Bill and Ted’s Excellent Epiphany

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1989 cult classic Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The movie is about a couple of GenX high school slackers from San Dimas California, and they’re about to fail their senior year history class. If they fail this class Ted would be sent to military boarding school, in Alaska, which would separate the two best friends. Even worse, it’d separate their budding rock band, the Wyld Stallyns, and be the end to their music.

But these aren’t just any high school slackers, they’re kind of special. It turns out their music, in the future, means an awful lot to an awful lot of people. It’s so meaningful that someone from the future named Rufus, played by the incomparable George Carlin, comes to help them pass the class. He loans them his time machine – in the form of an old phone booth – which Bill and Ted use to “borrow” historical figures for their final history report.

They end up collecting the likes of Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Beethoven and Abraham Lincoln. And go figure, with the help of all these famous people they pass that class.

Socratic Wisdom
One of my favorite scenes is when Bill and Ted travel back to ancient Greece to borrow Socrates – initially they call him So-Crates – remember they aren’t the brightest bulbs in the batch. In this scene they listen as Socrates teaches, hearing him say “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.”

The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.

Ted, played by a young, long-haired Keanu Reeves, responds exuberantly, in his best surfer voice, “That’s us dude!”

Bill, played by Alex Winter quickly adds, “Oh, Yeah!”

It’s a brief moment, of self-reflection, an epiphany, an admission of their own limitations. They know they aren’t the brightest bulbs, and they’re ok with that.

Pauline Wisdom
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians features a similar view of wisdom. Paul grew up in Tarsus, an intellectual center of philosophy. He was fluent in both Greek and Hebrew; well versed in Greek scripture. Although we don’t know much about his formal schooling he was clearly an educated person, skilled in reason and rhetoric. He grew up a smart person in a smart town that valued learning, perhaps not too unlike the college town I live in.

And his writing abilities are unparalleled in scripture, tho that’s a biased opinion: he’s my favorite biblical author.

Yet here he is, a learn-ed, gifted communicator, a person of influence, here he is, writing to the Corinthians “For I decided to know nothing among you.”

He’s putting all those smarts to the side.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

He’s putting all those smarts to the side, instead focusing on something more important: the crucified Christ.

Paul then tells us why he’s doing that, “so that your faith may not rest on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”

While I’d hazard to guess that when Paul walked into a room he was the smartest one in it more-often-than-not, he never beat people over the head with those smarts.

Sure, he used those smarts, his writings are filled with brilliant imagery and soaring rhetoric. But it all has the same starting point, of Christ, crucified.

In this putting aside of wisdom, and of personal glory, he lowers himself to a place of service, a place of humility. A place that was modeled first by the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

And when reflecting on his messages Paul attributes them. These aren’t his words, not his human wisdom. Instead, these words come from the Spirit. The Spirit that is from God.

Excellent Impact
At the end of this most excellent film, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, after they’ve aced the final history report and passed high school, Rufus rejoins them from the future. And he tells them why it was so important that they keep playing music. Their music, Rufus explains, helps put an end to war and poverty. It aligns the planets, bringing them to universal harmony. It ushers in a time of peace. And, it turns out, it’s excellent for dancing.

All this, from a couple of Californian GenX slackers who could barely get through high school. And all this, from a couple of dudes who knew the only true wisdom consists of knowing you know nothing.

Social Order
So often we use our education, our years of experience, our affluence, we use all that to create a social order. We use all that to glorify some at the expense of others. I have my advanced degrees, many of you have yours, yes education matters deeply. Yes, let’s continue to prioritize education, it’s crucial.

Yet what we do with our education, and how we rank people by it, that approach just isn’t scriptural.

Consider Christ, a carpenter’s son who learned the trade for three decades, and who served others above all else, sacrificing himself so that we may live.

Ponder Paul, an educated, influential man, who put his credentials aside, instead choosing to know nothing except Christ crucified. He focused on that alone, giving credit to the Spirit of God for all his eloquent words.  Like any good academic he cited his work, giving credit where credit is due.

