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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

2006-06-11 Jn 03 01-17 God So Loved

John 3:1-17 "God So Loved"

James McTyre

Lake Hills PCUSA


Today's scripture lesson contains John 3:16 -- one of the most popular, if not the best-known verse of scripture in all the Bible. If I asked you to quote John 3:16, could you do it? Let's try.

(KJV) "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."

In Sunday School, back when I was a boy, we'd pull out our parchment scrolls, and the teachers would make sure that if we knew nothing else about the Bible, we knew John 3:16. There was a time when I thought this was everyone's favorite Bible verse, if, for no other reason, than so many Sunday School teachers had drilled it into our heads.

Of course, now that I'm older, I realize that there are more scriptures that people hold as their favorites. Such as...

Psalm 111:10 -- The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.

Or, Galatians 5:14 -- The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Or, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 -- "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

Or, the goal of moms everywhere -- Psalm 46:10 -- "Be still and know that I am God."

And then there are other Bible verses that also are held as favorites, but not necessarily because of their inspriational quality. For instance, a lot of kids who were forced by tyrannical parents to memorize and recite a verse of scripture chose the ever-popular John 11:35: "Jesus wept." "Yes," said your grandmother. "He wept because that's the best you could come up with." Shortest verse in all the Bible, but technically it's still a verse.

Here's one that I think is Paris Hilton's favorite, "Bread is made for laughter, wine gladdens life, and money answers everything." Ecclesiastes 10:19.

And, one I've recently come to count as a personal favorite -- Proverbs 16:31: "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life."

OK. Where was I? Favorite scripture. John 3:16. "For God so loved the world."

Favorites. Just as we have favorite verses of scripture, is it possible that God has favorites, too? If God had a favorite verse of scripture, what would it be? Would it be Psalm 139:22, "I hate them with perfect hatred?" Would it be Luke 10:27, the Greatest Commandment -- "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"? Or would God's favorite verse be the one taught and chosen by so many, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world..."? It's impossible to know. Despite what human teachers might teach us, if God does have a favorite verse, God's not telling. The Bible's a big book, and God's a big God, so please beware when people quote scripture and verse to you as if their personal favorite is the only one in big God's big Book.

And yet, John 3:16 does tell us something about God's sense of favoritism. "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." God so loved the world. God SO loved the world, that nothing -- not even God's love for God's only Son -- would stand in the way of God's redemption. God loved the world. God LOVES the world THAT much. God's world. God's creation. The birds and the bees and the coconut trees. You -- and me -- all the poor, sinful souls condemned to walk the earth and make their living from the sweat of their brow. God so loves -- not some hypothetical, perfect world; God loves THIS world. So much. That even God's love for the only begotten Son comes in second place. Impossible, you think? Read your Bible. Jesus tells us again and again that he didn't come to glorify himself. He didn't come to glorify us. Jesus tells us again and again that he came to glorify God and God's perfect love. Jesus came to show us how perfect God's love is. Perfect love -- not because it's fair. Perfect love -- not because it's attainable. Jesus came to show us God's love is perfect because it's... relentless. God's love is perfect because God is completely relentless is pursuing the object of that affection. So relentless that "neither death, nor life, nor anbels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Lucky for us, God DOES play favorites. Lucky for us, God's love is perfectly relentless.

Another passage -- which is often the favorite of Stewardship Committees -- is Luke 18:18. It's a story not about human failure, but about God's relentless love -- and it illustrates what Jesus is telling Nicodemus in John 3:16.

A certain rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and asks him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus snaps back, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." Again, it's evidence that Jesus didn't come to glorify himself. "You know the commandments," Jesus says. And then he quotes the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; (Oddly, Jesus reverses the order of those two. Go figure.) You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother." The man replies, "I've kept all these since I was a boy." But Jesus says, "There's still one thing lacking." And here's where Jesus takes an extra-biblical leap. Jesus adds a commandment that's not in the original Ten. Jesus adds one more commandment not because he wants to play "Gotcha!" with the little guy. Jesus adds one more thing because Jesus knows God isn't only about following commandments. God is about love. God so loves that God will give up the one thing God loves the most in order to free that love. Jesus looks at the guy and says, "There's still one thing you lack. Sell all that you own and give the money to the poor. Then -- then -- you'll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." And you remember what the Bible says? "When he heard this, the -- the man -- became very sad; for he was very rich."

If you take this story out of context, you can use it really well to say that only poor people are going to go to heaven. God's gonna stick it to the man. And if that's your favorite passage of scripture, that's probably going to be your slant on God. But if you read the story of the rich young ruler in the light of John 3:16, you'll see it's not preaching so much against the love of money, but in favor of love. If you can't give up what you love -- for something you love even more, you aren't going to get what God's trying to do. Going back to another favorite we mentioned earlier, Luke 10:27, "Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself," means to love God back -- as relentlessly as God loves you. Don't let your love of anything else -- and, for teaching purposes the love of money is something we all understand -- don't let your love of anything else stand in your way of loving God back.

