Believe, Trust, and Love

“Believe, Trust, and Love”

John 3:14-21 – March 14, 2021

            Have you seen the televised sporting events where people in the crowd hold up big signs? These signs have all kinds of messages on them – from super fans supporting their teams to political messages. Sometimes, someone will show a large sign with “John 3:16” printed on it.

John 3:16 – this is one of the dearest and most memorized Bible verses of all time. “For God so loved the world that God gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not die, but have eternal life.”

            Have you thought about what that beloved Bible verse means? I mean, really means?

            Many people have a romanticized idea of love in their minds. With Valentine’s Day so recently celebrated, a month ago, when some think of “love” they think of Cupids and flowers and hearts. Valentine’s Day cards and chocolates in heart-shaped boxes for your sweetheart. This idealized, Hallmark-card conception of “love” is not what the Apostle John mentions here. Not by a long shot!  

            The idea of taking a single Bible verse and displaying it for everyone to see is a tricky proposition. People can run into all kinds of problems and misunderstandings that way. It’s like taking John 3:16 and saying that God’s love is all hearts and flowers, lace and Valentine’s Day wishes – and that is all. This superficial way is not the way to interpret individual Bible verses.

            The most important thing when we consider a single verse from the Bible is to look at the context. Where does it come from? What was happening in the Bible chapter? Was it part of a conversation or discussion? An extended statement or argument?

            John chapter 3 is early in the Rabbi Jesus’s ministry, and He was already gaining wide popularity and even stature for His great Biblical knowledge and understanding. An older man named Nicodemus, a learned teacher and member of the national Jewish ruling council, was so intrigued with Jesus that he snuck away to meet Jesus one night, under cover of darkness.

            During that extended conversation, Nicodemus and Jesus cover several important topics: Moses in the wilderness, how Moses saved the people of Israel, Nicodemus as a leading teacher of Israel, and how to be born from above. It is then that Jesus makes this extraordinary statement: God so loved the world.

            Several of these topics in John 3 have the foundation of belief. We need to believe in order to live. In order to be born from above. In order to have eternal life. Except – belief can be strictly intellectual. It can be cold-hearted and clinical. We can believe in the law of gravity. We can believe in the rules of cleanliness and hygiene for good health. We can believe in the invisible electric current that flows through our walls, enabling us to have electric lights, power for appliances, and power for our computers and cell phones.

            But, this pure, clinical statement of belief – even belief in Jesus’s statement “God so loved the world” – is not necessarily earth-shaking, not deeply emotional, never even reaching down into our very souls.

            If we consider the word “believe” – as used in this verse 3:16, and verse 3:18, too – I do believe in gravity, or electricity. But, is this intellectual belief enough? Will this kind of belief get me through the difficult times, or the painful situations, or those times when you or I cry out in despair to God? Sometimes, cold, pure belief is not enough.

            Another, alternate word that can be used to translate this Greek word for belief, pisteuo, is “trust.” Trust is more immediate, more intimate. Commentator Mark Skinner suggests that we use “trust” instead as we read this verse:  “For God so loved the world that God gave His one and only Son, that whoever trusts in Him shall not die, but have eternal life.”

            “Jesus is asking his hearers to trust that, in him, God has given a gift of love. Jesus urges them to commit themselves to that reality and all it entails. Trust will change a person. God’s love has consequences. How does one merely believe in love, anyway? Trust is riskier. Trusting in another’s love entails surrender.” [1] Trusting God is riskier, too.

            When my children were younger and went to church youth group, several times they had an activity called “trust falls.” This activity is called different things in different youth groups, but it has “trust” as the primary ingredient. The youth group would get in a tight circle, one member would stand in the middle, and then they would fall backwards, trusting the other members of the group to catch them as they fell. Trust taps emotions. Trust takes risks.

            It is difficult to trust that God can see us through, sometimes. More than intellectual belief, do we trust God to be there for us? To walk with us, or sit with us, right by our sides?  

            Some people cannot get past the words “God so loved the world.” If they trust that God loves them, they think God can’t possibly love their awful neighbor. Or the guy who cussed them out in traffic. Or the lady who is always really mean at the store. God can’t possibly love them? God loves the world – except for those people from a certain country overseas. Or, except for those homeless people. Or, except for those people who believe something really weird. Or, well, you get the idea.

            God’s love is extended to each of us. To all of us. “The love of God means blessing and belonging, even when the world around us chooses the way of death and self-interest.” [2] Even when we as fallible humans slip and slide in our trust of God, the Lord will never waver in persistent, caring love for each of us. And, that is a promise that is faithful and true – we have the words of Jesus on it.

For God so loved the world. Even you and even me. Amen.


