For God So Loved the World (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

John 3:14-21


I have a favorite story in scripture. Do you? I read it as a part of my daily prayer time over a number of days recently. It is spread over several chapters (14, in fact) in the book of Genesis. So, I won’t try to tell it to you in detail. It’s the story, that many of you recall, of Joseph and his father Jacob and Jacob’s other sons. It’s a very human story that tells of jealousy and the meanness that it can inspire.

Joseph was a bit insensitive with his brothers. He was a born leader with greatness in his future, and Joseph knew that. He had dreams about it. And he didn’t mind sharing his dreams with his brothers. And to top it off he was the favorite son of his father Jacob. And his brothers knew it. They saw it. And they hated Joseph for it—for his haughtiness and for his favorite-son status with their father. They hated him so much that they wanted to kill him. But instead they captured him and sold him to a slave trader headed to Egypt. And then they compounded the evil that they had done by lying to their father—telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.

Their father Jacob was heart-sick. And, as we learn over time, his sons were wracked with guilt for the evil they had done to their brother. It was a very sad and tragic story. But the end of the story is what always gets me, and I usually find tears of joy welling up as I read it. Joseph has come to power in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. And he is put in a position where he is able to help a lot of people during a terrible time of famine, including his own brothers who come to Egypt seeking to buy food for themselves and their families, including their father Jacob.

That moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers is heartbreakingly joyful. There are tears, loud cries of grief and relief from Joseph himself. And ultimately there is reconciliation. Those who had done such a terrible thing to their brother are welcomed into the arms of forgiveness and love. The evil of the past is made right. And then in the last chapter of Genesis with his brothers still dealing with their guilt and wondering whether their brother Joseph might try to get his revenge, we hear those memorable words of Joseph to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20). In other words, it was an evil thing that the brothers did to Joseph. But, because of that evil thing, Joseph found himself in a place where he was able to save not only many other people, but his own people. Jacob and his sons and their families, Israel itself, survived because Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers.

What speaks to me so profoundly about this story is the reconciliation. It is the making right of something that has gone terribly wrong. It is forgiveness and love triumphing over vindictiveness and all the evil that goes with it. And this, I firmly believe, is the story of scripture. It is the story of our faith.

Sometimes we see this story lived out in our midst. I was reminded last week of the time at the wedding party for our son Will and his wife Selyna when his younger brother Jacob expressed appreciation for his older brother Will. Now they consider themselves best friends. But years ago, like many brothers, they did not get along very well. Finally, as Jacob told it at the wedding party, Will came to him. Hugging his brother, he said, “Jake, this has got to end. You are my brother and I love you.” Thankfully the wall between them came tumbling down in that moment.

It was an act of reconciliation, of making right what had gone wrong. It was an act of love. And I think we all hunger for that. In fact, it is a hunger that is at the heart of our faith. Indeed, as scripture teaches, it is a hunger that is at the heart of God. You know the words of Jesus from our scripture for today from the gospel of John: “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.” These are in fact the words with which our Confession of Faith as Cumberland Presbyterians begins: “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.”

Now, as we look at the gospel of John as a whole, beginning with the first chapter, where it is said of God’s revelation in Jesus, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11), we discover in the gospel of John that the world is a pretty negative place. The world is a place of condemnation and judgment where people don’t want anything to do with God and God’s way. The world is the jealousy and bitterness, and ultimately the guilt of Joseph’s brothers and Jacob’s sons. The world is the place where sons, like my own sons, want to love each other, but find it so hard. The world is the place where we experience all sorts of cruelties every day and watch the news and shake our heads in disgust. This is the world. And, even so, our faith tells us that God loves it, that God sent Jesus to that world so that the walls would come down and we and the whole world would know that we are loved. That picture of Joseph and his brothers shedding tears for the reconciliation that has happened after all they have been through, that picture of my two sons reconciling and coming together as best friends—that is what God wants for the world, this troubling and nasty world that God loves.

In fact, this is our evangelical calling as followers of Jesus. Our calling is not only to proclaim the love of God, but to live it—to be instruments of that love. To believe in Jesus, we are told in John 3:16, is to have eternal life. And what is meant by eternal life is not just life after death. It is eternal life. It is life in relationship with God. It is life in communion with God. Eternal life is a personal relationship with the God who reveals God’s self in Jesus.

And out of this eternal life, out of this personal relationship we have with God, we are to reach out to others in love. We are to love them as we are loved by God—all of us.

After our presbytery’s unfortunate actions a week ago Saturday, which called for LGBT people to not be ordained as elders or as ministers of the gospel in our presbytery, I heard from a gay minister in our denomination. And what he said is that one of the hardest things about being who he is is being viewed with disgust by others, especially others within the church.

I’ve been thinking about what he said a good bit of late. What must it be like to be viewed with disgust by other people—to be seen as a kind of pariah. For gay people, researchers tells us that it is hard not to internalize this message—to see yourself as disgusting, to see yourself as a pariah. But this is not just gay people. It is a lot of us. It is those who don’t seem to measure up to the standards set for them by parents or society. Those who, because of their looks or abilities, feel they are lacking. Those who, because of their shortcomings and failures, live with the weight of a guilt that seems like it can never be lifted. Those who, because of the diseases of their mind or body, feel like they are no good. There are a lot of us who live with the judgment and condemnation talked about in our gospel lesson for today from the gospel of John. There are a lot of us who are afraid to come to the light of Christ because we don’t want to be exposed for the screwed up people that we are.

That’s why it is so important for us to be a community of people who testify by the way we worship and pray and live that everyone who walks into the doors of this church is loved. That they are needed. That they are wanted, regardless of what they are going through or may feel about themselves.

God so loves the world is our evangelical calling and testimony. It’s at the core of our faith, both as Christians and Cumberland Presbyterian Christians. I think of Joseph throwing his arms around his guilt-ridden brothers with loud cries and tears in his eyes. I think of Will hugging his hard-headed brother with words of reconciliation and love. And I think that is what God wants. God wants to embrace each of us in the love of Jesus so that we know not judgment but eternal life, life in loving relationship with God. And God wants us to reflect this love in our relationships with others—inviting them to come into this community of love for imperfect people, inviting them to accept the life-transforming truth that “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.”

This is our evangelical calling and mission. It is our calling and mission to accept the love that we would offer to others in our families, in our circle of friends, in the places where we work and live our lives. To the end that others may know that God so loves the world, and, as a part of the world, that means them too. All of us.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, March 11, 2018

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