John 3: 14-21
It was reported this week that Encyclopedia Britannica will stop publishing its volumes of encyclopedias for the first time in 244 years. Information in the 21st century changes too rapidly for print. This year I finally took Mary Ann’s advice from a couple of years ago and gave away our family set of World Book encyclopedias, we bought in 1990 for our whole family to use. What is the culprit for the enormous decline in the purchase of encyclopedia sets? Of course it’s the internet. Technology has brought us Google and Yahoo and other search engines to find most anything we want to find. And the new go-to source is Wikipedia: the free online, constantly being updated encyclopedia. The downside is that anyone can go on and update Wikipedia, sometimes with wrong information; consequently as I do my research for my doctoral degree, Wikipedia is never an acceptable reference source! In this age of technology I often send text messages back and forth to staff, elders, and family to get a message to them quickly. Many of you may do that too! Perhaps you also use abbreviations in your texts, and if you read texts enough you can read abbreviations as if they were the full word. People also abbreviate in their Tweets. A Tweet, as many of you know, is a communication invention created by Jack Dorsey who came up with the name, meaning: “a short burst of inconsequential information” and “chirps from birds.” Dorsey sent his first Twitter message on March 21, 2006, just 6 years ago this Wednesday! We love to have messages sent in brief ways in this technical age; and men’s brains, I learned two years ago, are wired for that kind of “bottom line” information. Women typically, researchers tell us, notice things more, explain things more, and can describe things better. Men’s brains go for the “gist” of information. Many men, and even woman, love to just know what “the bottom line” is. When negotiating for a car the buyer says, “So what’s the bottom line.” When getting an estimate on a repair we ask “So what’s the bottom line.” I have tiny little Bibles that were given to me to share with boys and girls years ago but most of the passages listed in those tiny Bibles seemed harsh to me and the King James wording was hard for a child to follow. If, however, any of you would like your own brief version of Bible passages in a tiny little Bible, you may take one from one of the baskets in the back as you leave. There is one verse that is included in those little Bibles that I think is wonderful. And guess what? This most important of verses in the Bible, this crux of New Testament theology, has exactly 140 characters in it, the maximum number of characters in a Tweet! The most perfect Tweet is the message that I gave the children on a card.
If you only believed one thing in the Bible it is this message that fits in that Tweet and is found on posters at ball games. The posters that you may have seen in person or on television say “John 3:16.” You heard it in the anthem today and here it is; exactly 140 characters: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That’s a Tweet for the ages; that’s the message for the ages; that’s something to memorize and to teach your children and your children’s children. That’s a passage that is learned in the King James Version most profitably. That one line has been historically called “The Gospel in Miniature.” It is at the heart of all the books and letters that we call the “New Testament.” It is the Good News! Believing that is what makes you a Christian, and those who do not believe that are not Christians in the classical sense. It is found in the Gospel of John. After almost three months of preaching from the Gospel of Mark, we are shifting for a few weeks now to the Gospel of John. The author of this gospel could very well be the Disciple we know as John, the one who referred to himself as “The disciple whom Jesus loved.” He is not John the Baptist. John, the writer of this Gospel, seems to have known Jesus exceedingly well, and Jesus, in turn, trusted John so well that at the cross he entrusted his mother to his care. So we are hearing from someone who not only tells what happened to Jesus, John wants his readers to know who Jesus is. It is John who calls Jesus “The Word,” and says not only that the Word was with God in the beginning, but also that the Word was God. It is John who calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” recalling both the precious and sacrificial references Jews attributed to unblemished lambs. And it is John who is a master of words, mysteries, and double entendre. John is the one who records the conversation between Jesus and the learned man Nicodemus, who thinks like a 5th grader when he interprets Jesus’ imperative, “Ye must be born again” as an invitation to re-enter his mother’s womb. No; Jesus was talking about being born from above; having a spiritual rebirth. So John is brilliant, but sometimes cryptic, with what he has written down. Jesus was a little like that too, wasn’t he? That’s part of the brilliance of this first century theologian: he turns the phrase of an Old Testament story or phrase that is instantly recognizable, and then he looks at the event through the lens of Christ. Soon many events in the Old Testament start to point to our Lord.
