Lent 3 – Year B

Preached on March 18, 2012

At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brookline

The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello


Numbers 21:4–9;  Psalm 107:1–3, 17–22;  Ephesians 2:1–10; John 3:14–21


The sixteenth verse of the third chapter of the Gospel of John is known as the most famous bible passage ever.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotton Son that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  John 3:16.


Anyone who has watched a Red Sox home game has spotted the sign in the stands just over the batter.  John 3:16.


But what does this most famous phrase from the Bible actually mean?


Well, it depends on who you ask.



Some would say that it means the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ.  It was the fundamentalist evangelical movement that worked to spread John 3:16 as a simple way of spreading the belief that the only way to God is through belief in Jesus Christ.


Others might say that it is a statement about the abundant love of God meant to explain what purpose Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was to serve.  


Some will claim it is an exclusionary account limiting God’s favor to Christians.  Others will say it is the greatest profession of God’s love for all of God’s creation and proves that what God wants more for us than anything is eternal life. Not after life, mind you, but eternal life.


So who’s right?  Well, it’s important for me to own the lens I bring to this reading.  My study of scripture, tradition and reason leads me to read this passage as a love letter from God.  The God I know does not exclude. The God I know is not selective. And while I firmly believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord, My Savior and The Way, the Truth and the Life for me, I am neither prepared nor inclined to say that those who find other paths to God are outside of God’s love and grace.


That’s just not who I know God to be.  


How do I come to that conclusion?  Because, when it comes to scripture and matters of faith, I have the mind of a toddler.  When confronted with something I don’t understand I keep asking “Why?”. While we often get stuck on the what, I think God deals in Why.  I believe scripture is meant to answer “why” much more than it is meant to answer “what.”


And so I look at this passage, and I hear Jesus dealing in why, not what.  Why would Jesus go to the cross? Why did God come and dwell among us in Jesus?  Why does God want us to have eternal life?


For me, it all comes back to the first, foundational phrase in this passage.  “For God so loved the world.”


That’s why.  And that “why” undergirds any “what” that comes before or after it, either in scripture or the history of the church.  Because God so loved the world, so loves the world now and will continue to love the world into eternity.


Because God so loved the world is the answer to any question.  And if what we do in God’s name does not draw people to conclude that God must love the world beyond measure, then we need to think what the real reason behind our words and actions might be.


Everything we do is meant to reflect the reality that God’s love for the world is abundant, everflowing and free.


Holding ourselves to this root of God’s action in the world and in our lives is the key, I believe, to a faithful understanding of God’s hopes and desires for us.  Because God so loves the world. That’s why.


Lent is hard.  By now you may be tiring of the focus on repentance, starting our time together with the confession.  The tone of the service may feel like a “downer,” as if you needed to come here to be reminded of what is broken or hurting in the world.

So why do we do it?  Well, I’d have to start with because God so love us.  


But does that mean God wants us to suffer?  To give up the things we like like chocolate, to sit for a season in our own need for forgiveness?


No, God does not want us to suffer.  If you have taken on a Lenten practice in order to suffer because Jesus suffered, let me invite you to let that practice go.


Lent isn’t about suffering for suffering’s sake.  It is about breaking free from all the other things in our lives where we look for affirmation and “feeling good” so that we might be reminded that everything we really need comes from God, and God alone.  


During Lent, we try to clear out unhelpful behaviors, we repent of wrongdoing, we turn down the volume in our lives so that what’s left in front of us is the raw, unfettered promise that God so loves us, and that love is everything we need.


We are invited, during Lent, to join with Jesus in his suffering.  That is, to find in Jesus’ suffering some redemption, some hope that might come out of the suffering we know in our lives.  It is not to create suffering in some hope of knowing the pain Jesus knew.


We are not called to be Jesus.  That job has been taken. We are called to be free.  Why? Because God so loves the world.


So when God seems mystical, as God so often does.  When the church doesn’t makes sense. When you find yourself asking how to hear something, or whether words spoken in God’s name are actually from God, ask yourself, “Why?”  And if the answer isn’t “because God so Loved the world.” Keep asking why.


Keep asking why.  Because God’s love for the world is always the answer.


Knowing that love, trusting that love, acting out of that love, that’s eternal life.  And eternal life is everything God wants for us. Why? Because God so loves us.




© 2018 The Reverend Jeffrey W. Mello


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