John 3:16 – 21
Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Beginning today, we begin a season long known
within many parts of the Church as Advent.
For most people outside of our faith,
the day after Thanksgiving marks
the start of the celebration of Christmas.
The tree, the stockings, and the decorations go up.
All the cookies and other baked treats get made.
The cider, eggnog, peppermint mochas,
and all the other holiday drinks at Starbucks begin to flow.
Christmas music – both old and new – fills the airwaves.
And of course, all the shopping, the wrapping,
and the gift-giving commences – if it hasn’t already begun.
In the midst of this flurry of activity
– for some, not the most wonderful
but the most stressful time of the year
– the Church doesn’t dive headlong into making merry
as much as we take some time to prepare to celebrate Christmas.
We do this because we recognize
how easy it can be to get caught up in the holiday rush
– all the things we try to make Christmas to be
rather than receiving the One who is at the heart of Christmas,
the One whose very name is in the title of the holiday.
We slow down from all our efforts
to ensure Christmas happens,
so that we remember and reflect on the fact
that the only reason there is something – anything
– to celebrate at Christmas – has absolutely nothing
with what we do but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
The word “Advent” means “arrival”
and this helps us to appreciate one final reason why
we in the Church do things a little differently than “out there”
– because we believe that in all our inward preparation
in anticipation of the coming of Christ
that mirrors those first figures of the original Christmas story
– the prophets, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph,
the shepherds, the angels and the wise mean
– as we wait, as we hope, as we pray Jesus will be born anew in our lives.
That we will come to receive and to follow Christ in a deeper way.
Hopefully having framed for us what
the next four weeks are going to be about
as we gather to worship through the Advent season,
let’s hear our scripture for the day
– a passage that includes a verse everybody knows
– and by everybody – I mean pretty much
everyone both of our faith and not.
Almost everybody can quote
the verse I’m talking about
but when’s the last time
we actually read this well-known verse
in light of the whole passage?
How many of us really listen to these words?
Well, now’s our chance.
Let’s hear the word of the Lord
from the Gospel of John, chapter 3,
starting with verse 16. …
The passage we just heard is one of the greatest passages in all of the Bible.
Maybe we don’t think of it as a Christmas passage, but it is.
For here we have a concise summary of the message of the Gospel
– of what, at its heart, Christmas is all about.
For God so loved the world, he gave his Son.
In just this single statement – God’s giving of his Son
we have a pregnant reference to
the Christ child being born in Bethlehem.
But it is only as we go beyond this statement
that we come to understand the significance of this gift
– this gift which is the basis of all our gift-giving at Christmas.
To begin with, the basis of this gift is love.
But not just any love – God’s love – divine love
– perfect, inexhaustible, unchangeable, eternal love.
For God so loves this world, John writes, God gives us this gift.
This is significant for so often
within the Church we start
the message of the Gospel differently
– not with the love of God
but with the wrath of God.
God is disappointed in you. You should know better.
God is sick and tired of your
shameless living and your guilt-free behaviors.
God is going to cut you down
unless you repent and turn back to Him.
Still today, isn’t this the message
we are hearing from some?
God is angry with our world.
Are there some who are preaching
this global pandemic is God’s judgment
against this world?
That our contested election
and disunity as a nation are a sign
of God’s disapproval and condemnation?
And yet, John starts not with
God’s judgment but with God’s love.
In fact, the apostle John
goes on to specifically clarify,
this gift of God’s son is given
not to condemn the world
but as a means of love – to save this world.
Rarely do we give one another
– even ourselves – the benefit of the doubt.
We condemn, we shame,
and we guilt ourselves and each other.
But God gives, our Creator
starts and finishes with love
– love that seeks not to condemn but to save.
God so loves this world.
It might be easy to read
that little word “so” as indicative of
how much God loves us – SO MUCH
– but it’s actually about
exactly how God loves us.
God loves the world in this way,
He gives us His Son.
This is no small gift,
no token sign of God’s love for us.
The love we point to at Christmas time
is more than nostalgic sentimentality
or a tender kiss of affection under the mistletoe.
This is a love that gets real
– a love that comes down to intervene
in human history by becoming one of us.
God so loved the world
that the Lord of all creation,
this God who holds universes upon universes
in the palm of His hand,
who named the stars and knows
the number of hair strands
on each of our heads,
this God who made a 90 year-old,
barren woman pregnant
and then birthed a nation out of her family
– carrying them out of enslavement,
through the wilderness,
into the Promised Land,
through exile and back again,
this God who elevated and humbled world empires,
who can make every valley to be raised up,
every mountain and hill to be made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
and the rugged places a plain,
this God, the Creator and Sustainer
of all life as we know it,
did something no one was expecting.
He set aside the power and glory of
his divinity and became flesh and blood
as a man and dwelt among us in Jesus Christ.
The King of Kings
did not come as royalty,
did not arrive with privilege
or prestige of a warrior.
