Fourth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Numbers 21:4–9 | Ephesians 2:1–10 | John 3:14–21

Text: John 3:14-21

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  John 3:16—it’s one of the best loved passages in all of Scripture.  It appears everywhere from signs in the background at baseball games to the bottom of soda cups at the Christian-owned In-N-Out Burger chain.[1]  Christians love this passage because it is the whole Gospel of Jesus in a nutshell.

            But let’s think more deeply about what this verse really means: “God loved the world.”  Yes, the same world that built the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves,[2] the same world that builds temples to demons and worships the creature rather than the Creator,[3] the world which today writes off belief in God as obsolete superstition, and the same world that persecutes Christians because they refuse to acquiesce to the progressive values of the day.   God loves the world of people like Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, abortionist Kermit Gosnell and every unborn baby who loses his or her life.  God loves the world, despite the evils people commit against each other.

            God loves the world, including those who slander the president or governor, complain behind a person’s back, are prone to outbursts of anger and cursing, divorcees, the resentful or greedy, those cheat on their spouse in heart or in fact, and the unforgiving.  That’s when it amazes us that God even loved us, though we’re guilty of breaking Hs holy Law, and completely unworthy of His kindness.  “God so loved the world”—including you and me—“that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

There’s a problem in this world with the word “love.”  It’s widely believed that love is purely emotional and self-serving.  But this kind of love can’t make it through “for better or for worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health.”  No wonder so many marriages end in divorce with this idea of love.  At best, it’s not much more than infatuation that doesn’t look much deeper than a handsome face or pretty hair.  At worst, love is just a synonym for lust and used as a means to get one’s own way.

Yet even as we condemn the world for being so wayward, we need to take a look in the mirror.  We also have this self-serving idea of love in our relationship with God.  When we hear that God loves us, we want that to mean God will provide everything our hearts desire, no questions asked.  God loves me, so He gives approval and affirmation to our lifestyle.  He should be proud of how I’ve lived my life, and He should know that every time I sinned, I was justified in doing it.  That’s the kind of love the sinful flesh seeks from God.

But here in the Gospel, God’s Son shows us how much greater the true love of God is.  First of all, love is always directed outward, never in on self.  Love looks for what the other needs, and then strives with all its might to make that happen.  So, when love sees poor, sinful creatures, it must act to rescue them.  Love also doesn’t wait for the beloved to ask, but it acts spontaneously and willingly.  As the Epistle makes clear, sin hasn’t just made human beings weak; it’s made them dead.  Dead people can’t ask for anything, or seek anything in God.  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2:4-5).  Love counts the other’s gain as the highest good and never balks at the cost.  Hear the words of the God who loves: “The Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[4]

The world’s version of love is deadly, because it’s equated with acceptance of whatever another person chooses.  That’s not true!  Silence and indifference is more evidence of hatred rather than love.  God’s hatred lets the rebellious go their own way: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…those who exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”[5]   God’s love has not let the rebellious and dying world go its own way, and the very fact He speaks against the sin of man is evidence that He has compassion on us.

This was true in the Old Testament reading from Numbers 21.  God was leading and providing for the people He chose for Himself to be His treasured possession.[6]  But they got impatient and grumbled against God and Moses, the man God had given them.  Then, the Lord sent fiery serpents that bit the people so that they died. 

God was not overreacting.  The people had fallen into unbelief, and in their unbelief, they had no share in the inheritance He promised to Abraham.  To bring it into New Testament wording, if they rejected the gifts of God, they would perish in their sins.  And God would not have that.  It was the love of God that sent those fiery serpents among the people to wake them up and warn them!  When the people cried out that they had sinned, God then commanded Moses to lift up the bronze serpent, “and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”[7]  If God had not loved them—if He had hated them, as the people complained—they really would have died in the wilderness, without food and water…or salvation.

