You have to know that I have an interesting family. Three boys all around the same age will do that. My oldest brother is a great guy, but is somewhat of a character. At my ordination he had, to my mother’s embarrassment, written on a piece of cardboard “John 3:16” just like you used to see held up at sporting events. It was a good laugh, but I also thought about what John 3:16 is actually talking about.
I remembered years earlier, in college, when we were starting to learn Greek and were translating the passage. The professor, my first real mentor, showed us how the passage is often taken out of context and used “wrong.” Grammatically he said that John 3:16 out of context is virtually meaningless, because without the second half the call to action is cut off or muted. As he walked us through the whole pericope, John 3:16-21 we began to see that this statement was not a gushy fact or sign of salvation; rather, it was a strong statement which established certain actions.
The first reality is that God chooses us. This is the John 3:16. We could get into an existential debate about whether or not it is possible for God to choose not to come back, but this passage clearly states that out of love he chose to engage this world.
The second reality, and maybe the more important one, is that we MUST make a choice. For the writer of John there is no half way about it, we must either choose to accept this gift or we reject it by default. The basic assumption is that people have rejected God because they have become more stewards of themselves than of God.
This hits a third reality that is informed by the rest of the pericope, is the reality that when we live away from God we cannot fully live. Just as a person who only is awake at night cannot see the fullness of the world. When we live in the darkness we are more preoccupied with moving around than living fully.
But the Judgment that comes from our desire to keep parts or the whole of our life in the dark is not a final judgment. This is summed up by William Countryman “However much it may have become estranged, it is not God’s objective to take up vengeance on it, but rather to call it back into that right relationship which is true and everlasting.” As Countryman shows, the judgment that God gives is both not without reversal or help. In fact, it is God’s desire to see people recommit and find their way back to a more full relationship. He goes on to say “to be deprived of God is to be deprived of our own existence.” In other words, for any of our life to be kept hidden is to separate us from God.
I could go on about this passage; I know many dissertations have been written on it. For us this week, as we prepare for worship in the context of Lent, we must think about John 3:16 et. al. and reflect on what the passage says about our lives. How have we become estranged from God? Are there things that embarrass us in our relationship with God that we try to keep hidden? Do we stay hidden because we are unsure of our faith? What would be different if everyday we lived into the fullness of the promise of John 3:16?
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen