When I’m driving, I love pulling up behind cars that have a lot of bumper stickers. I don’t know what it is, but I kind of get a kick out of seeing what they say. I think when people put bumper stickers, or window stickers on their cars, they are trying to tell us something, perhaps about the cause they support, but certainly about themselves as well.
I especially love it when I see religious bumper stickers…funny ones are my favorites. Bumper stickers that I’ve seen lately say things like:
- Jesus loves you…but I’m his favorite
- One had a small image of two fish talking to each other in a bowl. One says to the other: “If there is no God, then who changes the water?”
- Or, “Jesus saves…but you should invest wisely”
- Or the one that says: “I saw that. Signed, God.”
- And my favorite was from a time as a college student studying religion, and I visited a Bhuddist temple in Los Angeles. Bhuddists believe in reincarnation. In the gift shop (yes, the bhuddist temple had a gift shop) they were selling a bumper sticker that said “I’ve been born again! And again…and again…and again…”
Now while I do enjoy bumper stickers, (not so much on my own car…but on other people’s cars), I do worry that occasionally we confuse bumper sticker-like statements with actual statements of faith. Sometimes we can be guilty of reducing our own faith to bumper sticker-like quotes. Just statements, out of context. Things like: “God helps those who help themselves” which, much to many people’s surprise, is not actually in the Bible…and we don’t actually believe that it’s true, either.
Or “God won’t give us more than we can handle,” a statement, also not in the Bible, that sure doesn’t feel true when life is difficult, or when we experience a tragedy.
Sure, God is present with, and helps those who can help themselves, or those who experience very hard times. But God is also with…and helps those who cannot help themselves. In fact, Jesus talks about having a special compassion for the poor, the sick, the refugee, the homeless…the lonely and the overwhelmed.
There are lots of bumper-sticker faith statements that we hear all the time. Some are true…many are not.
I mention this because sometimes I worry a little bit about today’s Gospel text. This short paragraph from the third chapter of John is one of the richest and most meaningful in the Gospels. And it is the home of probably the most well-known verse in all of scriptures, John 3:16. It is the verse that Martin Luther called “The Gospel in miniature.” I’m sure that many of you know it…if you do, say it with me: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will never perish, but have eternal life.” It is a beautiful verse that is so familiar, to so many.
I worry just a tiny little bit that with such great familiarity, it can lose its meaning; its impact. It becomes something of a bumper sticker for us; just a statement. A good quote; easily memorized and recited. But we don’t really look much beyond that, at its depth of meaning. We don’t look at the context of what Jesus is telling us. And interestingly, I think it’s the wisdom that comes from the verses around John 3:16, the ones before and after, which help us to understand this, the most famous verse in the Gospels, better.
Do me a favor, and take your Bibles, and take a look at the verse. Again, you can turn to page 864 in your pew Bible to find it. (I’ll give you a second to look at it.
Let’s take a look at verses 14 and 15. It says: “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.” I think it’s interesting, because in this piece of scripture, Jesus is looking both backwards and forwards. First, he is looking back at the story of Moses. He points to the story of the Israelites being attacked by poisonous snakes. God instructs Moses to make a figure of a snake, and to hold it up over his head on a pole. When anyone who had been bitten by snakes looked at it, they would be healed. Clearly, Jesus is looking backward here
But then he looks forward, to what he will experience. Jesus says that he too will need to be lifted up. And that this is going to happen in two ways. First, it is the actual, physical elevation of Jesus on to the cross. And second, it is metaphorical. The word that John uses here for “lifted up” can also be translated as the word “exalted.” So, Jesus will be lifted up…exalted…for the world to see. Why do we elevate something? So that it can be seen! Jesus’ death on the cross is ultimately not a humiliation or a defeat, it is the moment of Jesus’ greatest glory, his elevation as he achieves the purpose for which he was commissioned and sent. Jesus is lifted up, both physically and metaphorically, so that the whole world can see God’s great act of redemption and healing. The cross is when all of God’s grace and glory are revealed. Why? Well, for God so loved the world…
Now let’s take a look at the verses immediately following John 3:16:
John writes that: “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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
The word “Judgment,” comes from the Greek word “Krisis” (Kreses). In this context, it’s not like a legal judgment, or a verdict. It actually translates to mean “uncover,” or “disclose.” When you understand this, verse 18, where it talks about those who do not believe being condemned, feels not like Jesus is judging, but rather Jesus is revealing. It changes the verse to say that “the resurrection uncovers…or reveals…that the light has come into the world…”
Those who believe that God is love are saved; they look to the One lifted up and exalted, to receive healing.
But those who cannot imagine that God comes bringing love rather than punishment are lost, lost to their despair, sin, and confusion.
The judgment, or in this case, what is uncovered, or disclosed is that we are broken by sin and cannot free ourselves.
Jesus is telling us that:
- That left to our own devices, we very well might love darkness more than light.
- That we do not want to admit our need and receive God’s grace and forgiveness.
- That we want to maintain our sense of control.
- That there is something in us that fears being exposed for the broken people that we are.
Jesus is teaching us, in this Gospel story, that through his own life, death and resurrection, the light of the world will be revealed. And it will be made clear that those who love the light, are walking with God.
I was leading a high school mission trip years ago in Louisville, Kentucky. We spent a week there working with Habitat for Humanity. One day, on the work site, we encountered a child who would be someday living in one of the homes we were working on. He was an incredibly happy kid. He just loved hanging out on the work site with us, watching us dig the trenches for the foundation. At the end of the day, as we started packing up, it started to rain…pretty hard. Our group offered him a ride home in our bus. We drove him the 3 blocks to his home. To call it a shack would be generous. It was mostly plywood…it looked like it could tip over at any moment…it had busted out windows with no screens…the porch had collapsed… When our group saw him climb out of the bus, hop over the broken step and run in the front door, they were silent.
The next day, day 4 on the worksite, he was back, just hanging out, just swinging from a tree. By that point in the week, we were tired, hot and sore. We had lost our energy. During a break, one in our group asked him, (I think because she had seen his house) “you are about the happiest kid I have ever seen! Why are you always so happy?” and he laughed and said “because mama says that Jesus is going to give us a house.”
Our group was silenced again. For about 30-seconds, there was not a word as everyone considered what this little kid had said. And then Matt, one of our high school seniors, hopped up and said “ok…break’s over” and everyone got up, and despite the sore shoulders and arms, the heat and the exhaustion, the shovels and hammers started moving again, with a new sense of purpose and energy. We weren’t just working on a habitat home, or even just this kid’s home. We understood that we were working on the home that Jesus was giving him. We were a part of Jesus’ mission. It was so simple. It was obvious.
That little boy revealed something to us. He opened our eyes. And within his simple, brave statement “because Mama said that Jesus is going to give us a house,” Jesus was lifted up…exalted. And God’s love and grace were revealed. And for our group, in that moment, everything changed.
My friends, John 3:16 is a beautifully written description of God’s great love for us. It fits on a bumper sticker. But when read in the context of the whole paragraph, verses 14-21, it does even more. It reminds us that when Jesus is lifted to the cross, it is not because of the acts of a sinful people, but rather because it is the act of a loving God. It is so simple. It is obvious. And in that moment, everything changed.
It reveals to us that Jesus is a light that shines into the darkness and that this light reveals to us our own brokenness, and our dependence on God’s grace.
It reveals to us a depth way beyond what a bumper sticker can tell us. John 3:16, and the verses that surround us, point us towards Jesus purpose and mission…and our purpose and mission…Light in the darkness. Light that reveals. Why? For God so loved the world…
Thanks be to God!