He was humbly born of
an unwed, teenage mother
on the floor of a stable,
in a backwater town,
in poverty and filth.
He didn’t advance to
some high position
or noteworthy post.
He lived like most of
the world lives
an ordinary life
marked by work and play,
family and friends,
and the joys and pains of them all.
He knew what it was
to be tempted in every way,
to be rejected at every turn
and to be abandoned by those
who profess to believe in you.
He faced the scorn, mockery,
derision, and even the betrayal
of those closest to him.
And in the end,
even though he could claim something
no other human being ever could
– total innocence
– having lived a perfect life
unmarked by sin,
he willingly experienced
the worst this world had to offer
he chose to endure heartbreak,
physical torture, and ultimately death itself.
God in the flesh.
God the Father through
his one and only Son, Jesus Christ,
did all that for us.
That’s how God loves us
– not by remaining at a distance,
high above the woundedness of his creation,
but by coming down into
the thick of all our chaos in order to save us
– to lead us into a better life and a better world.
John frames our understanding of
this gift borne of God’s love,
God’s gift of himself to us
in Jesus Christ, this way:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world…”
God in Christ does not step into a spiritually neutral world.
Jesus comes into a world, an entire creation covered in darkness.
John, in his Gospel, his presentation of Jesus Christ,
evokes this understanding a lot – that we are living in darkness.
Elsewhere John explains the source of all this darkness
we are under – and in a word, it is human sin.
Our lives are darkened – obscured, gloomy
– because we have chosen to live them
apart from our Creator
– meaning not according to
his design and rules for life
but by making up our own.
All creation persists in constant shadow
– volatile and in turmoil
– because we have attempted to craft
an existence out of a world made and sustained by God
without acknowledging or looking to God.
In trading our Creator for
the creations of our imagination,
we are blinded by our pride and our greed.
In our self-centeredness
– rebelling against God’s direction
and believing more in our own way,
we continue to stumble and wander in circles through history.
The more things change,
the more they stay the same
in terms of the human condition.
But John’s point, the invitation of Christmas is
it doesn’t have to be this way.
We don’t have to live in darkness anymore.
For God so loved the world that he gave his Son
– to bring the light we lack – to be the Light we need
– the revelation, the wisdom, the guidance,
the very means we need to lead us
out of the darkness all around us
and even within our very hearts.
Now, we’d think when John makes
this declaration in verse 19,
“Light has come into the world”
that the finish of that sentence would be. . .
“And the world was drawn to the Light;”
or “And the world looked to the Light;”
or “And the world followed the Light.”
But that’s not how the sentence ends.
Instead, John concludes his verse
with one of the most chilling phrases of all:
“but people loved darkness instead.”
Let us appreciate the contrast here.
For God so loved the world,
he gave us his Son, he gave us the Light
but we love the darkness instead.
Advent begins in the dark
because we keep forgetting what time it is.
Advent begins in the dark,
because we choose to ignore the night,
long ago, back in the beginning,
when the light first went out.
Advent begins in the dark,
because we continue to try and
put up all our artificial light
as way of denying the darkness
in which we live apart from God.
But Advent begins here – in the dark
– with the recognition, the confession,
that we are not only living in darkness
but that we have a dangerous,
a deadly tendency to prefer the darkness.
This is the backdrop against which
Christ comes and yet this is
a world we don’t want to face
– especially, ironically, at Christmas.
And so, we attempt to cover the darkness
– our darkness – with tinsel and decorations
– to drown it out with soothing, upbeat messages
– with sweet but ultimately bland, inoffensive, generic
words of peace on earth and love for all humanity.
They’re great, aspirational sentiments
but apart from the Light of Jesus
– the work of the Cross, the Resurrection,
and Pentecost – they are nothing more than
visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in our heads.
We cannot and will not embrace the Gospel
unless we are willing to look into the heart of our darkness
– the dark side of ourselves
– of how easily we indulge our worries and our fears,
how quickly we double down on our anger and our frustrations,
how unremorsefully we derive a sick, vengeful,
and wicked pleasure from the suffering of our enemies,
and how in our stubborn insistence that we are always right
– that we should be the masters of our own destiny,
we repeatedly recast God in our own image
rather than abiding in the fact that
it is we who are created in his.
Advent begins in the dark because without Jesus,
there is no light, there is no life, there is only death.
When John in this passage says,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned,
but whoever does not believe stands condemned already,”
John isn’t contradicting himself after saying
God comes to us in Christ not to condemn but to save us.
John’s insight here is we condemn ourselves
as we choose to love the darkness rather than
to embrace and follow that Light of Jesus.
It is not that Christ actively condemns us
as some sort of punishment for our rejection
as it is that in our refusal of Jesus,
we leave ourselves in the dark
– in its isolation, its deception,
and its false allure of secrecy
rather than the vulnerable authenticity
and healing wholeness of the Light of Christ.
But once again, John’s point
– the invitation of Christmas is
– it doesn’t have to be this way.
