The Festival of the Holy Trinity, May 26th Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Context of John 3:16 - Life in God for You
Sunday’s Sermon was framed by the Hymn - Christ Sits at God’s Right Hand, Lutheran Service Book 564. I do not have copyright permission to post the lyrics, I apologize for any inconvenience. This however is a great reason to do a great thing, get a copy of LSB for your home use!
John 3:16. The Gospel in a Nutshell, it is called, a good thing, I think, if along with the book, chapter and verse come the Words. For God has loved the world, in this way: He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. I’m happy this morning that we have the verses that come before, and after, to help us remember the details of what God giving His Son means. But even without their context, the words of John 3:16 give a lot to think about, a lot to consider. And so it is a good verse to memorize, as so many of you have, and speak out loud, because there is a hidden power in plainly speaking the truth of Scripture, a power that lies well beyond our ability to explain or defend God’s Word from critics and scoffers.
That’s part of what makes this hymn so good. Christ sits at God’s right hand, His saving work complete. Right now. Salvation is complete, and Jesus reigns in heaven. The faithful declare: “This is reality. Deal with it.” Now, this isn’t the only thing the faithful proclaim, and confessing Christ before the world does entail a lot more than just stating some facts. But to make a clear declaration of truth, “Jesus Christ the Savior is, right now, sitting at God’s right hand,” is much better than apologizing for Scripture, or not saying anything at all. Speak God’s truth, and you never know just exactly how He might put it to work.
For example, just the other day I somewhat unintentionally was part of God tweaking the conscience of a friend of mine, a friend raised to be a Christian, but who today goes out of his way to make it clear he is above and beyond the foolishness of the Bible. My friend, let’s call him Fred, was trying to tease me a bit. We were in a group, talking about this and that, and the subject came up of churches who say drinking any alcohol at all is a sin. Fred, grinning in my direction, complained about “those Christians” who say we can’t drink.
My reply was to agree with Fred, and to state my confusion at anyone who claims to believe the Bible, but condemns the proper use of alcohol, especially when you consider all the wine that Jesus miraculously created for the wedding reception at Cana. As I am sometimes prone to do, I went on at some length, describing the details of the six large stone jars, 20 or 30 gallons each, and all that wine that Jesus made.
At a certain point in my sermonette, I glanced at Fred, who had a very pained look on his face, which I believe came from the way I was speaking of Jesus and the events at Cana: as the historical facts that Scripture says they are. He appeared a bit miffed, and perplexed, that I was actually injecting the Bible into our conversation, referring to the events of Jesus’ life like he might refer to the baseball game he watched last night. I could be wrong, but I suspect Fred was both mocking and marveling over my way of speaking about Jesus. “How can Dave be so foolish?” He quickly led the conversation in another direction, but he couldn’t do anything about the Holy Spirit working on his heart.
Stanzas 2 and 3
Did I mention that John 3:16 is only rightly understood within its context? Ultimately, the context of this verse, just like the context of every other verse in the Bible, is the whole Bible, in which there is a lot of talk about priests and sacrifices. Our hymnwriter moves us very deftly from the first stanza, full of Father giving Son, and Son willingly giving Himself, bringing us into this priestly context. Why were Melchizedek, and Aaron, and the Tabernacle and the Temple so important? What was the point of all those high priests and their altars and bloody sacrifices that fill the Scripture? They point to and are fulfilled in the altar shaped like a T, the altar of a Roman Cross outside Jerusalem in 33 A + D, the once for all sacrifice of God’s own Son, divine blood, shed for our good, so that He might lead us on the way behind the veil, into the eternal presence of the Father. The central context of John 3:16, the heart of the nut within the Gospel in a nutshell, is the Crucifixion of Jesus, Son of Mary and also Son of God.
I don’t know how often the Cross is really in mind when people say that God loves the world. Believing there is a God is very normal, very human, and declaring that God loves people is also as common as good wine at the Wedding of Cana. But while we humans naturally believe in the existence of God, or maybe gods, we prefer to shape our gods after ourselves. And so the god or gods mostly discussed among us always recognize the basic goodness of humanity. The gods you can discuss publicly without getting dirty looks always seem to overlook sin and reward people for good works, at least, if we are really trying, and do at least as much good as not. God loves us, warts and all, people love to believe. We humans quite naturally prefer such gods of our own making, and love of our own definition.