This is God’s love at work, which our Lord Jesus reveals in the Gospel. “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 in this way[8] God loved the world…”  That little word “for” connects the bronze serpent to the cross, and the cross as the emblem and seal of God’s love.  This is the manner in which God loves the world: “I am He…I kill and I make alive” [9]  He kills the Old Adam, the sinful flesh in us. He disarms and destroys the devil’s work.  And then He makes alive through Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. But it’s all moved by His love for the lost and rebellious people of the world.

The cross demonstrates God’s love for every person—especially you.  God’s love might seem strange as it did to the Israelites, but rest assured that His chastisement is meant to bring each of us to the cross.  When you consider your life and say that it should have gone or be going a different way, remember God’s love.  When you grow impatient with the trials He puts you through and you envy those around you, repent of your unbelief!  Repent of worshiping the temporal stuff of this life—be it food or drink, a nice house, a new car, the perfect job, or a dream vacation.

The thing God treasures above all things for you is that you have fellowship with Him, believing in His Son.  If you find yourself arguing with Him that He’s mismanaging your circumstances or putting unbearable people in your path, remember anew His eternal plans for you.  God is your Almighty Father in heaven, who rules over all and gracious works all things for your good.  You, who believe in His Son, have been called according to His good purpose, and He will not fail to save you from destruction and keep you in eternal life. If that means suffering for a time in this vale of tears, so be it.  It is God’s good will for you.  He is preparing you for much more than broken life in this world; He has a new heavens and new earth stored up for you. 

Now we see what love the Father has for every person in the world.  It is a selfless, self-giving love, that pours out the life of His Son on the cross, that a world of dying sinners may live.  This is the love He has for all people—even the ones we despise.  God’s love is not content to see any person perish.  He desires that everyone would believe and behold Jesus,[10] lifted up on the cross for them, so that they receive the eternal life prepared in full for them. Amen.


[2] Genesis 11:1-9

[3] Romans 1:19-25

[4] Matthew 20:28

[5] Romans 1:24-25

[6] Deuteronomy 7:6

[7] Numbers 21:8

[8] What is often understood as “God so loved” is not a matter of degree, like God loved the world so much.  Rather, it’s indicates the manner in which God demonstrates His love.

[9] Deuteronomy 32:39

[10] 1 Timothy 2:3-4

Fourth Sunday in Lent (John 9:1-41)

Times of disaster often bring out the theologian in people. We want to know why bad things happen. This is called “theodicy.” It comes from the Greek words for God and justify, and it cuts two ways. First, it serves to justify God’s right to send suffering, and this is what happens when we try to explain God’s reasoning for a bad thing that’s happened.

In 2010, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club attributed the earthquake in Haiti to making a pact with the devil to be freed from being a colony of France.1 In Hinduism, karma is the explanation given for why things happen to you, but in case the answer isn’t immediately apparent, you can pin the blame on what you did in a so-called “past life.”

Maybe it comes from a fear that secretly God has ulterior, evil motives for how He rules the universe. Or it could come from the idea that God will only do good to those who are good enough, and just maybe you don’t make the cut.

The other side of theodicy is when we demand that God answer us why He done something that causes pain. Why, God, are mothers robbed of their children? Why, God, do you allow a gunman to open fire in a shopping mall? Why, God, is calamity piled upon calamity in some people’s lives, while others go carefree? Why, God, would you let the shameful and unjust things happen which fuel our loved one’s addiction?

This kind of theodicy is what Job dabbled in when his life was overturned by a test from Satan.

2 I will say to God, Do not condemn me;

let me know why you contend against me.

3 Does it seem good to you to oppress,

to despise the work of your hands

and favor the designs of the wicked?

4 Have you eyes of flesh?

Do you see as man sees?

5 Are your days as the days of man,

or your years as a man’s years,

6 that you seek out my iniquity

and search for my sin,

7 although you know that I am not guilty,

and there is none to deliver out of your hand?

