2nd Sunday in Lent, Proper 2A
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
John 3:1-17 Sermon
March 16, 2014

Click here for service internet broadcast/podcast.

Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
245 "God Loved The World So That He Gave"
373 "By Grace I'm Saved, Grace Free & Boundless" 
374 "Grace, 'Tis A Charming Sound"
37 "Lord, 'Tis Not That I Didst Choose Thee"  


TEXT:  (vs. 14-17) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 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. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."

            If you look at the various Bible Society catalogues, you might notice that they offer for sale a small paperback book that contains just the Gospel of John.  These books are very inexpensive, probably a dollar or less.  Sometimes they're even offered at no charge.

            These are intended to be give-aways.  These are printed with the sole idea that they can be scattered almost like seeds, and distributed widely.  And there are good reasons behind all of this.

            An unbeliever will often look at the Bible with a sense of fear and trepidation.  It's a big thick book, filled with archaic and hard-to-pronounce words.  But some will indeed pick it up and start to read it, with all intentions of reading it cover-to-cover.  They might make it through Genesis and into Exodus.  Leviticus gets sort of puzzling with all the intricate ceremonial laws.  And when it comes to all those figures in the book of Numbers (if they even get that far) it starts to get tedious.  Unfortunately that's where it ends for some people.         

            Now I'm certainly not one to discourage reading the Bible.  But I also have to be realistic about it too.  I know that people will start with all good intentions; but Satan is always at work too.  He will always attempt to steer people away from the Bible any way he can.

            Our friends the Gideons do a great job here.  When they distribute Bibles to students, soldiers, and others, they will give away the entire New Testament, including Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament.  These are neat little books that will fit conveniently into a pocket or purse.  And quite often you will see in those Bibles several pages of suggested Bible readings for various occasions.  The Gideons want to get people into reading the Bible however they can. We carry a small supply of them in our police chaplain's van to give away to people who don't have a Bible, thanks to the Gideons.

            So why do people give away just the Gospel of John?  There are some good reasons.  First, it's not all that long.  Second, it's fairly easy to read.  And third, it clearly speaks about God's love for the world, and what he has done for the world according to that love.  John's Gospel is sometimes even nick-named "God's love letter to humanity."  Of course, that's a title that can be applied to the entirety of Scripture, but John's Gospel makes that especially clear.

            So when we look at the whole picture, John's Gospel is very inexpensive to reproduce.  It is easy to understand.  And an average person would have no trouble at all reading it through in one evening.  We can think of it as a great stepping stone for a person to get into the rest of the Bible.

            There's a story about this that I've told in the past, so forgive me if you've heard it before.  But it will serve to illustrate what I've just talked about.  And the story is true.

            The story is about a Jewish boy who was about nine years old.  He was having a sleep-over with one of his friends.  That evening, his friend invited him to go to a Youth Fellowship meeting with him at his church.

            At the meeting, they were having a Bible study on the book of John. And since the Jewish boy didn't have a Bible of his own, they gave him one of those paperback books so he could follow along.

            This little Jewish boy just soaked up everything like a sponge.  He was learning so much that he never knew before!  As they were studying, he began to see a complete picture of God's love, and what God did because he loved him.  This was very exciting stuff to him, and he just couldn't get enough of it.

            When the meeting was over, the pastor told him that he could keep that paperback copy of John's Gospel.  And then he asked for four more copies as well.  And that night, he read through the entire book, literally devouring every word.

            When he got home the next day, his mother spotted those books sticking out of his back pocket.  She pulled them out, and was absolutely horrified!  She immediately threw them into the fire, and gave her son a sound thrashing for bringing them into the house.

            The little boy, still smarting from the thrashing, went back to the church.  And this time, he left with ten copies of John's Gospel.  He told the pastor, "Whatever my mother did to me is nothing compared to what Jesus did for me because he loves me."

            So what do you do when you love the world?  Please understand that when I ask that question, I'm not talking about loving the meaningless things of the world, and those things that bring people to ruin.  No, I'm talking about how God loves the world, which refers to the people of this world.  And when we look at our Gospel lesson for today from the third chapter of John's Gospel, we can clearly see just what God did out of nothing but love.

            Here is where we meet a Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus.  He was one of the more high-ranking officials in the Jewish Sanhedrin.  Since he was a Pharisee, he was knowledgeable in the Scriptures.  And the Holy Spirit was certainly working through them.

            For Nicodemus to go searching out Jesus, he was doing so at a great risk of personal harm.  If he were caught, he would be stripped of his ranking, and he might very well have been stoned to death.  So he goes under the cover of darkness.  There were no street lights, no torches, or anything to light his way.  It was a very stealth operation.  That shows just how dedicated he was.

