Lenten Intentions: Believing God

Believing God

Below is the video and manuscript for week #2 of the sermon series “Lenten Intentions” preached at Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.

Scripture Lesson: John 3:1-17


Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”


Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”


“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”


Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”


“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.


“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”


For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.


I don’t know if there is such a thing as an “official ranking of all-time favorite Bible verses,” but if there is I suspect that John 3:16 would be near the top of the list.


I saw this verse referenced recently on a bumper stick on the back of a SUV on I-64.  “God Loves You” the bumper sticker read, except the word “LOVE” was replaced by the shape of a heart, and instead of the word YOU, (spelled Y-O-U), it was simply the letter U.  “God HEART U.”  Underneath that line were the words:  “Read John 3:16”


You will also find this verse reference on posters at sporting events; on the menu boards of sandwich shops in the FAN district; and on the animated television show The Simpsons.  It’s a familiar sentiment, but it is still hard to gauge whether it is truly understood and appreciated.  Today’s lectionary reading is from John 3:1-17.  Today it will be read from platforms and pulpits all over the world.


“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” 


But do we get it?  Do we understand what these words mean?  These words come to us as the most theologically shocking words in the Bible.


It’s shocking because it erases the line between what we consider the common and the sacred.  When Jesus says, “God loves the world” (the cosmos, the created order), it means there is no more “US in here” and “THEM out there.”  We like to draw that wall demarcation between the “church” and the “world.”  Then we can gather in “church” and look down our noses at the people in “the world.”


When we teach children to remember this verse, we ask them to personalize it.  We tell them to take out the word YOU and insert their name.  “God so loved _____.”  I suppose there is some value to that.  We want every little child to know that God loves them.  But we also want them (and us) to know that God loves “the (entire) world.”


That is shocking, though, because most of us know what it is like to live in the “so-called” world.  This place seems anything but lovely.  Last Sunday we left worship and went to eat lunch with our children.  I existed off I-64 onto Parham Road, heading east.  There was nobody there when I merged onto Parham Road.  Then, suddenly, a car appeared, and almost swiped us.  He was driving way too fast and talking on a cell-phone.

Before we had a chance to recover from almost having a series accident, the guy had slowed down and pulled next to us in traffic.  He was shouting a creative use of profanities, while waving a knife, threatening to cut me.  He continued following us down Parham and onto Skipwith before he eventually backed away.


Many people in our world seem darkly sinister.  They not only engage in occasional sinful behavior, but they can be filled with rage, prone to violence, and living in outright rebellion against anything that seems good.  John’s gospel point that out in a few verses after the end of our scripture lesson.  John 3:19 reads:


This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.


There!  Jesus says it.  People prefer the darkness because their deeds are evil.  God would be justified to say “the hell with them all.”  But Jesus says that God is not that way.  God loves this place.  God loves all people.  “God so loved the world.”


The word’s we have read this morning are among the most revolutionarily shocking because they erase that wall WE have created between “US” and “THEM”; between “the sacred and the secular,”; between the so-called “good” and the so-called “bad.”


We often miss the shock-value of these words because we have become too accustom to their cadence.  These words have become so well-known that we miss the theological upheaval that they represent.


“God so loved the world…” Yeah, yeah, yeah…tell us something we haven’t heard before.


Norman Pritchard has written:  “Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, at least indifference in our hearts and lives.”


Is it contempt that we feel?  It certainly can be.  I was once criticized by a church member for preaching too often about God’s love and grace.  He wanted some old-fashion “fire and brimstone” for all those sinners “out there.”


Is it indifference that we feel? It certainly can be.  If we just hear the words “God loves you” without being reminded of the magnitude of that love, especially when held up against the darkness of human sin, then this most radical of pronouncements can come across as mere pabulum.


“God loves you.”


“God so loved the world.”


When was the last time you were shocked by the message of the gospel?


Maybe you sat for a few moments after a Bible study when the truth of God’s love washed over your body, mind, and spirit.


Maybe there was a moment in a worship gathering when the song being sung broke through that hard shell you’d built around your hearts, and the tears began streaming down your face as you became more fully aware of God’s grace.


When was the last time you were shocked by the message of the gospel?


I would dare so that most of us have committed to memory the words of John 3:16.   We hear it.  We quote it.  But do we feel the shock-value in these words.

Our sermon series as we make our way toward Easter is called “Lenten Intentions.”  That word INTENTION means to have a strong purpose or aim which is accompanied by the passion to make the INTENT a reality.


Our Lenten intention for today is tied up in John 3:16, especially in that word BELIEVE.  The reference for that word is the declaration about the magnitude and majesty of God’s love.  Do we really BELIEVE that “God so loved the world”?


Let me say it again:  John 3:16 references the most revolutionary words in scripture and theology.


“God so LOVES the world…” No ifs, ands, or buts about it. God LOVES you.  In his book and movie “The Shack,” Paul Young puts it like this:  “God is especially fond of you.”


Many people simply do not believe God is actually THAT GOOD – that loving, that kind, that inclusive, that forgiving, or that merciful.  They think there must be some caveat, some exclusion, some fine print, or quid pro quo.

Many preachers and teachers of religion will tell you that you must do something, believe something, confess something, or accept some doctrinal formula in order to convince God to love you.  NOPE. God just loves you.


