Sermon: “Comfortable Words” (March 15, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Comfortable Words” (John 3:16)
March 15, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Growing up in Northern Virginia, I was a diehard fan of the NFL’s Washington Redskins—I still am—and part of every Sunday afternoon in the fall meant watching John Riggins, Joe Theismann and company on the gridiron. But there was someone else that I got a kick out of watching during these games—a particular fan who was always sitting behind the end zone, wearing a rainbow-colored clown wig and shades—he cracked me up. During field goals or extra points that were kicked toward that end zone, this fan would stand up, holding a large poster board on which was written “John 3:16” for all to see.

I had absolutely no idea what that sign meant, because my family had not yet started going to church. However, one Sunday afternoon in sixth grade, after we had started going to church and the Bible was no longer just a mysterious book donated to hotels by The Gideons, I had an epiphany moment as I saw the sign and realized John 3:16 was a verse in the Bible. I excitedly grabbed a Bible from the bookshelf and looked it up, and read these words that summarize the entire gospel—“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.”

Jesus himself spoke these words, not in a sermon to large crowd, but in a conversation with an individual named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a high-ranking Pharisee and a member of the Jewish judicial body known as the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus had been touched by the ministry of Jesus, and he wanted to talk with him, but in private. So he went to talk with Jesus at 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” (John 3:1-2).

During their conversation Jesus, referring to an episode in the Old Testament in which Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole so that all the Israelites who had been bitten by poisonous serpents could look at it and be healed, indicated that this episode actually pointed to his own suffering and death. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus told Nicodemus, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3:14-15). Jesus then spoke what would become one of the best known verses in Scripture.

John 3:16 reveals the heart of the gospel because it reveals the love of God.

Unfortunately throughout the past two millennia of church history there have often been things other than the gospel, other than the love of God in Jesus Christ for which the church has become known. Yes, church history is replete with inspiring saints who have spread the love of God in many ways throughout the world; but it is also riddled with examples of doing the exact opposite, even in the name of Christ—from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to justifying slavery to propagating various ideologies that are used to marginalize or oppress people because of their race or ethnicity or gender or religion or social-economic standing or political persuasion or…well, you fill in the blank. And such things have often undermined the true work of the church—to spread the gospel of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

And when we lose our focus on the love of God, we lose our focus on the gospel. John 3:16 clarifies our focus anew because it points us back to the love of God.

In his moving 2009 book The Furious Longing of God the late Brennan Manning describes this:

“The awesome love of our invisible God has become both visible and audible in Jesus Christ, the glory of the only Son filled with enduring love…So much of what was presented to me as real in bygone days, I now see as fictitious. The splenetic god of alternating moods, the prejudiced god partial to Catholics, the irritated god disgusted with believers, the warrior god of the ‘just’ war, the fickle god of casuistic morality, tut-tutting our little weaknesses, the pedantic god of the spiritually sophisticated, the myriad of gods who imprison me in the house of fear; I could go on…The real God of unrestricted love corresponds to the Jesus of my journey” (36-37).

Similarly, on their 2005 album X & Y the British alternative rock band Coldplay has a song called “A Message” that beautifully captures what such unrestricted love looks like, as Chris Martin sings:

My song is love, love to the loveless shown
And it goes on
You don’t have to be alone
Your heavy heart is made of stone
And it’s so hard to see you clearly
You don’t have to be on your own…
And I’m not gonna take it back
And I’m not gonna say, “I don’t mean that”
You’re a target that I’m aiming at…
I love you, please come home
My song is love, is love unknown
And I’ve got to get that message home

The message of the unrestricted love of God in Jesus Christ left an indelible mark on Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who compiled and wrote the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. The current preeminent scholar on Thomas Cranmer is Ashley Null, and he writes about how the unrestricted love of God impacted Cranmer’s theology:

“(Cranmer) concluded that the medieval doctrine of salvation by increments did not spur a sinner to cling to God’s grace even as he climbed the ladder of good works to heaven. Rather, conditional salvation based on human performance promoted self-righteous pride or self-damning despair…In the end, Cranmer decided that neither pride nor fear inspired true love for God… Only this promise of free salvation made possible by God’s utterly gracious love inspired a lasting grateful human love. Only this certainty of being eternally knit to God by his love could empower human beings to love him and one another in return” (Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance, 132-133).

