Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent
Sermon Text.:. John 3:16
(St John 3:16)
Grace, Mercy and Peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Sermon Text is the Word of our Lord to Nicodemus the Pharisee, as recorded by Saint John in the Gospel appointed for this Fourth Sunday in Lent.
Our Gospel this morning has allowed us the opportunity to hear the much-beloved John 3:16 in its proper and necessary context, and thus to understand it. For bulletin boards, bumper stickers, and placards at sporting events notwithstanding, John 3:16 by itself (out of context) is so easily subject to so much misunderstanding as to be more confusing than helpful. And clarifying what it really means will be more than enough to occupy our time and attention today.
"For God so loved the world. . . ."
But what does it mean, and why is it so amazing, that God should love the world?
The nameless, generic god portrayed on T.V.'s "Touched by an Angel," for example, seems unable to do anything but love; and everyone is accepted without question, without judgment, just because.
But that is not the way of the one true God, the Holy Triune God, and His divine love for the world. His love is not without question or judgment; it is far higher and far deeper than that. Nor does it come cheaply, without cost, but at the great expense of His own Son. It is solely for His sake that God continues to love this fallen world; solely for His sake that He loves you, in spite of your sin.
There is nothing in the world or in yourself that would otherwise be loveable. For the world and all its people are (by nature) in love with the darkness; they hate the Light; and all their works are evil. So also you. There is nothing attractive or desirable in you, that God should ever love you. Rather, everything you do (on your own, apart from God) stems from the darkness of your sinful heart.
You were not looking for God when He loved you and He sent His Son to save you from yourself and from your sin. You were running away from Him, and hiding from Him, and hating him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength - you and all the rest of the world. Which is why it is so profound and significant that God should so love the world (and you). As St Paul writes, the love of God is this, that while you were yet His sinful enemy, even then (precisely then) Christ died for you.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son. . . ."
But what all does this mean - and what does it mean for you - that God has "given" His only Son?
We right away think of the Cross, to be sure, when He was handed over (by His Father for your sake) to His voluntary suffering and death. It is there and then that He was given over completely for the life and salvation of the world. For though He is Himself the Almighty and Eternal Son of the Living God, He did not count His equality with God a thing to be held onto, but He made Himself nothing, and He humbled Himself unto death - even the death of the Cross. And His dear Father sacrificed this beloved Son. And all of this, that you might be forgiven of your sin and reconciled to God.
But even prior to the Cross - and extending well beyond the Cross into eternity - God has not only given His Son for you (in His sacrificial death by Crucifixion), but He has also given His Son to you . . . by His Incarnation, His becoming flesh & His living of your life; and by His active real presence in the preaching of His Word, in the waters of Holy Baptism, in the Body and Blood of His Supper.
In all these ways, God has given Himself to you in His Son - in the flesh & blood of Jesus Christ - in Whom He has revealed Himself to you, and shared Himself with you, and united Himself to you . . . purely out of His Fatherly, Divine goodness and mercy toward you . . . that you might have Life.
And how do you receive all this? Well, "He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him. . . ."
You will often hear people say (even Lutherans - and perhaps even you have said) that, yes, it is true, that God has loved you and done all that is necessary for your salvation - by grace alone - but still, you have to "accept it." That is such a common notion, that many people simply take it for granted (even though it has no support in Scripture). And in this way, they have put the burden right back on themselves, on man - on your own efforts, choices, or decisions. Something once again is introduced to separate the good from the bad; and there is at least something for which you can take the credit.
But Jesus exposes and denies that whole way of thinking as false. Over and over again in our Gospel this morning, He reveals how impossible it is for you (of yourself) to "accept" what He has to offer: the Gift of Himself and His Life. Because, of yourself, you do not know Him (nor do you want to know Him); you do not understand Him; you cannot even recognize Him; and, because by nature you are in and of the darkness, you do not welcome - but you hate - the Light that He is and brings.