Even the fictitious Bill and Ted, who knew they knew nothing, ended up using their gifts to arrive at world peace.

Close
So if you aren’t the brightest bulb don’t worry about it. Make your music, just like Bill and Ted. Be excellent to each other,  bringing God’s peace to this world.

And if you are the brightest bulb there is, or think you are, don’t flaunt it. Instead, be like Paul, center it on the cross. Give glory to God in all you do.

For it isn’t about your brains, or lack of, that matters when we speak of our faith. It is a matter of focus, a focus that anyone and everyone is capable of. And that focus, my friends, is on the cross.  Amen.

1989 METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER STUDIOS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Looking Down

I message on God, us, and identity.

“Is God proud of me?” The question arose, from the back seat of my car, as I drove my second-grade daughter to school yesterday morning.

On Wednesdays there is no pre-school, so instead of two crazy kids chattering as I take them to their morning destination, this day, Wednesday, is purely daddy daughter drive time. And every-so-often a question like this one pops up.

Take One
I found myself cautiously scrambling to respond, rehearsing words in my head before releasing them in speech.

“Yes, of course God is proud of you, honey,” I responded.  ‘God is thrilled when you listen to God, when you show kindness to others, when you treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Reflecting on this response it sounded like a greatest hits of Christianity, oif.

Surely I could do better than this.

Sensing there was something deeper in her query, it occurred to me that God’s opinion of her matters deeply. Wondering if God is proud of you likely isn’t that different from asking “What does God think of me?” or “Does God like me?” These are questions of self-esteem, questions of personal worth, questions that matter.

As a parent raising a daughter, in America, in 2018, my wife and I do our best to encourage her to be confident and self-assured, ready to face the challenges of our day. Or at least ready to face the challenges in a not-too-distant future. And to do that you need to know that people have your back. And as a person of faith knowing that God has your back definitely matters.

Our conversation then turned to our higher power being a God of love, one who cares for us deeply, no matter what. Someone that doesn’t abandon you when things get tough. Or when we do something we shouldn’t. At some point I must have said that God loves us even when we don’t listen to God, which then led to more questions:

“How exactly do you listen to God?”

“Have you ever heard God’s voice, like someone else talks to you?”

“Or is it more of a quiet, internal conversation?”

I stumbled around with some more responses, and was glad when we arrived at school.

Drop-off now complete I drove away, grateful this difficult, unexpected conversation was complete. At least for now, tough kid questions always seem to come around again.

I found myself doing what I always do in these situations, replaying the conversation in my head, grading my responses, trying to find a better approach for next time.

It is these moments, both as a parent and as a pastor where I feel like a failure. I probably botched the answer, sorry honey, you caught daddy off guard with this one. Tho he’s still thinking about it, a good thing.

Do-Over
The current topic for our confirmation youth at church right now is baptism. In light of this earlier car conversation, naturally, my mind wanders to the waters. If I could have a do-over, to answer this question “Is God proud of me?” it would hopefully sound a little more like this:

In the beginning God moved over the waters, creating the world in God’s image. God called forth life, it’s all around us, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, the trees of the field, you and me too. God created it all, taking great delight God’s creation.

But we humans have a way of screwing things up, it started pretty early, with Adam and Eve, and we keep screwing things up now. Every argument, every unkind word, every lie, every push, shove, punch and kick meant to harm another is all just us screwing things up.
God knew we were going to keep screwing up, so he sent Jesus to earth to show us how to live.

When Jesus was baptized in water by John the heavens opened and God said this is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.  God was proud of his son Jesus, just as me and your mom are proud of you.

When we are baptized, whether it’s as an infant, or a child, or a teen, or an adult, God takes all the screw-ups that we’ve ever done, or ever will do, and says we’re free from them.
Just as Jesus had new life when he rose from the dead, our baptism gives us new life through Christ. All that screwing up we do is washed away in our baptismal waters, we’re good as new. And it is in baptism where we are claimed, by grace, as beloved children of God, full members of the body of Christ, now and forever.

