
Jesus doesn’t come to bring condemnation, but to bring new hope. We may feel like all is lost or full of despair, but Christ is our hope. Christ shows us that God really is love. We really do have an opportunity to be saved, to be made whole again. God really is calling us back into holy fellowship, into that perfect community of Love. God is inviting us to transcend our human sinfulness and live like the Trinity lives.
That is what Lent is all about. Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter. We began this holy season on Ash Wednesday praying for forgiveness. Lent is that special time of year when the whole Church comes together to recognize its imperfections and failures and turn back toward God. When we do this, “the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (Book of Common Prayer, 265).
And in the Holy Season of Lent we declare with all our faith and hope that God is merciful. God is ready and willing to forgive us when we honestly confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. When we try our best to turn around from our evil ways, God welcomes us with open arms. Again we say on Ash Wednesday, “Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live … He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel” (BCP, 269).
God loves us. God does not want to condemn us. God is not looking for opportunities to punish us and squash us like a vengeful parent. God wants to save us. And Christ is that sign of our hope. So hear God’s merciful invitation to repent. Turn back toward God and say yes. Amen.