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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Lent 4 – Year B

How many people heard today’s lesson from John’s Gospel and thought about people waving large signs at football games with “John 3:16” written on them or Tim Tebow with the word “John” written in grease paint under one eye and “3:16” under the other?
John 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.” In the 21st century this one verse may be the most famous piece of scripture in Christianity. Thanks to sign wavers and bumper stickers, millions have seen reference to it. Even people who don’t know what it means are familiar with the sign. And God bless all those folks who for years have put it out there as a way of sharing their faith with the world. It is indeed good news worth sharing.
Personally, I am not a fan of religious slogans. Slogans by definition try to make things simple. I appreciate their intention, but if you take something as profound as John 3:16 and reduce it to a tag line for a bumper sticker, placard, or football player’s eye black, you run the risk of trivializing it, cheapening the deeper message. Plus, I always wonder, which part of that verse is the sign holder most interested in proclaiming – God’s love for the world, or the world’s need to believe in the Son to keep from perishing? Is it an invitation or a warning? Perhaps it’s meant to be both.
After all, there are two parts to this famous verse aren’t there? The first part – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” – is a proclamation of divine love. It’s all about grace. It is all about getting what we don’t expect and certainly do not deserve. I am reminded of a story that comes out of the Bedouin culture. Bedouin means “desert dwellers.” During a heated argument a young Bedouin struck and killed a friend. Knowing the ancient, inflexible customs of his people, he fled, running across the desert under the cover of darkness, seeking safety. He went to the tent of the tribal chief in order to find sanctuary. The old chief took the young Arab in. The chief assured him that he would be safe until the matter could be settled legally. The next day, the young man’s pursuers arrived, demanding the murderer be turned over to them. They would see that justice would prevail in their own way. “But I have given my word,” protested the chief. “But you don’t know whom he killed!” they countered. “I have given my word,” the chief repeated. “He killed your son!” someone in the crowd blurted out. The chief was deeply and visibly shaken by this news. He stood speechless with his head bowed for a long time. The accused and the accusers waited for him to speak. What would happen to the young man? Finally the old man raised his head. “Then he shall become my son,” he informed them, “and everything I have will one day be his.”
The young man certainly didn’t deserve such generosity. And that, of course, is the point. Love in its purest form is beyond comprehension. No one can earn it. It is freely given. It is agape, the love of God. Look to the cross. At the cross we encounter love in its purest form. It is the central Christian message that God cares so much about creation that the Divine stoops to become human, the infinite becomes finite, in order to save us, to show us what God’s Kingdom looks like and to teach us how to be residents of that Kingdom. Jesus comes to save us, all of us regardless of color, creed, nationality, sexual orientation or gender – not because we deserve it but because we are loved. In fact, the miraculous good news is that God loves us unconditionally in spite of how much we don’t deserve it.
This is by far my favorite part of the verse. This is the part that gets me out of bed in the morning, the part that excites me and makes me want to shout for joy. It is the part that gives deep meaning to my life because no matter what else I do or don’t do, no matter how well I live my life or fail to live my life, God loves me, Jesus came for me. I am a precious child of God – and you are too. It is wonderful because it is all about grace – the free, unearned, unasked for, love of God.
For some people this is as far as they want to take the verse. Quite frankly, it is as far as I want to take the verse – to just stop here and think about nothing more than God’s grace. God loves us, we are saved – end of story. But there is a second part – “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love requires an answer from us. If it’s only about grace then there is the danger of making salvation arbitrary with no essential place for human response. Yes, God loves us unconditionally; there is no way we can earn it. But Jesus teaches us that the proper response to this love is – to believe, to have faith. Sola gratia and Sola Fide – Christians are saved by God’s grace and we are saved through our faith.
For John, it is important to understand that belief and faith are action verbs. They can never be reduced to simply thinking the right thoughts, having the correct ideas in our heads. Believing and having faith are things you do. For John, to believe is to be obedient and to disbelieve is to be disobedient. In this sense, to have faith in Jesus is to do all that you can to make his way of life your way of life – to model yourself on his example, an example of love and self-sacrifice.
Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the greatest preacher in the first half of the 20th century once said, “For faith to be genuine it has to be our own. So many church members are secondhand Christians. They have inherited it from their families, borrowed it from their friends, married it, taken it over like the cut of their clothes from the fashion of their group.” They aren’t disciples they are spectators. This is what Bonheoffer would call cheap grace. The truth is – God loves us without condition and at the same time God invites us to respond to that love with a faith that is personal, passionate and drives us to be obedient followers of Jesus Christ. There is no escaping the tension here – God’s love is offered, it is unreserved, it is given to all. There is no special club of those God loves and those God doesn’t. But loves requires a response and that response is faith, faith in action.
On this fourth Sunday in Lent, as we draw a deep breath and prepare ourselves for the final days leading up to Holy Week and Easter, rest assured that God’s love is free and unreserved. There is nothing exclusive about the cross. Christ offers his life and his death for the world, the whole world. Rest in that grace. But at the same time, look deep – is your faith a living faith, an “action verb” in your life, or only a second hand inheritance? Because the gift is so wonderful it deserves a response. The grace is too sweet for us to remain as spectators. Amen.

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