Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ John 3:16-18 ~ Wed, Dec 25, 2019
With so many confusing, difficult, and outright evil things going on in this world that we live in, I’m guessing we that we all struggle to see God’s love at times. When you see all that is wrong in the world, when you see others hurting, when you feel helpless to do anything, do you find yourself questioning: does God really care for us? Do you find it difficult to fathom that the God of the universe has positive thoughts toward you moment by moment, and every day? Do you ever feel like God has abandoned this world? Or, more personally, that He has turned his heart away from you?
Yet Scripture boldly claims that nothing could be further from the truth. What we are celebrating today proves it. And what Jesus says to us in John 3 promises it.
Have you heard the story of Northwest Airlines Flight 255? On Sunday, August 16, 1987, Flight 255 crashed just after take-off from Detroit. One hundred and fifty-five people were killed, and only one survived. A 4-year-old girl from Tempe Arizona. Her name was Cecelia. Investigators found out that Cecelia survived for one reason. When the plane was about to go down, Cecelia's mother, Paula, unbuckled her own seat belt, got down on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms and body around Cecelia, and then would not let her go.
What love! That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us when He died on the cross for our sins. He sacrificed His life to save ours, not from the grave, but from life separated from God here and hereafter. No higher price has ever been paid, no greater sacrifice ever made, "for God so loved the world."
In light of such love, let me ask you: what scares you more? The problematic things that cause you to question where the love of God is … or is it that in spite of how many and how great are the problems in this world and within yourself, that God loves you anyway?
Let me explain with the story of Tom and his six year-old son, Benjamin. Benjamin was protesting his bedtime to his dad. Frustrated by his father's refusal to budge, Benjamin finally became so frustrated that he said, "Daddy, I hate you!" Calmly yet with whole-hearted conviction Tom replied: "I'm sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you." How do you think Benjamin responded? "Oh, it's okay." Or maybe, "Sorry, Dad. I love you, too." Nope. When Tom told his son that he loved him, Benjamin yelled back, "Don't say that!" Surprised, Tom continued, "But, Ben, but it's true--I love you." "Don't say that, Daddy." "But I love you, Ben." "Stop saying that, Daddy! Stop saying it right now!" The debate came to a close when Tom looked into the eyes of his defiant son and said: "Benjamin, now listen to me: I love you...like it or not!"
Even at six years old, you see, Benjamin realized that in the face of unconditional love he was powerless. If Tom had been willing to negotiate--"I'll love you if you go to bed nicely"--then Benjamin would have had some bargaining power: "Okay, this time I’ll get into bed; but I'm not eating my vegetables at dinner tomorrow." But once Tom refused to negotiate, that is, refused to make his love for his son conditional on something Benjamin did, then Ben didn’t have a lever to pull to get his way with his dad. Because he couldn’t influence his father’s love for him, he couldn’t control his father. And he didn’t like that!
Let me ask you again: what scares you more: that the problems of this world are so great it makes you wonder where God and his love are to be found? Or is it that the problems of this world and within yourself are so great and so many and so persistent that it scares you that God loves you anyway?
If God makes His great love for the world and for us conditional, then we, suddenly, have tremendous power. There is something in us that likes that sense of power, of control. We like the feeling of independence it gives us. It provides us chip to play when we’re at the bargaining table with God, something we can use to protect our own interests, insure that God does what we want. But when God just loves us--completely and unconditionally--and when God just goes and pays the ultimate price for us even when we were still his mortal enemies, well then game is over; we have no lever we can pull with God to get our way. That’s truly how it is "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned."
And there it is, in a nutshell: God in Jesus has made God's decision...and it is for us. Yes, we can run away. But we can't change the fact that God loves us, that God in fact loves the whole world more than we can imagine. No wonder this is the world's most popular Bible verse, because it is, indeed, good news, even the best news. But first it's hard. Hard because we're not in control. Hard because it's not up to us. Hard because every time we hear how much God loves us we also know that we had nothing to do with it, we haven’t earned it, and therefore it is out of our control. And, sometimes, that’s what makes us the most afraid.
Experience can lead you to believe that no one, finally, can be trusted, or that life itself is such a gamble and so chaotic that we'd better stay in control no matter what. Insisting on remaining in control with God, though, leads to destructive choices: “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (v. 18). Attempting to maintain our control before God requires rejection of God’s love through Christ. That separates us from God, not because he doesn’t love him, but because we’ve rejected the one love that rescues and restores! As one pastor has profoundly observed: "A sinner may go to hell unsaved. But he cannot go to hell unloved." (Joseph Wallis)
That’s why God, in love, allows tragedy, difficulty, disease, death, the sort of things that shake us up, and rattle our presumption of and commitment to remaining in control before God. God, in love, allows these things utterly beyond our ability to cope, things that drive us to our knees in despair because they are beyond our control--you know, like the end of an important relationship, or the death of a loved one, or the return of illness, or the loss of a job-- and you realize in a flash of painful insight that you never were in control. Not of your life, not of circumstances or your destiny, and certainly not of God. And all of a sudden this difficult, disturbing, even fear-inducing message about God's unconditional love becomes the best news you can imagine. Because here's the thing: precisely because we are not in control of God and therefore not in control of God’s attitude toward us, we realize that it is the one love that we can’t destroy, the one being in all the universe whose love for us isn’t decimated because of what we’ve done, nor does it increase based on something we must do.
Does that mean that we have nothing to do, nothing to contribute to this most important relationship? Definitely not! Because we are loved this fully, this completely, we are able to respond in love, honoring God and sharing the news of God's love for the world with all we meet. Further, we can love each other, throwing ourselves into struggles and celebrations all around us, always working for the good of our neighbor and the world, from a place of peace propelled to serve the people around us, all the people of this world that God loves so very much. So, there's plenty to do. But we do it all knowing that we are messengers, witnesses to what God has done for us, not managers of God’s love for us or for others.
The whole purpose of the gospel of John is to demonstrate what it means that God so loved the world with the goal that we are brought to believe that he truly loves us, always, unconditionally, in every situation. This day, Christmas Day, is also compelling evidence of God’s love, love for the world and therefore proof that God loves you. Yes, believe! Believe in God and his love because they are true. Even when that truth is scary and God lovingly reveals to you that you are not in control--of this world or even your life, believe that God in his love will hold onto you amid the chaos, love you even when you feel most unlovable, and bring you to eternal life. Yes, believe because he sent his Son, because he so loved the world, and that means he so loves you! Amen.