This baptism is so important that Martin Luther – he’s that monk guy from 500 years ago your dad adores – suggests we should wake up each day and celebrate our baptism anew, being newly cleansed, newly washed from the gunk of the day before. So it’s not a one-time thing, this baptism, it’s a continual claiming, a continual cleansing.

So if ever you find yourself wondering some variation of is God proud of me, please know this:

God created you.
God loves you, not matter what.
And you are claimed as a child of God, part of the family. This claiming happens in the waters of your baptism, where you are given new life in Jesus, daily.

Because the starting point isn’t about what you do, or about what others think of you.

The starting point isn’t even about who you are, as important a question as that can be.

The starting point is about *whose* you are, and you are God’s own. And God, aka your celestial great-great-great-great (and then some more greats) grandparent has big, world-shaking plans for you, my beloved daughter, and for everyone else too.  Amen.

Gestalt Jesus

An Easter Vigil message.

Have you ever seen Jesus? I realize that’s a rather esoteric, abstract question, but let’s just keep that question floating out there for a bit. Have you ever seen, really seen, Jesus? If so how would you describe the experience? Was it a person, place, or thing? A moment in time you aren’t soon to forget? A bit of nature that reminded you the divine was right there, in your presence, as real as anything else in our world? Hold on to those stories, your stories, we’ll come back to that question.

Scripture is *filled* with God spottings in ways that bring the abstract to the concrete.

The Backstory
God was there in the beginning, separating light from darkness, creating somethingness out of nothingness, giving order where none had been. And then there God was, walking alongside God’s new creation, kicking it with Adam and Eve for evening strolls in the Garden. Imagine what those walks, those conversations must have been like. Chatting with God on the regular, having the chance to talk about your day, asking all the questions you’ve always wanted answered, basking in the glow of a close relationship with the divine. Sign me up for that.

God was there as things went down. By that we’re talking about what went down with original sin and the corruption of our world, not heading down to a warmer locale like South Florida. Tho given the Iowan winter we had that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea 😊

God was there as the Israelites fled the oppressive slavery of Egypt, guiding Moses to lead them to the promised land. Oh God’s people complained, right in the middle of their escape, saying it’d be better if they’d just stayed enslaved and died. Ouch! But God had Moses’ ear, and helped calm an anxious people. Even more, God provided a very real here and now salvation for the Israelites, parting sea from sand, guiding God’s people right through the middle of a massive water body. It was a moment not even Charlton Heston could do justice, as great of a cinematic Moses as he was in The Ten Commandments. God was there, leading God’s children away from slavery, towards the hope of a promised land.

And God was there, in the form of God’s son, when Mary Magdalene went out, while it was still dark, to pay her respects to a dead friend. (John 20:1-18)

Surprises
But Mary didn’t find what she had been expecting. Mary went to the tomb for the same reasons we visit graves – to cry, to pray, to remember, to find closure. Maybe she brought some flowers to place, just like we do, scripture doesn’t say. We do know that when she arrived something was off, the stone that should have been in front of the tomb wasn’t there. Assuming the body had been stolen she went for backup, bringing Peter and another disciple to investigate. Once there they found the linens Jesus had been wearing piled up in a corner, nobody in sight. After that the disciples, for some reason, called it a day and went back home.

But Mary? She stuck around. And it was then that she found what she had been looking for, albeit in an entirely different form. There, outside the tomb, crying over the loss of a very good friend, and now the loss of her very good friend’s body, she turned and saw someone nearby.

Assuming it was the gardener Mary asked the person if they’d taken away the body. Mary was determined to solve this missing body mystery; she was still searching for Jesus. The stranger then replied, “Mary!” and she knew, instantly, in that moment she was standing in front of the risen Christ. It had been a case of mistaken identity – this was no gardener she realized, it was her beloved Teacher.

With the epiphany now in hand Mary excitedly ran to tell the disciples. News of this electrifying reality quickly spread.

