Sermon–Lent 4–March 15, 2015


Lent 4—Year B

March 15, 2015

William Bradbury


Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21


“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.”

This is one of the great gospel texts in the Bible. God so loved the world, which is “cosmos” in Greek—God so loved the cosmos. The phrase seems intelligible, yet If we read this through the lens of the fallen mind, the mind curved in on itself, then we might read it this way: God so loved the world because we are so darn cute and lovable, as if God is a 5 year old boy who can’t resist the adorable puppy in the pet store. If God loves us because we’re so cute what happens when the puppy gains 100 pounds and has to be walked, fed, and de-pooped twice a day?

Along with the rest of the Bible John is clear-eyed about how “cute” we aren’t. He writes today, “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the cosmos and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil”.

God clearly sees that we are broken, sick, sinful, dying, and lost in the far country and that is precisely what God chooses to love. God is like the 50 year old woman who chooses to love the angry, violent dog that no one else will adopt.

God loves the world because of who God is, not because of who we are.

When we believe in the power of the love of the Triune Father, Son, and Spirit we can put into context the second half of this verse which can also give us problems: God so loved the world… so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Does that mean that God is going to love me only so long as I believe, as long as I have faith? In the moment I waver in my belief or lose my faith, should I expect God to take me back and trade me in for someone with more and better faith?

This was the nightmare that kept our Puritan ancestors awake on bitter winter nights in 17th century Massachusetts. They believed in what they called Limited Atonement: which meant they believed God only intended to save a limited number of people. There are many scriptures that speak of the universality of God’s salvation, but what the Puritans looked at was the behavior of people: to them it was completely obvious that not everyone had been saved by Christ, because of the violence and wickedness all around them—especially in the tyrants who drove them out of Europe.

Since it was self-evident that not everyone was saved, it must be the case that from the beginning God only intended to save some, those he elected to save, because if God had intended to save everyone then everyone would be saved.

So the Puritans quite naturally worried about how they could be sure they were among the elect. What it came down to was the quality of their faith: if they had had a deep conversion experience, if their personal lives were filled with holiness, then they could rest assured they were among the elect, those chosen by God for salvation.

And most days they would judge their faith as robust enough for salvation, but there were always times they worried that maybe they hadn’t believed hard enough, prayed long enough, and that they had not been ruthless enough in rooting out sin from their lives and from the lives of their community.

When that fear hit the Puritans then they’d get up the next day to try harder to believe and to make themselves holier, so as to prove they were indeed among the elect.

And they would point to what John says next: “But those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

So read from this perspective it looks like it comes down to us and the quality of our faith. If we don’t believe hard enough and correctly enough in Jesus Christ, then we might be lost in this life and the next.

That’s why Paul, in today’s reading from Ephesians, has a lot to teach us: He writes–

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We were all dead in our sins, but God’s mercy “made us alive together with Christ”: notice the past tense here—this is what God has already done: In Jesus Christ God has united God’s Self with us who are dead in their trespasses.

To be included in this work all you have to be is dead in your sins.

I don’t know anyone who that leaves out.

This is what God has done, and done completely in, through, and with Jesus Christ because God so loves the cosmos.

This has already happened and it cannot be undone. As Paul says in Romans 8: Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the universal fact manifested in the universal event of Jesus Christ.

 So does our faith have any role to play?

I just heard about this good ole boy from south Georgia who was visiting family in northern Maine in the dead of winter. He’s walking on a frozen lake, but then he hears a loud crack and he is terrified: being from Georgia, he’s smart so he lies down on the ice to better distribute his weight and starts slowly squirming his way to safety.

He finally climbs up on the shore thanking God that he’d survived.

But then all of a sudden he hears a great noise and here comes a team of horses with a load of logs down onto the ice, across the ice and up the other side.

As Elmer Colyer says, “These two individuals had a rather different experience of what it’s like to cross ice. The one had absolute faith in the quality of the ice—so much so that he was willing to drive a team of horses across the ice. The other one’s faith was so weak that he was down on his belly praying any moment he wouldn’t go through the ice and drown.”

But you notice it’s not about the quality of their faith, is it? It’s about the quality of the ice. The ice held up both men. Jesus Christ and the gospel are the ice. They’ll hold the entire cosmos and our lives, even in our moments of doubt.” Dr. Elmer Colyer in Trinitarian Conversations

Everyone is now being held by the saving grace of Jesus Christ because in him the Creator is united with our fallen humanity, and died for us, and was raised from death, and ascended to the nearer Presence of his Father. Because of this everyone is safe, everyone is forgiven, everyone is loved by God. Everyone was access to joy and peace–here and now!

The moments we believe this incredible news life is radically transformed, and we can say with Paul, in Galatians 2:20: “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,[a] who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Faith makes a huge difference. The difference between crawling on our belly in fear and riding on that wagon fully alive, living not for ourselves but for the world—the world God so loves.