3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
3:17 “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.
3:18 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.
3:19 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.
3:20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
3:21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
So, I’ve talked before about how I love watching football. This has been something I’ve done my whole life on Sundays. And when I was a lot younger, a little after I learned to read, I used to watch the people in the stands holding signs for their favorite teams or players.
And there was one sign in particular that I would see at every game I watched and I just didn’t quite get. It just said “John 3:16”. And I didn’t know who John was, or why he had such a funny number, but all I knew is that a lot of people who went to football games really liked this John 3:16 guy. I didn’t know if he played quarterback or defense, but I thought he must be the most phenomenal football player ever.
It was much later that I actually understood they were talking about a Bible verse, and later than that when I read what John 3:16 actually said. But even without the words, John 3:16 has become sort of a symbol of visible Christianity.
Sports games. Hats. T-shirts. Bumper stickers. Tattoos. Whatever it can fit on, people have put it there. I’ve even heard of some preachers in other traditions who preach on this verse in every single sermon they give.
And you may well know the verse by heart: “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s a good verse to know. It talks about the depth of God’s love and sums it up in one line. Martin Luther himself even called it the “Bible in miniature.” And on the surface, the posters and the sermons may even tell you that this verse it so important that it’s is pretty much all you need to know about Christianity.
But you’ll notice we didn’t just read John 3:16 morning.
Instead, we read the whole passage. We went beyond the soundbite and to the substance. Because this passage lifts up the idea that we need God’s light to overcome the darkness in life. And it lifts up hope.
And that’s only the small part we read today. If we went back and read the rest of the chapter, we’d read about Jesus meeting Nicodemus, a pharisee who came to him in the night because he was starting to believe, and we’d know the words here are being directed to him, a man struggling with doubt.
Or go back even further, and read the entire Gospel of John, one of the four Gospels. Or read all four Gospels, each telling the story in a different way.
Go even further and get the whole New Testament, the whole story of Christ’s life and death, and resurrection and the early church. And then, look at the whole Bible. The Old and New Testaments, the story of God’s involvement in creation from the beginning.
And you could go even further than that. Because after the last words that would become Scripture were written, God still continued, and still continues, to act in the world.
John 3:16 is a good verse. But it’s not the beginning and end of Christianity. It’s a verse in a chapter of one of dozens of books in the Bible, each one of which has to be understood in light of when and why it was written. And each one of which must then be understood only in light of the overarching message of all of those books taken together, which is all about God’s love.
But sometimes with the Bible it’s easier to throw out a Bible verse and not give any context, or nuance. That can go badly.
I’ll give you two examples. At my seminary there was this guy who was a reluctant seminarian. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t know why he needed to got o school to preach. And he figured he knew all he had to know. And he took a New Testament class and the professor was trying to get them to read passages of Scripture in context and to use all the tools he was giving them, and to even debate the meaning of the text.
And he had no time for this. He’d get to feeling like his faith was being threatened and he’d just quote John 3:16 and say that was all he needed to know. And I don’t agree with the teaching style here, but one day the professor had had enough. And he burst out, “I’ve heard enough about John 3:16” Have you ever read John 3:15? Or 3:17? 3:18? Have you ever read anything beyond this one passage?
The professor didn’t want soundbites. He wanted his students to not create their own little versions of the Bible and discount the rest. That’s a good caution for all of us, because we often create our own favorite Bibles, full of only the verses we love. And that’s dangerous.
Which brings me to the second story. A few years ago billboards went up quoting a single Bible verse, and it wasn’t John 3:16. Instead it was a verse that most of us like to pretend isn’t in the Bible. It says, “Slaves be obedient to your masters”.
The Bible does say that. A letter written by Paul to another culture at another time has that line, and I wish it didn’t. And a few years ago an American atheist group put that verse up on billboards so that people would read it and understand why, in their eyes, religion, and belief in God, is wrong. And honestly, that’s pretty compelling. If that’s all you know about the Bible.
I believe people are free to believe as they want, and I’m not preaching against atheists here, because honestly some of the most moral people I know are atheists. But what I am preaching against is taking one verse, pulling it out of context, slapping it on a billboard, and saying it speaks for all of Christianity. Because it clearly doesn’t. It’s lazy intellectualism. It’s reasoning that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman year logic paper. And yet, in our soundbite culture, it gets people talking.
But we can’t condemn it too harshly. Because we Christians sometimes do the same thing. We find a few verses that support whatever it is we support, or condemn whatever it is we condemn, and we latch onto them. We live in the black or white, instead of living in the nuances.
We’ve created a culture in which people believe that you can either accept every verse of the Bible on its own and without debate, or you have to throw the whole thing out. There used to be this bumper sticker I’d see in the South a lot: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And it used to make my blood pressure rise everytime I’d see it. Because the Bible says a lot of things, some of them contradictory, and we have to wrestle with that.
The good news in that is that there’s a lot of room in the valley between “God so loved the world,” and, “slaves be obedient to your masters”. But it takes a lot of work to live there. It’s not easy. It’s nuanced. It’s takes work. It’s sometimes uncertain and tenuous.
But it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.
We live in a soundbite culture. The message has to fit the billboard, or the t-shirt, or the five second preview of the news. But the thing about slogans and soundbites is we grow weary of them. We don’t believe them for very long, especially if they don’t generate real action. And the people who hear them finally grow disillusioned, and move on to something else.
It’s the same with faith. I find it interesting that we are getting more and more evidence that the largest group of new non-believers are former Christian fundamentalists. People who once lived in a world that couldn’t tolerate nuance when it came to faith are now leaving that world and going to one that cannot tolerate nuance when it comes to doubt.
That makes some sense, because fundamentalism is fundamentalism, regardless of what you believe in. And if all you’ve ever learned is that the only way to have faith is to believe a list of things without question, then when you leave of course you think there is no place for you than in a culture of disbelief.
That means that what we do in churches like this one can matter a great deal. We engage the questions, live in the nuance, and believe that Christianity cannot be explained in soundbites, but instead must be understood in the journey.
We can be a safe haven for those who care to look for the substance under the slogans. A place where those who feel disillusioned by the debates about faith can actually come and dig deeper, and find how God is calling them to practice it. A place where youth and young adults don’t have to choose between their faith and their reason, or experience, or friends. A place where we don’t ask you to check your thoughts, or even your doubts, at the door.
I’m not sure how you squeeze that all onto a sign at a football game. It probably wouldn’t fit. In fact, several years ago our denomination, the UCC, tried to get a commercial all during the Super Bowl that had a similar message: God is still speaking. It was, oddly, even after they raised the millions needed to put it on TV, rejected for being potentially offensive. Have you seen Super Bowl commercials? That’s what’s offensive?
`Apparently so. So, for now, we have to spread the message another way. Which is by how we embody Christ in how we live. In the end, the way you live out your faith journey, both the things you know for certain, and the things you’re still working out for yourself, is going to be the message you send to all of those who are looking to find fellow travelers on the journey God has prepared for us. The good news is that the love of God for the world as it is embodied in one of you will always speak louder than it will on a sign, or a t-shirt, or a billboard. For those tangible reminders of how God so loved the world, those of us who see them are always thankful.
And so, live the chapter, not just the verse. And live the book, not just the chapter. And live beyond the book, and for a God who so loved the world, that God wants us to love back with our heart, and soul, and mind. Amen.