One metric and one metric only – A Sermon for John 3:16 on Lætare

Lætare Sunday is a little break, if you will, in the middle of Lent—actually, we’re one week beyond the halfway point, but we’ll still call it the middle. This Sunday, also called a “Rose Sunday,” is an opportunity for us to look forward with hopeful anticipation to the fulfillment of God’s Easter promise. Too often we make Lent into this somber, pathetic, maudlin period of self-loathing that we act like we forget the end of the story. Lent isn’t about scolding ourselves and being sorry for ourselves over being human beings, but rather recognizing that we are human beings and all that entails. But what’s more, Lent is also a time for us to recognize who God is and all that entails. On this Lætare Sunday, we intentionally look forward to the promise of Easter where we celebrate the victory of God’s love over hate and death.

This is a day for us, even in the midst of our serious, deep contemplation of who we are and who God is to rejoice that in light of it all, God doesn’t abandon us but promises us that love wins—always. Lætare is a reminder that even in the midst of sorrow, there is cause for rejoicing—because ultimately God is with us. And so as we go into the sermon today, ask yourselves what opportunities for rejoicing at God’s presence in your own life have you been overlooking? When you let go of all the distractions that consume your life and just consider the most important things, where do you see God at work, perhaps in ways you didn’t even expect?

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes…How do you measure? Measure a year? In daylights? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee? In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife? How do you measure a year in a life?

This weekend marks a solemn occasion in the life of Emanuel—in the life of the whole world, really. This weekend marks one year of the coronavirus pandemic. One year ago today, we didn’t meet for worship, believing we’d take two weeks off from gathering to return to normal, or something akin to normal, operations after this strange virus that was running rampant in China and picking up steam in other places, including the United States, had died down. People didn’t understand what was going on. Everything was new and unknown.

Looking back now, we think we ourselves naïve to believe that everything would be over in two weeks. How wrong we were…Two weeks wore on to two months. Two months wore on through the summer. The summer wore on into the fall, then the winter. And now we’re literally marking the one-year anniversary of the declaration of a worldwide pandemic by the World Health Organization. In that year, a lot has happened.

And as far as the pandemic is concerned, we learned a lot. And what’s more, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. An end is in sight. But nonetheless, it’s been a year, a whole year, and it’s been a long year. Some have called it the forgotten year… How do you measure a year in a life? In the year of coronavirus, do you measure it in birthday parties missed? Graduations upended? Vacations rescheduled? Wedding plans completely altered? Jobs lost? Businesses closed? Loved ones who’ve died? Funerals that couldn’t be as planned for a lifetime? During coronavirus, how do you measure a year in a life?

Add to that here at Emanuel the catastrophe of fire. Our beloved organ—mercurially and whimsically destroyed. Our sanctuary inundated with water and blackened by smoke. The very heart of where we gather together as God’s family to take part in the mystery of our faith, God’s promise made real for us, the very place where we make sense of what God’s work in Christ means for us in order that we can go out and continue his work—that very place, our sanctuary, our safe place, our holy ground was desecrated by the fickle unpredictability of nature.

How do you measure a year in a life? Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes—How do you measure a year in a life? For us, this past year has been tough. No doubt. Countless, countless things have happened this past year that make us reflect and say, “That was one helluva time.” But is that how we should mark a year in a life? By the tragedies that befall us? By the difficulties?

To be sure, we don’t turn a blind eye to our problems, our stresses, our travails, our hardships. But is that how we want to remember the last year? Is that we how we measure a year in a life? In truths that she learned, or in times that she cried? In bridges he burned, or the way that she died? How about love? Measure in love…What if we open up our minds to consider not only the bad that happens but also the good? “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” poet William Blake writes, “everything would appear to us as it is—Infinite.” How does our perception change when we embrace blessing over bane, or when we consider enrichment over struggle?

