Monday, March 16, 2015

Turning the Diamond

14“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3:16  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

"Rockin" Rollen Stewart began the trend of
hoisting "John 3:16" signs at sporting events.
See more at Midwest Sports Fans
Many of us know John 3:16 as a standalone passage. It’s the quick summary of what our faith is about. It’s got it all: God, Love, Jesus, Faith, Redemption.  We see it on video shots of football end zones, on cards and billboards.  Because most of us know John 3:16, we don’t bother to think about it. Today we are going to look at this verse from three different angles—it’s meaning when Jesus said it, what it meant to early Christians like Paul and what it might mean to people in our world today.

First, what did it mean when Jesus said it? When Jesus spoke these words, he was talking at night to a man named Nicodemus who sneaked out to see him. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. We can guess from his position that Nicodemus worshiped God and followed the Jewish Law. He was intrigued by Jesus, but for some reason didn’t want to be seen with him in the light of day.

As a Jew, Nicodemus would have understood that he was part of a special covenant that God had with Israel.  God had promised that He would be their God and they would be his people. God had promised to redeem the world through the children of Abraham. In fact, God is known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Lineage was important. Just look at how many begats there are in the Old Testament! Nicodemus was likely born to Jewish parents who were born to Jewish parents and so on and so on.

But the important thing that Jesus says to Nicodemus is he must be born again in the Spirit. In other words,  it doesn’t matter who his parents are. If he wants to understand what God is doing through Jesus, he must be born again.

Jesus says no one can see the kingdom of God unless they have this experience of being born again. Jesus implies that spiritual rebirth is more important than physical birth. This opens the door for other people, not just the people of Israel, to become children of God regardless of the womb that carried them.

It’s possible that Nicodemus was making the mistake that many of us make—assuming that since God is for me and my people, God must not be for those other people. Reading Jewish commentary on Genesis we discover that the idea of God loving the world is not new. It's just easily forgotten. It's something that we humans forget as we try to follow the rules of our religion.

So that’s the set up for John 3:16. After this born again talk, Jesus says:

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Note that Jesus doesn’t say that God so loved Israel that he gave his one and only Son. He says God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. Jesus says whoever believes in him, not whoever is born Jewish. Belief transcends physical birth. Belief leads to spiritual rebirth.

Jesus radically expands the idea of who can be in relationship with God for Nicodemus. He invites anyone in the world who believes, regardless of their family tree or their purity status or even gender to walk with him. So when Jesus says God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life, he was expanding the way that people were thinking about and talking about God. By saying God so loved the world, Jesus was showing Nicodemus that God was bigger than both his rules and his imagination. Jesus was illuminating the work of God in a whole new way. 

Fast-forward a few years and we get another angle as we think about Paul and his work with the early Christians. Living in the Roman Empire as a Jewish-Roman citizen, Paul took Jesus’ statement that God loves the world to heart and set out to spread that news. Paul used the technology of his time to share the gospel.

Despite the bad press it gets in churches this time of year, the Roman Empire contributed a lot to our world. Rome had connected people groups from various parts of the globe under one government. It created roads and infrastructure that allowed for the exchange of ideas and introduced allowed rituals and customs to travel back and forth between different groups. The widespread use of Latin and Greek helped the people communicate. With its roads, shared languages and government, Rome created the world wide web of its time.

The connections between the communities allowed for the rapid spread of ideas—including Christianity. While the apostle Paul didn’t have the luxury of Twitter, but he used the technology of his day, writing letters, walking the paved roads and taking ships to share the story of God’s saving love for the world in Christ.

While Jesus walked and occasionally boated to the cities around Jerusalem, Paul went even further to cities like Galatia, Ephesus, Corinth and Rome, cities of foreigners, cities where other Gods were worshiped. He managed to find the money and resources to travel across thousands of miles and encounter different cultures.

Paul was thinking globally. He travelled and preached because he wanted to show people the great big love that God had for the world Through his encounter with Jesus, Paul discovered that God is not just the God of one nation or people, but the whole world. He wanted to introduce as many people as he could to a God that showed love for the world through Jesus. It’s Paul who says, There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul introduced people to a God was above political affiliations and regional deities. Galatians and Ephesians and Corinthians and Romans were invited to be one in Christ. Their political affiliations fell away when they were united together in their faith.

