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God so loved the world

Sermon for Christmas Eve based on John 3:16

Thomas was born blind.  It was determined his optic nerve wasn’t working.  Basically this critical piece wasn’t able to carry the information of what his eyes were looking at to his brain.  Since he was born that way and his optic nerve never performed correctly, by the time he was 23 years old he had lived in total blackness his whole life.  No information was ever transferred from eye to brain.  And at times in history that would have meant no hope. 

But eleven years ago, doctors at Georgetown University Hospital did an experimental procedure on Thomas.  Turns out there was hope.  They took working nerve cells and injected them into the dead optic nerve.  They were trying to get things working, just hoping it would stimulate something.  A week passed with no results.  Then Thomas woke up one day to a new and different experience.  Light. 

I can’t imagine what that was like.  Maybe like the day you learn to ride a bike.  Your whole life spent not knowing something, then all of a sudden one day you can.  Of course it’s more than that.  We haven’t lived our whole life in the darkness of being blind to then experience light as a totally unique thing.  So often we take what we know for granted.  Things don’t surprise us.  In our world of Google and instant answers we hardly experience anything as totally new.  Things don’t jolt us or shock us. 

Even tonight, Christmas Eve, isn’t shocking.  You could have expected everything you see.  Beautiful Christmas lights, Christmas trees, singing familiar carols.  The readings are ones you’ve probably heard before, especially if you’ve been to a Christmas service.  So nothing in the Bible passages jars you.  The single verse we ponder together is well known too.  You probably could’ve given it a pretty good go from memory, John 3:16.  Some of you have known it almost your whole life by heart.  Even people who don’t read the Bible know there’s something about that verse.  This evening though, pretend none of that is true.  Pretend it’s the first time you’re hearing those words.  Listen as if it’s a new and different experience.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

As connected as human beings are through the internet and social media, the individual is still supreme in our culture.  From the cowboys of the plains being rugged individuals, to the need to find yourself and be you, people get the impression they’re the center of their own universe.  Everything backs that up.  Commercials on TV, self-help books, and even our own parents telling us we should do what makes us happy.  Except when you hear John 3:16 for the first time it seems to indicate things are the other way around.  God is first, what’s most important in this verse.  The one who is eternal and all powerful, the one with no beginning and no end, the God who designed and created the universe and you, invites you into what he’s got going on.  Your personal story, your very life, your purpose are all because of him. 

God so loved the world.  I’m shocked by those words.  Have you noticed this world lately?  Listened to people at all?  People hold grudges and gossip.  Put themselves over everybody else.  There’s crime and pornography.  Society breaking down and getting worse in places.  And this is what God is supposed to have loved?  We can admit the world has faults.  Things are so divided that every day we retreat more into our own sanctuaries, finding more reasons to be isolated.  Of course that’s the world you and I live in.  And we’re just as bad.  Rotten to the core.  Finding ways to be greedy.  Expressing ourselves in lies.  Caught cheating.  God alone doesn’t satisfy us, we need a room full of presents to try and make ourselves happy for a moment.  We claim our problems and sins aren’t as bad as others.  Murderers and thieves are worse.  According to the courts maybe, but not to God.  Our lives are proof God has no reason to love us. 

That’s what makes these words so shocking.  God loved the world.  I’m in the world.  Therefore God loved me?  Imagine hearing that for the first time.  God so loved the world which abuses his Word and ignores him in worship?  God so loved you and me the same.  God so loved the world.  God so loved those who don’t always return his love.  God so loved you.

Except talk is cheap.  Politicians tell me they love me.  Celebrities and athletes profess their love for the fans.  And we want to believe all of them.  You and I so want love.  But the love of politicians, celebrities, and athletes comes with a catch.  They profess love for you so long as you vote for them, buy their endorsed products.  Actually you need to love them by liking and commenting on their social media.  You need to watch their videos and send them all sorts of love.  Then they’ll love you.  Boyfriends or girlfriends can say they love you.  But if they want something for loving you, it can break your heart.  It’s the catch.  There’s always a catch.  So we make people show us love first.  God can’t just say he loves, he has to prove it.

If you let it, your thoughts might drift to those Christmas trees at home and the presents underneath.  Who doesn’t love presents?  We love to get.  So if you’re hearing for the first time God so loved the world that he gave, your first thought might be gave what?  What could we expect God to give?  Something big?  Presents that don’t get wrapped or put under the tree?  God could’ve given good weather today and the rain of this past weekend.  He could be responsible for all the rich food you’ll consume over these next couple of days.  He gives a house with family in it, good jobs, and strong bank accounts.  Retirement checks that cover living expenses and good health.  These would be great gifts from God.  But nothing could prepare us for what he gave.

His only begotten Son.  The one and only.  That which was most precious to God.  Jesus Christ who for eternity before creation, existed with God as God.  Now, that Son was given to the world.  If you had 10 sons, you wouldn’t give one up for the neighbor.  You wouldn’t give up a son for a family member.  God gave up his Son for a world of sinners.  In the barn of Bethlehem came Christ, not to a throne like he deserved, but a feeding trough.  God gave Jesus to live among the filth and experience it for himself.  Jesus had to know and understand real temptations like lust and lying.  People made fun of him and ran him out of town.  The Son of God put up with persecution and punishment that stretched from manger to cross to his grave. 

Here’s where God obviously extracts the catch, right?  Why would God do this?  Why give his only begotten Son to a world that didn’t care?  Hearing those words for the first time, it doesn’t make sense.  God…gave…that whoever believes in him shall not perish.  Believing isn’t doing something.  It’s receiving something.  Receiving from the God of the universe a love so great he sent Jesus that first Christmas.  Sent him to be your substitute.  Jesus obeyed God’s laws perfectly.  Jesus became the sacrifice in your place.  He died for your sins.  He died for your failures.  Jesus is your Savior so you wouldn’t perish.  That’s God’s love for you.  So great a love you don’t perish.

What bothers you tonight?  Are you struggling with the bottle or pills?  Is it difficult to look at your spouse the same way after they’ve wronged you?  Maybe your past and the wrongdoing of childhood is catching up with you.  It might be your temper or inability to let things go.  You might realize you aren’t the mother, son, student, or employee you should be or want to be.  What sin really gets at your conscience?  Hear God’s Word again, like it’s the first time.  Whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  Takes your breath away.  Amazing.  Bow down before the Savior who makes it all possible tonight in the manger. 

Christmas is very predictable.  Also easy to miss and go through the motions.  We’ve heard Luke 2 before, maybe can even mouth some of the words.  We’ve sung Hark the Herald Angels Sing before.  The candlelight is very familiar, Silent Night is nice, but the same as last Christmas.  Hard to see and hear things for the first time.  Don’t let that happen with these words.  Look into the manger and see more than the Christmas card image or a reason to get a few days off work or school.  See in the manger your hope, your joy, your life.  See God’s love, so great, so amazing, so for you.  See God’s love wrapped in the gift of the Christ child.  It’s for the world, it’s for you.  God gave it that whoever believes, receives from him a gift like no other.  Forgiveness and eternal life.  Listen once more, trying hard to listen like it’s the first time to simple, powerful, incredible words.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”