Lent 4 B: God’s Offensive Love

Dear Partner in Preaching,

John 3:16, everyone’s favorite Bible verse. But I’ve wondered whether, if people thought about what this verse says for just a little longer than it takes to read a bumper sticker, it might just prove to be one of our least favorite verses in the Bible. Let me explain.

Jesus articulates in this statement what Luther called “the Gospel in a nutshell” – that God is fundamentally a God of love, that love is the logic by which the kingdom of God runs, and that God’s love trumps everything else, even justice, in the end.

I realize not everyone reads it this way. After all, Jesus says “everyone who believes…” will eternal life, which perhaps implies a different outcome for those who don’t believe. But read on, for in the next verse Jesus states that, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Period. Moreover, the “judgment” to come is not punishment but simply the crisis that befalls those who will not come out of the darkness for fear of the light. It is not judgment as punishment, but judgment as crisis, as tragedy, as loss. God comes in love to redeem such loss, turn such tragedy into victory, and demonstrate true power through sheer vulnerability and sacrifice.

Which is the first reason we might not name this as our favorite verse if we gave it any real thought, as our world – and quite often our lives – operate according to the more traditional belief that security comes not through vulnerability and sacrifice but through power and might. Oh, we probably don’t go around wearing t-shirts that say “might makes right,” but we live according to such logic regularly. For we live in a world that seeks security not only through power but also through wealth and consumption, and we are taught from a very early age to avoid true vulnerability – and the truly vulnerable – at all costs. So, sacrifice? Sure, when we can afford to. Love our enemies? Maybe if everything else is taken care of first. Vulnerability? Only if there is no other choice.

The kind of self-sacrificing love Jesus offers is frightening to such a world. No wonder some run and hide, as it requires us to trust nothing other than God. And most of us find it impossible to embrace Jesus’ example…except when we ourselves have been brought low by illness, or loss, or a broken relationship, or disappointed hopes or some other way by which the world taught us that no matter how hard we try, no matter what position we may achieve, no matter how much money we may save, yet we cannot secure our destiny or save our lives. Only God can do that. Only love can do that. And it’s frightening to be so utterly dependent on God.

But there is a second reason this may not be our favorite verse as well, and that’s because of the claim it makes on us. Notice that God doesn’t ask our permission first before sending Jesus to die for us. I know, I know, that may seem like an odd detail to point out. But think of the claim a person – any person – has on us once they’ve saved our life, let alone died doing it. In the face of such love, such sacrifice, we must surrender all of our claims.

Years ago I preached a sermon about the offensive nature of God’s grace, suggesting that we might add four words to the end of our service of baptism, saying, “Child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…like it or not.” A few weeks later, a friend shared a bedtime encounter he’d had with his then six-year-old son. Upset that his father was putting him to bed earlier than he wanted to go, Benjamin said, “Daddy, I hate you.” Benjamin’s father, exercising the kind of parental wisdom I hope for, replied, “Ben, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.” Benjamin’s response to such gracious words surprised his dad: “Don’t say that!” “I’m sorry Benjamin, but it’s true. I love you.” “Don’t,” his son protested, “Don’t say that again!” At which point Ben’s father, remembering the words of the sermon, said, “Benjamin, I love you…like it or not!”

Why was Benjamin protesting his father’s love? Because he realized he could not control his father’s love and twist it to his advantage. Indeed, in the face of such love there is no bargaining and, ultimately, no control whatsoever. If his dad had said that if he ate all his vegetables he could stay up, or agreed that Ben could stay up later this night if he went to bed earlier the next, then Benjamin would have been a player, he would have exercised some measure of control over the situation and, indeed, over his dad. But in the face of unconditional love we are powerless. Yes, perhaps we can choose to accept it or not, perhaps we can run away from it, but we cannot influence it, manipulate it, or control it. In the face of this kind of love, we are powerless. And only when we’ve died to all of our delusions of actually being in control do we realize that such loss of perceived freedom and power is actually life.

God’s love, you see, is tenacious. And so God’s love will continue to chase after us, seeking to hold onto us and redeem us all the days of our lives, whether we like it or not.

So maybe this is a verse, if we took it more seriously, that might terrify us in how it renders us powerless in a world literally hell-bent on accumulating and exercising power. Then again, maybe as we remember God’s tenacious love we might also realize that, precisely because this is the one relationship in our lives over which we have no power, it is also the one relationship we cannot screw up. Because God created it, God maintains it, and God will bring it to a good end, all through the power of God’s vulnerabile, sacrificial, and ever so tenacious love.

Thank you, Dear Partner, for announcing to us this word that cuts through our illusions in order to heal and that brings us to death that we might taste real life. Your words matter more than ever, and I’m grateful for your courage in speaking them.

Yours in Christ,