The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery, D.Min.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2012
In high school I went through a fairly long phase where I took my Bible to school with me every day. And yes, this was just a regular ol' public high school in the late 70s and no, such behavior wasn't really a shortcut to getting a prom date. But I proudly took my big brown leather Bible with me and pulled it out in the school cafeteria…ready at a moment's notice to find a verse should anyone stop by my table and need one. They didn't…but I was ready.
Years later in a particularly difficult class in seminary with a particularly challenging professor whom I both loved and feared….I learned that after years of research and years of writing books which I found impossible to understand, the difficult German theologian we were studying had finally come to the conclusion that the simple children's song: "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so" was all he needed to know. So, I raised my hand and asked if we could now stop reading all these big books and just go with that. The answer came back a resounding no. Followed by the admonition that there were no shortcuts in seminary.
Few things have brought more good and more controversy…more conflict and more peace into the world than the Bible. People have died for it…and died because of it…loved it and hated it…carried it openly into school cafeterias and battlefields and hidden it in attics and caves. The Bible, as another seminary professor used to say, the Bible is dynamite…so you better be careful. The explosive nature of the Bible can hardly be overstated. That's true of the whole Bible, and it's true of the smaller portions of Scripture we hear on Sundays too. By the time I leave St. Thomas some day, you will have heard me say a million times with regard to the Bible, that "context is everything."
Perhaps the ultimate example of that is today's passage from John, a passage which features without a doubt the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16… "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son"…or only begotten Son according to some versions….see there's already a little conflict.
But whether or not you even own a Bible, most likely you have heard this passage or at least you have heard of the citation: John 3:16. I've seen the citation on shopping bags and license plates. And it's written on the eye black of certain professional athletes, but long before they were even born, John 3:16 began making an appearance in stadiums across the country. In the late 70s not only were some kids taking their Bibles to school cafeterias but a wild looking character named Rollen Stewart donned a rainbow wig and starting holding up John 3:16 signs at major televised sporting events.
Stewart is credited with starting the craze, which continues to this day although Stewart has been behind bars for quite some time…not because of his religious convictions but because of his felony convictions…which include kidnapping. Clearly, writing John 3:16 on a poster board is not a shortcut to leading a faithful life.
While John 3:16 does summarize beautifully the story of God's love and God's desire to be in relationship with us….the lengths to which God will go to claim us….it's not a shortcut to the Bible, not even a shortcut to the Gospel of John. And it's certainly not a shortcut for study, prayer, worship, service, sacrifice, or any other facet of our Christian journey. And if I'm not careful I can mistake my familiarity with John 3:16 or any other verses in the Bible…mistake familiarity for some sort of shortcut to mastery…like I have mastered the material and have nothing else to learn.
John 3:16 matters because John 3:14 and 15 and 17 and 18 matter. John 3:16 matters because Genesis 1:1 matters. It's part of a whole story of salvation…a story that began long ago…a story that continues.
For God so loved the world….what world? The world created out of love and desire for relationship…the world we heard about way back when…way back in Genesis.
And on and on the story goes….God created the world and pronounced it Good. The beginning of the dance between Creator and creation…a dance that moved from the primal elements to the Garden of Eden…from disobedience to forgiveness…from slavery freedom and wandering for years in the wilderness…including the part in today's odd passage from the book of Numbers with Moses and the poisonous snakes…as if wandering in the desert with Moses wasn't hard enough…now there are poisonous snakes. But on and on the dance of creation…the dance of relationship…the dance of Salvation continued. Through centuries of struggle and triumph, failure…violence… kingdoms built and destroyed…wars…and centuries of exile On and on the story of Salvation unfolded until one moment in one small insignificant corner of the Roman Empire a baby drew his first breath…a baby not like any other baby ever born.
And the dance of Salvation reached a fevered pitch. For God so loved the world. And the Story took a huge, revolutionary turn…that God would do such a thing. And here we sit folded into the long history of the family of God…folded into the world that God loved from the beginning now bound forever to one another and to God because God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. The Son who still stands ready to love us.
But for John 3:16 to have meaning beyond either a catch phrase or something used by athletes like a "good luck charm" this passage like every passage has to be situated into the context of all of Holy Scripture and Salvation History.
And I know what you're thinking….because I'm thinking it too…who has time for that? I'm with you my sisters and brothers. I'm busy too and in the interest of time I just want the text message short cut version of things. But lifting a verse up and out of a larger context can be a dangerous road, and if I'm not careful it's a road that can lead to a certain kind of arrogance.
Single verses absolutely can have power, meaning, and influence in our lives. When I was wheeled off to surgery some years ago…it was Psalm 23: 1 ringing in my ears "The Lord is my Shepherd". I found that verse extremely comforting in a time of high anxiety.
And goodness knows you are way better off memorizing Psalm 23 or John 3:16 and running around quoting it than you are with a lot of other passage from the Bible including any of the verses in the passage from Numbers today. If you walk around quoting Numbers 21:5: "For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable food"….well...you're going to get stranger looks than I used to in the school cafeteria.
I can mis-use that obscure verse from Numbers and turn it into a joke, but if I'm not careful I can mis-use this famous passage from John and turn it into a weapon. And the Bible is neither a joke nor a weapon. So even though we're busy, we've got to take a moment to stop and remember the original context from which these verses bubbled forth.
John's community, like all of the New Testament communities was struggling for identity…struggling to survive. Years had passed since the eye witnesses to Jesus were alive…Roman oppression grew heavier and heavier. For the community of the faithful to survive and not be completely absorbed or extinguished sharp distinctions had to be drawn…you were in or you were out…you were with us or against us. John's Gospel with its themes of light and dark…judgment and evil….its talk of life and death encouraged, shaped and formed the struggling late 1st century community. And while I in my 21st century culture…a culture that knows about war and nuclear weapons and holocausts and crusades and terrorism…while I might phrase much of the Gospel of John differently…I still find these words to be meaningful and life giving.
I don't believe God's love of the world has ended…even though we continue to make bigger and bigger messes every second of every day. God's very nature, God's whole reason for being is Love. And Salvation History has not ended yet. But at the same time I don't believe God's love of the world and God's willingness to love us enough to die means that we are exempt from any obligation to change, to repent, to sacrifice. In the words of another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis for his faith: God's unconditional love of us is not to be mistaken for "cheap grace: grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." 1
It's a tough word to hear on this lovely day. But there are no shortcuts…not in Bible study and not in our faith. But thanks be to God there is also no shortcut to the lengths God will go to love us, to change us, and to save us.
1 From The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.