John 3:16 – it appears a lot of places, and mostly not a quote of the text but just that citation of gospel, chapter and verse. Just the name “John” followed by the number “3,” a colon and the number “16.”
It appears on placards at sports events, on signs people post on their front lawns and inside the bottom rim of paper cups at fast-food restaurants.
The professional football quarterback Timothy Richard Tebow – you have probably heard him called Tim – has been known to print the reference in his eye black. This he did most famously in 2012 at what became known as “the 3:16 game,” when Mr. Tebow – then of the Denver Broncos – threw the ball a total 316 yards in a playoff upset against the Pittsburgh Steelers, winning the game 29 to 23.
Immediately afterward, “John 3 16” became the top Google search in the United States.
On Amazon.com today, you can find books titled “The 3:16 Promise” and “3:16: The Numbers of Hope.”
People seem to be really fixated with John 3:16 – and no wonder. The verse has caught attention of sports fans, casual readers and theologians alike.
Martin Luther famously called it “the gospel in miniature,” indicating that it is the very heart of our Christian faith.
It says: “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.”
The very heart of our faith – that God loves the world.
The “giving of his Son” part will resonate with parents, who sacrifice for their children; with soldiers, who sacrifice for their country; and with anyone who sacrifices anything out of love for another.
And the idea that everyone may have eternal life – well, that’s the basic Christian hope, right?
This, too, will make sense in other contexts. For what parents want anything but the very best for their children? What manager wants anything but the very best outcome? And eternal life is the very best God has to offer.
The sacrifice, the giving of one’s best, these are all premised on one simple thing: love; God’s love for us.
When you think about it, God’s love for the world is nothing short of miraculous.
God created the world, of course – so that accounts for some of it. We tend to like the things we have created, such as when we bake a pie, or fashion a table out of wood or even draw a picture with crayons.
But we humans have continued to be such rebellious louts. We ignore God’s plan, we bargain with God’s commands and we fight against God’s justice – at least some of the time.
Martin Luther once said, “If I were as our Lord God … and these vile people were as disobedient as they now are, I would knock the world in pieces.”
And you might think God would do just that – knock the world in pieces.
Knock the Taliban in pieces.
Knock Congress in pieces.
Knock the whatever in pieces. You fill in the blank.
And that’s not all. Each and every one of us is quite capable of doing the most vile sorts of things – and sometimes we do. We trespass against God, we commit offences, we sin.
After all, who among us has not done what we ought not to have done, or left undone what we ought to have done? Who has not – from time to time – denied God’s goodness in others, in ourselves, or in the world around us?
Maybe God should knock us in pieces, too!
But in the person of Jesus, we find a God who is not much interested in retributive justice. Not much worried about punishing offenders. Not much invested in inflicting a penalty for wrongdoings.
No. We find a God who seeks to forgive, for whom restorative justice is the priority, who seeks to repair the hurt – not inflict another.
And this, too, arises out of God’s love for us.
God loves us too much to cause us to cower in fear.
God loves us too much to inflict corporal punishment on us.
God loves us too much to make us suffer – or to suffer any more than we already do.
And that is Good News for us, for all of Christianity, and for all of the world.
God loves us.
This doesn’t mean we should go around deliberately committing offences and expecting we be forgiven.
This does mean that when we cause offense, we will be forgiven by God – but we may also have to pay the earthly penalty for our actions.
When we do things we know are wrong, irresponsible and dangerous, we can pray for God’s forgiveness. But we can also expect that our society will demand payment of a penalty, and as Christian citizens of a democratic nation we should be prepared to pay that price, make the necessary apology, restoring what was taken or serve the very community we have harmed.
Because, as the blessed Apostle Paul says in today’s epistle, God “loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, [and] made us alive together with Christ.”
When we sin, we sin against God, ourselves and the Body of Christ of which we are a part.
Yet, when we stumble into the pit of sin, God loves us.
When we follow the path of righteousness, God loves us.
So our job as Christians is first to recognize that God loves each and every one of us, and just how much God loves us.
When we truly appreciate this deep and abiding truth, our lives change.
We take responsibility for our actions, and we seek healing for those against whom we have transgressed.
We admit we have done wrong, and we strive to do better.
And we strive to be the very image of God in which we are all created – by loving others as God loves us.
“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.”
Let us pray, work and give to make it so – by seeking not punishment, but reconciliation; by sacrificing for others; and by loving as best we are able.