Does this mean we have to give up our only begotten sons -- or only begotten daughters -- in order to love like God loves? No way. Abraham tried that way back in Genesis 22 when he put his boy, Isaac, on the altar. God said, "Whoa, Abraham! Stop!" God knew that Abraham got it. No matter what you love, God loves you more. If you love your money, God loves you more. If you love your job, God loves you more. If you love your family, God loves you more. If you look at your kids and wonder, how could I possibly love anything -- even God -- more than I love them, then -- you're beginning to get the picture. You're beginning to understand how much God so loves the world.

In John 3:16, God shows us the right way to love with blessed, relentless favoritism. In John 8:32 Jesus tells his disciples, "The truth shall set you free," another often favorite little part of a verse. Here's the truth. And understanding this truth will set you free. The bottom line is that most of us don't come close to loving God with relentless favoritism. We don't come close to loving God as much -- we don't love our money as much -- we don't love our families as much -- we don't love ANYTHING as much -- as we love ourselves. We love our joys, we love our sorrows -- we love our passions, and we even love our pain -- not because of what they are, but because they're ours. Whatever it is, no matter if it's good or bad for us, if we hold on to what we have, we may not have much, we may not be much, but we know who we are. We worship who we are because it's the easiest way of knowing who we are. We're desperately afraid of losing whatever it is that makes us who we are. Whether it's money, or family, or job, or something else. What Jesus is saying is what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 -- "I will show you a more excellent way." The more excellent way starts and ends, with love.

When Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 16:25, "For those who want to save their life will lose it," and when he tells Nicodemus in John 3:7, "You must be born anew," he isn't saying we have to physically sacrifice ourselves, or our spouses, or our children (no matter how tempting that may sometimes be). He's not saying we have to run away from what we love. He's saying whoever you are, whatever you love, love God more. That's the truth that sets you free. That's the truth that makes you born again. That's the truth that Jesus Christ lives by, and dies by, and lives by, forever more. You want to know who you are? You aren't the sum of your investments. You aren't the achievements of your children. You aren't the car you drive or the boat you swim from. You aren't your grade point average. You aren't your resume.

You are a child of God. You're one of God's favorites. You are relentlessly loved by the God who will not let you go. For God so loves the world; God so loves you. And before you go getting a big head about that, first try getting sore knees. In prayer and in thanksgiving, in giving and in forgiving, love your neighbor as a child of God. Love your neighbor as one of God's favorites. So love God until you start to feel really and truly alive. Born again. Or maybe even born for the first time. Love God back. And then, Nicodemus, you'll start to get how much God loves you.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Pentecost 2006

Acts 2:1-21
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
June 4, 2006

Pentecost is where God translates the words of the disciples into all kinds of different languages.
To some people it sounds like drunken babble.
But to a lot of folk, it sounds like the work of the Holy Spirit.
God gives the disciples the gift of different languages.
And, God gives the people of different languages the gift to hear.
Pentecost is reminiscent of another story in the Bible, the Tower of Babel, where God curses the world by confusing its talk.
But at Pentecost, instead of cursing the world, God blesses the world.
God translates the Holy Spirit so anyone and everyone can understand the message.

In Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, he tells the story of Babel like this.
From Genesis 11, verses 1-9.
At one time, the whole Earth spoke the same language. It so happened that as they moved out of the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled down.
They said to one another, “Come, let’s make bricks and fire them well.” They used brick for stone and tar for mortar.
Then they said, “Come let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.”
God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built.
God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next – they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.”
Then God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building the city. That’s how it came to be called Babel, because God turned their language into “babble.” From there God scattered them all over the world.

Pentecost is kind of Babel in reverse.
According to the legend of Babel, we got our different languages when people came together to worship their own ingenuity.
They decided they’d build towers so high they’d almost touch heaven.
God came down to survey the project, and said, “Good Lord. If they can do this, there’ll be no stopping the little devils.”
So God garbled their speech.
God gave them cell phones with limited coverage.
They spent all their time stepping to the side and saying, “Can you hear me now?”
God gave them the Internet and started forwarding jokes to them. And chain emails saying, “If you don’t send this to five friends, thy loins shalt be cursed.”
God gave them addictive TV shows, like “24” and “Law and Order”, “CSI” and “Lost.”
God gave them yell, I mean talk radio, so they could freely air their opinions carefully based on other people’s opinions, and learn to talk about people instead of to them.
God gave them congresses – to debate bills over which languages are official and which languages aren’t, instead of increasing funding for education in any language.
And you know what?
The people liked it.
Even though the Bible says God scattered the people over all the earth, God didn’t have to do that.
The people pretty much did that one on their own.
They invented barbed wire, and security walls.
They started calling each other new names – “alien”, “foreigner”, “economic refugee” – and a lot of other, less-flattering names that can’t be repeated here.
And you have to wonder.
Did God look down from heaven – does God look down from heaven – and say, “Y’all cut it out! I didn’t mean to garble you that much!”?

