We began a new series this week that was inspired by Max Lucado’s book, 3:16: The Numbers of Hope, taking an in-depth look at the most famous verse in the Bible – John 3:16. We began this week by looking at God’s love. It only seemed fitting to recognize Friend Day by talking about the greatest friend we could possibly have!
I don’t have the audio at this time, but here’s the manuscript…
Numbers of Hope: He Loves
September 14, 2008
Four years ago, my family and I loaded everything we could into a moving van and made the long trek from southwestern Indianapolis to the hills of upper East Tennessee. After a time of trying to discern God’s will, it became apparent to us that God was leading me to pursue a Master’s degree from Emmanuel School of Religion, a graduate seminary. I went down there with great expectations, hoping to be able to have deep, theological conversations with others, using words like ecclesiology…eschatological…propitiation…Eucharist…and deuterocanonical literature. I also hoped to have the mysteries of the divine unlocked before my very eyes and to have all of my theological questions answered as I sat at the feet of some very wise and learned professors. And, in the process, solidify my understanding of effective ministry.
Well, I learned more than I ever expected to learn in my three years at Emmanuel. My eyes were opened to new approaches to ministry and what it means to be the people of God in the midst of our cultural context. I’ve been challenged and encouraged to use my gifts in a manner that brings God glory. I’m well-versed in many of the theological perspectives and have a pretty good grasp on the history of God’s people from the beginning of time through the establishment of the early church. I know the difference between Sennacherib, Sargon, and Nebuchadnezzar. I can carry on those deep, theological conversations with others. I can use words like ecclesiology, eschatology, and Eucharist with the best of them. (And yes, I even know what these words mean, now.) But I can tell you that while my understanding of the nature of God and how He is at work through His church was stretched far beyond I could have imagined, I didn’t get all of the answers that I was hoping to be given. In fact, I have come away with even more questions for the answers I’d already received. And in the midst of all of the complex questions about the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and why things happen the way they do, I keep coming back to one basic truth.
Legend has it that the renown theologian, Karl Barth, also came back to that same basic truth. Barth is one of the most prominent theologians from the 20th century. His works still have a ripple effect on the majority of theologians today. He wrote several theological treatises, the most well-known being a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, and an enormous systematic theological work called Church Dogmatics. By the time Barth died in 1968, thirteen massive volumes of Church Dogmatics had been published, even though his project was unfinished upon his death. He wrote volume upon volume about God, humanity, faith, and the meaning of life. He’s one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century.
Legend has it that a reporter came to Dr. Barth towards the end of his life. As the story goes, the man asked him to summarize what he had said in all of those volumes. In other words, what is the meaning of life? The elder Barth thought for a moment and then said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That’s really what it comes down to. We can search for meaning and try to find the answers to the deep theological questions, trying to make sense of this crazy roller coaster we call life. And we can come up with some pretty good answers to the questions. But in the end, it all comes down to one basic truth. It’s so simple, yet so deep at the same time.
This leads us to our text for this morning. If you have your Bibles with you, turn with me to the Gospel of John, chapter 3. If you don’t have your Bible with you, you’re welcome to use the one in the pew in front of you. John 3 is found on page 924 in that Bible. I will be reading from the New International Version of this text. John is one of the four eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus known as the Gospels. It comes after the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It immediately precedes the book of Acts.
The chapter opens with a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a keeper of the law. Pharisees were the most significant Jewish party in the New Testament world. Pharisees had control over the local synagogues and exerted a great deal of influence over all of Jewish culture and thought. If anyone had the answers to any of life’s questions, it was the Pharisees. The term “Pharisee” means “separated one.” And the Pharisees were separated. They were set apart to study the law. But they also separated themselves from everything that was considered unclean or unholy. Anything that hindered their path to God was to be avoided. And for them, the way to God was through total obedience to the Jewish Law.
But this Jesus has shown up and their neat little theological world has been shaken at its core. They’d heard the rumors. This Jesus had turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana. And when he arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast, he burst into the temple courts, drove out the merchants, turned over the money changers’ tables, and scattered the coins all over the place. All the while, he was yelling things like, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” This Jesus had definitely rattled their cages. And he raised more questions than the Pharisees had answers. And Nicodemus wanted an answer. No, he needed an answer. He was the one who was supposed to be the enlightened one. He was supposed to have all of the answers. But instead, he just had more questions. And he found himself in darkness. So we find Nicodemus here at the beginning of chapter 3, approaching Jesus for the answers.
