John 3:16

A Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent – 15 March 2015 –  Louise Browner Blanchard, Interim Associate Rector

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Jeremiah 17:7-8

Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and the first one that is more than halfway to Easter. It is sometimes called “Laetare Sunday.” “Laetare” is Latin for “rejoice,” which reminds us that the Lenten journey will ultimately end in the joy of Easter—in the joy of the redemption and resurrection of Jesus the Christ…and of ourselves. As we move further from the starkness of Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, Laetare Sunday invites us to anticipate the triumph of Easter and the unfathomably abundant—and abundantly unfathomable—love that it reveals.

It seems fitting, then, that the gospel on this Laetare Sunday should speak so plainly of that love: “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–the citation alone is recognizable to almost anyone who has ever watched televised sports and seen someone holding up a sign that says simply “John 3:16.” It is one of the most familiar verses in scripture. The great reformer Martin Luther reportedly called it “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.” Something that’s expressed so straightforwardly and succinctly should be pretty easy to understand…

Take the part about believing. What does it mean, to “believe in him”?  For some people, it’s as simple as believing that Jesus was the Son of God, in the way that we believe that the earth is round. Some people seem to believe that proclaiming such a belief aloud (“I believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” “I believe in Jesus as the Son of God…”) like a condensed creed, is an important part of the equation. A few people even seem to believe that forwarding emails or Facebook posts that say things like, “If you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, pass this on to 15 people in the next 20 minutes” signifies belief, as if pressing others to do something somehow validates everyone’s belief all around. It can seem pretty simple, if slightly menacing.

And then I remember that there’s more to the story. There is a context. Today’s gospel takes place at the end of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law and a member of the Jewish religious leadership. He visits Jesus in the wake of the events of last week’s gospel, when Jesus cleansed the temple by driving out the animals that were for sale for sacrifice and overturning the tables of the money changers. The cleansing of the temple scandalized the religious leadership, of which Nicodemus was a member. But something about Jesus intrigues Nicodemus enough that he goes to visit him, although he is cautious enough to do so in the dark of night.

At the outset, Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as a fellow rabbi and admits that Jesus’s signs testify to the presence of God, and Jesus affirms Nicodemus by assuring him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” In other words, it seems as if Jesus is encouraging Nicodemus, telling him he is on the right track. But it apparently is not what Nicodemus expected to hear. “Whoa, what does that mean?” says Nicodemus (I’m paraphrasing there). “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus tries to explain about being born of the water and Spirit and being born from above; he speaks of descending from and ascending to heaven. But because Nicodemus can only comprehend what Jesus is saying literally, he does not understand what Jesus is telling him.

Well, Nicodemus is apparently so overwhelmed that we are finished hearing from him for the day. But Jesus keeps going. He reminds Nicodemus of the same Old Testament story that we heard this morning, when gazing at a bronze serpent on a pole would save the life of one who had been bitten by a poisonous snake. Jesus analogizes to what will happen to him, who will be lifted on a cross. Those who believe in him will not just live, they will have eternal life. Somehow Jesus’s death will lead to eternal life. And then back we are to that oh, so familiar verse that seemed so simple a few minutes ago: “For 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 it doesn’t seem quite so simple.

Belief is at the heart of John’s gospel; some form of the word appears more than 100 times, compared to 34 times in the other three gospels combined. In the New Testament, the Greek translation of the term “to believe,” pisteuo [pist-yoo’-o], implies more than mere acceptance or affirmation. Rather, it implies complete trust and reliance not only that Jesus is the Son of God, but that he died–he died terribly and tragically—and yet his death was not the final answer. The ultimate outcome of even the worst that can happen is life—resurrection not just for Jesus and those who followed him 2,000 years ago, but for us as well. It is what most clearly differentiates Christianity from every other major religion—that death is an integral and inevitable part of our lives, but if we trust in the story of Jesus, we will realize God’s presence with us now and always. As the First Letter of John puts it, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us…” (1 John 4:10a).

Which brings us back to Lent. Lent is an opportunity for us to rediscover the gift of God’s love. The painful part is realizing and accepting how easy it is for us to turn away from that unfathomably abundant gift–how often we choose to take our own path rather than the path that Jesus sets before us, how often we rationalize that our way is God’s way, and how seldom we trust that God’s love will prevail. Just look at the world around us! And it is likely that we will see darker days…after all, if we are more than halfway to Easter, we are even closer to Good Friday.

But today, Laetare Sunday, we pause…and we take a deep breath…and we remember that we are indeed living in the unending presence of God. We are all children of God. And someday we will all rejoice with God.