[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/love-among-the-ruins

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

For God So Loved

“For God So Loved”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:16-17 – September 7, 2019

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one-and-only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

That verse is from the Gospel of John, verse 3:16. It is also one of the most familiar and beloved Scripture verses of all time, and that is no exaggeration.

When I asked Gladys what verse or Bible passage was one of her father’s favorites, she immediately spoke up and said: John 3:16. What is more, Bart had his three daughters memorize this verse when they were young. What a beautiful and precious Bible verse, and also a beautiful and precious memory of their father.

This verse has been called the Gospel in a nutshell, or a simple way to view the Good News of God come to earth to save sinners. A vast number of people throughout the world love John 3:16 and can quote it word for word. Yes, it is a valid way to be introduced of the God of the Bible, and to be introduced to the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. But, don’t stop there. Bart and Rosevelita did not stop with just that verse. They taught their children not to stop there, either.

What kinds of problems do people discover if they just stop with that one verse and ignore the rest of the Bible? They might have an incomplete understanding of salvation.

After centuries of the Christian church and church history, humanity has ended up with hundreds of different denominations, and even more different ways of understanding how to worship God and to give God honor and glory. This kind of diversity in thinking about God is a reflection of the awesome and magnificent diversity and difference in God’s creation. But, there is still—or should I say, even more—of a sharp disagreement and discord between believers and denominations that say they follow Christ.

What about Jesus Himself? What do you think Jesus would do? Or, WWJD, as the trendy bracelets and bumper stickers of some years back might say? But, I am serious, asking a serious question. What do you think Jesus would do—or say—about all the division in His church?

I suspect our Lord Jesus would cry, grieve, and be very downhearted about all the division, dissention and disharmony among people who say that they follow Christ.

But what if some don’t follow Jesus Christ, or aren’t sure about belief in God? What if some people are not in the same place as others on their journey of faith? We forget that statements like John 3:16 can portray a kind of God I suspect, if pushed, many people would rather not have. “We forget that our certainties about salvation lead to or come from claims about God that might not even reflect the God we know, the God we want.” [1]

If we say that God loves the world, this is not just a pie-in-the-sky theory for salvation. John 3:16 is not like doing advanced mathematics on a chalkboard or a biology experiment in a lab. It is specific and real-life. Particular. As particular as the God coming to earth and becoming human, just as human as you and me. But, can we measure God’s particular, tangible love, in a concrete way?

Sure, we can say “God so loved the world.” But, that means God loves a hated Samaritan woman—from John chapter 4. Does God love people who look and act and worship in a different way than we do? Do we love them, too? God loves a man paralyzed his entire life—from Mark chapter 2. Does God love handicapped and disabled people today? Do we love them, too?  God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend Lazarus dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship and deny being a friend of Jesus. [2]

Great calamities and difficult situations had happened to each of these people. God still loves them. God still loves you and me, and every other person, too. We may not be able to love all people, every person in the world. But, God does. John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world. That means everyone. Every. Single. One.

Sometimes we use a measuring cup to measure things. When I made cookies a few days ago, I used a measuring cup and spoons to measure out the ingredients for cookies. Can we use a measuring cup to measure God’s love? If you or I were building something, we might use a measuring tape to measure the length and width of the wood properly. I wonder—could we use a tape measure to measure God’s love? Finally, we use a clock to measure the passage of time. Could we measure God’s love and find out how long it would last? Psalm 103 tells us that God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting, and that is pretty long, longer than we can humanly imagine. [3]

Do we have a better understanding of John 3:16 now?

We turn to another gracious promise from Scripture, from Romans 8, where the Apostle Paul tells us that he is convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Bart knows the blessed truth of this verse. He is in heaven with the risen Christ right now, looking down on us. I pray that we all might think of Bart Garcia with blessing, honor his memory, and celebrate his new life in Christ Jesus our Lord..

Alleluia, amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4835

“John 3:16,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2017.

[2] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/03/lectionary-commentary-john-316-the-rest-of-the-story-for-sunday-march-18-2012/  “John 3:16 – The Rest of the Story,” Carl Gregg, Patheos, 2012.

[3] https://sermons4kids.com/measuring_gods_love.htm

“Measuring God’s Love,”  Charles Kirkpatrick, Sermons4kids.com.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Follow Jesus in Love

“Follow Jesus in Love”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:14-21 (3:16) – March 11, 2018

Many people like sports. They watch football, baseball, basketball and hockey games on a regular basis. One thing that repeats on occasion at these sports matches, whether college ball or professional matches, is people who hold up signs featuring some important message. One message that keeps getting shown and broadcast on national television is the simple Bible reference of John 3:16. That is all. Held up to the camera on t-shirts, posters, and even more.

Lots of people are familiar with that Bible reference from the repeated broadcasts, but how many can quote the verse, word for word? Even if people can quote it, how many can go the next step and explain it? Talking about the context, the biblical situation, and the reason why the verse appears?