While studying in my room at Columbia Seminary for two intensive weeks twice a year, I have the luxury of digging into texts with more depth than a normal week in my life often permits. My professors encourage us to read, think about, and be still for at least 30 minutes or longer in considering a verse such as John 3:16. Certainly when asked to spend time on a passage like that, some minds begin to wander after 10 seconds! Our human programming in the 21st century is to see as many shows or films, read as many books or blogs, or do as many things in a lifetime that time permits. Many in the last five years have even created “Bucket Lists” a creation of the Jack Nicholson/ Morgan Freeman film of a few years ago. Who has time to spend 30 minutes or more on one Bible verse? In our text-driven, cell phone-filled frantic world, I tend to read a sentence and stamp “Done!” on it when I finish it, then go on to my next task. A practice called “Lectio Divina” invites Biblical readers to ruminate over a text for an hour, or a day, or more. What would it be like to spend an hour, or a day with just the 140 characters of John 3:16? In my Wednesday night Lent class, called “The Lives of Great Christians,” we are learning that some of the great Christians were those who studied, prayed over, and copied manuscripts of Scripture all their days. We would not have Bibles that are so accurate without people, as we say today, who “Spent time in The Word.” To spend days in the Word—the Bible—is not just to see how fast you can read; it is drinking it in, and pondering it at times so that in a lifetime you may read it deeply once, or twice, or perhaps more. I am being reminded of that in my studies, but like many of you, I tend to read quickly to accomplish my work. This week, perhaps you too will join me in stopping to consider the Gospel in Miniature. In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Presbyterian founder John Calvin spends 10 full pages on just verses 14-21 of our lesson today. Words to ponder include these: God; God loved; God so loved the world. And so on. You may wonder what kind of love it is that God gave his only Son. Who does that? Why not give God’s own life to show love? John says, in fact, that he did. God was in Christ; and this death was rich in power for the listeners. The first born son for Jews in the Bible had the most power, the most to inherit, and more prestige than any later born children. He was precious. Jesus died as a human it is true, but also as
the only begotten Son of God, rising as the triumphant Christ. It is not easy, nor appropriate, to think about God in human terms on this one, condemning God for not stopping the death of his own Son. This was a masterful plan of redemption! Remember, John speaks in metaphors and Jesus does too; we see through a glass darkly as we hear words like father, and son, and everlasting life. What we can count on is love that does not withhold; love that does not become conditional; and love that does not end. That is the love that God offers.
A point to ponder: “If God loved you as much as you love [God,] what would the state of your soul be today?” Sometimes people treat God with conditional love, only being delighted with God when their prayers are answered the way they ask. But God in Christ loves unconditionally. If God loved us, like some in our world choose to love God—in fickle ways—we would be in eternal peril.
Finally, a story: The land of Persia was once ruled by a wise and beloved Shah who cared greatly for his people and wanted only what was best for them. (Hard to believe these days, isn’t it?) One day he disguised himself as a poor man and went over to the public baths. They were heated by a furnace in the cellar so he went deep into the cellar and decided to visit the man with the thankless job of keeping the fire stoked. He returned on subsequent days, brightening the long hours of the lonely man with the hot and dark job. The man told others about the man who “came to visit him where he was.” He was touched that someone would come down to the level where he worked and stay with him. He never forgot it. When it was finally revealed to him that the man was actually the Shah, the man said to the Shah with great love: “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food, and to care about what happened to me. What wondrous love you show!”
God came to us from glory, to eat with us, to care about us, and to sit with us where we are. God came in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John contains the wondrous story about how God chose to be with us, and to show great love.
Thanks be to God!
Jeffrey A. SumnerMarch 18, 2012