            In verse 2 of our Gospel lesson, we read:  "This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, 'Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.'"

            Did you notice the first person plural pronoun he uses?  Nicodemus says "WE know..."  That means he wasn't the only one.  Many other Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin knew that he was a teacher from God.  They knew it!  So why did the majority of these high-ranking Jewish officials have so much trouble in accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament?

            It's the result of the only thing sinful man has the ability to do, and that is to reject God's grace.  Isaiah chapter 63 verse 10 reads: "But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them."   And in Ephesians chapter 4 verse 30, Paul writes:  "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption." 

            That's what happened with the majority of the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin.  They grieved the Holy Spirit.  They had all the knowledge of the Scriptures, and they flatly denied what God was teaching them! 

            But Nicodemus was different.  The Holy Spirit touched his heart, and that led him straight to Jesus.  He wasn't there to try to trick him or trap him either.  He wanted to learn.  He wanted to know exactly what Jesus was teaching.  As it says in one of our collects, he wanted to "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" God's Word.

            I've often heard the lament, "Oh, the things we do because we love someone."  I've seen parents whose hearts are literally breaking because of a wayward and rebellious child.  I've seen spouses who are devastated over a marital conflict.  And I've seen pastors literally break down and weep over difficulties in a congregation.  Loving somebody isn't easy sometimes. 

            That's the way God looks at the world; that's the way he looks at you and me.  We aren't the easiest creatures to love.  So often we've done our own thing and ignored what God wants.  So often we have been a huge disappointment in God's eyes.

            So what do you do when you love the world?  What does God do?  The answer to that question is the central theme of our Gospel lesson for today.  We see that answer in these familiar words from verses 16-17:  "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.  For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."  

            Yes, that's what God did because he loved the world.  That's what Jesus came to do.  He came to give life to the world, to all who believe in him as their Saviour from sin.  The words of this text describe in a very few words that God's love extended far beyond the love he has for his own Son.  God's love for the world, for the likes of you and me was so great that Jesus gave his life up on the cross so we would be eternally saved. 

            This love is for every soul that ever was or will be.  Jesus died to pay for the sins of all people.  That's what this verse tells us in a very few words.

            There are those out there who have somehow gotten the idea that Jesus didn't die for everybody's sins, only the sins of the believer.  Can you imagine telling someone, "Jesus paid only for the sins of some, and not others, so we don't really know whether or not you are one of the lucky ones to benefit from Jesus' death and resurrection."  How horrible would that be!  Nobody would know for certain if they were saved or not!

            Now granted that the believer is the one who will ultimately benefit from what Jesus did; but the price Jesus paid was for everybody's sins, whether they believe it or not. 

            There's an old illustration for this.  Imagine somebody came up and told you that they deposited a hundred thousand dollars in your bank account.  All you had to do was to go and spend it.  But if you didn't believe it and didn't spend it, all the money in the world would do you no good. 

            I've had people answer that by saying, "Yeah, I'd just have the bank send me a statement.  I'll believe it when I see it in writing." 

            God has given us his promise in writing too, and that hasn't made any difference for some people.  They still refuse to believe, and so they grieve the Holy Spirit by doing so.  This is what was going on with the contemporaries of Nicodemus. 

            So what do you do when you love the world?  God's answer is that you do whatever it takes to save the people living there.  When mankind first fell into sin, God promised a Saviour that would crush the serpent's head.  Through Abraham and the prophets, God kept pointing ahead to the Saviour that was to come.  And when the proper time had come, Jesus came into the world as a human being, as a baby in Bethlehem's manger.

            Jesus lived the life we could not live, and died the death that we all deserve.  He became one of us to save us.  Regardless of whatever sin we have committed, through faith in Jesus our Saviour we have forgiveness that is complete and total.  Nothing else is necessary.

            We can take a great deal of comfort in the words of Hebrews chapter 4 verses 14-16:  "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

            What do you do when you love the world?  God sent Jesus so the world would not be condemned, but be saved.  God sent us a Saviour who would sympathize with us and be with us and understand us.  Jesus is our Saviour, not because of anything we have done, not because we perfectly loved God and deserved his blessing, but because we were unable to save ourselves.

            John's Gospel is indeed a strong love letter from God, which is part of his much larger letter to us in the words of the Bible.  The Holy Spirit worked through John's Gospel to touch the heart of a young Jewish boy who came to know his Saviour.  Even though he might have had to suffer a bit because of it, still whatever his mother did to him was never enough to shake his faith and make him deny his Saviour that loved him so very much.

            John's Gospel is indeed a very good portal for the entrance into the Holy Scriptures.  As sinners, we can look at one verse and know God's forgiving love for us.  "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."