A Given

March 14, 2021
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

Imagine you are wandering deep into a space of wilderness. Just as you begin to wonder if you have gone so far into the wilderness that you have found a path that no other person has travelled before you spy something etched, by human hand, into the rock face next to you. It is one word and 3 numbers. John 3:16.

This scripture reference: John 3:16 is the bumper sticker of all scripture verses. Whether folks know what the scripture verse actually says may be up for debate, the reference itself is highly spottable: scrawled across bathroom stalls, on mugs, billboards, key chains, bracelets, book marks, purses, and pillows. It hovers like a beacon over wooden crosses on the side of the interstate. Even deep in the wilderness it seems, one cannot escape the pervasive Christian fascination with John 3:16.

For God so loved the world…or as the Inclusive Language translation records it: Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. [First Egalitarian Translation]

Verse 17 goes on to say:

God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.

It’s a fascinating thing that it says right there in the verse that God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world when this series of verses has often been used as a tool to threaten people into faith in the name of Jesus.  For being a passage that explicitly states God’s love is not about condemnation, this passage sure has been used to condemn.

This verse, in its early context was a gift to a subset community of Jesus followers finding their own path and voice in the deep and diverse sea of a Jewish community that had and was exploring a variety of ways of speaking truths and practicing their faith. A young and growing community that is a minority faith practice trying to find its footing in the big picture of a large community as a whole needs bold statements of affirmation. This early community did not have the power or resources to marginalize or exclude others. Instead, it was hard at work striving to affirm those who had already joined their movement while inviting and encouraging others to join in as well.

To modern, especially western, ears who have experienced Christianity as a dominant and powerful force for centuries in the world these verses have the potential to strike a very different tone; ringing with power, privilege, and authority to uplift some while marginalizing others. Mindful of this, I want to invite us to listen again, and if we are able to explore the undercurrents of meaning and truth in the depths of this passage with ears that are listening beyond the surface message of condemnation and judgement.

Let’s start by acknowledging the surrounding text of these verses. We find these verses in the heart of a passage that tells the story of Nicodemus, a respected leader of the Sanhedrin – a religious authority, who sought out Jesus at night for a secret conversation to better understand the message that Jesus was teaching. There was no question for Nicodemus about the authority with which Jesus was acting – it was clear to him that the signs and wonders Jesus performed could only come from God. Yet, Nicodemus was seeking more, more clarity, more understanding, more insight into the mystery of this Jesus of Nazareth.

The insight that Jesus offers Nicodemus is that

“Unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kingdom of God.”

And when the prospect of figuring out how to re-enter his mother’s womb to be born again is even more mysterious to Nicodemus than Jesus himself. Jesus goes on to say:

“No one can enter God’s kindom without being born of water and the Spirit.”

To be born of the Spirit is to open oneself up to the mystery of life in the Spirit.

Jesus continues:

“The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

To be born of the Spirit is to open oneself to the mystery of being a child in spirit, curious and open to learning the ways of God.

And the way of God, is love.

Being someone who leans towards the arts and theology, I’m not a particularly mathematically inclined person. My formal math education stopped abruptly in college after I had fulfilled my baseline required math course. But I do remember some terms – and one term that rings vaguely familiar to me is: givens. Givens are the pieces of information you have which allow you to create a proof or find something you are seeking. Given this and this, decipher this. The given we receive about God in John 3:16 is: love.

God so loved the world…it is from a place of love that God interacts with the world.

In order to begin to perceive and decipher that love we are to be born again as children in Spirit. If you are a child or youth participant in the community of Hyattsville Mennonite Church you will likely (I hope) not be surprised by the given of God being love. That given is the foundation from which children’s and youth faith formation at HMC  starts as we learn, grow, and explore what it means to be people of faith, hope, and love. For the littlest among us the very first messages we strive to offer in Sunday school, children’s time, and community life are these: God is love and you are loved. As the kids grow and learn and develop deeper understandings of the world and their place in it – we continue to reinforce that message: God is love and you are loved…and we also start to turn that lens of love outward so as to explore the world around us and think about what God’s love within us means for how we interact with others. Which is what we all, at every age, are exploring every time we join in worship together – what does God’s love mean and change in action as we live in relationship with ourselves, each other, and the world around us?

Going back to John 3:16 we see that the given of God’s love in action and relationship between God and the world moves God to gift the world with the presence of the Only Begotten One for the purpose of thriving life. The Only Begotten is God’s own presence: the Word made flesh; Immanuel, God with us. God’s love comes into the world to breathe life into the world.

At Christmas, during the season in which we celebrate the in-breaking of God’s love into the world as Immanuel, God with us, I gifted Becky with a hydroponic pansy growing kit. It is simply a blue mason jar with a small net of soil and a large wick that draws water from the jar up into the small net in order to nourish the seeds. We followed the directions to put the kit together, planted the seeds, added water, placed the jar in sunlight, and waited. Days turned to weeks and small seedlings sprouted. Weeks turned into months and strong leaves emerged growing and growing until this week when a bud suddenly burst forth and blossomed into a tiny purple, white, and gold flower. We made a space, planted seeds, offered them sunlight and water, watched, and waited. Through mostly unseen connections a flower came into being. The process of life at work is mysterious.

“The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Sometimes we get to see and experience the fruits of our labors of love in moments of connection, justice, and beauty, like the tiny flower that emerged this week. More often we experience the wilderness of mystery in our living out of love in the world. We can live out love, work for change, and seek justice and still find ourselves surrounded by loneliness, brokenness, trauma and the need for deep healing. We have been in a particularly mysterious wilderness for the past year as we have lived in the midst of a global pandemic. There has been deep grief on this journey. It has been an overwhelming wilderness in so many different ways and contexts. And now, as the vaccine starts to become available, dare we hope we are on the verge of beginning to see a path out of this stage of wilderness?

Caregiving coach and author Rachel Macy Stafford wrote this week about the mysterious way in which everyday acts of love become reference points of grounding and connection through times of challenge and wilderness:

Let’s face it – right now, we [are looking for] this validation. Right now, we need to know that these day-in and day-out…acts of love are more significant than we realize.

Because the critics – including the ones inside our heads – often suggest otherwise, making us feel like there is more to it than just loving.

But here’s what I know:

When faced with the fears, uncertainties, and struggles of life, [people] need a reference point—a place in their minds and hearts where they feel loved and safe.

Choose love as much as you humanly can – and watch as it becomes [a] reference point.

Your love is a reference point and it’s orienting someone again and again and again during this baffling time

The love letter that is John 3:16 invites us to be in and come out of spaces of wilderness leaning into the presence of love, looking to love as a reference point for healing, growth, and transformation, and opening paths to life by learning and choosing to live out love for ourselves and others.

This week is full of delightful holiday dates to observe – today, March 14 is Pi day…tomorrow the Ides of March and on Wednesday: St Patrick’s Day. For a few years now I have been rooting for March 16 (3/16) that day right in the middle of all of those to become known as “For God So Loved the World Day!” And when I first started saying it – it was in gest – a joke on the familiarity of the numbers of this verse. After sitting with this passage this week and reframing my own perspective a bit – I plan to embrace the celebration deep in my being as a reminder of God’s love, God’s deep, deep love.

For, God so loved the world. Yes, God so loves the world.