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For God so Loved the World

This sermon by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue was given at
Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia on March 18, 2012.

For God so Loved the World
Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21

Today is a day tailor made for railing against the evils of sin. A preacher could hardly find a better time and place than downtown Savannah on the morning after St. Patrick’s Day to decry this fallen world as lost in sin. Most of the revelers are now sleeping, with relatively few left crashed out under the riot of azalea blooms. The greatest excesses of the annual bacchanal are just behind us and I could get a real stem winder of a sermon cranked up to preach against sin if I was given to that style of sermon.

Classic evangelical preaching begins with convincing you that you are a horrible sinner. You shouldn’t even lift your head up to try to see God. To get it right, I would begin with fear. Fear of judgment. Fear of Hell. Fear of a vengeful God. Then and only then, once the fear factor has been cranked high, can you begin to introduce a note of grace. Don’t let them see God’s love until you dangle their feet over the flames of Hell.

The exemplar of this type of preaching is Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” from mid-1700s New England. Here is a sample from that famous sermon. Listen as I share some of Edwards words from that sermon:

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

This is not bedtime reading. To be fair to Jonathan Edwards, he was known to preach in a very quiet voice so that his hearers had to lean forward listening. He sought to convince by force of his argument, rather than going for the style I chose where the rhetoric is blasted at its hearers. I am certainly not opposed to the outcome of this style of preaching. The Presbyterian evangelist Daniel Baker gave a 10-day revival at the Episcopal Church in Beaufort South Carolina in 1831. He was exactly this type of preacher who preached fire and brimstone, but quietly so the listener had to hang on every word. The first Bishop of Georgia, Stephen Elliott, and seven other friends went forward at an altar call during that revival and it change his life for good. I certainly don’t mean to make fun of evangelicals as I consider myself evangelical. I believe in the Good News and I feel called to share it.

But no matter how you preach it, or the outcome of a revival, if Edwards and Baker are right, God must be a big meanie hell-bent on smiting you upside the head for all eternity. And yet, that is not exactly the God I meet in the Bible. Don’t hear me wrong. There is no hiding the fact, and I would not even want to try to hide it, that Jesus routinely taught about a coming judgment at the end of time. I am not a Universalist because Jesus wasn’t.

And yet, when we see Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus rarely led off with condemnation, and never when speaking with tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Jesus saved his ire for the holier than thou crowd who went around holding their piety over others. Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, not Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

Fear of hell might work. It may well be a good way to get folks to come running to the altar. But what I want to emphasize is this was not Jesus’ own method. Not once. I think the reason Jesus did not do this is he so often ran into people who had been beat up by life. They had been kicked around and were feeling pretty worthless. They knew they were sinners in need of turning their lives around. They just didn’t know if anyone cared. Then Jesus would look the person in his or her eyes, show genuine love and lift up the lowly.

Jesus showed great love and compassion for a woman caught in the very act of adultery. Jesus showed great love and compassion for a man born blind. Jesus showed great love and compassion for lepers and outcasts, tax collectors and notorious sinners.

When pressed to compress his teaching to the Cliff Notes version, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus begins with love and he said that his father did as well. “For God so loved the world.” Amazing. Not for God so loved the Episcopalians. Not for God so loved the righteous. Not even, for God so loved the perfect. None of that. Jesus says, “For God so loved the world.” The whole creation is worthy of God’s love and attention, outcast and sinners included.

Jesus could wander around Savannah today and find a lot of people who need love. There are a lot of people who need sleep and then some Tylenol too. But love is what is most needed. There are a lot of folks around this city who need to see themselves not in the eyes of others, but through the eyes of God. Finding evidence of lives turned away from God is easy and you don’t have to wander out around Savannah on St. Patrick’s to find it. Every day, everywhere you go, there are people trying to fill a God-sized hole in the hearts with everything but God. The perfect spouse, the right house, an impressive job, impeccable credentials and important friends can’t fill a hole in your heart any better than gallons of green beer.

