Based On: John 3:14-21
Did you hear it? In our Gospel for today, did you hear those familiar and comforting words of John 3:16? I think that most people would agree that it is the most familiar verse in the Bible. And yet those familiar words were not originally spoken to thousands as Jesus sat on a hillside, but to just one man, named Nicodemus, at night with only the disciples as witnesses. Today we and many others find comfort in these words of Jesus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Today, as we look at this verse, we start with that word, “perish”. Do you know what it means to perish? I mean really perish – to suffer God’s punishment forever and to be denied any good thing from his hand. No, none of us know completely what that is like and I pray that none of you ever do. But perhaps you know a little about suffering. Perhaps that suffering gives you a glimpse into what it means to “perish”.
When you get the diagnosis of cancer, when someone lies about you and you have to live with the stigma of a reputation you don’t deserve, when your own foolishness gets you into trouble and you have to live with the consequences. Death, broken relationships, harsh words – they all cause pain. Sometimes I think we become numb to the pain. Other times we don’t. Dear brothers and sisters have you ever had those days where the stress of life causes your body to ache? Are there days when everyone is talking about the sunshine, but in your mind all you see are clouds?
There is pain and suffering all around. All you have to do is look at the national or world news and you will see story after story of people and disease and accidents causing pain and suffering. Why? Why all the pain and suffering?
You cannot blame God. All of this pain and suffering is the result of sin. Every time you or I or someone else loves self more than God and neighbor, someone suffers. There are the obvious examples like physical abuse or infidelity, but even in small ways this is true – the hatred or grudge that you keep that eats away at you and causes you to suffer, the laziness that causes someone else to pick up the slack. In fact, I dare you to come up with some sin that does not cause suffering. What about the things that do not seem directly related to a sin – disease, accidents, and the drudgery of daily life? They come because of Adam’s sin and the curse placed on the world because of his sin.
Every problem on earth comes as a result of sin – yours, mine and others. But all of that pain and suffering is just one drop compared to the oceans of suffering we deserve in hell because of our sin – those oceans of suffering are summed up in that little word, “perish”. We all deserve to perish. That is the bad news.
Now are you ready for the good news? God does not want you to perish. God loves you. Even more, God loves the whole world. Isn’t that amazing. God loves this world, this world where people ignore and hate God and this world where people hate, disobey, disrespect, and just in general make life miserable for others. If you saw a perfect world and then saw what we have done to this world, would you love this world? I really doubt it. It’s ugly. It’s perverse. But God chose to love this world!
But you and I are a part of this world. That means he loves us too! With all our faults and imperfections, with all the times we caused suffering for others, whether we knew we were doing it or not, God loves us. That, too, just boggles the mind.
“Now wait a minute” the skeptic might say, “God loves us – so what?” And he would be right to ask the question. “So what?” Perhaps you have been hurt by people who said, “I love you” and were really only looking to serve themselves. Perhaps you have heard people say “I love you” and not really mean it. How can you tell when someone really loves you? How can you tell? Real love is not just words, but real love is actions. Real love does something. Real love is even willing to sacrifice self for the good of the one loved.
Well, what about God’s love? Jesus told Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” Did you hear that? God loved the world so much that he had to do something. His great love for this world moved him to give something very precious – he gave his only Son. Can you think of anything he could have done that would more clearly show his love for us? There is nothing greater.
Do you know what that means that God “gave” his Son? Jesus compares himself to the bronze snake that Moses lifted up in the desert. Jesus would also be lifted up and crucified. And not just to die an earthly death, but as Jesus was lifted up, God gave his Son to perish in our place. Do you remember what that word, “perish” means – the oceans of suffering we deserve because of our sin? Jesus experienced fully all that is contained in that word “perish” – all of the pain and and all of the suffering came flooding in on him as he cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
This is how wide and long and high and deep the love of God is. And it is all yours. You don’t have to do a thing for it. And there is another way that Jesus was lifted up like the bronze snake. Those who believe in God have life. It seemed foolish to think that looking at a bronze snake would heal you of your snake bite. In the same way many think the cross is foolish, yet all those who look to the cross and believe that God has saved them by Christ on that cross – they all have eternal life.
God knows that even believing is more than we are capable of, so he comes to us in his word and in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and he gives us the gift of believing – the trust in what his love has accomplished.
We will not perish. God has taken away our sin and we will live forever. But what about the suffering we still endure here on earth? We can first look at his love for us – see the proof of his love in the great self-sacrifice he made for our good. Can you now also trust him to use this earthly pain and suffering for your good? He has promised to do just that. And when you are suffering, come back to this verse and others like it that remind you of how God’s love took care of your greatest need. Besides, isn’t that one of God’s reasons for allowing problems in your life – to draw you closer to him.
One day we will be made perfect and all pain and sorrow will be gone. The few years we spend on this earth will seem like nothing compared to the eternity we will experience, enjoying God’s blessings without the corruption of sin.
There is so much to talk about in this one verse that the few minutes we have spent here are only a beginning. In fact, it is a good thing that we live forever, because it will take that long to fully understand this one verse. I can think of no better way to close our look at this familiar and comforting verse than to use those very words Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. Please say them with me, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”