Those male disciples were nowhere to be seen when Jesus first appeared. Instead it was Mary out seeking, and then finding, the risen Christ. It’s a biblical example of girl power, and a good one.

So what changed? What caused Mary to suddenly realize she wasn’t speaking to a stranger? What new insight had clicked in her brain?

Gestalt Shifts
For one it was the voice, Jesus called her by name. Our names are our identity. Those that know us by name are in relationship with us. I’m reminded of the theme from the TV show Cheers, you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

But maybe there’s more to it than that. While Mary now had new information, she heard the man’s voice, a voice that knew her by name, the figure before her remained the same.
What changed in this moment is also Mary’s perception of what she saw.
Or what she thought she saw.

To borrow a phrase from the field of psychology, perhaps what Mary experienced, in that moment of revelation, was a Gestalt shift. Gestalt is a German word for form or shape. Gestalt psychologists posit that, when it comes to how we see the world, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words the big picture matters. And a gestalt shift occurs when your perception suddenly changes.

A picture really is worth a thousand words, so let’s take a look at a few examples.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Wife_and_My_Mother-in-Law

This drawing is pretty famous, I’d guess you may have seen this.  Do you see a young woman?  Or an old woman?

If you see the young woman the curved shape in the very center of this image is an ear. That same curved shape for the old woman is her eye. A bit below and to the left, on the young woman, is her chin. That same area, in the image, for the old woman is her nose.
If you can see both you have experienced a Gestalt shift, first seeing one thing, and now another. The image itself, the entire time, has remained unchanged.

Here’s another one.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit%E2%80%93duck_illusion

Do you see a duck or a rabbit? If you see a duck, those big long pointy things are a beak. If you see a rabbit, those same big long pointy things are ears. And for both rabbit and duck the same round form in the middle of the image is the eye. If you first saw one, and now see another, congratulations, you’ve experienced another Gestalt shift.

One more, and this is a photo.

Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/191825265352631239

Do you see a cow?  Do you see two human faces? It is a cow, and by our Creator’s design nestled in that cow face is something else. Look closely and you’ll see a black and white silhouette of two faces looking at each other. If you look close you can see the outline of their foreheads, their noses, lips, and chins, it’s really something. And when you can see both cow and two faces, once again, you have made another Gestalt shift.

Looking back
It’s easy to see our faith, our religious practices, even the identity of Jesus as a relic of the past. We can treat it like something from a bygone era; our fires, our candles, our songs, our liturgies, it all points us back. Stories of creation and gardens, parted seas and empty tombs can be just that, stories from the past. And there is a certain beauty in that. Yet if you head though life only looking back, expecting the dead, saddened by what was and is no longer, well that is exactly what you’ll find.

Mary started out her trip to the tomb with this same mindset.

But then something happened.

Call that moment for Mary whatever you like, a revelation, Holy Spirit inspired, maybe a Gestalt shift. I’d suggest it’s all of that and so much more. With our limited vantage we struggle to wrap our heads around what that moment for Mary must have been like.

She went to honor the dead, and instead found new life.
She spoke with who she thought was a stranger, and instead encountered Christ.
She journeyed to shed tears of sorrow, and instead those tears turned to pure joy.

While she looked at the same form, of a man standing there in front of her, her understanding of that form, in a new way, changed the world forever.

Close
As we celebrate Easter Vigil, while the skies continue to darken, on the precipice of a monumental event in the dawn that follows, let us prepare to be like Mary. Let us prepare to see the world, and to see each other, in new ways.

When we look and see the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the immigrant, let us see more.

When we look and see the Democrat, the Republican, the Socialist, the Communist, let us see more.

When we look and see the old, the physically ill, the mentally ill, the castaways of our society, let us see more.

Let us see each as beloved children of God, part of creation, part of a grand design from the very beginning. And part of God’s plan of salvation for the world through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

Dear Lord, give us new eyes to see you in unexpected places. Prepare us to make that shift; from darkness to light, from death to life, from them to us. Prepare us to see each other as you see your own.