And Cranmer viewed John 3:16 as expressing this unrestricted love of God, a love about which he knew we all need to be reminded again and again and again. That is why in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer Cranmer placed John 3:16 among the “comfortable words” that the priest was to proclaim to the congregation immediately after the confession and absolution:

“Hear what comfortable words our savior Christ saith to all that truly turn to him…God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward VI, Everyman’s Library No. 448, 225).

Some people scoff at the idea of the love of God, or deem it as wishful thinking or a naïve myth to take the edge off the tragedies of life. But the love of God in Jesus Christ, especially in his death on the cross, can reach even the hardest heart.

Last fall a friend gave me a copy of a short story she had come across in The Anglican Digest many years ago. A bishop parked his car outside an old downtown church and saw the elderly priest of that church sitting outside on a bench. The bishop walked up to the elderly priest and asked if he could talk with him for a few minutes. The priest smiled and nodded. Then the bishop sat beside him and told the following story:

Quite some time ago now a small group of rather boisterous young louts, fresh from an afternoon’s drinking session, were walking past a little church. One of them drew the attention of his companions to a notice on the door, listing times of confession. Amid raucous laughter he suggested, “Why don’t we have a bit of fun? Let’s make a list of the worst sins we can think of and then draw lots as to who should go in and confess them. It’ll be a lark seeing how the poor old priest reacts.”

I’ve got a better plan, jeered a companion. Seeing it’s your bright idea, why don’t you put your money where your mouth is. I bet you $20 you don’t have the guts to do it. The young man tensed a bit but rose to the challenge. “Right,” he said, “let’s get working on the sin sheet.”

It wasn’t too long before the young man emerged from the church beaming, brandishing a slip of paper. “Well I’ve won the bet,” he said. “Here’s proof I’ve been to confession.” What’s that? asked his companions. “It’s my penance, handed to me by the priest himself.” What did he say? the others asked. “He didn’t say anything, just handed me the slip.” Well, said one, have you done your penance? “Don’t be silly. I don’t go for that nonsense,” he replied. Then I don’t pay you your $20, said his challenger…

The young man went back into the church, reading the priest’s note as he went—Kneel before the crucifix at the altar and repeat ten times: All this you did for me and I don’t care. “That’s no hassle,” he thought, making his way to the chancel. He reached the crucifix and knelt down. His eyes took in the nailed hands and feet and the infinite sadness in the eyes, then moved to the text below: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.

He began his penance: “All this you did for me and I don’t care. All this you did for me and I don’t care. All this you did for me and…” About an hour later his friends, impatient, went into the church to find out what he was up to. They found him at the altar rail sobbing profusely.

“Well, that’s the story,” said the bishop. “Except for two things—I was that young man and you were the priest” (adapted from The Anglican Digest, Lent 1990, 10-11).

The unrestricted love of God in Jesus Christ is not contingent on whether or not people care, whether or not they “go for that nonsense,” or whether they see it as a myth embraced by rainbow clown wig-wearing people in football stadiums. The song of the love of God—love to the loveless shown—goes on anyway.

What happened to Nicodemus after his conversation with Jesus?

John tells us that Nicodemus was on Calvary, where Jesus, just as he had told him that night, had indeed been lifted up. When Nicodemus saw what Jesus had done on the cross for him, he cared…and after Jesus’ death, it was Nicodemus who helped a fellow member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, remove Jesus from the cross, embalm him, and lay him in the tomb (19:38-42)—a tomb unable to contain the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love not even restricted by death.

And this gospel, this message of God’s unrestricted love, love to the loveless shown—got home to the heart of Nicodemus, as it later did with Thomas Cranmer, Brennan Manning, yours truly, and millions of others. But my prayer today is that it will make it home to your heart—that you will receive these comfortable words from our Savior—“For God so loved you that he gave me to die on the cross for you, so that you would not perish, but have eternal life.”

Amen.