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.
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?
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.