In the Name...
One night, a burglar broke into an old woman's house. She woke up and, as he fled, she shouted out "Acts 2.38" - a Bible verse which reads, "Repent in the name of Jesus Christ." The burglar immediately stopped in his tracks and waited for the police to arrive and arrest him. When asked why he had stopped running, the burglar replied, "She's dangerous, man. She's got an axe and two 38's."
This morning, we're looking at what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible - John 3:16. It's not only famous in church; you can see it on placards held up at just about every televised sporting event. The idea of the placard holders being that if people would just open a Bible and read this verse, they'd realize what Christianity is all about.
And they may have something there because you could say this verse is the Bible in miniature.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son". Now, that's the part of the verse everybody is happy to hear. That's Christmas and Easter rolled into one. The problem often is, however, that that's as far as people read. God loved and He gave. And that's great. But, the verse goes on to say that there's something more - something that I have to do, as well - "that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but, have eternal life." And that's the part a lot of people prefer to skip.
When John uses the word "believe" he doesn't mean do you believe Jesus existed, or do you believe he was a great guy who taught a lot of neat things. He means do you believe in Jesus as your Saviour and Lord? Or, in other words, do you believe that you need a Saviour to save you from something and do you believe you need a Lord to direct and guide you?
You see, it's not really about what you believe about Jesus, it's about what you believe about yourself. People who don't believe they need anything don't need anybody to save them or guide them.
That's why church attendance is low these days. People are very self-satisfied. Despite recessions and housing markets and job losses and health care, all these worldly concerns have not translated into spiritual concerns. Spiritually, most people believe they're doing just fine. And while almost everybody says they believe in God you have to wonder what god? People say things such as, "I like to think of god as...", or "Well, to me, god is...." and they usually describe some sort of Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey – all-knowing, wise, benevolent, and not quite real.
But, this is nothing new. In fact, it was just as popular an attitude in St. John's pagan time as in our own. That's why he wrote as much as he did in his Gospel and Letters about the nature of God.
Today's Gospel is part of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who visited Jesus to learn more about him. It's an interesting dialogue not least because it takes place in darkness, at night, but, because the contrast of light and darkness figures so prominently in it. Light was important to John. He often uses it as an image.
In his First Letter, St. John says, "God is light and in him is no darkness at all." This means that just as light is pure and bright, so too is the truth of what God has said. St. John urges us to compare our thoughts and actions with those of God. And he effectively uses three little words to make his point. "If we say". If we say we believe in God, the real one, not a more manageable one we've made for ourselves, that means we have to be not only believing, but, doing certain things and if we're not, then what we say doesn't count for much no matter how often we say it.
A high school student was once asked to present a science experiment on the physics of the pendulum. He made a small model with a two-pound weight and showed how the arc of a free-swinging pendulum always gets shorter and, in fact, once you release a pendulum weight it never returns to the same spot from where you released it. The teacher was pleased with this report and told the class that everything the student said was correct, but then the student revealed he had more to show. He had also made a large model with a ten-pound weight and he asked the teacher to sit in a chair as he pulled the weight up to the teacher's nose. The student then explained to the class that the weight would swing back just short of the teacher and he released the weight. The teacher sat still as it swung away from him but, as it made its return trip, he dove out of the way.
A lot of Christians act like that teacher. They've heard the presentations. They've applauded the speeches. Yet, when the moment arrives when they are called to sit in the chair, they find they have urgent business elsewhere.
Now, we know that Nicodemus did come to believe and do something about his belief because later in the Gospel we see he speaks up for Jesus at a meeting of the Sanhedrin and after Jesus' death on the cross he and Joseph of Arimathea lay his body in the tomb. It seems that during his nocturnal visitation the light went on in his soul and he was rescued from spiritual darkness.
He responded to the love of God in Christ and came to believe he needed a Saviour and Lord even though he was a wealthy leader of the community. He had everything he needed, materially. People jumped at his command. If there was anybody who shouldn't have felt the need for a Saviour and Lord in his life it would have been Nicodemus. And yet, he realized that what Jesus said to him that night was something he couldn't ignore. God's love for him demanded some sort of response.
There's a story told about a homeless boy in Victorian Chicago who asked a policeman if he knew where he could get place to sleep. The policeman said he knew a lot of shelters for grown men, but, nothing for kids. But, he said, if you go a certain house and say John 3.16, a lady there would help him. The boy was puzzled, but, he went to the house, a lady answered the door and he said "John 3.16." The lady welcomed him and sat him by the fire. The boy mused, "John 3.16. I don't understand it, but, it got me warm." The lady then served him a big meal. The boy thought, "I don't understand it, but, it got me fed." Finally, as he lay in the darkness in a soft bed he thought, "I still don’t understand it, but, it got me a place to sleep."
The next morning, when he woke and went downstairs, the woman asked him if he knew what John 3.16 was. "No, ma'am", he replied, "I never heard of it before yesterday." So, she got out a Bible, showed him the verse, and began to explain about God and Jesus and what Jesus did for us. "I don't understand it", the woman said, "But, it makes life worth living." The woman was Jane Addams, social reformer and eventual winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
John 3.16. Possibly, the most seen Scripture reference in America. May it also be the most taken to heart.
In the Name...