John 3:16. Perhaps the most well-known Bible verse and yet also one of the most destructive — an assertion of exclusion rather than one of God’s abundant love. A verse that sends people to hell rather than voice God’s extravagant grace.
It’s quite extraordinary when you put a bible verse back into its context. Last time I checked, 3:17 follows 3:16. Yet, the sweeping claim of John 3:16 without 3:17 has in our general parlance become that which justifies damnation for unbelievers, perpetuates our myopic musings about God, and validates our hubris. Rather than signal God’s desire to be in relationship with all people, this verse has become a weapon in the arsenal used to fight the battle for a soteriology foreign to John.
Yes, God will save you if you believe in Jesus. But if you don’t? Not so much. We forget that statements like this portray a kind of God I suspect, if pushed, we’d rather not have. We forget that our certainties about salvation lead to or come from claims about God that might not even reflect the God we know, the God we want.
God loves the world is not a theory for salvation. It is specific. Particular. As particular as the incarnation itself. God loves a Samaritan woman. God loves a man paralyzed his entire life. God loves a man blind from birth. God loves Jesus’ friend dead in the tomb for four days. God loves Peter who will deny his discipleship.
Often, preaching is a corrective, and this Sunday may very well demand such an educative act. Dear Working Preachers, this is the time to preach John 3:16 for all it’s worth. For those fearful of deportation. For our transgender sisters and brothers singled out as criminals. For those of races other than white. For women who continue to march. For our Jewish brothers and sisters hated once again for their loyalty to the God of Israel, our God. For our Muslim brothers and sisters vilified for devotion and obedience. For the world, the cosmos, that wonders who will protect it.
This past week I led a retreat for adults in their third stage of life who choose to spend retirement learning about their faith. Our time together was an exercise in expanding our theological imagination. I asserted that they are theologians. You don’t have to go to seminary to be a theologian. A theologian is anyone who goes through life expecting to find God at work.
Every single person sitting in your pews is a theologian. They need to know this. Now more than ever. They need to be affirmed in their ability to give witness to the God in which they believe. They need to be empowered in making sense of their world through the lens of God. They need to know that they can indeed testify to the God they know, even in the face of those who profess a God they might not recognize. Not for the sake of argument. Not for the sake of winning some biblical war. Can’t we be over that already? But for the sake of invested exchange and understanding. For the sake of dialogue and learning. For the sake of real conversations about faith.
We are responsible in our preaching to envisage God in ways that invite wonder and awe. Our sermons are not just based on the Bible, but model biblical interpretation. Our preaching should show that engagement with Scripture is not about who’s right or who’s wrong but discovering in it what matters for them. If we are not doing all of this in our preaching, we neglect this at our peril.
I wonder if we have entered into a homiletical age where a point or a pearl of wisdom about a text to take along is less important than demonstrating how the Bible can be read, how the Bible actually matters, how the Bible is authoritative. Not just because it is, but because it helps us make sense of ourselves and of how God is at work in the world.
In other words, our preaching needs to be more about doing theology, rather than imparting theology. More about how to look for God’s activity in our lives instead of asserting that God is. Yes, assertions of God’s acts are foundational for how we anticipate God will act in our lives. But if assertions are left as truths alone, they do nothing but suggest that theology is simply random statements about God.
Lent is just such a time to push our theological imagination. To encourage theological thinking. Why? Because Lent is such a time when God makes the least sense of all.
Empower them with an invitation to witness to what it means in their lives that God loved the world. Empower them with words about God’s love so that others might see God at work in them. Empower them to believe that they are indeed theologians — and that God needs them for John 3:16 to be the promise that it is.