Consider what He says: You can neither see nor ever hope to enter the Kingdom of God, unless you are born again (from above) by water and the Holy Spirit - that is to say, through Holy Baptism. But Baptism is not your work; it is God's work and His gift to and for you. And you had no more choice or say in the matter of your second birth (by water and Spirit) than you did in the matter of your first! Indeed, having been born of the flesh (the first go-round), you were of the flesh and not of the Spirit.
Thus, you did not know the Holy Spirit - where He is or what He does. Even as the teacher of Israel, with all his knowledge, did not know and could not receive the Testimony of the Holy Triune God. Because it is impossible for one who is of the world to retrieve or understand the things of heaven. And the one who has not yet been baptized into the Name of God is still condemned in his unbelief.
That was your reality by nature from your birth. Just as it was for Nicodemus. So what hope is there?
The only thing that makes the difference, the only thing that has led you to see, believe and receive Christ the Crucified is the Voice of the Spirit, Whose comings and goings you do not know (and you don't control) . . . but He "blows" where He wills. And He has "chosen" (not you), and He has "decided" (not you) to call you by the Gospel, to enlighten you with His gifts, to sanctify and keep you in the true faith - in the Life and Salvation of Christ Jesus. Thus has He first loved you, and He has "accepted" you . . . not the other way around!
So, how is it that you are able to hear (and benefit from) the Voice of the Spirit? Because, like Christ Himself, the Word is still becoming Flesh & dwelling among us. So does the Holy Spirit speak and work through earthly flesh-and-blood, through external Means, through ordinary human words and language, through water, bread & wine - through all of these to bring you Christ and give you Christ.
That is how He has chosen to work. And as Jesus says, for your sake, it is divinely necessary. . . !
For indeed, it is only as He comes to you and gives Himself to you with His Word and Holy Spirit - in the preaching of His Gospel, in the forgiveness of your sins, in the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit with the waters and the Word of Holy Baptism, and in the sacrificial flesh and blood that He now gives to you by grace in His Holy Supper - it is only by these Means, by the giving of Christ to you in (each and all of) these ways, that you are able to believe and trust in Him. . . . And,
"Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."
To which one might respond: Why is it that I should have to worry about "perishing" in the first place?
One of the most frequently asked questions of God, especially among non-Christians, but also by Christians, too, is How? - if there is a good and all-powerful God - How can He allow so much suffering, sin, and death to exist and continue in the world? Some of you, in particular, wrestle with this, I know, in your own hearts and within your families. But it is the sort of question that stems from our own (sinful) prideful arrogance, and from a naïve ignorance of our own sin.
If God should deal with suffering, sin, and death - and with the sinners who are the cause of all these things - simply by wiping them out and starting over again, then what makes any of us think that He should or would stop short of us and our sin? We only seem pretty good - or, at least, better than others - in our own eyes and by our own standards. But the reality is, whether we own up to it or not, that we have all fallen far short of God's expectations; even our best and most "righteous" deeds are really nothing more nor better than filthy rags; we have sinned against Him in our thoughts, words, and actions; we have not loved Him with our whole heart, nor have we loved our neighbor as He commands. In short, from the inside out, we are sinful and unclean, and we deserve only punishment.
So, again, if God should deal with sin by making it go away - by the force of His almighty power, by means of obliteration - then He would also have to do away with you (and me, and everyone else) and obliterate the lot of us. And of course, there have been times when He has dealt with sin that way:
In the Flood, for example, when He destroyed the sinful world. And at Sodom and Gomorrah, when He wiped out those wicked cities with fire and brimstone. And again in our Old Testament Reading this morning, when He grew tired of the constant muttering and grumbling of the people - against Himself, and against His servant, Moses - and He sent the fiery serpents to bite them, so that a great many of the people perished in the wilderness. . . .
It is, in a sense, what He does in the waters of Holy Baptism, with which He drowns and destroys, crucifies and obliterates your old Adam; as He also does throughout your life by the preaching of His Law, which shows you what a sinner you really are and thereby crushes your sinful pride.