And there it is. The most famous verse in all of the Bible. If you watch any of the football games today, you’ll probably see someone in the crowd holding up a sign with the words “John 3:16” written on it. Believe it or not, this verse was famous a long time before football was televised nationally. In fact, it was famous long before anyone ever thought about throwing a pigskin around and getting paid to throw people to the ground. It sums up the entire story of the relationship between God and humanity; between you and God. “For God so loved…” If you don’t already have it underlined in your Bible, do it now. It’s the key verse for all of us. Christian author, Max Lucado, says this about John 3:16. He calls it “the Hope Diamond” of the Bible. And continues, saying:
“A twenty-six word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending with life and urging us to do the same. It’s brief enough to write on a napkin, yet solid enough to weather two thousand years of storms and questions. If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here. We all need a reminder. The heart of the human problem is the heart of the human. And God’s treatment is prescribed in John 3:16”
“The verse is an alphabet of grace. A table of contents to the Christian hope.” And he’s right. It’s fairly simple. God loves. God gave. We believe. We receive. We live.
With all of the questions that might be swirling around your mind, it all comes down to this – God loves us. You might be caught up in a deep theological question, including the ever-present one: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why do good things happen to bad people?” And you might really be struggling with that question. But it still all comes down to this: God loves us. I don’t know the answer to those other questions, but I do know that God loves us.
It’s a common idea that God this being that is out to get us. Like He’s looking for an excuse to condemn us. Many people think of a God who is like that stereotypical, difficult teacher who is sitting on the edge of His seat, just waiting for us to fail. The common picture of God is that He’s an angry one, ready to pounce upon us if we say the Lord’s Prayer wrong or happen to miss a Sunday morning. There’s no love in that image of God. That’s the idea the Pharisees had of God. They were trying to do everything they could in order to keep God happy with them. They were trying to get God to love them more. And that’s what many people are trying to do today. They’re trying to rack up enough points to keep God happy and somehow convince Him to love them more than He already does. They turn to religion and rule-keeping to make God show favor to them. God doesn’t want our religion. He doesn’t want us to do good things with the hope that it somehow satisfies Him. God wants a friendship with us. He wants a friendship with you. And He wants a friendship with me.
Why? Because God loves. He loves you and He loves me. He loves us so much that even when we were considered His enemies because of the sin in our lives, He still went to the ends of the earth to rescue us from destruction. Without His loving kindness, we would be condemned to destruction. But God loves us so much that He was willing to send His own Son for us…to take on that destruction that we rightly deserved, so we could have a friendship with Him.
God is radically in love with you. He wants to know you and to be known by you. In other words, He wants to have a deep, intimate friendship with you. So, as we celebrate the friends that we have, know that there is One who is a friend unlike any other. Know that God loves you. He loves you so much that He stepped out of heaven, took on flesh, and walked amongst us as a man. He loves you so much that at the right time, He stretched out His hands on a cross and took on the sins of the world – the sins that you and I committed – so that we could have a bridge to the father. And He loves you so much that even though He died and was in the grave for three days, He rose again from the dead, defeating death for all of us, once and for all. He loves you so much that He doesn’t want you to perish, but to live with Him: both now and in eternity.
Whether this is the first time you’ve heard this (that God is radically in love with you and wants to have a close friendship with you), or the one thousandth time you’ve heard it, it’s still worth telling again and again. And it’s a choice all of us are given on a daily basis. Are you going to choose to have a friendship with the Father who loves you so much, or are you going to ignore His invitation to know Him and be known by Him? The choice is up to you. God has already paved the way for you to begin the friendship. But it’s your choice whether to follow that path. And it all begins with God. Because God loves you.
Over the next few weeks, we will be doing some more digging into this ‘parade of hope,’ this ‘alphabet of grace.’ So I hope you’ll come back again next week and we’ll discover together the amazing power of these twenty-six words.