For it is when that shift occurs that we can answer the question have you ever seen Jesus with new certainty, with new boldness. Why yes, I have seen the face of Christ. And it is in *you*.  Amen.

Donkey Tales

A Palm Sunday message, based on Mark 11:1-11,  from a particular vantage, with a slight nod to the Talking Heads.

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of something big? Something huge? Something so much more than just little old you? Yes? And did you find yourself wondering aloud how did all this happen?

Maybe it felt like that Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime. Ohhh, that’s a good song. Maybe you found yourself living in a shotgun shack, or in another part of the world, or behind the wheel of a large automobile or in a beautiful house with a beautiful spouse. And you may ask yourself, in that moment, “well…how did I get here?”

And you may conclude, sometime later, that it’s the same as it ever was.

Maybe those are your stories, of shacks and cars and houses and spouses. Or maybe you have others. But me? My story is a little different.

My story is about being one of the unlikeliest of characters called on to do one of the unlikeliest of things in all of scripture. Who am I? Why I’m the donkey.  And this is my story.

The Heist
The day started out normally enough, I suppose when the unexpected happens that’s how it begins. There I was, at the edge of the city, tied near a door, outside, just minding my own business. And then, out of nowhere, two people walk up, untie me, and start walking me away from town. Egad that was scary. “Who are these guys?” I found myself wondering. Am I being stolen? This can’t be good.

But it wouldn’t be that easy for these two strangers to get away unnoticed. A few of the locals, people I knew, saw this all go down and asked the would-be thieves what they were doing. The two strangers called themselves not thieves but disciples, people that follow someone who goes by the name of Jesus. And this Jesus character wasn’t just any regular person, they said, he was divine. He was nothing less than the Son of God.

They told the locals that this divine being had sent them on a mission, a mission from God, to head to this village, to go to this exact spot of town, and to take this specific donkey. Hey, that’s me! Jesus needs me for something big they said, a grand parade into Jerusalem. And they promised to return me when this big mission was complete.

The locals listened to this explanation and talked it over amongst themselves. Surprisingly, they let the disciples walk right out of town, with me in tow.

The Identity
Though still caught off guard with all that was going down, for some reason the disciple’s explanation comforted me. I realized, at least if they were to be believed, I was being borrowed and not stolen. What a relief! And that, after this mission was complete, I’d be brought back from whence I came. Then, once I was returned at least, things could get back to normal. At that sounded just fine to this particular donkey.

Now feeling somewhat relieved another emotion bubbled up within me, one I’ve struggled with for a while – self-doubt. Let’s be honest, shall we? I’m a donkey. We have a bit of a reputation. We’re known for being stubborn. What if I didn’t get along with this Jesus character? We may not want to go the same way. I knew that could create a mountain of problems.

But it gets worse, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this…I’m not even full grown! I’m a colt, less than four years old. Even more than that I’ve never even been ridden before. That translates into like ZERO experience for this big mission. Being small, short and inexperienced for the task at hand I felt destined to fail.

Why did Jesus pick me?

Shouldn’t he have chosen some grander animal, like a horse? Those horses are so tall, so strong, so regal. We donkeys have always looked up to them – quite literally. When leaders of this world put on a parade to display their power they like to go big. They like to strut their stuff. This is how it’s always been. In my day it was the horses that leaders went with, that was the icon of choice. In your day it’s the biggest tanks, the most armored vehicles, the highest rockets. The baddest displays of our weapons of war.

And yet, for this particular mission, for some reason, it was me, the young, short, stubborn, inexperienced donkey. What *I* had to put on display wasn’t exactly impressive.
These doubts, these feelings of inadequacy lingered within as the disciples led me to meet this mysterious man.

The Meeting
I must admit, meeting Jesus was nothing like I’d expected. Up until then I’d thought of God as distant, detached, and with a bit of a temper, at least when things went wrong down here. But here Jesus was, the Son of God, in the flesh, right in front of me, not distant at all. And the expression on his face? It showed no anger, no wrath. Instead I detected only kindness, only love.