The Light of this crucified and resurrecting love
is offered to us, but not forced upon us.
Something we all recognize about
the dynamic of gift giving is
it cannot be forced.
Even if we kick in someone’s door,
pin that person to the ground,
and duct tape our intended gift to his or her hands,
saying “This is for you! Merry Christmas!”
the gift may have been forcefully given
but none of this means the gift
was actually received
– accepted, opened, and interacted with.
Gifts that are given have to be received.
gifts can be offered that are rejected.
So, it is with Christ.
Hence, notice the phrases
calling for us to accept this gift:
(v. 17) “whoever believes in Him”
(v. 18) “whoever believes in Him”
(v. 21) “whoever…comes to the light”
The most beautiful word in this whole passage is “whoever.”
Did you hear it?
No matter what you have done.
No matter how many mistakes you’ve made.
No matter how many times you’ve screwed up.
No matter how willfully or deliberately
you’ve rejected or rebelled against God.
Whoever you are, this Christmas gift is for you.
That’s the tagline on the first and ultimate Christmas gift.
In the midst of our rebellion – to the nice but to the naughty,
while we were yet still sinners, God loves us, God saves us in Christ.
The second most beautiful word
in this whole passage is synonymous with the first,
Even though we didn’t love God first, God loves the world.
The gift of Christmas, of Jesus Christ is not reserved
for one nation or one culture; it is for all nations,
for all cultures, for all people at all times in all places.
There is no nationality, no skin color, no ethnicity, no gender, no age group, excluded from that love – this love through Jesus that saves.
Though all the earth may have declared itself
a professed enemy of God,
God still has saved the world in Christ.
For even as we didn’t say “Thank You”
for the Light that had come into the world
but cried out “Crucify! Kill that Light!”
Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them
for they know not what they do”
and God saved us in Christ.
In Christ, God has moved toward us even as we moved away from God.
The gift of Christmas is real. The gift of Christmas is ours.
It is wrapped in love. It is revealed through grace.
But gifts given are intended to be received
– not left unopened, not stored away somewhere for another time,
not continually talked about, showering praise over
but never having an intention of letting our life be shaped by.
The Light of Christ has come into this world, into our lives.
And this Light seeks to be followed
– to change how we see this world
as well as how we live together as a part of it.
every Christian quotes John 3:16 as
the most succinct presentation
of the Gospel in all of the Bible.
The problem is we’ve presented John 3:16
in isolation without the rest of the passage.
As a result, we’ve declared to others,
we’ve come to believe ourselves
that John 3:16 is the finish line
instead of realizing and sharing
that it is the starting line.
The story of Christmas – the invitation, the gift of Jesus Christ
isn’t just believe in Jesus and go to Heaven when you die.
The first and foundational gift of Christmas
isn’t a propositional to accept or a contract to sign;
it’s a covenant, an invitation into a relationship
to meet and to follow the God who loves us, the God who have saved us,
the God who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life we have been longing for
– all in the person of Jesus Christ.
What does this look like – following Jesus?
We find the answer not here
in the Gospel of John but in John’s
first letter to the Church — Interestingly
and not I think coincidentally, in 1 John 3:16.
If John 3:16 captures
the invitation, the gift of Christmas,
then 1 John 3:16 reflects the Spirit of Christmas
or how we live out of the gift of Christ.
1 John 3:16:
“This is how we know what love is.
Jesus Christ laid down his life for us;
therefore, we must lay down our lives for one another.”
That we, that the world has received the gift of God’s love in Christ
is witnessed through our loving each other, loving this world
the way God has loved us in Christ – humbly and compassionately, truthfully but forgivingly, faithfully and graciously.
We are to love each other by
dropping our need to be right
in order for things to be right between us.
We are to love others
without condition or demand,
never withholding, taking advantage of,
or abusing the love in Christ
we have been given to share.
We are to love by identifying
so closely with one another
that we are willing to come into each other’s darkness
in order to bring the Light of Christ.
Being loved and becoming love.
This is the Gospel. This is what Christmas is all about.
The God who has every right to condemn – to punish and destroy us,
purposes instead to love and save us by coming among us
through the giving of His Son.
We are invited, we have been enabled to receive
this life-transforming, world-changing gift
that God gives to us in Jesus Christ.
As the season of Advent continues,
let start to make that move
by confronting and bringing
all of our darkness
– all our worries and fears,
all our grudges and gripes,
all of our wounds and
vices into the Light of God’s love.
In so doing, may room be made in our hearts,
space cleared away in our minds,
so that we are ready to receive Jesus
more richly and more deeply than ever before.
May we even now begin to follow Christ
by giving each other grace upon grace
as we continue to walk together through
these challenging and troubling times
– encouraging each other that the coming, birthing cry in the manger means we are not alone, we are not abandoned, we are not forsaken.
The darkness before us may be thick, but the Light is coming – the Light of Jesus – which the darkness cannot, ever, overcome. Amen.