But the context of John 3:16 is a Cross, a Cross necessary because God hates sin, so much so that the slightest remnant of sin in His people means they are no longer His people. You must be perfect, says Jesus. You, however, and I, are not of ourselves perfect and sinless, even though we must be. So the context of God’s love revealed in the giving of the Son is Jesus Christ, the perfect, innocent one, suffering and dying in the place of the very sinners who put Him on the Cross. True love is found only in the God who chose to overcome human sin in the Cross of Jesus. Any other love, any other self-serving, self-congratulatory warm and fuzzy feeling is a fiction of our imaginations. For this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and gave His only begotten Son as the propitiation, the sacrifice that wipes away our sin. This is the heart of the Gospel, in a nutshell or any other container.
The context of John 3:16 is Baptism. We can see this in the earlier part of John chapter 3, as Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit, that there is a new birth, a birth from above, worked not by the will of man, or the efforts of a mother, but worked by God, a new birth which God works by Water and the Word, which is the same as saying water and Spirit, because the voice of the Spirit is the Word of God.
It isn’t a contradiction to say that John 3:16 is all about the Cross, and all about love, and also to say it is all about Baptism. For Baptism is our entrance into the Crucifixion, and the Crucifixion brings us into God, it is how we experience His love. I might say that Baptism is our front row seat to God’s work of loving the world, but even that is lacking, for Paul and Peter both speak of Baptism not as observing God’s work, but as dying and rising, as suffering with and rising with Jesus.
It certainly seems like Baptism is our work, and many people say that is all it is. We decide, or our parents decide for us, to be baptized. A person applies the water, and says the words. Baptism is, by outward appearances, strictly a work of man. But of course, outwardly, most everything important in God’s economy is also a work of man. Men arrested Jesus, and nailed Him to a tree. But what men meant for evil, God meant for good. Even though men drove the nails, Jesus laid down His life of His own accord, no one took it from Him.
This is how God normally works in the world, through the outward works of human beings. Men proclaimed His Resurrection, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends to the earth. Human beings celebrate His Supper by re-enacting it, and by taking and eating, taking and drinking. Men believe, and so are forgiven and restored to God’s fellowship. But in all these things, God chooses to work through the words and actions of men, of sinners like you, and me, to work out His salvation. He who hears you, Jesus tells the 12, hears Me. Faith is a gift of God, created in us by the implanted Word, which, except for a relative handful of instances recorded in Scripture when God spoke directly from heaven, is always spoken by people. And yet the Holy Spirit speaks through the speaking of men, and the Word of God is thus living and active, the very power of God unto salvation. So the context of John 3:16 is God by His Word reaching out to sinful humanity, joining us by Baptism to the death and resurrection and eternal life of Jesus, His Son, whom He loves. Since the Father loves Jesus, He also loves, and declares perfect, everyone who is in Jesus, by Baptismal faith.
The context of John 3:16 is life as Baptized Christians gathering to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus, given for us, given into the Cross by the Father, given for the joy set before Him by the Son, given, so that we can live in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Communion, sharing, close unity and fellowship with God, is created for you in the flesh and blood of Jesus. The work of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is to give you faith in this gift, and to deliver this communion to you. And communion with God changes you, for now Christ lives in you, and goes with you, and through you takes God’s message of love into the world.
After this past week, after the devastation in Moore, OK, after the horrible bloody broad daylight murder of that British soldier by those angry Muslims in London, after another week of scandals and blame shifting in Washington, after all the struggles you have faced and haven’t even told anyone about, after all this, we need the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to come to us. We always need this, for this is our only hope. God grant that we continue to be wise to receive Him, coming to us, to give us life, and also so that living in His love and forgiveness, we can than reflect Him to our neighbors. We want the world to be a better place, because we can still feel and see the potential God first created in everything. God wants to give everyone a better world, and He has done so, through the Cross of Jesus. The context of John 3:16 is the new life God has for you, and all people, in and through the Crucified and Resurrected One, Jesus Christ, who rules at God’s right hand, today, for you, Amen.