For God So Loved The World…
all have our favourite author, our favourite book, our favourite food, our
favourite athlete. And the all-time
favourite text of scripture, I'm told, is the text of today's sermon: "For
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him
should not perish but have eternal life."
I'm sure that the text elicits a visceral response from everyone.
Some people cherish it as they cherish nothing else; others feel that the
text is frequently used as a bludgeon with which to beat unbelievers. Regardless
of the circumstances in which the text is uttered, regardless of the zeal with
which it's announced or the affection with which it’s cherished, the fact is
this text enshrines the heart of the gospel; which is to say, this text bespeaks
the heart of God himself.
I: -- We are told that God so loved the world. What in the world
is the world?
The world, according to John's usage, isn't that globe which we call
"the earth." Neither is
the world the earth plus all the other planets and stars; i.e., the universe.
The world, in John's use of the word, is simply people.
Specifically it's the sum total of disobedient men and women in their
hostility to God and their contempt for his truth and their dismissal of his way
and their postured superiority to his gospel.
Plainly, the word "world", for John, isn't a pretty word: it
bespeaks humankind's arrogance and ingratitude, self-importance and pomposity.
It bespeaks a disdainful defiance that imagines itself to be the soul of
sophistication but in fact is the silliest folly.
The world, for John, is the sum total of men and women in their tacit
conspiracy to loathe, privately and publicly, the one to whom they owe their
life, the one to whom they would cling if they possessed any sense at all.
A minute ago I spoke of "tacit conspiracy."
Both words are important. The
world is tacitly conspiratorial in
that there's never been a formal
agreement among humankind that it disdain the holy One of Israel. The
world is tacitly conspiratorial in that its common defiance of him is plainly more
than accidental; the world's corporate posture with respect to God isn't a
random occurrence. When the next
baby is born we can predict with perfect certainty that this child is going to
mirror the world all over again. All
such individuals, fallen creatures every one, are tacitly conspiratorial in that
we -- humankind -- "pack" in our opposition to God the way a school
class can pack on a teacher or a baseball team pack on an umpire.
II: -- What is God's attitude to the world in the face of the
world's attitude to him? Specifically,
what does God do in view of the
world's having packed on him? We
might expect him to do what a schoolteacher does when the class packs on her or
what an umpire does when a baseball team packs on him.
Since this congregation is "knee-deep" in schoolteachers, I
shall let the teachers tell me what they do when the class packs.
I will tell you, however, what an umpire does.
He walks over to the bench where the team has tacitly conspired to give
him a hard time and he expels a player, any player at all.
It doesn't have to be the player who's giving him the hardest time; it
doesn't have to be the player who spearheaded the abuse.
It can be any player at all; sometimes it's the first player the umpire
comes upon. And that one player is
"How arbitrary!", you say;
"The umpire was simply making an example of that one player.
He didn't merit being singled out."
Your objection is correct. It's
also unavailing. The player
arbitrarily singled out is expelled none the less.
The most astounding feature of the gospel is this: in the face of the
world's bombast and its ingratitude, God's response isn't to expel it but rather
to love it. And not merely to love
it in the sense of "feel for" it, even feel sorry for it, but rather
to love it so utterly as to give himself for it.
Now right here we have to take a little theological detour.
We have to journey back in time to the year 325; we have to journey to a
different part of the world and visit the city of
Tell me: is the Son's nature the same
as the Father's or merely similar to
the Father's? Only if the same as
the Father's is there a gospel; only if the same as the Father's is the
suffering of the Son in his body the suffering of the Father in his heart; only
if the same as the Father's is the Son's solidarity with a world he won't
abandon regardless of how badly it abuses him at
the same time God's selfsame solidarity with a world he won't abandon
regardless of how contemptuously it dismisses him.
When the apostle John writes, "For God so loved the world that he
gave his only Son…" we must never think that God is giving his Son in
place of giving himself; we must never think that God is giving his Son as
a substitute for giving himself. Quite
the contrary: just because the Father and the Son and are one in nature,
substance, being, the Father's giving his only Son is simply the Father's giving
himself; always himself, never less
Someone knocks on my door asking for a donation to the Diabetes
Association. I give her $25.
To be sure, the $25 I've given her I now don't have for a new CD, but in
any case I already have so many CDs I can't keep track of them.
Next day someone knocks on my door asking for a donation to the Cancer
Society. I give him $25.
To be sure, the $25 I've given him I now don't have for a new book, but
already I own hundreds of books that I haven't read yet.
Next day someone knocks on my door asking for a donation for the Heart
and Stroke fund. I give her $25….
And so I should, in view of the suffering that never relents and my
financial resources that never diminish (apparently.)
And then one day there's a different kind of knock at the door: my
daughter needs a kidney. Now a
different kind of "contribution" is involved.
The $25 contributions, however many there might have been, never entailed
any risk for me. Now the gift asked
of me does. Still, she's my
daughter, and therefore I'll gladly do what I can for her at whatever risk to
me. Years later will she appreciate
it? Or will she joke with her
friends, “My old man relinquished a bit of plumbing for me some time ago.
His health was never good after that.
He must've been crazy. But
then, he always was odd, you know, a ‘nerd’”.
Silly fellow." If out of
love for my daughter I have resolved to surrender that kidney which I might need
myself years later; if I have resolved to surrender my kidney then I've also
resolved to surrender all control concerning her response.
Still, at least I haven't been asked to give up my life
John tells us there's a love so very loving that someone doesn't even
stop short of giving himself, all of himself, only himself, for those whom he
loves unstintingly. Precisely where
we'd expect God to withdraw in tit-for-tat coldness he instead pours out himself
without remainder or reserve upon those who pull their carriage-trade robes of
self-righteousness a little closer and tell him, "Would you mind not
bleeding on me? It stains, you
III: -- But not all respond by cloaking themselves more tightly in
those disguises which can't even be recognised as disguises; not all respond in
this way. Some respond so as to
illustrate the text in its entirety: God so loved the world…that
whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
Plainly the self-outpouring of God quickens faith in some at least.
