Traditional sermon lent 4
Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Colossians 1:3).
Let’s go back in time to the mid-1970s. And, yes, I’m talking about a little over 40 years ago. I was in high school. Disco, very wide ties, platform shoes, tacky polyester leisure suits, and yukky hair styles for both men and women were in. It was around this time that “Rainbow Man” came on the scene. No, Rainbow man is not a superhero! For those of you who were around and old enough to remember some of the things that were going on in the mid-1970s, and especially if you were into watching sports events on TV, you may recall Rainbow Man. Rollen Stewart was a 30-something, tall, thin Caucasian man, who sported a huge rainbow-colored, afro-style wig and would do silly antics like dancing with the biggest smile he could muster while either giving an OK or thumbs-up sign whenever he noticed that the TV cameras were focusing on him. Stewart got the nickname Rainbow Man because of the rainbow wig he wore. Most people knew him by his nickname and never really did know what his real name was. He became a fixture on sports telecasts, not only in the U.S., but also in Europe. He made a lot of appearances on TV doing his thing. Stewart’s initial goal was to use his silly antics at sports events as a way to somehow get discovered and then land a job as a pitchman of some type. After all those TV appearances, he only landed one job doing a commercial for Budweiser.
But then in 1980, Stewart found religion. Rainbow Man already had a reputation of being off-the-wall but now he was also consumed by his newfound Christian faith and there were some that said that he also became a bit fanatical as a born-again Christian. And this was also when Rainbow Man readjusted his goal of landing a job as a pitchman. What he did was take it upon himself to indeed become a pitchman but without pay. Rainbow Man decided he was going to be a pitchman for God. So, in 1980, this is where we start seeing Rainbow Man, still sporting that huge rainbow-colored wig, continuing his TV appearances at sports events throughout the U.S. and Europe, but now holding a large sign that simply says “John 3:16.” Rollen Stewart, alias Rainbow Man, is the person credited with starting the practice of holding up John 3:16 signs at any event where there are TV cameras. He did this throughout the 1980s and since then we still see this happening and being done, but by many others.
What made me think of Rainbow Man during my initial preparation for this sermon, was that when he embarked on his at-that-time, one-man crusade to spread the Word of the Lord using national TV without paying a cent, was that he was well aware of how well-known John 3:16 is to Christians. He had no need to spell out the verse anywhere. He just used a large piece of cardboard with John 3:16 written on it. How many of you sitting here in the pews right now can recite John 3:16 from memory?
John 3:16, a beautiful and powerful verse, is so ingrained in us as Christians thanks to it repeatedly being used in Sunday School as well as hearing it in sermons, like today, in addition to having the verse referenced anywhere it fits. When my son, Jonathan, got confirmed at Alsace Lutheran Church in Reading, he had to pick and then recite a memory verse at his confirmation. Jonathan, along with about half of his confirmation class, picked John 3:16. I know I have used John 3:16 and 17 in two of my articles for the St. Peter’s Herald and I even used the two verses in the homily I gave at my sister’s funeral last year. We also see John 3:16 on t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, jewelry—it’s all over the place!
Yes, John 3:16 is a popular verse and it deserves this immense popularity. The verse is such a powerful statement: 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. If we think about it, the verse can be considered the central message of Christianity. But there is one issue I want to point out and that concerns the word so—For God so loved the world… If one goes back to the Biblical Greek source for the Gospel of John, the Greek word houtos is used, but not really to mean intensity such as “God loves us so much” or “we love St. Peter’s so much.” When most of us read John 3:16, I think I am safe to say that most of us would look at so as being used to intensify God’s act of love for humanity. There is a website called Biblegateway.com that has bibles online in many different languages. There are 59 bibles for English alone. I went through about 32 translations and a good majority used so and there were some that even had expanded the translation of the Greek word houtos as so much to emphasize the intensity. Houtos actually can be translated as so, but to mean how, given that houtos is a particle that serves to introduce the manner or way in which something has been done. So, a more accurate translation of John 3:16 should indicate how God loved the world rather than how much. And there are a handful of translations that are right on the spot such as the International Standard Version that reads For this is how God loved the world or the New English Translation (NET Bible) that reads For this is the way God loved the world. With this in mind, the question that comes to my mind and one that I would like all of you to think about as well is this: How does God love the world?
The easy answer to that question is right there in verse 16—God sacrificed his only Son on our behalf. How many of us would sacrifice the life of one of our children to benefit others? Can you imagine even thinking about doing something like that? So, if we think about it, that manner in which God is showing his love for the world by sending his only Son to us also shows the intensity of God’s love for us. God was willing to do this. And then to emphasize the how, verse 17 gives us the why: 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.
Sarah Henrich in her commentary wrote that “the single most important thing to notice about this verse [John 3:16] is that God loved the world. God deeply loved the world that God created, and God longs for this creation to live.” This really resonated with me because Henrich pointed out something that I did not really think about before: God not only sent his Son to benefit us by washing away our sins through his death and resurrection, but also that God wanted to make sure all that he created for us will continue to perpetuate. Again, this is all done for us!
I was further enlightened by another commentary, this one by Robert Driskell, that discussed God’s love. Driskell described God’s love as all-encompassing, sacrificial, steadfast and unmovable, and personal. And we see all of these facets that Driskell points out in John 3:16 and 17. God is not selective about the recipients of the love he offers—God loves the world and that means everyone. God’s love is all-encompassing! God sent Jesus to walk the earth among us. And we all know what eventually happened to Jesus. Jesus endured humility, shame, suffering, and the excruciating death on the cross. What is amazing is that this sacrifice was done voluntarily, motivated by love. God’s love is indeed sacrificial! And we can rest assured that God’s love and grace will always be there for us. God loves us whether we accept or reject him. God will always be there when we need him. As such, we can see God’s love as being steadfast and unmovable! That last facet that Driskell points out is that God’s love is personal. God became personally involved in our salvation through Christ. God also wants each of us to have a personal relationship with him. Driskell also points out that “only by knowing God, His character, and His Word, can we hope to understand even a small part of just how great God’s love is. Only by trusting in His Son, Jesus Christ, can we become an overflowing vessel of that godly love to share with a lost and hurting world.” How God loves us is truly complex!
Given all that I have said about John 3:16, let us keep in mind how complex God love is whenever we see someone on TV flapping a large John 3:16 sign! Let us not only think about how God loves us but keep verse 17 in mind as to why.
But before I end this sermon, I would like to very briefly turn the tables. I have talked about how God loves us. Now let’s look at how do we love God? We know that Jesus in Matthew 22:37 indicated that the greatest commandment of all was to love God: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. But do we really do this and some would probably argue that it’s not only very difficult to do but even practically impossible. Loving God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds 24/7—what a task! As noted in today’s gospel passage from John in verses 19 and 20: 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. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. How many of us venture into the darkness rather than into the light? Yes, we are all sinners and we confess our sins every Sunday when we come to church to worship. And through the love and grace of God, through Christ, we are absolved of our sins. What a wonderful gift from God! And it is during this time of Lent when we can re-examine our relationship with God and think about not only how loves us, but also how we, in turn, love God. We have so much to be thankful for! Thank you, God, for the way that you love us! Amen.