For God so Loved the World, No Exceptions

John 3:1-17

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night, with your mind whirling about some important question, or a problem that’s bothering you? Do you ever feel embarrassed to bring up a question, for fear you’ll be thought stupid or judged by others?

I suspect that’s what’s going on in the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a well-respected spiritual leader. He was in the inner circle of Jerusalem rabbis, and was considered one of the wisest, somebody you went to with a deep spiritual question. But, tonight, he’s the one with questions. Perhaps, he woke in the middle of the night, plagued with doubts or with an insight that would challenge his previous understanding of God.

He sought Jesus out, quietly and with stealth; Jesus after all was the subject of hatred and fear among many of his colleagues, and he didn’t want to have to explain himself or be accused of betraying his religious community.

He comes, like we do, with questions. Those late night questions about life and death, about God’s vision for our lives, about unjust suffering, and the cruelty of persons and nations. He comes in the dark, seeking the light.

Nicodemus receives a strange response from Jesus, “you must be born from above.” “What’s that mean?” Nicodemus queries, “I’m in midlife, most of my life is behind me, I can’t go back to childhood or my mother’s womb?” And, Jesus, responds again, baffling Nicodemus: “God’s Spirit is everywhere, freely blowing, you can’t control it. It touches an outcast and enemy. It awakens the sinner as well as the saved. It inspires the birds of the air and lilies of the field as well as human beings. You must be born anew to experience the Spirit in its fullness.”

And then Jesus continues, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….I came not to condemn, but to save; not to harm, but to heal, not to judge but to restore. God is not what you thought God was – making laws to condemn you, constantly looking over your shoulder to tell you about your mistakes, ready to judge you, indeed to banish you to darkness, for any doubt or question you might have. God wants you to begin again, to have new life, and to enjoy salvation right now, to have eternal life in the middle of Jerusalem.”

Back in my well-spent youth in the era of San Francisco’s summer of love, when someone was surprised or astonished, they’d exclaim, “That really blew my mind.” And, that’s what happened to Nicodemus. He didn’t need mind altering drugs to have a spiritual break through. Jesus showed him a different vision of God and the world, and he was astounded and amazed. He was born again. As Aldous Huxley once said, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, we would see everything as it is – as infinite.” And, Nicodemus experiences an infinite God, the God of new beginnings, of love for the sinner and the stranger, a God whose Spirit beats with every heart beat and enlivens the whole world, human and non-human alike.

For God so loved the world. The Greek word for “world” in John 3:16 is “cosmos,” which basically means the harmonious and orderly universe, the world of seasons, our revolving planet, polar ice caps, ocean tides, the migration of osprey, and the progress of our lives from conception to death. “Cosmos” means everything and not just humanity.

God loves everything, not just humans. God’s wisdom shines in the flight of an eagle, the faithfulness of a companion animal, and our own highest intentions and acts of sacrifice. God is the reality, as Paul says, in whom we live and move and have our being.

In Lent, we are often too preoccupied with small matters of sin and grace, and of course, small can be important! Our personal diet, behavioral habits, language, can hurt or help us and those around us, and during Lent, we look at the mirror of our lives, and note where we fall short.

But, Lent also involves decisions we and our leaders make that can alter the fate of the Earth. God loves the world, and during Lent, we are challenged to love the world, too. While there is some controversy about the extent of global climate change, there is no doubt that we humans have harmed our planetary home. We have polluted streams, made large plots of land unlivable due to toxic waste, we destroy rain forests to make way for cattle ranching, we put species in danger just for a small profit. Even on the Cape, look at how we have chosen ugliness rather than beauty in our architecture and town planning.

Surely, God does not intend for us to destroy the planet. During Lent, we are challenged to be born again in our way of seeing and living – live more simply, consume less, and help our leaders choose a balanced economy that provides jobs without destroying streams, woodlands, air quality, and oceans.

Becoming a parent or grandparent or great grandparent changes the way we look at the world. With the birth of our children and grandchildren, we are born again! We want our children and future generations to flourish at our church, and this is what our capital campaign is about – mission in this building and mission to the vulnerable of our community. But, we also need to ask, “What is the world we will give children’s children? Will we give them long summer days in the sun – with appropriate sun screen – a world without famine, beautiful sea shore walks, good and clean air and potable water? Will we give them beauty?

A few weeks ago in our study of the Psalms, we talked about the sacrifices many in the homeland made during World War II so that our nation would survive. Today, we need, as William James says, “the moral equivalent of war.” We need to sacrifice and live more simply so that our grandchildren, children in Somalia, and numerous animal species may simply live.

At the very least, this means looking at our lifestyle, recycling, conserving energy, and inviting our leaders to be champions of the Earth. It means that each day, we wake up with gratitude and prayer – with joy at the morning – and then ask, “how can I love the world as Jesus does?” It means noticing beauty – stopping long enough to rejoice in the bright flowers in the garden, in birds flying overhead, in shimmering sea, and glimmering pond. It means listening to the bird’s song or the wind in the trees and letting God’s love for these things flow through you.

Lent is not just about sorrow and regret, it’s about pruning what gets in the way of life and beauty and love; it’s about going beyond self-interest to love the world as God does. For God so loved the world, all of it, that God gave God’s only begotten Son, and whoever believes in the Son, whoever loves God’s world, will not perish but have everlasting life – right here and now in Centerville. Thanks be to God!