I want to start this morning by telling you a true story.
Many years ago, a bishop named Maurice Wood was fast asleep in his house at about three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang beside his bed. He reached for it and put it to his ear, and said a rather sleepy ‘Hello?’ And the voice of the man on the other end of the line said, “Is this the Bishop’s house?” “Yes”, Maurice replied. “Is this the Bishop?” “Yes it is”. “Bishop, can I ask you a question?”
For a moment Maurice didn’t reply, and then he said, “Have you any idea what time it is?” “Yes – it’s about three o’clock in the morning”. “Oh – right! What’s the question?” “Bishop – does God love me?”
And then Maurice realized that for this man at this moment in his life, this was the question - the question that was so important that it didn’t matter that he had to wake the Bishop up at three o’clock in the morning to ask it.
“Does God love me?” I suspect that, deep down inside, many of us have that same nagging question. Do I matter to God? Does God know my name? Does God love me?
Let me take you to two verses from our gospel reading for today, two verses in which we hear the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here they are:
‘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 everlasting 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’ (John 3:16-17 NRSV).
So the fundamental truth that these verses announce to us is the truth of God’s love. God’s love led him to decide not to condemn the world. Instead, God’s love led him to give a gift - a free gift - the gift of ‘being saved’ through Jesus Christ. God offers this gift to each person, and God invites each of us to receive it.
What is this love like? It’s not a conditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. It’s not a reward for performance. The word John uses in the original language is ‘agapé’, which is a very unusual word in ancient Greek. It’s like the Old Testament word that’s translated in our NRSV Bibles as ‘steadfast love’. It’s not primarily a feeling, and it’s not based on feelings. It’s a decision that God makes to pour out his love on us, not because we are lovable but because God is love. It’s the love Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Another word often used for it in the Bible is charis, which is usually translated ‘grace’; it means a free gift, with no strings attached.
This is where we start with God. Philip Yancey says that what grace means is that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.
So let me ask you – do you believe that?
If we really believe that, we can let go of the everlasting burden of having to win God’s approval. We can let go of the anxiety that if we put even one foot wrong it’s all up for us. We can have the sense that instead of standing over us with a big stick waiting to beat us up for our failures, God is standing beside us in Jesus to lift us up when we fall down. More than that, God is living in us through the Holy Spirit – the one Jesus describes earlier in John 3 as the ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ of God – giving us the oxygen of grace that we need to live the Jesus Way. If we really believe that God loves us, we can go home from church today in the sure knowledge, not just that God lives in our hearts, but that God holds us in his heart – which is surely the safest place in the world to be, now and through eternity.
So how do we know this is true? How do we know God loves us?
Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This doesn’t just mean ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’ - although that surely is good news! But it doesn’t give us the full range of meanings in the original. ‘God so loved the world’ is an archaic construction, which actually means ‘God loved the world in this way’. In other words, we’re not just taking about how much God loves us; we’re also talking about the form his love took on this one occasion, or the method he chose to show us his love.
‘Tim so loved his wife that he took her out for dinner on their anniversary’. Well done me! But what does that actually mean? Yes, of course, it means “I loved her so much that I wanted to give her a wonderful evening out” (and I hoped very much that her definition of ‘wonder’ included an evening with me!). But it also says something about the form my love took on this occasion: ‘I loved her in this way: I took her out for dinner on our anniversary’.
So what form did God’s love for us take? ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. The gift of God to the world was to send his Son into the world, ‘not…to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (v.17).
We can think of this as describing the mission of Jesus in all its fullness – the mission that began when ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). This ‘Word’ of God, according to John, was somehow at the same time God himself, and was also ‘with God’ – obviously John’s trying to describe a mystery far above our understanding. But what a gift God gives to the world! To come and live among us himself in the person of his Son, as one of us – to share our human life in all its frailty – all out of love for us. If God cared enough about the inhabitants of this planet to actually make himself vulnerable and be born as one of us, then surely that would be compelling evidence that ‘God loved the world’.
But in fact, our text is going further than that. Earlier in the passage, it refers to the story we read in our Old Testament reading today – the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The people are wandering in the wilderness, grumbling and complaining to God about having nothing but manna to eat all day long, and suddenly they find themselves being attacked by poisonous snakes. They’re being bitten, and some of them are dying. So Moses prays for the people, and God tells him what to do: ‘“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”. So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it up on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live’ (8-9).
Verses 14-15 of our gospel refer to this story: “And just 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”. When Jesus uses the ‘lifted up’ language, he’s referring to his cross. The parallels with the text from Numbers are actually quite striking. The thing the people feared most of all was the snakes that were biting them and causing them to die, but Moses made an image of the very thing that they feared, and it became for them a means of salvation. And in the same way, in the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel and violent death, but it became for us Christians a means of forgiveness and salvation. And just as the Israelites had to personally appropriate the salvation God was offering them – they had to ‘look to’ the bronze serpent – so now people are called to personally appropriate what Jesus has done for them by looking to him in faith, by ‘believing’ in him, or ‘putting their trust in him’.