Jesus must have sensed my feelings of inadequacy, because he provided words of comfort.

Yes, I was short, Jesus said, he knew that. He told me his burden is light.

Yes, I was inexperienced, having never been ridden before, Jesus too knew that, saying fear not. I don’t call the equipped, I equip the called, he said. And this donkey has been called.

Yes, my kind has a reputation for stubbornness, we don’t always want to listen to instruction. Jesus was aware of this limitation too. God can use anyone, I heard him saying, including the stubborn.

Not only that, but he reminded me that donkeys are known for being commonplace, for being humble. Those are great qualities he said, and with them God can use me mightily. What I’d always considered a personal weakness he saw as strength. Well how about that.

And he reminded me that God has used donkeys before. Back in the day there was a guy named Balaam, and no matter how much God tried Balaam would not listen. So God used Balaam’s donkey to get his attention, the donkey talked to him and said, hey, why are you kicking me? What have I ever done to you? And you know what? After that Balaam was so surprised he started listening to the Lord.

Now consoled, I felt better prepared for the task at hand. A new emotion came over me, one I cherish but whose occurrence is all too rare. Fear and inadequacy had now departed. Suddenly, amazingly, in their place I now felt completely, and entirely, at peace.

The Ride
The disciples that brought me to Jesus then took off their cloaks and placed them on me. Jesus hopped right on my back, his feet practically dragging on the ground as we went – remember I’m pretty short. What a sight that must have been! As he began to lead I found myself not giving into stubbornness at all. Instead, I desired to follow, to take part fully in all I had been called to do.

As we approached town I noticed more and more people gathered, looking right at Jesus. What a parade it was, people lined the streets as far as the eye could see. And boy were they excited! Many spread their cloaks right on the road. Others brought leafy branches to the parade and placed them at my feet. In modern lingo you could say they rolled out the proverbial red carpet for Christ. What an honor.

Still others held on to their leafy branches, joyously waving them in the air as we passed.

“Hosanna!” they shouted!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!

It was a grand parade, the passion among the people was infectious. They didn’t bless a person with those words. No, they blessed a king. And welcomed in a kingdom. It was a moment in time I’ll never forget.

We then entered Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple, and I was brought back home, exhilarated yet exhausted from the events of the day. As I dozed off to sleep that evening, this feeling of peace remained. Mission accepted. Mission accomplished.

The Return
I’m still processing all that went down that fateful day, it was a lot to take in. The people there at this grand parade seemed infatuated with Jesus, they treated him like a rock star. I wish you could have been there to experience it for yourself.

Yet human loyalty can be shallow, and fickle. We know what comes next in this story, and that part, at least for a few days, it isn’t too pretty.

I got to pondering the coming kingdom the people spoke of as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and think I’m beginning to understand. When he rode in on me that day it represented something the world hasn’t seen before or since.

All that stuff that normally comes when a great leader parades into town? This wasn’t anything like that. There were no horses, no swords, no shields. No tanks, no bombs, no AR-15s, and no missiles in sight. Instead, on display that day was the lifting of the lowly – like me – the commonplace, the servants, the humble. That day, in all it’s grandeur, was nothing less than pure joy.

And this kingdom Jesus ushered in? It was, and continues to be, a kingdom of peace. If you ask me that day represents nothing less than a snapshot of heaven.

Thinking back to that Talking Heads song, I used to wonder, well, how did I get here? How did I find myself in the middle of something big? But now I know, Jesus had it all planned out. And he included me in that plan.

And I used to think that, after this fateful day, that I just wanted life to get back to normal. That I wanted it to be the same as it ever was.

Now I know better. Because when you have an encounter with the Son of God, and are asked to help usher in a Kingdom of peace, your life can never be the same. Even if I could go back to how things were before why would I? I’ve tasted what life walking with Christ looks like, and it’s heavenly.