For that, we need to go back to the beginning of John chapter 3, where Nicodemus the Pharisee teacher and member of the Sanhedrin sneaks away to meet the Rabbi Jesus under the cover of darkness. To get a feel for how secretive Nicodemus is, imagine a secret agent or spy going for an undercover meeting. Imagine the caution and care that Nicodemus would be taking.          If other members of the ruling Sanhedrin found out about Nicodemus and his hush-hush visit to Jesus, I suspect Nicodemus would be in big trouble. The Pharisees were not exactly best friends with the Rabbi Jesus, and some of them were extremely antagonistic to Him.

After some talk between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born from above, the Gospel reading for today picks up in the middle of the conversation. Jesus brings up an event that happened back in the book of Numbers. Eileen read this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures for us this morning, too. Jesus breaks off talking about baptism and being born from above, and starts talking about Moses, of all things! Why change the subject to Moses in the wilderness?

The Biblical scholar Nicodemus understood immediately what Jesus was talking about. Of course he did! I bet he knew the Torah, the Books of Moses, backwards and forwards, and could even recite large portions of it, too.

However, the majority of us today do not have a clear understanding of this section of the Bible. Moses? A bronze serpent? Wilderness wandering? And of course, constant griping and complaining. It seemed like the people of Israel were forever complaining and griping. If it wasn’t one thing, it was the other. Gripe, gripe, gripe, gripe!

Listen to John 3:14-15. “14 As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “ That is what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus.

Remember how I talked to the children today about healing, and how Jesus heals people? That was the situation Jesus referred to. Moses and the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The reading from the book of Numbers tells us that the people kept up their griping and complaining so long, and at such a volume, that finally God said “Enough!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but it is pretty close to what Numbers records.)

I am sure all of us know somebody who complains all the time. I don’t mean some of the time, or even most of the time, but all the time. Complain, gripe, moan. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. The food stinks. The leaders are constantly wrong, and the people surrounding them can’t do anything right, either.

Wouldn’t that be annoying? Troublesome? Irksome? Even extremely frustrating? How would you feel if everything you always did and said was wrong? According to this really negative person, that is? Take that negativity, and multiply it by a lot. By thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Practically all the people of Israel were thinking, talking and acting like this. Negative thinking and acting. Some people refer to it as “stinking thinking.”

Reading from the book of Numbers: “But on the way the people lost their patience and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can’t stand any more of this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.” What an extreme reaction to griping and complaining!

But, don’t you and I act like that sometimes? Don’t you and I talk against leaders, and friends and families? Moan about the food and the accommodations, and complain about God and how we always get the short end of the stick? Gripe about how “It just isn’t fair! Why does that always happen to me? What’s the use?” You know what I mean. People who complain, gripe and moan. Maybe they even look a little bit like you and me?

Jesus reminded Nicodemus that God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. After the people repented and asked God to save them, Moses held up the bronze serpent high on a pole, and everyone who looked at the serpent was healed.

The truth about God and God’s purposes is confusing. Some people just do not get it (like Nicodemus, and like us, too). “Nicodemus finds this Good News confusing (John 3:10) because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.” [1] Nicodemus just did not understand the spiritual healing that God was holding out to him—and to us, too!

Sometimes, the world says “no.” Sometimes, God’s message of Good News just makes no sense to us at all. Sometimes, we are in the same situation as the people of Israel, where they got stuck in their complains and negativity.  One of the commentators I consulted believes “the reason for this is because we are to understand that God has manifested His love for the world in a particular way. Godloved” the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. God “loved” the world by sending His son into the world, so that He might be “lifted up” as a sin-bearer.[2]

We all are familiar with the picture or representation of Jesus on the Cross. Artists in Central America turn this picture around, and paint crosses with pictures or faces of lots of people on them. What a cosmic understanding that our Gospel writer had when he insisted that Jesus was raised up on the Cross, and He drew all the people of the world to Him! [3]

If we look at this from Nicodemus’s point of view, “for Jesus (or John) to say that God loved the world was revolutionary, shocking, and very distressing for a strict Jew. “ [4]

Jesus did not draw not just you and your friends to Himself. No, Jesus did not draw just one particular region or country to Himself. Jesus also drew people of other races, other ethnicities, and other faith traditions to Himself. Think about that. Really think.

God so loved the world. That means everyone, in every part of the world. As the apostle Paul might say, God loves everyone: Jew, Gentile. Slave, free. Rich, poor. No exceptions. Including you. Including me.

For God so loved you. For God so loved me. Praise God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394  Lance Pape

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

A Great Multitude

“A Great Multitude”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 7:9-17 – April 17, 2016

This past Friday, April 15, 2016, I convened a Peace Breakfast at Kappy’s Restaurant, here in Morton Grove. We had a diverse group assembled! Not quite as diverse as this great multitude that John talked about in Revelation 7, but still, diverse. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from one another.