While some people had their lives changed by Jesus and Paul, others felt threated by it. Some people wanted to keep God to themselves, to keep God small. To contain God to their people.

Some resisted the idea that God’s love was available to the world—to prostitutes and tax collectors and gentiles and common people. Some people resisted the idea that God is bigger than a nation or regional deity. Jesus and Paul and the early Christians were shining light on a new aspect of God that they could suddenly see. They were bringing light into darkness with their words and actions. But it wasn’t always well-received. Verse 19 says:

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

Jesus and Paul learned the hard way that some people prefer to the dark. Some people will kill to stay in the dark.

The other day I was sitting in my kitchen with my dad talking about the horrific potholes on Route 66. The conversation meandered to how so many dirt roads are now paved roads and how my grandmother used to travel by horse and buggy with her father to pick up supplies for the store that they owned. Later in her life, people had travelled to the moon. Transportation has improved dramatically. Heated car seats are proof of this.

Like those Roman roads, cheap travel is changing our world. Like Paul and his travels, it’s bringing many of us into regular contact with people on the other side of town and the other side of the world. It’s changing how we see our culture and our faith.

And then there is the information superhighway of the World Wide Web, you know the “www” of every internet address. Did you know that the web is 25 years old? So is the Hubble telescope.

That means people under 30 have pretty much grown up with those fantastic photos of parts of the universe that are so far away that we can barely imagine them, let alone see them. They’ve grown up watching movies about space travel have concepts like black holes and wormholes and tears in the fabric of spacetime—and they can watch them on their phones.

Without cars, planes and spaceships the world was huge. Paul travelled this big world the old-fashioned way, feet, horses and boats. When I was growing up, our world started getting smaller. We knew it was the only inhabited planet of nine in our solar system, a special place for sure. But for a twenty-five-year-old today, our world is a speck of cosmic insignificance. The town they grew up in is a tiny dot on a Google map.

We have a whole generation of people whose understanding of God has to be bigger and more complex than the one the shaped you and me. Today, God has to work across galaxies, not just across oceans. Heaven can’t be a place above the clouds because the Hubble has already shown us what is up there. Where is God in all of this nano, techno, interstellar stuff?

Jesus says:

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Do you know what’s really cool? 

In the Biblical Greek, that passage says God so loves the Κόσμον, Kosmon. This has the same root as our word cosmos. God’s love encompasses the whole shebang, all of it, the whole system, not just this earth. God’s love is bigger than the universe. It’s bigger than our understanding and it’s bigger than our imagination. We can only see and experience little bits of God at a time. But, I suspect we may be seeing new bits. 

The Good News is that this great big God infinitely loves the cosmos—this expanding, exciting and terrifying cosmos. The understanding who God is and what God does may seem to be changing between the generations, but God has always been the God of the cosmos.

God is like a diamond. When we look at it we can see the color and the light sparkling and shining a certain way--some yellow on the right, red at the top and white on the left. 

Turn it and we see the light and colors arranged in a different pattern within that very same diamond. Does the diamond change? No, but the way we see it changes based on the light and the angle. This is what Jesus does, he turns the diamond, revealing God in each new time and place.

Jesus presents Nicodemus with a choice and he presents us with a choice. When we look at our life and our faith, we can see the new ways the light reflects, we can look more deeply and discover new beauty. Or, we can hold steady so nothing changes. We can keep the patterns the same year after year after year. Or, we can hide the love in a box, keeping it in darkness under the illusion of protecting it and keeping it safe when what we are really doing is denying the world the gift of God's beauty.

The Message puts our confrontation with Jesus this way: “This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”

The way we see God may be changing, but the way God sees us doesn’t change. God sees the big picture, the cosmic picture. But God also sees you, calls you and longs to embrace you. God wields the greatest power in the universe on your behalf. And that is love.

God so loves the cosmos and God so loves you that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Don't those words just sparkle?

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