4 Lent, Proper B4
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
John 3:14-21 Sermon
March 18, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
16 "Blessed Jesus At Thy Word"
258 "Lord Of Our Life & God Of Our Salvation"
158 "Glory Be To Jesus"
376 "Rock Of Ages, Cleft For Me"
MAINTAINING THE FOCUS OF FAITH
TEXT (vs. 14-18 KJV): [Jesus said:] “14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. 17For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. 18He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."
This morning, I'm going to share a situation with you. I came across this story from an Email list serve* I receive from time-to-time. It's one of those things where anybody can write in and make religious comments or ask questions. Sometimes I respond, and other times I don't, depending upon the situation and the time I have available. Regardless of whether or not I respond, I still scan the submissions when I receive them. I'm going to quote some excerpts from this one that appeared just a few days ago. So here's what the writer said:
Last month I was sitting in church with my girlfriend. It was very quiet and warm in the church. Everything was at peace. We sat in one of the pews, holding hands and enjoying the silence. My girlfriend turned towards me and whispered: "I have wish."
"You have a wish?" I asked.
"Yes, wish," she answered. English is not her first language.
"What do you wish?"
"I wish this moment is never stop."
"Me too," I said, "We're in a church. Let's pray and ask Jesus to not ever let this moment stop."
"Okay," she said. She put her hands together and said: "Mr. Jesus, please, make this moment forever and never stop."
I started laughing despite myself. "Mr. Jesus." It was so cute! At that moment I realized, like a bolt of white light, that I was in love with my girlfriend. I loved her. I loved her passionately and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her.
Of course the moment in the church did not last forever. After about a half hour we got up and left. She went back to work and I returned to the clinic where I had my afternoon shift. Still, that white light moment that appeared in my head while my girlfriend and I were in church stayed with me all that day. I have no doubt that God was speaking to me, telling me of my love for my girlfriend.
There are many people, however, who disapprove of my relationship with my girlfriend. I am a Christian and she is a secular Muslim whose family is from Kazakhstan. My girlfriend goes to church services with me and I sort of know that she only does so to please me -- not because she actually believes that Jesus Christ is her Lord and Saviour.
I do the same sort of thing. When we went to visit her family in Astana during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, I also attended services with her parents. I fasted with them from sunrise to sunset, not because I believe in Islam but because I owed respect towards the parents of the girl I was dating. When I spoke to my girlfriend's parents, I knew within my heart that their souls were just as sincere and intact and full of love as any Christian.
It makes me sad when my relationship is condemned by people who are in my church. The Bible is quoted as proof that interfaith relationships are inappropriate. I know that the Bible is the Word of God -- but it is the Word of God spoken through the mouths of men. The Bible has been translated from Aramaic to Hebrew to English throughout the millennia. The Word of God has been filtered through the minds and pens of countless scholars.
God's Word still shines through the pages of the Bible, but it is like viewing shining light through a grimy windowpane....Nevertheless God is often used by men as an excuse for sinful behavior....When I see this occur I feel so sad inside. It is the duty of every good Christian, in my opinion, to try to separate the true shining light of God's Word from the dirt smears of man's sinful nature cleverly masquerading as the Word of God.....
I think that quiet moment in the church when, with a great bolt of light inside my head, I knew that I was with the woman that I wanted to marry -- I think that was the closest I ever got to experiencing the true Word of God. I have, in my interfaith relationship, never felt more holy.
The thing that immediately hit me about this, is that this young man has completely lost the focus of his faith. He's in love with this Muslim girl, and he's trying to contort God's Word according to his desire for her. And the really sad part of all this, is that his situation is not new, not by any means. The Bible itself records some of the headaches and heartaches that occur with mixed marriages. Of course not all of them are horror stories; but I don't think any of them are easy either. That's why it is so important to maintain the focus of our faith. And that's what we're going to do, based upon our Gospel reading for today.
The words of our Gospel lesson include the very well-known words of John chapter 3, verse 16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." You'll notice that I quoted this out of the King James Version of the Bible. I did that because that's the way I learned it back in Sunday School, as I'm sure that many of you did as well. It is not an unfamiliar Bible verse.
The reason this verse is so popular, is because it contains in just one short sentence the central focus of our faith. Our faith is grounded in and centered upon Jesus Christ our Saviour. Through faith alone in him, we are saved. We will not perish. We will have everlasting life. We often call this passage "The Gospel in a nutshell."
There are two other very important concepts brought out here as well. Here we see both the inclusiveness of Christianity, and the exclusiveness of Christianity. And those are not contradictory thoughts either.