This is ‘how’ God loved the world so much – he loved us by coming in the person of his Son, allowing human beings to do their worst to him – rejecting him, whipping him, mocking him, driving spikes through his wrists and feet and hanging him up on a cross until he died. He did not judge the people who did this to him. He didn’t blast them with thunderbolts or call on twelve legions of angels to wipe them out. Instead, he forgave them: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.
So the Cross became the most vivid demonstration imaginable of God’s love for the whole world. God loves the world in this way: when we reject him and mock him and scourge him and kill him, he rejects our rejection. He does not overcome evil with evil; he loves his enemies and continues to love them. The arms of Jesus are open wide on the Cross in welcome to all: Come to me - whoever you are, whatever you’ve done - come to me, and I will give you rest.
That’s how we know God loves us; we know because of Jesus.
But there’s still more. To what end does God love us? What’s his goal for us? The text says, ‘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’. ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on forever’; it means ‘life as God dreamed it for us when he first created us’.
We sometimes tell people ‘Get a life!’ Most of the people we say that to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we all understand instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still miss out on the deepest meaning of life, life in all its fullness. The writers of the New Testament all believed that the way to ‘get a life’ in the fullest possible sense is to put your faith in Jesus and follow him. God becomes human in Jesus, not just to reveal God to us, but to reveal our humanity to us as well. As we look at him, as we follow him, we discover the life we were originally created to live.
It’s important to keep focussed on this; if we don’t, we’re going to be tricked into thinking that Christianity is all about the things we’re not allowed to do! ‘You shall not do this!’ ‘You shall not do that!’ ‘Don’t touch!’ ‘Wet paint!’ ‘Keep off the grass!’ From time to time, Christians have fallen into this trap of overemphasizing the things Christians are asked to avoid, but not focusing enough on the amazing and wonderful things we’re promised. A friend of mine used to say, “I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and who created you for the sheer joy of knowing you!” Does that sound like life to you? I know it does to me!
So we’ve talked about the central, bedrock truth of God’s indestructible love for us – for each one of us. We’ve talked about how God demonstrated it: God loved the world in this way, by giving us his Son to live out his love for us, even to the point of death on a Cross. We’ve talked about God’s goal in this process: that we should receive life in all its fullness, which is what the Bible means by ‘eternal life’.
One last question: how do we tap into this for ourselves? How does it become part of our personal experience?
Our verse says, ‘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’. It’s by believing in him that we move into that abundant life that he promises us.
This is not just an intellectual thing. I might say, “I believe that Bishop Jane exists”, and very few of us here would disagree with that proposition! But it’s an entirely different thing for us to say, “I believe in Bishop Jane”. It means we trust her, we have confidence in the direction she’s leading, and we’re willing to go along with her on that journey.
So to believe in Jesus is not just to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that we’re willing to put our life on the line for him. I think of Jesus walking on the water and calling out to Peter, “Come”. Believing in Jesus, for Peter, meant getting out of the boat and walking toward him. It was an act of commitment.
For many of us, faith is a journey, but I would like to suggest that sometimes it’s also a decision. When two people love each other they obviously experience love as a journey, but traditionally we’ve also believed that there comes a point where the journey is strengthened as people make commitments to each other, to love each other for the rest of their lives. We call that a marriage, and we still believe it’s a hugely important step in a love relationship.
When I was thirteen I made a commitment of faith to Jesus. The language I used was ‘giving my life to Jesus’. Did I understand at the time everything that would imply? Of course not. But the decision I made that day – in response to the good news I had heard – that decision shaped the course of the rest of my life.
People make these decisions in a thousand different ways, and no one really should dare to lay down a single pattern. Even in our baptism services we ask people to articulate that decision. When parents bring children for baptism we ask them ‘Do you turn away from sin and evil? Do you accept Jesus as your Saviour, and will you obey him as your Lord?’ Of course, the problem is that no one ever says ‘No’ in a baptism or confirmation service! We’d have to stop the service if they did! And so it’s easy for people to read words off a page just because the service tells them too. That’s why it’s sometimes helpful for Anglicans, who have read these words from service sheets for years, to be challenged to pray them from the heart, at a time when no one’s listening. ‘Yes, Lord, I will turn away from evil and sin. Yes, I will put my life in your hands. Help me to trust you and follow you’.
My friend Harold Percy used to say that the Gospel is an invitation from God to us: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: RSVP!’ If we understand that invitation – if we can even imagine Jesus giving us that invitation – sometimes the most powerful prayer in the world is the simple word ‘Yes’.
So let me close by asking you: Can you hear that invitation today? Can you hear, in your heart, the voice of Christ saying ‘Follow me?’ Have you perhaps heard the good news of God’s love in a fresh way today – a way that’s tugging at you inside. “I want to be part of that in a way I never have before”?
If so, listen to that voice. Take time today to get alone with God and pray. You don’t have to use any particular form of words; God knows what’s on your heart. Simply thank him for the free gift of love he’s given you, and give yourself back to him in return, in faith and love.
Let us pray.
God, you loved the world in this way: you gave your only son, so that each one who believes in him may not perish, but may have life in all its fullness. Help each one of us today to put our faith in you, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, and to put our lives in your hands, so that we may ‘get a life’ – the life that you long so much to give us. This we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.