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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=74

Lent IV Year B (March 15, 2015)                                     St James', Peace River

God so loved the world. You can't not preach on that when you've just read it. It might be the most compelling phrase in the Bible – I'm sure it jumped out at you just as it jumped out at every one of us here. But it's also the most quoted and talked about phrase in the Bible – so there may not be very much that I can say about it you won't have heard before.

It could also be the most taken-out-of-context phrase in the Bible, and that might be an important place for us to start. I already contributed to that by using just those five words: God so loved the world. It says more than that, doesn't it? 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. Apparently some people hear the last part of that verse as though it boils all the way down to “believe or perish”. But that's not what it says, either. Let's reread the next verse. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You can keep going, both forward from that point and backward to Jesus' use of the image of the snake that Moses put up on a pole, and further back to remember that this whole commentary comes after the conversation with Nicodemus, whom Jesus challenged to be open to being born again, born anew, born over. What we get out of all that isn't a threat, or a demand to believe in a certain way. It's a description of what motivates God – love for the world, a desire to save the whole world. And then a description of how far God chooses to go with that motivation – sending his Son, to be lifted up. And then an appeal: trust this, believe in it. Embrace the God who embraces you.

What I hear this passage saying is that there can be no condemnation that goes beyond the cross. What greater sentence could be passed on this world, or anyone in it, than the unjust execution of God's innocent Son? And yet, from God's point of view, as the gospel tells us, that very act is also God's greatest act of love, the outcome of God's plan and desire to save us from ourselves. So: when we do not believe and trust God's love, when we turn away from it, we remain self-condemned because that is where we already are; when we refuse to come to the light, nothing can help us. The Gospel of John revolves around that sense of the cross as crisis: it stops us, compels us to choose a path. Will we turn away and reject God's love, or turn around and embrace it?

It seems like an odd thing to have a crisis about, though. You are being offered the greatest gift that has ever been offered in the entire history of creation. God wants to give you his Son, his very Self, his life. It's as though the richest person in the country came and said to you, I want to give you everything I have, no strings attached – sign here. (Only more than that!) Why would you have to think about it?

The thing is, love touches us in ways that no material wealth, no other kind of gift, ever can. To be loved is to be changed. To be loved in the deepest way imaginable, is to be changed in the deepest way imaginable. And that's the crisis we face when God invites us to believe and trust in what he wants to give us. There's an initial resistance as we contemplate what it might mean to accept God's love. How will I be different if I let God love me? For those of us who have achieved lives that we would regard as satisfactory and comfortable, that's a difficult question. I may not want to be that much different.

On the human level, we wrestle with this all the time. When someone loves me, I have a choice, but it's not much of a choice. I can “choose” to ignore it, but I don't think I could live with myself if I did. That choice would change me too, and not in a good way. Or I can choose to love them back. And that means revisiting everything I do and am, everything I think is important, in the light of what that other person wants and needs, and how we are going to go on together. That's not easy, and we get it wrong all the time, and sometimes it's too much for us. So maybe we can begin to understand why it's not a sure thing when God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

But there's a whole other way to come at this, which might explain even more of the resistance we experience to God's overwhelming gift. Maybe the problem isn't our own comfort with who and what we are, so much as our self-doubt. If you get even a tiny fraction of what God offers you in Jesus, a more reasonable reaction than “no thank you” might be “no, that's not possible.” Not possible because we think we know ourselves well enough to believe that we're just not worth it. The kind of self sacrifice we're talking about here requires a heroic back story, and that's not the stuff our lives are made of. St Paul in the letter to the Romans points out that dying for a righteous person is not unheard of, though even that doesn't happen very often [Romans 5:7]. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about people like you and me, for whom Christ was lifted up, on the cross, to bring us to eternal life. And that just doesn't make sense. Or, if it does start to make sense, it's the kind of sense that would make us want to run away as fast as we can, rather than deal with it.

And that is really the crisis that the Gospel of John tells us about. God loved the world – you and me – far more than we can even imagine ourselves capable of being loved. God sees something in the world – you and me – that is infinitely lovable, worth the costliest gift that was ever given out of love. And that does not square with our image of ourselves, whether that image is honest or puffed up with pride or clouded by false humility, whether we see ourselves as basically good or basically flawed. Nothing in our self-image can cope with the love God shows, any more than you can pour the ocean into a thimble.

Over and over again in the Gospel of John, Jesus tries to bring people to the point where they see that: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, the woman caught in adultery, Lazarus, Martha, Peter, maybe even Pontius Pilate. He brings them, and us, to the point where we are forced to choose between holding on to our picture of ourselves, which is completely inadequate for what God is offering us – or letting it go. You can let go of your self-image. You can do that when you're willing to let someone else's picture of you be more real; someone you can trust. And that very act of letting go and trusting expands the reality of who you are and who you can be. When it's God that you're trusting, there is no limit to what that can do to your life. “Whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” not just for the unending future, but starting right now.

A lot of what I've said so far may strike you as kind of abstract, but the point of Lent, and the point of the gospel, is that nothing is more real to us than ourselves – that is, who we think we are. One of the practices of Lent points to that: it's what we call “self-examination” - taking a good look at yourself. (Perhaps using that metaphorical “mirror” that was so much in the provincial news last week!) When we do that, the first hurdle to overcome is the realization that there are things about ourselves we need to change, that we might not want to change, or that we fear will defeat us. The habits of sin, the inertia and lack of energy, the misplaced priorities. On the surface, Lent is about identifying and addressing those things. But in reality, if you've ever tried that, you'll know it doesn't work very well. Lent is not about self-improvement, at least not for its own sake.

What it is about, or should be at any rate, is replacing the picture we get when we look in the mirror, with the picture we get when we look in God's eyes. There is a picture of us there which is truer than anything we can get at ourselves. It's a picture of ourselves that is so totally honest that it should be deeply unflattering, and yet it isn't. Because that picture also reflects God's overwhelming, all-consuming, sacrificial love for us. If you or I are going to change anything about ourselves, that is why and that is how – because we are being transformed into the beauty and goodness that God created in us and now wants to redeem through his love.

As we move into this second half of Lent, closer and closer to recalling the full meaning of what it cost God to give his only Son – practise being seen by God. Practise letting yourself realize what God sees in you. You can set aside time to reflect, to look at your life and who you are the way God sees you. Or you can let it be part of your daily routine – practise remembering that God sees you in each moment, quite differently from how you see yourself. Where you see how you succeed, or fail, at your own limited goals, God sees instead something of eternal importance coming to birth in who you are, what you learn, what you suffer, and what you achieve. I warn you though, this is not for the faint of heart. To realize, even for a moment, that you are the reason for God's gift of his Son – that is at once the most terrible and most wonderful thing anyone can know about themselves. But it is what we mean when we say, “God so loved the world.”