The inclusiveness is shown basically in two words: "world," and "whosoever." God's love is for all of humanity, irrespective of who or what they are. When Jesus gave his life on the cross, it paid for the sins of all humanity for all time, and not just a select few. In theological terms, we call this "universal atonement." Christ's sacrifice of his own life was the payment for sin that God demanded. Just before Jesus died, John records in chapter 19, verse 30 that Jesus said, "It is finished." His work had been completed. He did what he came to do, which was to redeem all humanity and give himself as the ransom.
Because of this, all humanity operates on a level playing field. Salvation is open to all people, irrespective of who they are or what they have done or not done. The word "whosoever" includes everybody for all time.
But now comes the exclusive part of all this. Immediately following the "whosoever" are the three words that define this, which are: "believeth in him." If we look just a bit beyond this, in verse 18 of our Gospel Lesson, Jesus says, "...he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Also in Mark chapter 16 verse 16, Jesus very simply and directly says in the last part of the verse, "...but he that believeth not shall be damned."
So as universal as Christianity is when it applies to the world, it is exclusive only to those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Saviour through faith alone, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Those who reject Jesus as the Saviour will see no salvation. Everybody has the chance, but many will reject it and go their own way.
The young man in the opening illustration didn't see things this way. He was using sincerity and actions as the litmus test, and not faith alone. He witnessed his girlfriend's parents as practicing Muslims; and as long as they were sincere about what they were doing, he seemed to be okay with that. He was not maintaining the focus of faith.
The part he just can't seem to grasp is that a sincere Muslim isn't going to see any form of salvation by being a sincere Muslim. Our text says, "Whosoever believeth in him," that is, Jesus. It doesn't say, "Whosoever is sincere in whatever brand of religion they want to practice." That just won't cut it. For the person without faith in Christ, there is no salvation and no hope. Those are the cold, hard facts of it.
I don't think that this young man realizes what's going to happen. His girlfriend's parents are fully expecting him to become a Muslim, especially since he participated in their various rituals while he was visiting them "out of respect," as he says. If he doesn't become a Muslim, the parents will forbid the daughter to marry him. And if she does marry him, she will be disowned and completely shunned. Somehow, I don't think that the love he professes for her is quite ready for that bit of shocking news. And I would hope that he hasn't lost his focus of faith to the point where he is ready to renounce his Christian faith, although that has happened far too often in other instances.
To support his ideas, this young man also attacks God's Word. Now we could talk about the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture here, but that's way more material than we have time to discuss here today. Suffice it to say that the Bible is inspired, infallible, and without error. This is the way God speaks to his people. Because of God's divine inspiration of the Bible, we believe that God has told us what he wants us to know, and that nothing has been added or subtracted apart from what God wanted.
However when Scripture is attacked and questioned, then the central focus upon Christ is also under attack. When God's Word is subjected to human standards, then the central focus is, like this young man said, like looking at a shining light through a dirty windowpane.
I can say with a fairly good degree of certainty, that if this young man attacked the Koran in the same way he attacked the Bible, that he'd see a very different side of his girlfriend and her parents. All you have to do is see the uproar that happened not too long ago when a group was going to publicly burn the Koran. And if this man tried to be a Christian in a Muslim controlled country, he'd find out very quickly how intolerant they can be.
The central message of Christianity is not a difficult thing to see. It isn't hidden away. A person doesn't need to go through a lot of secret ceremonies to find it. And it isn't something that can be earned.
In our Epistle lesson, the Apostle Paul gives an excellent presentation of the salvation God offers to his people. Listen once again to some of those verses from Ephesians chapter 2. Verses 3-5 say, "[We] were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ..." And verses 8-9 continue, "8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
When we look at ourselves honestly, we have to admit that we have indeed sinned. There's no getting around that. We haven't been the people God has wanted us to be. We have transgressed his holy law. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans chapter 3, verse 10: "There is no one righteous, not even one." That applies to all people, from the beginning to the end of time. You and I are included in this. We cannot escape it.
Jesus has given us the only way out. We can't work our way out of sin, we can't pay any price for forgiveness, and we can't find salvation in any other religion apart from what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, and what we have through faith alone in him. This is exclusive. God tells us in Isaiah chapter 43, verse 11: "I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no saviour." No other religion or philosophy can ever give us what God freely gives us by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
As Christians, we have to maintain the central focus of our faith. This is the faith that we share with others. And this is the faith that gives us the sure and certain hope for our life to come in eternity, where he has a mansion prepared for us in heaven. To maintain this focus, we need to always remember those famous words of John chapter 3, verse 16. Why don't you all say them together with me? "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
*Please click on this link to read this young man's letter in its entirety, along with the comments that others have made. The material that this referenced website contains is intended for public dissemination and comment. This is being included, in all fairness, as a matter of reference only. This writer does not endorse this website, or any material it contains.