God’s Immeasurable Love

A sermon on the Second Sunday of Lent 2011

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus Visits Jesus

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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.

‘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. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Children’s Time: Show a measuring cup, tape measure and pocket watch… What do these all have in common? They measure things! Can you measure God’s love? Would it fit in this cup? (“my cup runneth over”) Could we use this measuring tape (“as far as the east is from the west… so far has he cast our sins”) Could we use a watch (“God’s love is from everlasting to everlasting”). Nope. Can’t measure it… God’s love is so great we could never grab a hold of it. But we can experience it. In our lesson today, Jesus said: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, and whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Let’s thank God for the un-measurable gift of love we have in Jesus! (credit to: Sermons4kids.com)

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some days it’s easier to be an un-believer than a believer. Some days it’s easier to hate than to love. We’ll get to Nicodemus and Jesus in a moment… but if there were any day to put hate in it’s place it’s a day like today – with our remembering of John 3:16.

Recently, in the news, we heard about Fred Phelps’ pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, Topeka, KS… and how they have picketed the funerals of dead service men and women in protest of the lifting of the Army’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, regarding gays in the military. I turns out their free speech (no matter how hateful) is protected by the 1st Amendment, says the US Supreme Court.

Sometimes it’s easier to hate than it is to show love. Just look at the dictatorship in Libya that turned the army on it’s own people to resist reforms. Colonel Gadafi resorts to violence rather than hearing the will of the people, who yearn for freedom from his oppressive regime.

This month, Tartan High School will do a play about Matthew Shepherd, the young man who was tortured and murdered because he was gay in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998. Westboro Baptist Church has threatened to picket the play: The Laramie Project. I, for one, plan to attend the play in support of our youth and their message of tolerance and acceptance of those who are gay or lesbian. And yet, hate is often the easier route to take. Or, silent acquiescence.

When I was in seminary (1991) I thought the Civil Rights movement was long since over. …until the Ku Klux Klan came to march in this small river town of Dubuque, IA. “Maybe we should go down and show up in great numbers to protest their coming,” some suggested. Instead, we decided to hold a peaceful celebration of diversity across town and not give them the time of day.

Sadly, it’s the Christians who often give Christianity a bad name. I recall a poem by the late Minnesota author Bill Holm entitled: The Paranoia of Happy Skeptics Visiting the West Coast (From Notes from the Black Piano)

He recalls encountering some quite aggressive Christians while traveling on the West Coast. As he’s leaving in his car, the Mozart Quartet fades out around the first curve and is replaced by “Gospel Rock.” He writes:

I want to know more about Jesus
Unleaded Jesus
Self-serve Jesus
Jesus between the sheets
Magic Fingers Jesus
Jesus provided for your sanitary comfort
Climate Controlled Jesus
Egg McJesus
Jesus over easy
Whole Wheat Jesus
Pecan Jesus
Decaf Jesus
Refried Jesus
Rock-a-bye Jesus
Sweet Jesus!
One sight of the Pacific Ocean, and God,
by whatever name he arrives: Jesus or Jones
or the Ace of spades clutches you hard, by the heart.
Now you must have truth, by God.
Absolute, unforgiving, sterling silver, poured concrete truth
like a stone bracelet to weigh down your arm
as it watches over all this rolling water,
washing toward Asia and the light.

Heck, just doing a casual internet search of “Jesus loves you” turns up a lot of hate! Some of which are not repeatable in respectable company. Here’s a few images I found:

“Jesus Loves You. Everyone else thinks you’re a jerk.”
“Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.”
The only one I really liked was: “Jesus loves you: Conditions do not apply”

The trouble we get into with John 3:16 is that we know it too well. We either make it about a football game endzone; or we make it all about “ourselves.” “Jesus loves me.” Sure, Jesus said, “God loves you.” And yet, I’m just not comfortable with leaving it at that.

What good does it do to say, “Jesus loves you” or “God loves you” to someone who doesn’t feel it? Or worse, to someone who is struggling with illness or hardship? “If Jesus loved me so much, why is the world falling apart around me!” Why does hate still have a grip on us?

If you get a chance to see the movie Amish Grace I highly recommend it. It’s based on the true story of a school massacre in Nickel Mines, PA by a man who wanted to get even with God for the death of his little girl. He killed 12 girls that day in a one-room, Amish schoolhouse. In the film, Gideon (the father of one of the girls) is talking to his other daughter, who survived, about hate.

Katie: I hate that man, too. He did a bad, evil thing and I hate him more than anything.
Gideon: He did do an evil thing. And… I don’t blame you for hating. And you can hate him for as long as you like. But tell me, this hate that’s inside of you, how does it feel? Does it feel good?
Katie: Not very good.
Gideon: No. Hate is a very big, very hungry thing, with lots of sharp teeth. And it will eat up your whole heart. And leave no room left for love. We are lucky that God understands this. He is the one that will hand out the punishments so that we don’t have to carry this terrible hate around inside of us if we don’t want to… if we’re willing to forgive.
Katie: Maybe I can forgive him and still hate him just a little bit.

It’s not easy to put away hate and unbelief. Two times, Jesus makes his offer of new life to Nicodemus; and two times he declines it, asking questions instead: “Hmm, how can a person who has grown old be born again?” “How can this be?”

Have you ever told someone you loved them… only to get the Nicodemus response: “How can this be?” When you hold your heart out to someone, offering it without condition – pure and true love – there is no guarantee the other will receive it. It doesn’t change the love that is offered. It is true and lasting.
So it is with Jesus. He concludes this scene with a third-time-standing-invitation, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Who could resist such immeasurable love!

Then he seals the deal by saying: “The Son was not sent to condemn the world but to save it!” (Take that haters and condemners). And yet, if Nicodemus resists Jesus’ love, whom he met personally… who are we to think we have it all figured out? The good news here, is that our questions are not only OK with Jesus, but they’re expected. Questions are holy – it’s as rabbinic tradition to ask questions. Another problem of Nicodemus is that he based his faith in Jesus on the signs he had done. From v. 2: “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In the story just before this one, the Pharisees demanded the same, after Jesus tipped over the money-changers’ tables: “What sign can you show us for doing this?” (Jn. 2:19)

Jesus knew that Nicodemus had a lot to lose. It’s been said that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he was afraid of losing his position… as “a leader of the Jews.” It’s also been said that the two words that caused Jesus’ followers the most grief were: “New” and “Now.”

Jesus wrapped up his chat with Nicodemus by driving home his point: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

It is true… that we need love most when we deserve it least.

But thanks be to God for this immeasurable love that overcomes the greatest of hatred… and even our own unbelief.

Amen.

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