Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sermon: John 3:16 God The Giver

It’s probably the most famous verse in the whole Bible. If I had given you the reference, you could have told me what it was without a moment’s hesitation. Yet just because something is well known, doesn’t mean we really know it. This morning, for a few minutes, we’re going to think about that verse - John 3:16 - and what it means for us.

It might be your favourite verse, but just as a diamond on its own may be impressive; rather we want to see the diamond set among a whole crown of precious stones - the verse wasn’t just randomly spoken by Jesus. They come in a context, in the middle of a conversation, as Jesus points to God the gracious giver.

Nicodemus had come to Jesus by night - perhaps to avoid being seen. He was a religious man, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews. He knew there was something special about Jesus, but couldn’t work out what it was. Is Jesus really from God?

Jesus immediately begins to burst his bubble. You see Nicodemus thought that his religious duty would be enough to bring him to God. His prayers and his sacrifices and his giving and his religious performance would surely be good enough for God. You might find yourself in agreement with him. It’s a mindset that we’re very familiar with in Northern Ireland. Our duties and services and sacrifices to God are made in order to win God’s approval - you could also find that this Pharisee could be renamed Nick O’Demus.

But straight away, Jesus declares: ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ - or, as other versions put it, which actually make more sense of Nicodemus’ next words: ‘without being born again.’

Sometimes ‘born again’ is used as a slur against certain types of Christians; maybe those who are more extreme, or more straight-laced. But Jesus says that everyone and anyone needs to be born again to enter the kingdom. Every Christian is therefore a born again Christian, or else they’re not a Christian at all.

Nicodemus wonders about the mechanics of entering the womb a second time, but Jesus points to the new birth by the Spirit. Again Nicodemus can’t get his head around this. He doesn’t quite grasp what Jesus is talking about. All this chat about born again and Spirit and what have you. And so he asks: ‘How can these things be?’ (9)

Jesus takes him back to the Old Testament, and gives an illustration of what Jesus himself has come to do, which shows that salvation is a gift from God - that God is the giver.

Back in Numbers, from our first reading, Moses is leading the people of Israel through the wilderness. They have been rescued from Egypt, and they’re on the way to the Promised Land. Have you ever been on a long car journey and the voice from the back seat pipes up: ‘are we nearly there yet?’ ‘I’m hungry’ ‘I’m thirsty.’ ‘I need a wee.’

Moses is on the journey that lasts forty years. The people of Israel grumbled over and over again. And in this particular incident (Num 21:4-9), the LORD sends poisonous serpents among the people. The people began to die when they were bitten. It was a serious situation, as the people saw loved ones perishing and they feared for themselves.

So they repent - they recognise that they have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against Moses. They ask Moses to pray for them. And so Moses prays. And how does God resolve the situation? The people wanted the serpents taken away, but rather God provides the means of salvation from the serpents.

‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ (Num 21:8). So what does it take to be healed? Look and live. Can you imagine someone being bit, but refusing to look at the bronze serpent on the pole? You’re in pain, you close your eyes - but all it takes is to look at the serpent (in faith) and you will live.

God sent the punishment, because he is the righteous and just judge. But God also sent the cure, because he is the gracious and loving one. It’s the point Jesus makes: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Jesus was lifted up on the cross, raised high, so that whoever was perishing, whoever was in danger because of their sin, they can look to Jesus, believe in him, and be saved, be given eternal life. And that leads us into our verse. It flows naturally - because of the ‘for’ at the beginning of verse 16. When we say it by itself, it sounds a bit strange having a for at the start, but within the flow, it perfectly fits:

‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

The bronze serpent points forward to what Jesus would do on the cross. Just as God gave Moses the serpent for saving lives, so God gave Jesus to provide salvation and eternal life. God is the giver - and it’s all because of his love. ‘For God so loved the world...’

What a remarkable and wonderful and amazing statement. God loved the world- as Don Carson says, this isn’t amazing because of the bigness of the world, but because of the badness of the world. The world here means people hostile to God; yet even though we are sinful and rebellious, God loved us. Indeed, you can even go so far as to put your own name in there: ‘God so loved ... ‘ God so loved Joe Bloggs that he...

God’s love led to God’s giving, as he gave the most precious object he had - his only Son - in order to rescue us. God is the giver, in giving us Jesus, who came to die on the cross, lifted up to draw all people to himself.

But as with all gifts, they have to be received. If I were to write you a cheque, you have to cash it in to receive the benefit. And so it is here- God has given, but we must receive. We are to believe in him- to trust in him, to throw all your weight on him, to depend on him. In doing so, we are promised that we will not perish, but have eternal life.

On this Gift Day, as we bring our gifts to God, it cannot be as a religious duty; as a way of earning merit or receiving approval. Rather, our giving must be in joyful response to the God who is the giver - of all things, everything we have, but especially the giver who has given us salvation in Jesus Christ.

It’s one thing to know what John 3:16 says. It’s so much more precious to really know it in our lives and experience. May we know the giver, and rejoice in his gift. Amen.

This sermon was preached at the Gift Day in Aghavea Church on Sunday 2nd June 2013.

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