John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” It is perhaps the best known bible verse here in the United States. It appears on signs held up in crowd shots at major sporting events, it appeared in the midst of Tim Tebow’s eye black at a college national championship game, and it appears on bumper stickers. It’s 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 far less comforting and far more troubling.
God is love. There it is, the one short sentence that sums it all up. Love is the language and logic of the kingdom of God. It is by the calculus of the Kingdom that God is “all in” sending his only Son: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God comes in love to redeem loss, turn tragedy into victory, and demonstrate true power through sheer vulnerability and absolute sacrifice.
What is troubling about that? Let me offer two reasons. First, we like our losses being redeemed and our tragedies being turned into victory, but it is the sheer vulnerability and sacrifice part that gives us pause. We want secure lives. Think how much of our energies directly and indirectly are spent on building up reserves, strengthening foundations, adding on extras, or storing up for an unknown future. Really, who volunteers for vulnerability and sacrifice?
It’s not that we do not know vulnerability. We or our loved ones have been brought low by illness, or loss, or a broken relationship, or disappointed hopes or some other way. But we don’t seek it out. We are people who naturally seek security. Can we sacrifice? Sure… when we can afford to. Love our enemies? Maybe if everything else is taken care of first. But we don’t volunteer for such things.
The kind of self-sacrificing love Jesus offers is frightening to us. Jesus’ example – if we truly pondered it – seems impossible and a bridge too far. So we tell ourselves, there is nothing we need do because Jesus as done it all for us. True as far as opening the gates of heaven, but think of St. John’s account of the Last Supper. Jesus getting up from washing the disciples’ feet and telling us “Do you realize what I have done for you?… I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” That service, that model, that sacrifice, and being that vulnerable in world is something we should also do. And while we are doing it, utterly, completely, unreservedly trust nothing other than God. Trust that it is OK to be so absolutely vulnerable. We cannot secure our destiny or save our lives. Only God can do that. Only love can do that. And if we think about it, it can be frightening to be so utterly dependent on God.
Here is a second reason this may not be our favorite verse. It is because such love makes a claim on us. We want love to have mutuality, some degree of equality, right? But God did not consult us, ask permission, or seek our advice before sending his only son to die for us, turning the sin of our lives in to victory, saving our lives. Nobody asked us. Nonetheless, having saved our loves by giving up his life, there is a claim Love makes upon us….like it or not.
Think of a the young child being put to bed earlier than the child wanted after an interlude of bargaining and pleading. Upset the child said, “Daddy, I hate you.” The father replied, “Son, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.” The child’s response to such gracious words surprised his dad: “Don’t say that!” “I’m sorry son, but it’s true. I love you.” “Don’t,” his son protested, “Don’t say that again!” At which point the father said, “Son, I love you…like it or not!”
Why was the child protesting his father’s love? Because he realized he could not control his father’s love; he could not maneuver it to his advantage despite the promises of vegetables that would be eaten, extra chores done, or going to bed earlier tomorrow night. Indeed, in the face of such love there is no bargaining and, ultimately, no control whatsoever. In the face of unconditional love we are powerless. 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. We don’t like being powerless, not in control, or not having some say in the matter.
God’s love is unrelenting and tenacious. And that might just be terrifying – to be called into a love that leaves us powerless, vulnerable, and called to sacrifice. “Do you realize what I have done for you?… And it doesn’t stop; can’t stop. God’s love will continue to chase us after us, seeking to hold onto us and redeem us all the days of our lives, whether we like it or not.
But then again, maybe it can be our favorite verse. We have no power and precisely because of this, it is the one relationship in our lives that 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 vulnerability, self-sacrificing, and ever so tenacious love.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” whether we like it or not.
The core idea “like it or not” came from Rev. David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/03/lent-4-b/