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Second Sunday in Lent (A)
March 8, 2020
Text: John 3:1-17
God’s love does you no good if it’s just a warm, fuzzy feeling. We read John 3:16 like it’s a Hallmark card. God SO loved the world, as in, He loved us so gosh darn much He just couldn’t help Himself. He had to save us. The culprit is that little word, “so.” In modern English, we hear it like when we say to a child, “You’re getting SO big,” or when we say, “That happens SO often,” or we even say to our spouse or our children, “I love you SO much.” “So” becomes a word of measure. But the Greek word for “so” means “thusly,” or “in this manner.” That is to say, “God loved the world, and this is the way He loved it.” Love is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. It is decisive action. Here is how God loved the world: He gave His only-begotten Son. Into death. For the sins of the world. So that whoever believes in Him, God’s dear Son, crucified for sinners, will not perish, but have eternal life. That is what we mean when we talk about God’s love.
We’re talking about agape love here, of course, and that kind of love is always concrete and self-sacrificial. It is a love that spares not personal cost, but throws itself on the line, and suffers, willingly and joyfully, for the beloved. This love does not wait for its object to be loveable, and it demands no return for its loving. As a matter of fact, often this love is repaid with hatred and rejection from the beloved. But this love loves anyway! This love is none other than Christ! And it is particularly Christ on the cross, love gushing forth from His hands and feet, His head, His side, love oozing from every pore. That is the very picture of love, and Jesus uses it Himself in our text: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…” You know, the bronze serpent on a pole… looked like a crucifix… the image of the enemy lifted high, so that when anyone was bitten by one of the fiery serpents sent by God to punish the people and kill them for their sin, if he looked at that image, he would not die… he would be healed (Num. 21:8-9)… “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; ESV). When you, O sinner, look at that picture of God’s love and know and believe that it is for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, you shall not die, but live, and have eternal life. God loves you, and the whole world, in just this manner, that Jesus be lifted up on the cross to atone for your sins.
Now this is incomprehensible. A world that rejected God, people who sin daily against His will and scoff at His love, people He knew would only curse and spit on His Son and kill Him… why, He ought to have sent His Son to condemn such a world, to obliterate it in His wrath, to damn it to an eternity of suffering in hell. That would make sense. We just can’t get how God could love a world so hell-bent on rejecting Him, hating Him, killing Him. This is why God’s love cannot be a warm, fuzzy feeling. He knows just what kind of world He has on His hands, just what kind of people we are, and He sends His Son anyway. That is how He loves us! That is what He does in the act of loving us! He does not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through Him (v. 17).
Fallen human nature is incapable of understanding this or receiving this love. This is unbelievable for sinners. And now we understand why Jesus says what He says to Nicodemus. To receive this gift, you have to have a whole new start! You have to be born again, from above, of God, of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus shows his hand. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4). Now, Nicodemus knows that isn’t what Jesus means. A respected member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus is not a stupid man. But neither has he yet received this new birth, and so his mind cannot conceive the great things of which our Lord here speaks. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. But that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. St. Paul puts it this way: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned… ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14, 16).
Which is to say, we are baptized. God has given us a new mind, a new self. That is the new birth, the birth from above, of water and the Spirit. Baptism into Christ. And that is where the great saving act God does for the whole world in the giving of His Son, Jesus, into death for our forgiveness, and raising Him from the dead for our justification, is applied to you and to me personally and intimately and made our own. Baptism is the love of God for the world focused on you individually as God’s own child. It is your adoption by grace into God’s family. He has one only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior. But He has many children through Jesus Christ, the Savior. And He loves His children, not just with really good feelings about them, but by doing for them, by saving them and gifting them, by sending His Son for them… for you. The love of God for you is God’s giving of Himself for you. God loves the world, God loves you, in this manner.
St. John, who wrote our Holy Gospel by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has a lot to say throughout his writings about this love of God. In fact, it is St. John who records the New Commandment Jesus gives on the night in which He was betrayed, handed over to accomplish His great act of love for us; namely, that as He does, so we are to do for one another: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34). He develops this theme in his epistles. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 1:7-8). See, God is the very definition of love, and to know God and His love, and to love as God loves and as Jesus gives you to love in His New Commandment is to be born of God… Baptism! “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (v. 9)… Is this not a nearly word for word quotation of John 3:16? This is how God loves… by sending His Son! “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation,” the blood sacrifice of atonement, “for our sins” (v. 10). And now, that being the case, the love of God poured out for us in the giving of His Son, in the precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of Christ, made our own in Holy Baptism, we now love in His Name and with His love. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). Just as I have loved you, Jesus says, you also are to love one another.
In other words, not with warm fuzzies, but with action! In deed and in truth! Warm fuzzies are great, and these also are a gift from God, but they are not yet love. Love… Agape, is throwing yourself on the line for the beloved. It is loving the unlovable. It is loving those who will not love you in return. It is loving those who reject you, hate you, even kill you, for the sake and in the Name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Now, apply that to your relationships, to your vocations. Your spouse. Your children. Your co-workers. Your boss. Your teacher. The people sitting with you in this Church building, and even the one in the pulpit. Where have you failed this kind of love in all those relationships? Repent. And know that Jesus loves you and gave Himself into death for you on the cross for those very failures. So rise and love. Get to loving. Act. Give. Sacrifice for the sake of those around you whom you are called by God to love. That is what Jesus does for you. You now do it for one another.
Love is, finally, in summation, the cross… God on the cross for you, you bearing the cross for your neighbor. You know this on some level with your family. Love is not always warm and fuzzy feelings for one another. But it is suffering and the giving of the self for one another. Multiply that by infinity and you get God so loving the world, loving it in this manner: The giving of Jesus for you. And so the loving continues. God gives Him here and now on the altar. He’s under the bread and wine, His body, His blood, given and shed for you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.