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God refuses to let us settle for anything less than his love.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve heard John 3:16 so many times that it’s easy to look right past it; as if God’s love is something we knew already. Something like, “Of course God loves us so much that he gave his only Son. Duh! Who doesn’t know that!” Or, “Isn’t that nice that God gave us his Son so that we could go to heaven one day and have eternal life.” And the news of God’s love is something we tuck away on the back shelf for a rainy day, and we go on with the rest of our lives, effectively ignoring this vital truth.
But John 3:16 isn’t so easily tucked away. John 3:16 is after us, and it won’t let us settle for anything less in life than God’s love.
For one, John 3:16 begins by reminding us that there is no life to be found apart from Jesus’ death. We often overlook that part of John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” That is to say, we’re all perishing. We’re all doomed to death and condemnation, and the only way out, the only life to be had, is Jesus’ death.
This is why John compares Jesus to the snake in the wilderness. “And 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.” God had sent poisonous snakes to bite the people of Israel. And they called out to God to have mercy on them. So God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole so that anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze serpent lifted on a pole and live. The serpent wasn’t lifted up on a pole because everyone was “just okay” the way they were. The serpent was lifted up on a pole because everyone was snake-bit and dying and the only way out, the only life to be found was to look to the serpent lifted on a pole.
That’s how it is with Jesus, lifted up on a cross. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish. That is, we’re all perishing already and the only way out is to look to Jesus’ death. As John says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned. But whoever does not believe is condemned already.” There is no life apart from Jesus’ death. **This is what life looks like.**
And that turns everything we typically think about the world upside down. It means that all the good and strong and beautiful things we treasure, as if having them is what life is all about, are NOT where life is found. To get John’s point, we could make two categories: perishing and everlasting life. And notice into which category all the things we often strive after, all the things we tend to measure our lives by, go. Healthy bodies: perishing. Sharp mind: perishing. Money: perishing. Advanced degree: perishing. A new car and a nice home: perishing. Wisdom and experience: perishing. Perfect children: perishing. Jesus lifted on a cross: everlasting life!
Life is found, not in the good, and the strong, and the beautiful things of this world, but in Jesus’ death on a cross!
But that’s, in fact, where we finally see the depth and the breadth and the overwhelming goodness of God’s love. God’s love isn’t for the strong, the beautiful, and the good. Jesus’ love is for sinners and fools and evil persons.
Take the people of Israel in the wilderness again. God had set his heart on them and given them every good thing. He brought them out of slavery in Egypt. When they were in the wilderness where there was nothing to eat and they were hungry, he gave them manna and quail. When they were in the wilderness where there was nothing to drink and they were thirsty, he gave them water from a rock. God had set his heart on them and given them every good thing. And what did they do? They resented God and his plans and rebelled against him. They told God that he was not a good gift giver and that if they were in charge, they could do much better. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”
You couldn’t find a better example of our sin. This is the same thing we do when we get angry at someone who’s done us wrong and either give them the silent treatment or lash out at them in anger, trying to get revenge. It’s as if we’re saying, “Thanks God for my life and all, but you really could have done better. The people you’ve put in my life just are not good enough!”
Or this is the same thing we do when we rebel against our parents or when we post how stupid the people in our government are. We’re breaking the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother (and other authorities),” as if to say, “Thanks God for my life and all, but if I were in charge, I could do a whole lot better.”
Or this is what we do when we don’t remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as if God’s Word and promises are nice and all, but I’ve got things to do. After all, there are priorities in life. Or this is what we do when we take God’s name in vain, as if God’s name, which God has given us to call upon him in every time of need, pray, praise, and give thanks, is just another curse word to throw out when we’re angry or want attention.
We give God our worst, our contempt, our distrust, our disdain. And he gives us his best: He gives us his only begotten Son, Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is the love of God. Not that he loves those who are good and strong and righteous, but that he loves sinners and fools and evil persons. Or as Luther puts it, “Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.”
It’s tempting to settle for less than God’s love. It’s tempting to think that we know God’s love already, and so we can get on with the rest of our lives as if what really matters about me is my good grades, or my job, or how good my kids are doing, or whether or not I’m in good health and of sound mind; you know, all the things that we tend to find good and strong and beautiful. And then we spend our whole lives measuring ourselves by our works, our abilities, our strength, our accomplishments, as if that’s what really mattered about us, as if that’s what makes us or breaks us in life. But John 3:16 won’t let us get away with it. What makes you or breaks you isn’t whether you are good or strong or beautiful, but the undeserved love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. This man, lifted up on a cross, is the only life there is. And it’s all life you need. Because it is the life-giving love of God poured out for you.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.
20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.
21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”