I did some work a couple of years ago with a small church in a “changing” neighborhood.
They were trying to figure out what to do to attract new members.
They didn’t like my suggestion – which was, “Learn Spanish.”
(It would have worked.)
Go to your local Wal-Mart, Home Depot or Lowes – which are pretty much the only stores our family ever goes to.
Every sign, every label, every set of instructions is printed in at least two different languages.
Nearly every item you buy is made in a country other than this one – usually China – where they don’t speak much English, Spanish, or French, but they sure know how to sell products to the people who do.
It’s a crazy world.
On one hand, you’ve got people preaching words like, “Globalization,” and telling us how wonderful it is.
And on the other hand, you have armed militias patrolling the Mexican border – in Japanese SUVs, Salvadoran shirts, and holstering Austrian Glocks.
The international nature of the world makes for so many “on the one hand, on the other hand” situations that it’s easy to forget – both hands are joined to the same body.
It’s a confusing world.
Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan.
Confusing our language and garbling our thoughts is one case where human beings have way outdone God.
It’s enough to make you want to close your borders, shut your doors, and hang out exclusively with the people who look and talk like you, and you alone.
Just like the people who built the Tower of Babel.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Cyrene, Romans, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power. (Acts 2:7-11)
Acts Chapter 2 is one of those passages that makes me wonder, “Did the Bible writers really have to be so darn thorough?”
You try reading “Pontus, Phrygia, and Pamphylia” in front of a crowd of people.
Couldn’t they just have said, “And a whole bunch of other countries?”
I have a feeling, though, that the writers wrote passages like this intending to trip our tongues.
They gave us these hard-to-pronounce names of strange places to make us work hard to see what’s really going on.
It’s Pentecost.
The Holy Spirit has been set loose like a wild animal breezing out of its cage.
There are tongues of fire.
There are wild, ecstatic, Pentecostal things going on in little First Presbyterian Church and the neighbors are wondering what’s in the communion juice.
Pentecost is intended to be hard to read, hard to understand.
It’s intended to stretch our xenophobic, parochial minds – not INTO confusion, but – for the first time since Babel – OUT of it.
Pentecost is supposed to make us realize that both the one hand and the other hand, rich hand and the poor hand, the begging hand and the closed fist –
Pentecost is supposed to make us realize that all these hands are joined to the same body.
Pentecost is supposed to make us see that in our human world there are nations and nationalities, races and religions – always have been, always will be.
But realize, too – that the Holy Spirit passes right over our borders – so innocently, so purely that if we try to describe it people will think we’re crazy.
“There go those Christians, again. Wanting everyone to hold hands and sing ‘Kum By Yah.’”
“There they go with all their rose-colored little ‘Visualize World Peace’ and ‘Arms are For Hugging’ slogans.”
When you think about the alternatives, maybe those na├»ve little slogans aren’t so bad.
Maybe riding the breeze of the Holy Spirit is less crazy than a following lock-step behind this increasingly crazier world.
Maybe God’s blessing is greater even than God’s curse.
The one hand and the other hand are joined in the body of Christ.
When we stop quibbling over the trite junk that divides us and start marveling at God’s deeds of power we WILL understand each other, in our own native tongues.
On our own, we’ll never get past all the things that make us different from each other.
There’ll always be Phrygians to fight against those darn Pamphylians.
There’ll always be Romans AND Arabs.
And a fair amount of cretins – I mean, Cretans, who live in Crete.
(But there’ll always be the other kind, too, I suppose.)
On our own, we can’t get past these barrier walls.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” you know.
But something also there is “that doesn’t love a wall.”
“That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
So wrote Robert Frost,
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.”
If I were to apply Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” to today’s scripture, I’d say the Holy Spirit is not that “something that doesn’t love a wall.”
Rather, I’d say that the Holy Spirit of Pentecost simply doesn’t see the walls, walks right through the walls like the ghost of Jesus Christ himself.
The Holy Spirit simply ignores the barriers – the language barriers, the border barriers, the mental barriers –
The Holy Spirit simply ignores the confusing walls and thereby breaks their curse, but still leaves the borders intact – for whatever they’re worth.

We DO live in a very confusing world.
That’s the way it’s always been, and always will be.
And maybe, to some extent, that’s the way God made the world to be.
But scripture tells something else is also true – true-er than the confusion and the garbling, the one hand and the other.
Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit can bring the hands together in Jesus Christ.
We can understand each other.
We can understand what the other is saying, at least we can when we’re talking about God’s amazing deeds of power.
No, we’re not crazy.
Yes, there is hope.
There’s Pentecost.
And God’s amazing Holy Spirit.