Lots of people find it hard to believe that God is actually that good.  Something has happened in their life that makes them bitter, angry, hurtful, and judgmental.  They hold people at a distance and they hold God at a distance.  They have a difficult time sharing love and an even harder time receiving love.


Did you know that Jesus favorite word for God was “Abba” which means “Daddy” or “Papa”?  Jesus use of this word in reference to God was also quite shocking to the religious establishment of his day.  There were other more formal and fitting words for theological discourse about God, but for Jesus, this is who God is:  Papa.


Did you know that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told them to say:  “Abba” (Papa, Daddy)?  Translators render that word “Father,” but in the vernacular, the word Abba should be translated “Papa” because that is how Jesus wanted his disciples to understand God.


Did you know that when the Apostle Paul speaks of God’s loving adoption of humanity into his family, it means that any fear of God should be swept away in the joyful awareness that God is our Papa?  Here’s what Paul writes to the Romans:


“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption as children. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 


I know that this causes some folk to bristle. They want a judgmental God, a stern God, and God who kicks butt and takes name. You can tell who these people are, because they tend to be judgmental, stern, and act like they have been ordained to kick butt and take names.

But that is NOT the Papa revealed in Jesus Christ.


“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”


God gave his own Son.  This is not something Papa did to Jesus. Papa, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are ONE in their love and passion. They are ONE as God.  Jesus the SON proceeded from the Father, and from the Spirit, and by the volition of his (Jesus) own will to REVEAL the nature of God’s love.


This is not a theory of atonement that can be boiled down into a doctrinal statement. It’s not merely “ransom theory,” or “penal substitutionary atonement,” or “moral influence,” or any of the terms that theologians like to apply to it.  It is simply God revealing God’s heart and passion. Jesus came to reveal as a human being what God is really like.


If you think of the Trinity as God being some multiple personality deity, then you have missed the point.  Jesus did not come to appease God’s wrath or to assuage God’s anger. Jesus came to reveal the heart of the God who is Papa and who is “especially fond of you.”


Jesus said: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Papa.”


Jesus said, “Papa and me are one.”


There is no conflict or border wall between Jesus, the Father, or the Spirit. The Trinitarian vision of God is a picture of a relationship driven diety who wants us to know that we are liked, loved, accepted, and included in the fellowship of the Divine.  We are invited to the Divine dance because WE ARE LOVED, because “Papa is especially fond of us.”


I have discovered something working with people for the last 30 years in ministry.  I have learned that


“Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people. If you leave waves of love in your wake, you are healed. If you leave emotional carnage behind you then you are not well.”


LOVE heals. If you believe that you are LOVED by God, you will become more and more accustomed to loving – and love will be left in the wake of your life.


That’s why I am challenging our Lenten intention for the week to be that we truly BELIEVE God loves us and loves the world. This does not mean affirming a doctrinal statement.  That’s not bad, but that is not really faith.  Here’s faith:  Let God’s love embrace you.  That’s the gift that Jesus came to provide.  That’s what his teaching point toward.  That’s what the cross represents.  Jesus came to reveal the loving embrace of grace. He came to reveal (to embody) Papa’s love for you.


John 3:16 says “whosoever believes in him, will not perish, but will have eternal live.”  This should not be understood and a proscription to mentally ascribing to some doctrinal formula.  Nor is there some threat implied if we do not sign on the dotted line.


The word translated “perish” in John 3:16 comes from the Greek word, Apollumi which means, “to be lost, ruined, or destroyed.”  The meaning is that God has a meaning or purpose for every creature in creation.  A bird was created to fly.  A fish was created to swim.


So, what was humanity created for?  We were created to be loved.  We were created for fellowship with God.  Humanity was created to be in relationship with Papa, Jesus, and the Spirit.  When we believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, when we allow ourselves to experience God’s grace embrace, our lives fulfill their purpose.    We will not perish.  We will not experience being lost, ruined, or destroyed, but will have eternal life.


Eternal life in biblical terms is not merely about life’s duration.  It is more so about a quality of life experienced in relationship with God.  That’s what Jesus said, anyways.  Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says in a prayer to Papa:


“This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”


Eternal life is enjoying intimacy with God.  It is being in relationship and fellowship.  Eternal life is the quality of know that God loves you.
If we do not believe that God is really THAT GOOD, you will live outside of the friendship God desires to experience with you. You won’t be outside God’s love, but you will not experience that love.  As such, you will never know the joy of your reason for being.


The love of God is far more radical and inclusive than most of us can imagine. But we should keep trying.  We should intend to believe that God’s love is bigger and better than we’ve ever imagined.  And we should let that love envelope us.  We should find ourselves daily in God’s grace embrace.  That’s what God desires.


God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through Him, might be saved.


The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity
by: William P. Young
publisher: Windblown Media, published: 2007-07-01
ASIN: 0964729237
EAN: 9780964729230
sales rank: 4
price: $4.95 (new), $2.02 (used)
Mackenzie Allen Philips’ youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend. Against his better judgment he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare. What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.

In a world where religion seems to grow increasingly irrelevant The Shack wrestles with the timeless question, “Where is God in a world so filled with unspeakable pain?” The answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it did him. You’ll want everyone you know to read this book!

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