Close
So often we see the Lenten season as simply a story of life, death, and resurrection. And it is all of that, of course. And all that matters, deeply, of course. But nestled in this time-worn narrative, less than a week before Good Friday is a story of Jesus and a donkey. It’s a story of disciples and throngs of people, palm branches and a carefully orchestrated parade. It’s a story of unfathomable joy, unfathomable peace. Yes, this well-attended, high energy peaceful display was a threat to the powers that be. It was a threat then, and it continues to be today. Peace is radical. Peace can be costly.

Yet God called me, a short, inexperienced, stubborn donkey to help usher in this kingdom of peace. And God calls you, whoever you are, with whatever limitations you may think you have, God calls you to help usher in this same kingdom of peace. How shall you respond? If you take up this call to follow, as I did, let me tell you something from one who knows. If you follow the Prince of Peace, despite the darkness this world contains, your life will never, ever be the same. Amen.

For God So Loved

A message on the most known scripture of them all, John 3:16

The gospel reading for today includes a verse that is so common, so popular in Americana I’m guessing many of you could name it in a lineup. You just heard the passage from John 3, verses 14-21. Which verse out of that batch, would you say, is the big one? John 3:16, of course. The verse is so common you’ve likely ran across it in a myriad of places.

If you went to Sunday School as a kid, I bet you memorized it. If you attended VBS – or vacation bible school – at some point you probably learned it there. If you drive into big cities you’ve likely seen it on billboards. If you’re on social media you’ve almost certainly ran across it as a meme, complete with a cross on a hill during sunset, it’s a rather epic image.

According to biblegateway.com the verse is the most searched for and read piece of scripture on their website. It ranks #1 in their biblical search history for every year they’ve kept track.

And if you watch sports on tv you’ve probably seen the verse literally written on athletes. There was a trend a few years back, especially in college and pro football, to have John 3:16 written, in eye black. Eye black is the grease or strip under the eyes that helps reduce glare. Quarterback Tim Tebow put this verse in his eye black during games all the time. He famously used it for a 2012 NFL playoff matchup between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers. That game was watched by over 30% of the country, and it was impossible to miss the reference.

And the day after that John 3:16 was the most searched for term on the internet, beating out searches for silly cat videos, politicians and yes, even the names of football players that played in that game.

Heck even here at Bethesda Lutheran on Ash Wednesday we handed out little plastic coins to take with you on your Lenten journey towards Easter. And the verse listed on that little coin? Here, I’ve got mine, why look, it’s John 3:16.

For God So Loved
The downside for a verse so widely known, if there is one, is we all know it, or at least think we do. Perhaps we conclude we’ve got this one down, perhaps there’s nothing new here, perhaps it’s time to move along to something more novel. And perhaps, since we’re talking John 3:16, perhaps it’s a challenge to keep a message on this scripture interesting enough to keep your attention. Perhaps my goal for this particular message, more than most, is to keep you awake 😊

There are lots of different ways I could try to keep you from sleeping through a message that includes John 3:16. We could dig into earlier in the chapter, or later too, bringing in other information, other context to paint a wider picture. We could dig into the original koine Greek language and look at some of the nuances and implications of that – which is interesting. We could consider the various viewpoints of salvation that come out of this text and how that’s interpreted by different traditions. Or we could look at the pairing of John 3:16 and its lesser-known kid brother, verse 17, and see how those two passages relate and inform each other. That comparison is a good one, maybe next time.
Instead, for today, I’d like to focus on just six words from the reading.

Arguably it is God’s love for the world that ties all of scripture together. Because of love God walked alongside Adam and Eve in the garden, desiring relationship with them, and us, from the very beginning. Love stirred God’s heart to release the Israelites from Egyptian captivity, giving them hope of a promised land. God’s love breathed into Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, turning death and destruction into new life. It was love that led the creator of this world to take human form, through Jesus the Christ, to show us what divine love looks like in the flesh. It was love that led Jesus to the cross, to cover our human brokenness once and for all. And it is love, that as Christ-followers we are called to model, for everyone, day in and day out.

So, if you would, consider the implications of those six words, For God So Loved the World, words we see and hear all over the place, and see where they lead you. I’ll share the two places they led me.