"Whoever believes in him."
We must be sure we understand the precise force of "believes."
To believe in him doesn't mean to have correct ideas about him in one's
head. To believe in him doesn't mean
to have mental reservation give way to mental assent.
To believe in the one given for us, to believe in the one given to us, is
simply to trust him for that pardon which we can't generate for ourselves.
It's to trust him for that way apart from which we are going to meander
for the rest of our lives. It's to
trust him for a contentment that will steal over us again and again as surely as
our superficial pleasures have left us unsatisfied.
It's to entrust him with our life when no one else is worth it, and to
entrust him with our death when no one else can defuse it, and to entrust him
with our future when no one else can fill it.
The faith of which John speaks when he writes, "that whoever
believes in him…", is simply entrusting as much of myself as I know of
myself to as much of Jesus Christ as I know of him.
The faith of which John speaks is finally my unreserved self-giving to
him whose unreserved self-giving to me is my only hope and my only plea, my only
future and my only good. The faith
of which John speaks is my embracing in gratitude the one who first embraced me
in grace; it's my pledging myself to him who has promised never to fail or
If such faith is what it is to "believe in him" (Christ Jesus
our Lord), then what is the eternal life of which John speaks?
Eternal life is life that arises in our immersion in the innermost depths
of God himself. Eternal life is life
that is characterised by utmost intimacy with God, utmost intensity, utmost
inviolability (what could ever separate us from him now?)
Eternal life is the life wherewith the eternal one blessed us in our
creation, before we victimised ourselves in the fall, before our existence
became a living contradiction of that which the Creator had pronounced
"good", before our existence became a dying scramble to deny what we
couldn't admit just because we couldn't face it.
As often as I try to grasp the full import of "but have eternal
life" I recall one of my favourite episodes from the written gospels
where Jesus comes upon a man in the wilderness (don't we all live in the
wilderness?), who cuts himself (haven't we spent our lives mutilating ourselves
in some respect?), who runs around naked (don't we all think we're covering up
what every last person can see in us in any case?), and who can't be subdued
(don't we all fail to master ourselves as surely as we resent the attempt of
anyone else to master us?) At
the conclusion of the gospel story we are told that the fellow is found seated,
clothed and in his right mind. Seated, he's no longer driven by his 101 frenzies, any one of which
he thought would let him "find himself" and all of which only left him
jaded and despairing. Clothed,
he now belongs to the community of the people of God.
(In scripture clothing is a sign of belonging, and the kind of clothing
we wear indicates precisely where we belong.
When the prodigal son came home his father clothed him in that robe which
indicated he belonged in the family.) In
his right mind, the healed fellow has had his reasoning restored by the
grace of God. Only grace
restores reason to reason's integrity; only grace frees reason from its bondage
to ends that aren't righteous. No
one doubts that fallen human beings can still reason.
Of course we can. But what
does our reasoning produce, from the cunning of the three year old to the
plotting of the self-serving adult to the rationalisation that is now second
nature to all of us? Only grace
restores reason to reason's integrity; only grace frees reason from reason's
captivity to unrighteous ends. The
fact that the healed fellow was found seated, clothed and in
his right mind is God's pledge and promise that the same sanity is
ultimately guaranteed any believer. It
takes root as we cast ourselves upon our Lord, and it will be perfected on the
day that we are plunged into an intimacy and intensity so very intimate and
intense and as to be indescribable. Eternal
life includes the restoration of that reason whose reasoning we've never lost
but whose reasoning has been too long in the service of everything but
"That whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal
life." Eternal life is life
lived in relationship to God. It's
our creaturely, human existence now liberated to bring honour to God; it's our
creaturely, human existence now mirroring without impediment him whose image was
always supposed to shine forth from us as brightly and unambiguously as a city
set on a hill.
IV: -- "Should not perish but have eternal life."
What's perishing got to do with all this?
Isn't God light only, there being no darkness in him at all, to quote
John once more? Isn't God life only,
death having no place in him at all? Doesn't
he come in Christ Jesus only to bless, there being nothing accursed in his
nature or purpose? Then what's this
The purpose of light is always and only to enlighten; the purpose of life
is always and only to enliven; the purpose of goodness is always and only to
bless. Yet the truth is that as
surely as light enlightens, anything that impedes light results in a shadow.
The truth is, life rejected can only mean death.
Blessing repudiated leaves one with curse. John insists that God's
purpose in sending the Son was always and only that the world might be saved,
never that it be condemned. Had God
wanted to condemn the world he had all the grounds and all the evidence he
needed to condemn it justly without tormenting himself in his Son.
Yet he tormented himself in his Son just because he is more eager to save
the world than the world is itself to be saved.
And that's just the problem: God is more eager to save than the world is
to be saved. That's just the
problem. While it is never God's
purpose to condemn; while it is always God's purpose to save, the outcome of his
determination to save is that those resisting him, those fixated on remaining in
their God-defying arrogance and grandiose self-importance, become fixed in it.
Then it behoves us all to hear afresh the word of grace: God loved the
world so much as to withhold nothing of himself in his resolve to woo and win
the world. He gave himself in his
only Son, without limit, without hesitation, without qualification, and all of
this inasmuch as he wanted, and still wants, to save the world from the
condemnation it deserves. It behoves
us therefore to abandon our perverse posturing before him and own for ourselves
life eternal as we trust him today for all he longs to give us; trust him today,
tomorrow, ever after.