THE LOVE OF GOD’S HEART
Sermon preached by Fr Tony Noble on Sunday February 20th, 2005
John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Several years ago I was attending a football match in Australia. Over the fence someone had put a banner which said: “John 3:16”. It transpired that it was copied from an American! John 3:16 immediately calls to mind the text, which is a common slogan for street evangelists. The problem is that those street evangelists go around telling everyone that God loves the world so much - but the world is condemned and people will go to hell unless they believe in Jesus! That of course may be true. But its not good news for someone walking along the street, particularly if they are not a believer.
We know what the world is like and all of us are concerned about it. But surely the good news is not that the world is condemned, but that God loved the world. Such evangelists are in danger of twisting Jesus’ words. For in saying the world is condemned, and we’re all going to hell unless we believe, they ignore what Jesus goes on to say: “God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” The sentence before John 3:16 is also significant, as it brings the whole thing into context. You see Jesus is positive, he is saying something affirmative and encouraging, rather than negative. But how easy it is to be negative, isn’t it?
It’s always easy to argue, to say someone else is wrong, to be looking at the down side, rather than being positive. It is easy to criticize people for their faults, rather than encourage them. We were discussing this at our Friday bible study here last Friday. I was talking about how some Anglo-Catholics who do not accept the ordination of women say they are against it. I would rather say that I’m in favor of the Catholic tradition and the apostolic ministry. Rather than picking up my biretta and walking out of the Episcopal Church (like some have done) I want to stay and witness to the Catholic faith that I believe in and practice. And after all isn’t that the mission and the vocation of this parish? We are not picking up our birettas and walking out; we are staying and witnessing to a deeper catholic faith. So I’m not against anything, but I am in favor of that faith with all its traditions, which saves us and which is not second best. And I want to win our church over to the full Catholic faith as we practice it here.
In the same way in John 3:16 Jesus is not condemning the world, but as he says, “God loves the world so he sent His Son to save it.” It is all about being positive. Thus today, the second Sunday of Lent, the gospel presents us with this great positive affirmation. And that’s important because often we think Lent is negative: It is about giving up things, about making extra sacrifices, and making time, about more solemn tunes and liturgy. But it’s not like that at all. Lent is a positive season. The leap from last Sunday’s gospel to today’s shows us how dramatic this season is. Last Sunday we had the 40 days’ temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. It always sets the tone on the first Sunday in Lent as we begin our journey in our own personal spiritual wilderness.
Last week in his sermon, Fr Robert talked about temptation and how we can resist it. It led me to think that is actually not how I am tempted. Temptation is not often a matter of choosing or making a decision. Often I don’t have a chance to weigh up whether I ‘m being tempted or not. Temptation is not always a matter of choice. And I tend to think it is probably the same with you too. It is more subtle isn’t it? And sometimes I’ve given into sin or temptation without even realizing it. Then afterwards thinking Oh no! And that is because sin is often so part of the way we live, so much a part of our life, and we get used to it. We get used to people being less than human, don’t we? We get used to ourselves doing those silly things: losing our temper, judging, and thinking the wrong things. I’m not talking about murder, perjury or deliberate violence; I’m talking about what St. Paul calls “the sin that clings so easily.” Ever since I heard that phrase it struck me that is how life is: “sin that clings so easily.”
Jesus said many times that to be angry or think bad things is just as bad as doing it. That is the heart of the matter. It is what’s inside that counts -, an old saying but true. In fact if we concentrate too much on how to resist temptation, we become obsessed with doing the wrong thing, and with failing. And then we become very negative about ourselves - which is so unchristian. And that is what is wrong with the street preachers who quote John 3:16 and forget what follows. If that is the way we approach our Lenten discipline and being tempted, our Christianity becomes negative and inward looking.
So today we leap from the temptations of Jesus to one of our great affirmations of the
Faith. Today’s gospel is all about what God has done for us. Not what we can do for ourselves, or for even for Him. As some people think Lent is about.
This meeting between Nicodemus and Jesus starts off with a simple enquiry. In fact I almost liken it to a newcomer coming to church. Jesus goes straight to the point as he always does: “Nicodemus you have to be re-born!” “How Lord?” “By water and the spirit.” Now we understand this is about baptism, which is when we are reborn by water and the spirit. But it is more than that. Jesus is saying: You must do something - and God will do something. It is about responding to John 3:16, God’s love. God doing something and us responding is what we call the ‘sacramental principal’. It covers not only baptism but the whole of the seven sacraments. That is, when we celebrate the sacraments God is dong something for us. It is never about what we are doing for him. In the case of today’s Eucharist, God is giving us the very body and blood of Jesus in a most wonderful way. This is all about what God is doing for us.
The Christian life is about God doing something and us responding - cooperating with what God has done. It’s not about just having faith - there must be a response. The first two readings are all about faith, Jesus takes it one step further and says, God has done this and now we have to respond. In the case of Nicodemus, by being reborn through water and the spirit. And this is the very reason why John 3:16 is preceded by this amazing statement: “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.”
If you are not familiar with the Book of Numbers you may ask what on earth is Jesus talking about? What is this serpent lifted up in the wilderness, and what has it go to do with Jesus? It goes back to those 40 years in the Sinai desert. Remember when the Israelites fled from slavery in Egypt and for 40 years wandered around the desert trying to reach the promised land? Led by a cloud, fed by manna, all sorts of pit-falls befalling them. They got sick and some of them died. So God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, and the people were commanded to look at it. And when they looked at the bronze serpent they were healed and they lived.
Jesus tells that story as an image of his crucifixion. Just as the bronze serpent was raised up for salvation, so Jesus is raised up on the pole of the cross - and for real salvation, and for real life. It is a marvelous story preceding the words God so loved the world. Jesus is going to do something for the world and the world has to respond. And that is what Lent is about - our response. Particularly in the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. They are the way we respond to Jesus and the cross.
Perhaps to take one briefly: fasting. It is not that we are doing something for God or for ourselves (although I was delighted when I went to the gym yesterday to see that I had lost a bit of weight!). It is not about what we are doing for God or for ourselves - it is about us responding to Jesus. And as we respond we receive grace. Fasting is not about losing weight, it’s about growing in grace. Fasting is a spiritual discipline which gives us spiritual growth, because it is part of praying. If we are successful in the disciplines of Lent, not only are we responding to God, but we are building up grace - becoming stronger Christians. For instance if we are successful in going without those little things, like food, chocolate, wine, etc – if we can be successful in the small things - when it comes to the big things, the real temptations, we will know that we have already conquered, and we will be stronger in the serious temptations.
Fasting is not about the will or about the stomach, it’s about the heart.