That the World Might Be Saved

This sermon was originally preached via podcast and Facebook Live at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on March 7, 2021. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts. If you would like to donate to the ministries of Mission Hills UMC, you can make a secure online gift here.

John 3:14-21

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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

When we find ourselves in circles of any kind, there are certain things we talk about all the time. If we have a circle of friends who like to bake, chances are many conversations will revolve around food and recipes, right? Our intramural sports team will likely talk a lot about sports. The same thing happens in Christian circles. We as church people have certain niches that we spend a lot of time discussing, that we are known for in some ways. 

What is something Christians are known for talking about a lot?

My answer to that question is love. Love is a great thing, and sometimes, we talk about it so much without defining what it is or isn’t, and why it is or isn’t, that it loses the strength of the word. We’re going to dive into that more today.

Sometimes, the passage in our lectionary, the assigned reading for the week, is a complete story, and sometimes, it leaves some stuff out. Today, our passage begins in the middle of a story about a speech Jesus gave to Nicodemus. We always look at context, but in times like today, we need to understand more of what led to this story in order to understand the complete picture. In the beginning, we read this: 

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.

There’s a comparison being made here, between Jesus being lifted up, another pre-telling of what is to come, to this serpent being lifted up by Moses. This is a reference to a story in the book of Numbers, where it says this:

Numbers 21:4-9

They set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

What began as a pretty brutal story about these venomous snakes turned into a story about redemption, forgiveness, and a sure sign of God’s steadfast love. Going back to the passage in John, the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness indicates the sign of belief, because the bronze serpent was itself a sign of God’s mercy and salvation to those who believe. So Jesus too is to be this same symbol of God’s mercy and salvation. 

This leads us to John 3:16, perhaps the most famous verse in all of scripture, a verse that is memorized in Sunday School classes around the world, a verse that we find on bumper stickers and on the front of religiously themed notebooks. It also is a verse that can be misunderstood, by just what it was trying to communicate. 

“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.

For God SO loved the world. Many times we read this word ‘so’ as a way of describing just how much God loved the world, but in reality, it’s describing in what ways God loves the world. The meaning doesn’t really change, because the whole point of this verse is to say that yes, God loved the world deeply. But John 3:16 is telling us the ways in which God loved the world, which are that God sent Jesus in a vulnerable form to the earth, a symbol of God’s salvation, and made a promise that those who believed in God would be given this gift of everlasting life.

Imagine a loving parent loving someone so much that they would be willing to risk the safety and security of their own child, the most precious thing in their world. That is the kind of love we read about today. John 3:16 tells us not just that God loved the world deeply, but that God showed God’s love of the world by sending God’s son to live among us, and to die among us, so that God’s love would be broadcasted in this way.

The final section of today’s passage invites us to see God’s goal for the world even more completely. It describes the contrast of light and darkness, light being a source that shows us what we otherwise could not see. Here, we see Jesus being portrayed as this source of light, a source which can be equated to truth, real truth from God. 

Living in the light is twofold. Light portrays both illumination in both a personal and a public sense, both a comfort and a call. In the personal sense, we might think of light like a sunny day after a gloomy week. That light can warm us from the inside out. Knowing we are loved deeply by God is in one sense a light like that, a reminder that God is with us.

And second, living in the light is a public act, a call. When we live in the light, we are living in truth, showing up, paying attention to the deep needs of the world, taking care of our neighbors. The light reveals the motive of our hearts. Are we desiring to advance systems of injustice, or are we committed to living in truth, revealing their true desire for justice and peace? The light shows us the truth that we are to seek.

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

In order to truly believe, we need to open ourselves up, step into the light, to see Christ like the bronze serpent, as a symbol of salvation. We have to own our brokenness, sin, and shortcomings. It is then, that we can recognize and be grateful for the salvation and liberation that comes from Christ.

What has been a moment of ‘light’ for you recently?

Through Christ, God makes that light accessible, because that is the depth of God’s love for us. We are called to live in the light, being a beacon of hope in a world that is so desperate for hope. 

As we leave this place today, may you look for the light of Christ in your life, a source of comfort and call. May you work to bring the light of Christ to others, through your acknowledgment of your own shortcomings, and by the work you do to bring forth justice and hope in the world. And may you always remember that Christ entered this world, vulnerable and fragile, because this is the depth and the way God loved the world. 

Let us pray:

God of steadfast love, we thank you for showing us just how we are loved. Guide us as we too learn how to better love the world, stepping into the light of Christ to proclaim boldly the life and ministry of your son, Jesus, so we can live forever with you. In your name we pray, Amen.

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