Doesn’t Pick Teams
First, For God so loved the world, God didn’t pick teams, or tribes or favorites. God loved, and loves, the whole earthy ball of wax. I will use one Greek term to help here, apologies, tho you already know it – the Greek for world is kosmos. Think of how broad our notion of cosmos is, it spans everything. And God loves all of that.

  • So if you’re an Iowa State Cyclone, an Iowa Hawkeye, a Northern Iowa Panther, went to another college, or no college at all, this God so loved starting point covers you.
  • If you’re black, white, brown or some hue in between, I hope it’s clear, God so loves you too.
  • If you’re American, Estonian, Haitian or Chinese, that’s right, God *so* loves you.
  • If you’re a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or have no religion at all, yep, God loves you.
  • And if you’ve never broken a law, or even found yourself imprisoned, whether guilty or not, of anything from theft to arson to murder, it’s really good news, God loves you too.

Gets Involved
Second, for God so loved the world, God did something. God didn’t just sit back and say hey, I love you, good luck. Instead, when the story of humanity went awry God got those hands dirty, got involved, and did something. The John 3:16 text moves right there, that God sent his only Son, right down to earth, to pay the price on the cross for something we couldn’t do ourselves. And all those years leading up to the cross there Jesus was, teaching and modeling, showing, and doing, in human form, right alongside the people of the day.
When Jesus told parables it was often about people doing something, and often the hero was the unlikeliest of characters.

In the parable of the widow’s mite, the woman that gives her last two coins, remember she’s broke, it is she that’s lifted up as the ideal over and above people of means that do less. This seemingly lowly, impoverished woman is celebrated for her doing.

In the parable of the Samaritan it’s a man from a marginalized ethnic group that is the hero. It is not who this Samaritan is that makes him great, it’s what he does by helping out someone injured, someone in need.

And in the feeding of the 5,000 it is Jesus who acts, miraculously, turning five loaves of bread and two fish into enough to feed the town of Nevada. While the disciples wanted to send all these people home to eat, Jesus instead took action and took to feeding the crowd, meeting both their earthly and spiritual needs. God, in the form of Christ, was always getting involved in the mess of humanity, all the way to the end.

Know, Believe, Do
All of this leads me to reflect back on the cultural status of this verse as the most widely known in our land. It’s safe to say that, more than any other verse in scripture we know this one. But do we, deep down, believe that God so loved the world? Do we patently hold those six words to be true?

Or do we kinda still think God picks teams, choosing which parts of the world to love more than others?

And no, I’m not taking about sports teams, especially pro football teams, pro football, cuz clearly it’s the Chicago Bears, that’s the best team – the rest of you non-Bears fans are just plain wrong. No, I’m talking about whether God loves the world in its entirety, regardless of the labels we use like race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, orientation, age, and wealth?

Secondly, do we believe God so loved the world that God did something? Do we believe that God took action in this world he loves so, getting down in the muck and actively fixing things?

Or do we see this divine love and divine doing as a comfort? Which it certainly is – knowing you are loved by the Almighty, and the almighty is active in the world, showing that love, is certainly comforting.

Or, is this divine love and divine doing of John 3:16 not just a comfort but a template to mirror? Is it something we, as Christ-followers, can model for how we choose to live into the world?

Close
Because if we believe the premise, that God so loved the world it has some implications. And if we believe the premise that God is active in our world, working for our good, it begs us to look around and see where that activity is taking place. And if we believe, as Christ-followers that we have an active role in the work of God in our world that leads us somewhere.

As Christ-followers it leads us to not build walls, but bridges.
As Christ-followers it calls us to not look out for us, but for them.
As Christ-followers it pleads for us to not protect the most of these, but the least.

Dear God, thank you for the knowledge, and comfort, that John 3:16 contains. Help us now to move from knowing to believing that you love our world deeply, and are active in it, in ways great and small. Help us to then move from believing to doing; showing us, as Christ-followers how to now go, into our world, and do the same. Amen.