Dear Working Preacher,
Maybe when you think of John 3:16, you think of the guy in the rainbow-colored wig sitting between the uprights holding the sign painted with the world’s most famous verse. But when I think of John 3:16, I think of six year-old Benjamin, protesting his bedtime, and I’m reminded of God’s unexpected, surprising, and even offensive grace. Perhaps I should explain….
What would it be like for someone to die for you? It’s hard for most of us to imagine the sense of gratitude we might feel for that person. Now imagine that it wasn’t just an impulsive act of bravery, someone pushing you out of the way of a car or something like that. Rather, someone knew you were in mortal danger and deliberately exchanged his or her life for yours. Suddenly, it’s not just gratitude we may feel, but a profound sense of debt. How, that is, can you possibly make it up to someone who has given you so much?
This is essentially the picture Jesus offers of God. For the “sending of the Son” Jesus references isn’t simply sending Jesus to deliver a message, it’s sending Jesus to die, to die on a cross, to die on a cross for us. This is why, as Martin Luther once said, this verse is “the gospel in a nutshell.”
This is also why, however, there is a scandal, even an offense, at the heart of this beloved verse. Notice that God doesn’t ask our opinion about all this first. God doesn’t ask our permission. God doesn’t even consult us. God, in fact, brooks no objection but just goes ahead and sends the Son to die…for us.
Which brings me back to Benjamin. I preached a sermon some years ago when I compared this verse — the sending of the Son without our consent or consultation — to the scandal of infant Baptism. After all, we similarly bring children to the baptismal font before they can offer their consent and simply immerse them in God’s love. How offensive, some might say, that we do not wait until they are “of age” and can decide for themselves. But that’s the heart of infant Baptism, when you think of it: God just plain adopts us, makes us God’s own, and pledges to be both with us and for us forever. All this whether we are ready, interested, or eager to receive it or not!
For this reason, I went on, perhaps we should add four words to our service of Baptism to highlight the offensive, scandalous nature of the sacrament: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…like it or not.”
A week or two after I preached this sermon, Tom, a member of our congregation, told me a story. Several nights earlier, Tom’s six year-old son Benjamin protested his bedtime. Frustrated by his father’s refusal to budge, Benjamin finally became so frustrated that he said, “Daddy, I hate you!” Tom, possessing the presence of mind I wish I more frequently displayed, replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you.”
To which Benjamin replied, “Don’t say that!” Surprised, Tom continued, “Ben, but it’s true — I love you.” “Don’t say that, Daddy.” “But I love you, Ben.” “Stop saying that, Daddy! Stop saying it right now!” And then it came: “Benjamin, now listen to me: I love you…like it or not!”
Even at six years old, you see, Benjamin realized that in the face of unconditional love he was powerless. If Tom had been willing to negotiate — “I’ll love you if you go to bed nicely” — then Benjamin would be a player: “Okay, this time, but I’m not eating my vegetables at dinner tomorrow.” But once Tom refused to negotiate, refused to make his love for his son conditional on something Benjamin did, then Ben couldn’t do anything but accept or flee that love.
The same is true with us. If God makes God’s great love for the world and us conditional, then we, suddenly, have tremendous power. We can negotiate. We can threaten to reject God’s love. We can even tell God to take a hike if we don’t care for God’s terms. But when God just loves us — completely and unconditionally — and when God just goes and dies for us, well then the jig is up, there’s just nothing we can do to influence God.
God in Jesus has made God’s decision…and it is for us. Yes, we can run. But we can’t change the fact that God loves us, that God in fact loves the whole world more than we can imagine.
Yes this is good news. The best news, but first it’s hard. Hard because we’re not in control. Hard because it’s not up to us. Hard because every time we hear how much God loves us we also know that we had nothing to do with it, cannot influence it, and therefore are out control.
On the other hand, precisely because we are not in control of this relationship — that is, this is a relationship established wholly by God — we realize it is the one relationship we can’t blow. God has taken responsibility for this one.
Does that mean we have nothing to do, nothing to contribute to this most important relationship? Definitely not! Once we have been loved this fully, this completely, we can respond in love, honoring God and sharing the news of God’s love for the world with all we meet. There’s plenty to do. But we are now messengers, witnesses to what God has done for us, not managers.
So maybe this week, Working Preacher, we should move the Confession and Absolution to right after the sermon. And after saying words of confession — admitting those places where we have fled rather than embraced the light of Christ — we can turn and say to one another, “Do not forget — You are forgiven because God loves you…like it or not!”
Thanks for your good work, Working Preacher, as through your words, we hear again just how much God loves us and, indeed, all the world!
Yours in Christ,