God Loves You!
Based on Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21
Last week I encouraged you all to begin to read and study the Bible and to discover in it the great love story between the people of God and their God – between you and God. I hope that some of you took me up on that invitation and have begun the biblical study that will lead to your transformative growth towards salvation – that is, growing into the mind and heart of Jesus the Christ. A few of you routinely reach out to me with your questions about some aspect of what the Bible has to say – things that are confusing or mystifying. By far the most confusing declaration in the Bible is its most compelling as well – the truth that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less! That last truth is from Phillip Yancey’s book, “What’s so Amazing About Grace”. The Bible tells us that God loves us in the same enormous and unconditional way no matter if we realize and celebrate it or choose not to believe.
That is the definition of grace – God loves us deeply and without reservation whether we believe we are lovable or not. God loves us so much that God continues to reach out to us to try to get us to stop our striving to “earn” God’s love and to instead just accept and learn to trust it. Receiving such an unearned gift is totally against our constant human striving to distinguish ourselves. After all, the world awards us for our accomplishments, our achievements, our trophies and accolades. God on the other hand rewards us just because we are. God continuously seeks to be in relationship and to get us to stop striving for what we already have – a world that God loved so much that God came as Jesus so that the world might be saved from human sin.
Our scriptures today teach us about God’s unconditional love for us – about God’s grace. Whether it is God’s love which heals an impatient and whiny people in the wilderness, God’s grace which brings us to life through our faith in Jesus the Christ, or Jesus answering the question of the Pharisee Nicodemus about how he must die to his love of the law and be reborn in the love of God – there is much to learn about how much God loves us. Before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer and praise that God perfectly loves each of us!
The Israelites are wandering and battling their way through the wilderness. Aaron has just died and his son, Eleazar, has taken over as High Priest. They have left Mount Hor and are now moving around Edom and the people get cranky. Once again, they whine against Moses and God because they are tired of wandering. God, in response to their impertinence sends poisonous snakes among the people – many were bitten and died. Israel, once again realizing that they had sinned against God and Moses, repented and asked Moses to pray for relief. God had Moses make a snake on a pole and those that were bitten could look on this talisman and be healed. God’s love forgave them and healed them – for neither the first nor the last time.
The Apostle Paul is writing to the believers in Ephesus. Here in the early part of the letter he is reminding them of how their faith in God through Jesus has brought them back to life. They had been dead to God because of their sin of following the “ruler of the power of the air” (aka having their minds on worldly things). God’s grace found all of them, Paul included, and raised them to new life through baptism and their faith. As Paul writes, “…For by grace you have been saved by faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no man can boast….” God’s great and freely given gift of love for them made them alive with Christ.
Nicodemus has been visiting with Jesus. Jesus has told Nicodemus that he had to be born again in order to understand where Jesus’ power came from. Nicodemus, being a good Pharisee, is very literal in his interpretation of these words – and because of that is very confused! Jesus tries to unpack what he said by bringing up a story of Moses and the snake-staff to help Nicodemus understand how God’s love works. Jesus tells the Pharisee that God loves the whole world so much that God sent God’s-self into the world to save it. God sent light into the darkness of the world so that people who choose to love the light can be saved from their darkness. This is how much God loves!
Spiritual people across the millennia have tried to convey the fundamental truth of God’s love for us. Joshua Brooks, in his book entitled, “Playing for an Audience of One” tells a story about the German theologian of the last century Karl Barth. He writes, “…Karl Barth arguably was the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. His twelve-volume Church Dogmatics, alone, consists of over ten thousand pages of systematic theology. Toward the end of his life, Barth made a tour of the United States, where he had the opportunity to speak at several of our nation’s top universities. During a question and answer time following one of his lectures, a student posed, what seemed an impossible question to answer. ‘Dr. Barth, you have written extensively on every aspect of theology and church history. I’m wondering if you could sum it all up in a short sentence or two.’ The room fell silent. Dr. Barth just stood there for a moment, carefully considering how to respond. Some of the professors and students who were there clearly began to feel awkward that such a trifling question would be asked of such a brilliant scholar. Finally, Karl Barth turned toward the student and succinctly replied, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
One of the most learned and erudite theologians, who had written voluminously attempting to explain how we understand God at work in the world over time, condensed it all down to a ditty that we all learned as children. Similarly, the author Brennan Manning in his book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel” put it this way, “…My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn or deserve it….”
What keeps you and me from understanding, accepting and trusting how much God loves us? The answer might be in the last section of our Gospel reading for today. Jesus has just spoken the most well-known verse in all of the New Testament, John 3:16. Important as that is, however, to our understanding of God’s enormous love for God’s creation, it doesn’t explain why people don’t accept the gift of God’s great love for them. Jesus has just stated that God sent Jesus to save the world. He then goes on to say, “…Those who believe in him (Jesus) are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God….” Once again, Jesus says, humans have made a choice to try to hide their darkness of their sin rather than allowing it to be transformed by their Creator’s unconditional love.
Henri Nouwen, in his book “The Life of the Beloved”, offers a view into our darkness when he writes, “…When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection…As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, ‘Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.’… My dark side says, ‘I am no good….I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned.’ Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence….”
Being God’s beloved children is the core truth of the Bible, the Christian life and the core truth that enlivens our faith. No matter the dark voices or places in our lives – when we open ourselves to God’s grace, the light of God through Jesus shines through and conquers the dark. Children of God hear the good news – God loves you just as you are, with your doubts, fears, anxieties, questions, and wonderfully unique gifts. God loves you more than you can ever imagine and forever. God loves you! Repeat this as often as you can until you believe it to be true. Amen and amen!