8 Your hands fashioned and made me,

and now you have destroyed me altogether. (Job 10:2-8)

Theodicy is what the disciples were delving into when they came upon this blind man:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Under the Pharisees, they had been taught a very simplistic view of sin and its consequences, based on the Lord’s Word: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5) They were simply using inductive reasoning—this man has a malady. Malady is a result of sin. God says he punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, so this man must be under some kind of family curse.

There’s something sadistically comforting about understanding why someone else is suffering. You might call it Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing another person’s pain. But I think it really comes down to a vulnerability in each of us. If this man was born blind because of sin, what might befall me? How can I steer clear of having that happen to me or those close to me?

Theodicy is ultimately a dead-end, because it stems from a desire to be master over our life. If anything is teaching us this, it’s the coronavirus pandemic. If not only the fact that it spreads so easily, the steps taken to slow its advance has turned all of our lives upside down. Pointing fingers won’t change it. Yelling about it won’t stop it. It’s here. It’s made an unprecedented impact on the world.

You can acknowledge it as God’s judgment, as all disasters are. But judgment for what, we don’t have a definite answer. It’s impacted people from nearly every country, regardless of religion, occupation, or economic status. If anything it’s a stark reminder that we are all under the power of death.

But the Lord’s response to His disciples’ question can teach us in this matter: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Firstly, it’s not for us to know the inner workings of why God allows or sends evil, why circumstances happen the way they do. That is hidden from us, as it was when Job questioned God’s justice and motives for his suffering (Job 38-41) What Jesus shows in this blind man is God using all things, even the evil of blindness, to arrive at a good purpose: His salvation.

Secondly, so long as we remain in judgments and blame, sin and just rewards, we will never behold Jesus Christ. The focus is not on this man or his parent’s particular sins; it’s on the works of God displayed in Him. What is that work of God? Jesus already answered that in John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.” For what has He sent Him? To be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Why do you, man, bother yourself to track down particular sins, when God has given His Son to take sin away from the world.

It would be easy to understand if, at the point the man was healed everything started going better for him. But it doesn’t. It gets worse. He loses his place in the synagogue. He loses His parents. Yet, notice what happens at each of these “turns for the worse”: After he is interrogated by the Pharisees, he says Jesus is a prophet. When he’s forsaken by his parents, and questioned again, he confesses that Jesus is from God and greater than all the prophets before. Finally, after he has gained his sight, but lost his community and his family, he worships Jesus.

This is the work of God, that he believes in Jesus in spite of trials. While we may not be able to ascertain whose sin or what caused this pandemic, this is a time where the work of God will be manifest. In Romans 5, Paul touches on this miracle of faith: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:2-5) Not only is God fully in control to provide during necessity and able to rebuild from the ashes, but He is also mighty to keep us in the one true faith and so display His mighty work.

Jesus says next, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” This is what Jesus and those who follow Him are about: the work of God which is displaying that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

Our Lord says the night is coming, when no one can work. Times of pestilence and economic turmoil make it hard to ignore that these are the last days. St. Paul’s words to Timothy ring all too true:

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)

This is not a time for the Church to only preach the Law, as if people cleaning their act up would save them. We must be ready to preach the Gospel to people, to sinners, just like us who are under the same judgment, whose livelihoods crumble before their eyes, who are scared about the future.

The Lord Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He is still in the world because His people are in the world. There is still hope for those who feel their sin. Until the very last, Jesus is the light of the world, and He makes His faithful, forgiven people, to shine. That’s the kind of light of the world that He is talking about when He urges us not to put that lamp under a basket (Matt. 5:14-16). This is the Word which has saved us: that we deserve the judgements that have come on the world (and worse),

but God in His mercy came to us, opened our blind eyes to recognize Him in His Son, our Savior.

Jesus anointed this man’s eyes and sent him to the Pool of Siloam, which means Sent. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, as the Light of the World, so He sends us in the world, in the midst of sin, to point to Jesus and announce His grace. May He enable us so to do! Amen.