A Savior Who Serves: Loving
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 3:14–3:21
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 17-18, 2012
“A Savior Who Serves: Loving”
Keith Miller, a well-known author and Episcopal churchman, arrived in Bloomington, Illinois, for a speaking engagement. He got to town the night before he was to speak so he bought a local newspaper to catch up on news of the area. Close to Bloomington is another community: Normal, Illinois, home of Illinois State University. Some distance away is a small town called Oblong. To his surprise, the headlines on the society page told of a recent wedding and read: “Oblong Man Marries Normal Woman.” He thought that was hilarious, and decided to include that in his presentation. In the pulpit the next morning, he told the congregation what he had read in the society section of the newspaper the night before. No one laughed. No one even made a snicker. The people there had grown so accustomed and familiar to such place names that it didn’t seem funny to them (taken from http://www.sermonsuite.com/content.php?i=788014028). In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear again what is probably the most familiar passage in the entire Bible, John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Maybe we’re like the good folks in Bloomington, Illinois. We’ve heard this so many times that its deep and profound truth has been lost on us. Does familiarity really breed contempt? If not contempt, then maybe apathy and indifference. How do we reclaim a renewed joy and passion for this amazing love of God in Christ Jesus? That is the challenge before us in today’s message. Our Lenten series continues this day under the theme, “A Savior Who Serves: Loving.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Today’s Gospel lesson is set in the context of a conversation that Jesus is having with a man named, Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus by night under cover of darkness. Nicodemus was part of the Sanhedrin, the Ruling Council of Jerusalem, and so his reputation was at stake. He felt he couldn’t be seen publicly with Jesus in broad daylight, but he has questions, and so comes to him at night. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that it is necessary for us to be born again – to be born from above by water and the Spirit, a clear reference to Baptism (John 3:3-8). Jesus then references what we heard in today’s Old Testament lesson (Numbers 21:4-9), and speaks of his coming death upon the cross: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). This is the Savior who serves by being lifted up on the tree of the cross, and giving his life for us. Jesus loves us literally unto death.
We’re following the appointed Gospel lessons under the theme, “A Savior Who Serves.” And we learn in today’s Gospel lesson that this Savior serves by loving – not just in words, but in deeds. His whole life is love in action. Keep in mind the wideness of God’s love – not just for us, but for the world: “For God so loved the world…” Sometimes – maybe without even realizing it – we put limits on God’s love; on who that love is for. Within our churches, we have the tradition of placing a Christian flag as well as a national flag in our sanctuary. The origins of this, at least within Lutheran churches, goes back less than 100 years to World War I. At this time, Lutherans in America – and German Lutherans, in particular – were suspect of being sympathetic to the cause of Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm, with whom our nation was at war. In many areas, German Lutheran churches and schools were vandalized. Virtually overnight worship in German gave way to worship in English. It was at this same time that the Christian flag, as well as the national flag of the United States of America, came to be placed in Lutheran sanctuaries, as a witness to the loyalty and patriotism of German-American Lutheran citizens. In light of today’s Gospel lesson, in addition to flags at the front of our sanctuary maybe what is needed is a globe to remind us that God loves the world; not just our country or our church, but the whole world and all of the people in it. Some years ago, I received this beautiful little globe as a gift. It sits on the desk in my study as a reminder to me of this very thing. It also reminds me to pray for the needs of the world, that the love of God which moved him to give the life of his only Son would go forth into the farthest corners of the world for the salvation of many.
Jesus tells us what God’s purpose is in doing all of this: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:17-18). Don’t be fooled! There are many today who will tell you that there are many pathways to salvation, and that faith in Christ is only one. It is a lie. And so the words of Jesus are true: God’s purpose in sending his only begotten Son into the world is for the salvation of the world. That gift can be rejected and refused. Because of this, the gift of salvation in Jesus is turned into judgment and condemnation; to reject Jesus is to reject salvation. This, of course, is not what the world wants to hear: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). We have a Savior who serves and who loves us enough to expose the truth about who and what we really are, which Paul writes about in today’s Epistle lesson: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world… carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-2a, 3b). Love, if it really is love, must speak the truth.
Despite the truth of our sin, there is a greater truth here: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Savior who serves by loving, by being lifted up and giving his life for our sin on the cross, now calls us to serve one another in love. As Paul the apostle closes today’s Epistle lesson (Ephesians 2:1-10), these same words will close today’s sermon: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Amen.