John 3:14. Not even a close second to John 3:16 but certainly the reason why these verses from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus make up the designated Gospel pericope for the fourth Sunday in Lent. Any possible connection to Jesus’ crucifixion will win any contest to be selected as a reading for the Sundays in Lent. A preacher could certainly opt for this route. But great care will be necessary when it comes to what John means when he says “the son of Man must be lifted up” because it’s not just on the cross. Yet, perhaps that is for another column.
Because another preaching challenge that comes with John 3:14 is that two verses later, there’s 3:16. And John 3:16 is perpetually problematic. To preach on this verse will seem like tinkering with constructs of faith so embedded and beholden that a preacher might ignore it all together. Yet, it’s one of those verses that once read out loud, it demands address from the preacher. Otherwise, its misconceptions, misinterpretations, and misuses will abide with and be maintained by our listeners who may really want to believe that God loves the world even though they have been told otherwise.
Statements about this most ubiquitous verse continue to surprise me — from fondness to ambivalence to flat out dislike. Why? Why these kinds of reactions toward what is perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible?
Well, motivations for John 3:16 being one’s favorite Bible verse might be somewhat questionable. Does it hang on a wall, appear on a plaque, fly across computer monitors as a screen saver because people really believe God loves the world? Or because they appreciate frequent reminders that they are saved while others are not? Is John 3:16 in peril of losing its voice of promise because rather than being a claim of assurance it’s used as an injunction for judgment? Because rather than being a statement about God’s love for the world it’s a threat for those unwilling to accept God’s love? Because rather than heard as an invitation to participate in spreading God’s love it’s a summons to exclude those we think God does not love?
To say the least, it’s unfortunate when Bible verses are taken out of context. And I have a feeling that the Bible doesn’t like it any more than we do.
John 3:16 is first a word to Nicodemus. And Nicodemus, a man, a Pharisee, a leader used to privilege and entitlement needs to hear that God loves the world. And so do the disciples, which is why in the very next chapter Jesus then takes them to the world, to a small town in Sychar, Samaria, so that they can meet who the world is. Because the world may very well be the last place — and the last person — on earth we think God would love.
And further contextual conscientization will keep reading into 3:17-21 where we hear that God became flesh not to condemn the world but to experience life with us. We make John 3:16 words of judgment when we stop reading at the period placed at the end of 3:16; when we ignore what judgment actually means in John’s Gospel, which is not that which we do or God does, but represents your own moment of crisis of whether or not you will choose to enter into the life-sustaining relationship God provides; when we limit salvation to some future guarantee instead of the intimacy God so desires with us here and now.
And so perhaps John 3:16 accords ambivalence as a preacher; or elicits a heavy sigh that embodies your weariness. As if getting through Lent was not enough. Now you have to figure out what to do with John 3:16.
You know, all too well, that this is critical work — preaching on a passage that demands great attention to what it is, what it isn’t, what we we want it to be, or what we think it is. What’s a preacher, then, to do?
As many of you know, one of the greatest preachers and homileticians of the 20th century died this past week, Fred Craddock. I had the joy of meeting him and hearing him preach while I was doing my doctoral work at Emory University where he had been the Bandy Professor of Preaching and New Testament in the Candler School of Theology. Craddock’s words may be helpful this week when considering whether or not to tackle the hard work of preaching a text like John 3:16, “I’m grateful for work more important than how I happen to feel about it on any given day.”
So, we start with anticipating and acknowledging our feelings about what it means to preach on this verse. And in general, I am not sure that we do this enough — admit to ourselves our own ambivalence, uncertainty, even fear when it comes to preaching, especially those verses and passages that we think we should have all figured out, or, that we simply don’t want to tackle, lest we upset some sort of proverbial theological apple cart in our congregation. Take the time to reflect on your own relationship with John 3:16. And then be grateful that you get to enter into the sacred space of figuring out what difference this verse makes, for you and for your congregation, but also for what God is up to.
And then? Perhaps another word of encouragement from Craddock will help, “Preach like you know they almost didn’t come.”