Monday, March 16, 2015

Known but unknown. . .

Sermon for Lent 4B

John 3:16 is perhaps the most well known verse in the Bible and yet we seldom pay much attention to its context or read its words in the way intended.  We read them out of our need to know God loves us but, even more than that, God loves us more than others, more now than ever, and more with each passing day.  It is the romance of love and not the character of the love John 3:16 speaks of.

Luther called this the gospel in miniature or gospel in a nutshell.  That it is and if it is the gospel in miniature then it is about the cross.  Whether or not you are Nicodemus of long ago, you hear in these words the clear voice of that gospel.  For this is not about the quantity of love God has for you but the description of that love.  You were not saved because tyouy deserved it or were worth it or because your works earned you God's notice or His favor.  You were loved with the sacrificial love of the Father fulfilled in His willing Son who gave Himself up for you on the cross.  You were lost, soiled and stained with sin, marked with death, and unable to do anything about it but lament it.  And Christ won you back even by His death on the cross.

For God so loved the world. . .  the key here is the very small word "so".  It is not so in the sense of much.  Like we might say "so" expensive or difficult.  Can God love you more? Can God love you less?  We assume that this little word descibes how much God loves us but God's love does not come in bits and pieces or dribs and drabs.  God loves.  This little word "so" is HOW God loves us.  God's love is always cross shaped.  It was in the first gospel of Genesis 3:15.  It was in the gospel the prophets spoke from generation to generation.  It was in the gospel near when John the Baptist baptized Jesus and named Him the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world..."  It was in the words and miracles of Jesus that prefigured the cross and framed it.

For God loved and the shaped of this love is the cross.  Could He have done less?  Was there ever another cup for Him to drink or another baptism for Him to be baptized?  That is the moment we see when Jesus prays for any other way but knows that there is only one way, one expression of God's great love -- the cross.

That whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life...   There is in this love no appeal to intellect, no request for understanding or consent, no appeal to spirituality or self-serving glory.  No, this is the call to raw and unadulterated trust.  That is the scandal of the cross.  It repels us for its brutality and yet hidden in the horror is the love beyond all telling.  We encounter this love not by reasoning our way to faith or by being convinced of its wisdom.  Its wisdom is always a scandal and always an offense.  No, God must act or this love will always be beyond our grasp.

God so loved that when this cross shaped love was a scandal to us, He made a way for faith.  He sent forth His Spirit, attached Him to the Word, water, bread and wine of His means of grace.  If you will remember, baptism was the subject of His visit to Nicodemus and the context in which we hear John 3:16.  God's love is cross shaped and comes to us where He has planted His cross -- in the waters of baptism.  You could say that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son and then gave us the water of baptism which unfolds us into that cross shaped love, attaches us to His death and resurrection, and imparts to us the Spirit to engender trust within us in this cross shaped love.

This love is no mere sentiment or feeling.  It is as concrete and real as the bronze serpent Moses raised and its effect is as concrete and real as the healing that resulted from those who looked to the bronze serpent trusting that what God said would be done.  Jesus' cross saves.  It cleanses and redeems, saves and rescues, kills and gives life -- no symbolism here but only that which is most true and real.

Everyone knows John 3:16.  Even those who do not believe probably know it.  But the miracle that gives us this Gospel in minieature says salvation by grace through faith imparted through the means of grace.  Maybe you have never heard of Nicodemus or of Moses, but the truth is that it was always God's plan to raise Jesus up on the cross and it was Jesus love and joy for us that enabled Him to endure the pain and bear the cross for us.  And this cross our Lord has planted in the water of baptism that delivers to us God' s healing, redeeming, and saving grace.

How an this be? We do not need to explain the mystery to own it.  Faith trusts it and the Spirit opens our fearful hearts to rejoice in its gift and blessing for unworthy sinners like you and me.

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