“God So Loved”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

March 15, 2015 The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Psalm 107:1-9; John 3:14-21

 

When was the last time you held a baby? Perhaps it was a child in your family; perhaps it was a child of a friend; perhaps it was a child you work with; perhaps it was right here at church; perhaps it’s been so long that you don’t remember when or where or who it was. But whether it’s been endless ages or mere moments, I bet you can remember the way it feels.

I bet you can remember the weight of that child, the density of that solid little body in your arms. I bet you can remember the smell of that child, the sweetness at the nape of his neck. I bet you can remember the strength of that child, the grip of her tiny fingers, surprisingly tight. I bet you can remember the curl of his eyelashes, the curve of her earlobes, the color of his peach-fuzz hair. And if you’re like me, I bet you can still feel the tenderness that pervaded your heart as you cradled that little one in your arms. I bet you can still feel that warmth softening your soul.

It seems like there have been a lot of births in our community of late. Jock and Jean’s Oliver, and Dana and Cheri’s Ethan, and Lynn and Carl’s Isla, and Tara’s sister Kristin’s Padraig… And then there’s my cousin Christine’s Madison, and my friend Jen’s Avery, and my colleague Ryan’s Keaton, and too many other beautiful children to name… It seems the world is full of new sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and grandchildren. And, of course, on a day like today, when we baptize Emma, the newest member of our family of faith, it is hard not to feel like we’re catching glimpses of God’s face.

When someone hands you a baby, it’s hard not to smile. It’s hard not to set your dignity aside and make ridiculous faces. It’s hard not to turn silly and playful. It’s hard not to take off on flights of imagination, marveling at the possibilities for the life that infant will live, the person that child will become. It’s hard not to feel your heart filled up with tenderness, whether you like it or not.

 

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son… This is one of the best-known verses in the Bible. The great sixteenth-century protestant reformer Martin Luther called it “the gospel in a nutshell.” It shows up on bumper stickers, on bracelets, on billboards, on prayer cards, on t-shirts, on tattoos, on cardboard signs in football stadiums, even inscribed into the eye-black that athletes paint on their cheeks. If you grew up going to church, you may have been asked to memorize it. If you’ve never set foot in a church before, you’ve probably still heard of it. John 3:16 is so well-known that it has become a cliché.

But think about what it really says. God so loved the world that God gave God’s son… God loved this world so much that God handed over that baby, placed him securely in the crook of Mary’s arms. God gave a piece of God’s own heart to this world, because God knew that holding that baby would give us life. That our frozen souls would melt as we looked into that little face. That our icy spirits would thaw as we traced those tiny eyebrows. That our hard hearts would soften as we dreamed of the man into whom he would grow, the mark he would leave on the world. For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son, that we may not perish but may have eternal life.

It was a big risk to take, handing over that child to the world. It was a gamble, giving that baby into the mercy of a species that is all too often merciless. God knows that this world is not always safe for babies. God knows about violence and abuse, disease and poverty, bigotry and fear. But God so loved the world. God saw beyond the threats, the risk, the danger; God saw the beauty, the mercy, the kindness. And God handed over that baby, placed him securely in the crook of our arms.

Here’s the thing: this isn’t just about the baby who was born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It isn’t just about the child of God whose story we tell each year at Christmastime. It is about Jesus, of course—the One in whose name we are gathered, the One in whose way we walk, the One whose example we seek to follow. But it’s also about every child of God. It’s about the ones we find easy to love and the ones we find difficult. It’s about the ones with whom we agree and the ones with whom we argue. It’s about the ones who make our hearts sing and the ones who make our skin crawl. It’s about the ones who bring us joy and the ones who bring us pain. It’s about the ones we admire and the ones we fear, the ones we adore and the ones we can’t stand.

It’s about each and every child of God, which is to say, each and every one of us—for God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. There is no condemnation in God’s gift to humanity. There is no condemnation in Jesus. Even the latter verses of today’s text, the ones where it talks of evil deeds, the ones where it says that those who do not believe are condemned already—even those verses must be read in light of verses 16 and 17. For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 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. There is no condemnation, but only salvation; there is no perishing, but only eternal life. For God so loved the world.

 

What would it be like if we received every person we met the same way we would receive a baby? What would it be like if we let beauty and mercy and kindness wear down the walls we build around our hearts? What would it be like if we were gentle with one another, as gentle as we would be with an infant? What would it be like if we regarded one another as God’s own children, given into our care and keeping?

Don’t you think there would be a lot less cruelty and a lot more kindness, a lot less judgment and a lot more curiosity, a lot less anger and a lot more kindness, a lot less retaliation and a lot more tenderness?

Don’t you think we might do a lot more smiling, a lot more setting our dignity aside and making ridiculous faces, a lot more turning silly and playful? Don’t you think we might be a lot more imaginative about the possibilities in the lives of the people around us? Don’t you think our hearts might be filled up with tenderness?

And doesn’t that sound like a world you’d like to inhabit?

May it be so.