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Sun, Mar 11, 2018

Those Who Believe

Duration:23 mins 42 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from the Gospel of John, the third chapter, verses 14-21. Throughout John’s Gospel we find that Jesus performs various signs to demonstrate that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. Many are drawn to these signs and come to believe, but others are not so sure. One who is in the middle is a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and begins asking questions about the signs Jesus has been performing. The discussion turns to being “born again” or “born from above” and Nicodemus remains confused, asking “How can these things be?” Jesus then begins a monologue in which he presents the essence of John’s understanding of the Gospel, including perhaps scripture’s most famous verse and some verses, that due to their proximity to John 3:16, are often overlooked. Let us hear this Word of God.

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that 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. 18 Those 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. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But 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."

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

John 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. Martin Luther called it, “the heart of the Bible, the Gospel in miniature.” You might see John 3:16 on a placard in the end zone of a football stadium or in the stands at some other sporting event or on a billboard along the highway. Perhaps it fits on a bumper sticker for your car. You never know where and when it might show up. I once even saw a story about a small business in Texas that would give you a giant discount off the price of an oil change for your car if you could quote the verse. Yes, John 3:16 - Those who believe have eternal life.

So if this is the key, then I must admit that I have a few questions. What does it mean to believe? Is it a one-time decision or something you have to do again and again? Does one have to reach a certain age or a mark of maturity? Are there any particular words or phrases you have to say? We want to get this right. Especially since just a few minutes ago at her baptism we all promised that we are going to raise young Mae in the faith.

Let me suggest to you this morning, that if we want to understand, teach our children, and hopefully claim for ourselves what it means “to believe” here and elsewhere in the Gospel John then we need to read the verses around John 3:16 as well. Because with the context we discover that “to believe” has at least something to do with choosing between competing loves.

Yes, for God so loved the world. We should always begin with God. And God so loved the world, the cosmos, all those things and people and powers working against God’s plans and purposes in this life; yes God so loved that God came. God came in the 40 year Exodus journey of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Despite their grumbling and sinning and complaining, when Moses prays to the Lord, God comes and grants them healing with a serpent raised on a pole.

But the darkness didn’t go away. It remained. So, once again God so loved that God sends the Son into the darkness of the cosmos, into the sin and suffering and despair and disagreement and divisions which so mark our world. Yes, light came into the darkness. God did not send the light, the Son, into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved. God knows there is darkness. But God intends salvation. God intends goodness and mercy to spring up in the light. God intends life, eternal life, to be lived in the light. It is God’s intent to draw the entire world into the light of love. Yes, there is darkness in the world, but God so loved us that God sends light.

And when the light of love comes, other loves are revealed and a decision must be made. As biblical scholar Lamar Williamson has written,

It is like turning on a light in a dark kitchen: moths will come to the light and circle around it in fascination, but roaches will flee from it and hide in dark crannies. The purpose of turning on the light was not to judge at all, but in the presence of the light different creatures judge themselves by their response.”

Yes, when the light of love shines in the darkness, at the place where darkness and light meet, one must choose. At that moment, a judgment must be made. The Greek literally calls it a “crisis.” “And this is the crisis that the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” God so loved that God sends light. But people loved darkness.

So the crisis, the judgment is this: “the light has come into the world and people loved darkness rather than light.” God’s judgment, God’s decision, God’s choice was to send light because God so loved. The very presence of that light of love constitutes judgment upon the darkness. As biblical scholar and theologian NT Wright has written,

The darkness … must be condemned, not because it offends some arbitrary laws which God made up for the fun of it, and certainly not because it has to do with the material, created world rather than a supposed ‘spiritual’ world. It must be condemned because evil is destroying and defacing the present world, and preventing people [from] coming forward into God’s new world (‘eternal life’; that is, the life of the age to come).

By sending the Son, the light of love, into the world, God has condemned the darkness that we love. God wants us to live in the light, to know the goodness and mercy which flourish in the light, to be drawn into God’s amazing love like a moth to a light bulb. God so loved … that God sent the Son, the light, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. God’s decision for us has been made.

But you and I are still in the crisis – the darkness and the light still meet in us. We still love darkness – the sin and suffering and despair and disagreement and divisions which so mark our world. Look around the world today and say that isn’t true. Yes, because we love the darkness our judgment must be made anew each and every day, each and every minute of every day. So what decision will you and I make this day? It is this crisis, this judgment, this decision that the Gospel of John calls “belief.”

Thus, “to believe” is much more than just an intellectual agreement. It does not mean an act of the will to try harder to be “good.” No, to believe is to raise our eyes; to look upon the Son lifted up; and to trust that in Jesus God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. To believe is to look, to gaze upon Jesus, to fall in love with Christ again and again, and then shape one’s life accordingly - to act with truth, to live in the light of love, to know the flourishing of eternal life now.

On the other hand to reject the light, to hide in the crannies, to fear because we think we do not deserve life, to not do what God wants of us, to oppose Christ, to close our eyes so that we might live apart from God in the darkness we love, to do nothing – that is judgment itself.

To live in the light of God’s love or to love darkness – that is the crisis, the judgment, the decision, we are invited to make today and every day. It is an invitation to believe; to be drawn into the light of love.

Much like we do here at Reid Memorial, on Wednesday mornings at First Presbyterian Church in Lumberton the children of the Mother’s Day Out program would gather in the sanctuary for chapel. One week I thought I had created the perfect chapel talk. I turned off the lights in the sanctuary, giving the appearance of darkness even on a bright morning. I held up a mirror and asked the children to look into it. They claimed to be able to see themselves, but especially for those in the fourth and fifth rows it was hard for them to see. Next I lit the large Christ candle to remind them that Christ was the light of the world. I had them look in the mirror again and all said it was easier to see themselves with the light. Pretty clever I thought.

But the final step I had planned was the best. I asked the Weekday School teachers to bring each child up to look closely in the mirror. As they came, I held the mirror behind the Christ candle so that they would see the flame flickering in their own face. I wanted them to see and know the light of Christ present in their lives. And so one by one they came to look at themselves in the mirror. I hoped it would be a memorable moment for each of them.

However, I did not expect what happened to me. In the darkness of the sanctuary, beginning with the four and five year olds and moving to the threes and the twos, each child, one at a time, stepped up to the light. Their eyes were focused on the flickering flame and their reflection in the mirror. As I was holding the mirror, I could not see the children’s faces in the glass. From my perspective, I could not even see the candle which was between the child and the mirror. All I could see was the face of each child. And as they moved from the darkness into the light, I watched each child’s face, full of wonder and amazement, literally begin to glow.

My friends, God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that being drawn into the Father’s light, our lives might begin to glow with the light of love. May it be so for young Mae and all our children. May it be so for you and for me. May we be those who so believe.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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