But if that were all there was; if that were the only way God ever dealt with sin (and the only way He ever dealt with sinners, such as you), then you would have no cause for hope, but only despair.
Thanks be to God, that His divine Love has found a way to deal with sin, which does not condemn the world but saves the world (and you) in Christ. It is a loving way that transcends and boggles the imagination, and it makes no sense at all to human "wisdom." It is a way like that which God provided when He had Moses lift up the bronze serpent in the wilderness, so that His people might live. . . .
It is the Way of Christ, the Way of His Cross - whereby He is lifted up for the Life of the world. For there, on the Cross, God wiped out sin in His own Body, in the flesh and blood of His own Son. He blamed and punished Christ for your sins - and for the sins of the whole world - instead of you. He obliterated sin, by obliterating Jesus (your dear Lord and Savior), His only-begotten, beloved Son.
That is where He took care of shootings and killings and fatal accidents. That is where He took care of cancer and leukemia, of Parkinson's and Altzheimer's, of birth defects and disabilities, of heart attacks and strokes, of rapes and child abuse, and of whatever other suffering, sin, and death there is . . . in your life, in your family. . . .
There isn't any consequence of sin He did not bear and suffer on the Cross. There is no sting of death He has not tasted in His flesh (and thus removed from you). And there is no sin, no matter how "big" or reprehensible it might be, that is not covered and forgiven by His holy and precious blood, by His innocent suffering and death. Here, then, on the Cross, is the answer to your question:
Fix your eyes on Him - by His Cross, you are forgiven. In His death by crucifixion is your life and salvation.
But what does it mean for you to have "eternal life"? And what does it mean for you to be "saved"?
Salvation has a two-fold character: In the first part, which is your salvation itself, the Holy Triune God gives Himself and shares Himself with you in and through Christ, the Son; indeed, that is the very purpose for which you were created - to share and participate in the divine, eternal Life of God. . . .
"That you may dwell in the House of the Lord all your days, and gaze upon His beauty."
But as things are, because of the Fall into Sin, and because of your own sinfulness, you could not have anything to do with God (nor do you want to) without the forgiveness of your sin. That is the second part of salvation, even though it actually has to come first and lead the way. And it, too, is in Christ.
Christ comes to give Himself to you, and thereby to share with you His Father and His Spirit, as well. But in order for you to receive Him, He also has come to give Himself for you, being lifted up in death upon the Cross, for the forgiveness of your sin, that you might have eternal life and salvation.
That is what "salvation" means, and what it means to be "saved": to be brought out of the danger of perishing and into the safety of Life in Christ. Christ is the Key to and the Content of this Salvation on both sides; and what is more, His Word & Holy Spirit have brought you through the entire process - from death into life - through your Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection.
Henceforth, here in time (and hereafter in eternity), your Father keeps you safe - in Christ, and by His Holy Spirit - safe in His presence within His Holy Church. As we have prayed with the Psalmist in our Introit this morning: Now you dwell in the House of the Lord; you seek (and find) Him in His Holy Temple. . . . He keeps you safe in His Dwelling; He hides you in the shelter of His Tabernacle.
All of these - the House of God, His Temple, His Dwelling, His Tabernacle - all of these are Christ and His Body, the Church: in heaven and on earth; indeed, wherever His Holy Spirit has gathered His Holy people (in His mercy and forgiveness) around His Gospel-Word and Holy Sacraments. . . .
In all these things, the fountain & source of your eternal Life is Christ upon His Cross - lifted up for the Life of the world, and "lifted up" for you in the preaching of His Holy Gospel. Look to Him as He is lifted up, and by the grace of God you have Life in His death (as declared by His Resurrection).
By water and the Holy Spirit, you were born again as a child of God. And now (and again) your dear Father sets a Table for His children - for you! - to feast upon His own dear Son. He was given into death for the forgiveness of your sin, and He is given to you now in His Body and His Blood, that He might live in you, and you in Him, unto life everlasting. In His dear Name, and for His sake. Amen