Let’s step back, and think about the book of Revelation. This is not your typical bible passage to read on a Sunday morning. Not your usual sermon text, either. The book of Revelation is a series of interconnected visions alerting believers to the last days of the church.

Chapter 7 comes towards the beginning of John’s visions.

I’d like everyone to think of an old-fashioned radio or television serial, in multiple parts, or episodes. Here we have yet another fantastic episode of this amazing book.

For centuries, many preachers, teachers, and bible interpreters have read Revelation, and completely pick it apart. Find all types of supposed references to actual people, places and things. Use it as a guidebook for the End Times. It sounds like the political hype we lament but can’t quite seem to escape. (Let me say—bible interpreters have been “identifying” people, places and things in Revelation for centuries. Different anti-Christs, different identifications for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all the rest—every century, every era, every place.)

If John wrote this book to bring hope to his readers, how in the world can this passage of Revelation provide a different, more life-giving vision to us, today?

Our bible passage today opens with a great multitude. It’s like John has a huge video screen in front of him. He’s watching this fantastic vision play out in front of him.

I encourage you all to get into the spirit of this passage. Shut your eyes, and imagine yourself seated in a heavenly theater (an iMax theater, if that helps you). John is seated right next to you, and suddenly, you see a great multitude on this massive screen in front of you. Every racial group, every ethnicity, every language spoken. All of them! All the things, as the young people say today.

Yes, in the larger picture, all of these people in the great multitude are going to go through a time of great trial. However—I would like to focus on this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude of people.

We are all aware of other separations and designations for groups of people. Upper class, working class. City folk, country folk, North side, South side. With all of this fantastic stuff going on in the book of Revelation, on that huge theater screen in front of us, who has time to think about these divisions? Who would be concerned—in heaven? Standing before the throne of God Almighty, in the full sight of God.

Yet—here in this world, here in the United States, in the Chicago area, those things do matter. As a pastor, I talk to a number of people many times in a week. Some of these people share about their fears and hopes for the future. More and more, I notice a shift in the mindsets of people—a shift towards deeper feelings of uncertainty and general anxiety.

I am distressed and dismayed at the overt anger, undisguised racism, and blatant xenophobia that is increasingly happening in this country. The shouting, yelling, name-calling, and general mud-slinging in this political primary process, just for an example. Note: I am not taking sides, but I am truly dismayed by the marked increase in such attitudes due to people’s ethnicity, culture, or religion. That is what I see as a big problem today.

Perhaps I am an idealist, but I would like to believe that we as a nation are truly a melting pot. This country is one of the most like this image, this part of the vision that John saw. That is such a strength of the United States! Yay! Go, us!!

We are going to switch gears. Let us look at the beginnings of the church.

In Acts, shortly after the day of Pentecost, a disagreement came up in the church. As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”

Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church—all Jews, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Now, multiply that 100 times. No, 1000 times. And, you begin to see the problems we all have today with rampant, widespread hatred, racism, fear, and xenophobia.

I guess I was one of those people who wanted to believe that we as a country and maybe even as a human race were becoming more open, integrated, and generous. I wanted to believe that humans were moving past this kind of hatred, fear, and violence. I thought we were on the way towards making it as difficult as possible for anyone to intimidate or harm others simply because they are of a certain religion, or racial background, or culture.

What can conquer such deep set feelings?

John 3:16 is a wonderful verse. So much promise, so much love, so much grace. And—so much power!

Let us consider John 3:16. I suspect many of you can say it with me. We are just going to quote the beginning of the verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” I wondered: let’s unpack this verse. God loves? With a God-sized love. We all agree. God gave His Son—God’s ultimate Gift. Again, we all agree.  

The last phrase of this sentence? God so loved—the world.

Who is not part of the world that God loved? Let us consider racist feelings. Does God love the racist person? Yes. How about the person who is racially profiled? Yes.

Let’s consider xenophobic fears. Does God love the person who is so afraid of people who look different from them, or speak another language, or come from another part of the world? Yes, God does. God loves everyone. No matter what.

That is the hope we can gather from this passage in Revelation 7 today. God loves you. God loves me. Even though we may be flawed, and make mistakes, and do or say bad things. God still loves us.

The Peace Breakfast was a beginning, a chance to continue the conversation. We all live and work together, in community. Let’s promote positivity and friendship, not distrust and alienation. Here, in Niles and Morton Grove—and in Des Plaines, Glenview, Skokie—all over the Chicago area—we have such a multitude of diverse people! And it’s an opportunity to shine forth as a light of the Gospel, right here on this corner of Shermer and Harlem.

Finally, we can all praise God along with the great multitude from Revelation, and say, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)