Sermon – 3.8.20 – Giving Up Wrath; Taking On Love

Rev. John Callaway

John 3:1-17

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.

3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’

3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.

3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,

3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

3:16 “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.

3:17 “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.

I hope that you heard something new in the Gospel Lesson. I hope that a word or a phrase stuck out to you that was meaningful. If you listened all the way to the end, I’ve got a pretty good feeling that you heard something familiar in this text. 

You may even have one of those verses memorized in the vernacular of King James. I bet some of you grew up hearing the King James Version so much that you thought Jesus only spoke in the King’s english. My grandfather had pretty much convinced himself of that and I can still hear his low country accent telling stories in less than perfect grammar, but the moment he said, “let us pray,” he turned on a perfect King James english. 

Thou most gracious Lord,

We ask that you bestow Your blessing upon this household and upon Your children, for Thou art most gracious, and Thy blessings are new every time the sun riseth.

By show of hands, how many of you had to memorize King James scripture growing up?

Feel free to chime in:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

In that first verse—The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want—I was always confused about why I wouldn’t want God as a shepherd, but I memorized it anyway. 

The next one I learned is a combination of 3 different versions – Proverbs 3:5-6

5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding.

6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

By show of hands, how many of you have experienced a life full of straight paths?

It is interesting to me the verses we had to memorize.

But there is one verse—the end all, be all—that absolutely wins the memorization prize. You’ve seen it on bumper stickers, billboards, tattoos, t-shirts, College Gameday posters, and you’ve heard through bullhorns. 

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

I have heard so many claim that this is the most important verse in the Bible—that this verse summarizes the Gospel message. According to many theologies, this verse alone tells the story of Jesus.

Isn’t it interesting with all the similar stories, phrases, and direct quotes found in our Gospels that this particular verse—the particular idea—only shows up in John’s Gospel.

The Greek word that is translated “believeth” or whoever believes in him is “πιστεύω”  (pisteuō). It shows up in all four gospels and is translated as “confidence,” “entrust,” and most often believe, but in the 8 times it is used in Matthew, the 14 times it is used in Mark, and the 9 times it is used in Luke it is never about eternal life.

One would think that if a verse could summarize the Gospel message, could tell the story of Jesus, or would qualify as the most important saying of Jesus, it might show up a few times when Jesus spoke. Right?

Or if we are looking for a summary and an emphasis on importance, why don’t we listen to Jesus? In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is asked the question which commandment is most important. And we find a similar exchange in Luke, but the initial question changes. 

In Luke 10 a layer asks:, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But we might have trouble fitting that one on a billboard.

I spent all of this time talking about the usage of John 3:16, because I know it has been used more often to paint a picture of God.

What message are we sending the world when John 3:16 is our mantra?

If “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” what happens to those who believeth not?

The billboards and bullhorns make that answer quite clear. 

So I ask again; what message are we sending the world when John 3:16 is our mantra?

Alan Bean wrote these words in an opinion piece this week:

“If God is love, [many] ask, how can God gleefully consign the lion’s share of the population to eternal conscious torment? All the Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims? All the atheists and agnostics? And what about the millions of people who lack the mental capacity to check the right theological box?”

This one verse turns from a God of love to a wrathful God. We are told that this is THE verse about Jesus “dying on the cross for our sins.” We are told that if we don’t choose Jesus—if we don’t believeth in him—then we are doomed to eternity apart from God. We’ve allowed a shallow reading of one verse to color the image of God.  

When that happens—to borrow a southern preacher’s phrase—people become “too heavenly minded for any earthly good.” I think the flip side is true also. Some are so hellbent on repeating the wrath of their wrath-filled god, that they can’t recognize the hell they are causing.

What if people simply read the next verse?

3:17 “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.

“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What would the world think about our religion if that was our memorization verse?

What if there is no wrath in God?

What if the God we worship on Sundays is really the God we teach our children around our dinner tables?

Children grow up in every Christian tradition hearing that message. God loves you. God is love. What if that message is true?

What if there is no wrath in God?

If that message was fully understood, and truly practiced, Nicodemus wouldn’t have been sneaking around at night to come and speak to Jesus. 

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a religious leader comes to Jesus in secret because he knows the wrath he will experience from his peers if he caught speaking with the one claiming the Kingdom of God is near.

You will hear the two of us talk a lot about Medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich. She experienced visions around the age of 30 when she was sick on her deathbed. At the time, her country was experiencing an outbreak of a plague that was mysteriously killing many and paralyzing the survivors with fear. Julian survived the outbreak and survived her terrible illness. Over the next 30 years, she spent cloistered, reflecting on her experiences and visions of God from when she was sick. Many of the preachers in the area were using the plague as a way to put the fear of God into people, saying that the plague was God unleashing wrath and judgment upon the world for their sin. 

Julian was one of the sole voices countering that perspective. She stood for a loving God, not a wrathful one. And in doing so, she invited all who would hear her to give up wrath and take on love. She said, “It seemed to me that it was necessary to see and to know that we are sinners and commit many evil deeds which we ought to forsake, and that we deserve pain blame, and wrath. And despite all of this, I saw truly that our Lord was never angry, and never will be. Because God is good, God is truth, God is love, God is peace; and God’s power, wisdom, charity, and unity do not allow anger. For I saw truly that it is against the property of God’s power to angry, and against the property of God’s wisdom and against the property of God’s goodness. God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness.”

God is that goodness which cannot be angry, for God is nothing but goodness.

Katie quoted theologian Elizabeth Johnson last week in her phrase, “the symbol of God functions.” It is playing out right here in our text today. If one believes in a god that will be full of wrath, then one will enforce every possible rule to the point of being wrathful to appease that god. The other Pharisees have already had their image of God questioned by Jesus. So it means even more when Jesus tells Nicodemus God does not intend to condemn the world.

We are not dealing with a God of wrath.

There have been studies that have shown that children that read Harry Potter are more compassionate and more empathetic. And yet I’ve watched Christians push for those books to placed on school district banned book lists. Mind you, many of these same school districts have high schoolers Jonathan Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God on the required reading list.

“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.”

Nicodemus needed that message.

Jonathan Edwards needed that message.

Our world needs that message.

We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God. We are children in the hands of a loving God. The first lesson we teach our children is true.

So during this Lenten season, I’m challenging all of us to give up the God of wrath and to take on the God of love once again. There will be plenty of wrath, plenty of judgement, plenty of hate, and plenty of death to go around—what the world needs is love. What we all need is the good news that God loves all of us and god did not come to condemn the world. 

Hang on to that good news and watch it be proven on April 12.