Into this world turned away from God we get this message of love, “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.”

Jesus’ life and ministry do not begin with anger, judgment or righteous indignation. This is so like Jesus. Jesus always leads with love. The fourth chapter in John’s Gospel, which immediately follows this famous verse has Jesus meet a Samaritan woman at a well. While we see that others have shunned her. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus offers love and understanding, rather than judgment.

Jesus goes further, “For God so loved the world that he gave.” A gift. No cost. In the words of our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

God gave his son for the expressed purpose that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Jesus does not say that God gave his Son so that the elect chosen from before time may not perish. Jesus does not say that God gave his Son so that the people who wear the right clothes, drive the right cars and have the kids with the best manners and perfect teeth can have eternal life. Jesus also doesn’t emphasize right belief in terms of exact doctrines.

This simple statement is at the heart of our understanding of who God is and who we are to be. If we don’t get John 3:16, then the next verse illumines it further as Jesus says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” That’s as straightforward as Jesus could make it.

He did not come to condemn but to save. Those of us who are disciples are following Jesus’ example when we proclaim salvation and rather than condemnation and death. I don’t believe in Jesus Christ merely as some fire insurance against an eternity in hell. I believe in Jesus because the Christian Gospel is true and I have experienced the truth of it again and again. Jesus came to give life and life abundantly, in this world as well as the life of the world to come.

Are you afraid of death, punishment, or Hell? Let that fear go by focusing on the God who loves you and is present with you at this very moment. Turn your life over to God the son, Jesus, who came to give you life and love in place if fear.

We Episcopalians might not emphasize “Getting saved” but we sure believe in it. We share the belief with all Christians that we must give our lives to God through faith in Jesus Christ. If you are at the point of giving your life over to God, then just let go of that last bit of control you are holding on to long enough to turn your life over to God. The promise of a new birth is as real this morning as it was for Nicodemus that long ago evening when Jesus first said, “for God so loved that world that he gave.” The theological word for this is Justification. We are seen by God as Just or Righteous, not by virtue of good works, but because of faith alone. We are justified by our faith.

What about those of us who have already been checked off on the guest list for the Kingdom of God? This is the real emphasis within The Episcopal Church. Rather than the one time act of Justification, this is Sanctification—the process of becoming Holy. This is the work of a lifetime.

This season of Lent, is a time to focus on the work of Sanctification. You may have given up something for Lent, whether that is giving up drinking Cokes or not eating meat, or my personal favorite, giving up eating desert in front of other people. Or perhaps you have taken on something for Lent. You might have started daily disciplines like Scripture reading or prayers or other devotions. Or maybe you are reading something special for Lent. Our readings for today show that whatever it is you are doing for Lent whether it is denying yourself something or taking on some act of piety, we see that this is something we do not for God, but for ourselves.

This is why the Letter to the Ephesians states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” You cannot deserve God’s love or earn your way into heaven no matter how much you give up or what saintly practices you take up. The path to heaven has been prepared by Jesus because “God so loved the world” not because you were so pious in Lent.

But now that you have come to faith in God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, the challenge is to day by day become more Christ like. This is not easy. It is the work of a lifetime. In Lent, we especially focus on disciplines that challenge us to be more attentive to our relationship with God. Lent then is not your gift to God, but your gift to yourself. Lent is the time set aside to focus more on that most important relationship we have, to the God who so loved the world that he gave his only son. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, no matter how you might have heard this preached. Jesus came into the world to offer God’s love. So if you overdid it this St. Patrick’s and came in here looking for condemnation, you’ve some to the wrong place. But if you have come to church this morning to experience God’s love, welcome home. For in this Eucharist, you can repent of your sins, and begin amending your life, not because God is a big meanie Hell bent on punishing you, but because God loves you so much that he gave his son. That is very Good News and nothing to fear.

Amen.

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