Today we heard in the gospel text perhaps the most iconic line from Scripture—“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.” John 3:16. It’s so prevalent in our culture, the world over, that it’s almost ironic that these words, spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus in the dark of night as a kind of explanation for the puzzle of rebirth in faith, appear in the same gospel of John, spoken by the same Jesus, who later will say that he gave his disciples God’s Word—that is, the truth—but the misguided world hated them because of it, because they wouldn’t join the world’s ways, just as Jesus didn’t join the world’s ways. He goes on, though, as if to reinforce the notion of the world’s worthiness of love from today’s gospel, that he’s not asking God to take the disciples—that is, us—out of the world; but instead, that God guard us from the wily, soothing comforts told us by the Prince of Lies.

In short, there’s a lot to this verse that we could spend a lifetime unpacking in meaning, to say nothing of the verse that comes on its heels, John 3:17—which, I for my part, find arguably more comforting than John 3:16, but I digress.

So what’s going on in this verse, this much beloved, iconic John 3:16?

This verse is a measurement. This verse is a measurement of God’s love. “For God so loved the world…” John leads the verse in the Greek with this word, this “so,” as if to say—“This is how much God loved the world.” God loved the world—the faithless, godless, loveless, selfish, greedy, fickle world—God love that world so much to give up everything it means to be God, come down from the highest heights of heaven, be born a helpless infant to dirt-poor parents, outside of marriage, to grow up and become a rabbi only to be rejected by those he knew best because he came to remind his own people, to remind us, of the simple, simple truth of God’s relationship with us—that everyone who embraces that relationship with God, really embraces it, doesn’t perish but enjoys eternal life. For that simple, simple message Jesus came into the world, and for that simple, simple message he gave his life—showing us just how much we can measure God’s love for us.

God’s love for us cannot be measured in inches or feet, in seconds of hours, or degrees, in watts, lumens, or pounds or kilograms. God’s love for us can only be measured according to one metric—the life of Christ given us for us, and that metric is boundless. Not even death could put an end to God’s love for us, God’s desire to be in relationship with us. God wants and God will have a relationship with us, no matter what.

This past year we have seen the truth of that as well. The Spirit has done amazing things through God’s people in the midst of this pandemic, as the whole church, and in particular here in our Emanuel family, not only in the midst of pandemic, but in the midst of smoke, ashes, and the sadness of the fire. We have seen the truth that God is with us most undoubtedly and unquestionably in hardship.

Throughout the pandemic, we have stepped to reach out to those who are most vulnerable—calling each other, sending cards, going to the grocery store for one another. Our wider society, sometimes begrudgingly so but nonetheless doing so, has foregone personal comfort and freedom and worn masks to not only protect ourselves from this invisible enemy, but more importantly to protect one another and the most defenseless among us. We have come to understand anew what it means to see work once considered menial as essential, and to reevaluate what it means to serve others. The past year has opened many of our eyes to the dedication of healthcare workers up and down the totem pole, and to scientists who have striven to educate us, protect us, care for us, and to find a way for us to get back to life as we used to know it in some way, shape, or form.

At Emanuel, we’ve seen what we’ve always known to be true—God’s love fills our hearts and our relationships, and our building doesn’t define who we are. We are the church, the family of God united with Christ not of the will of flesh or blood, but of the will of the Holy Spirit and the promise of God’s Word. Even in the midst of pandemic and fire, we continue to reach out to our community with God’s love, remembering we are blessed to be a blessing—as Christ even from his cross of suffering pled God forgive his oppressors, and bid his disciples care for his mother as her own son died before her very own eyes. In the midst of his own trials, Jesus lived out his calling to serve and care for those around him, and so too we in in the midst of this past year full of ordeals haven’t forgotten the call of the gospel to enflesh the love of God in not only word but in deed. This past year, we have seen with our very own eyes how surprisingly measureless God’s love for us and for the world is. When the doors of perception are cleansed of the smudges of gloom, fear, and despair, our lives as disciples appear to us as they are—infinite.

As disciples of Jesus, we see that God’s love is alive. It’s like a seed that only needs to be buried to sprout to life. We may not be able to express the depth of the love Gd feels for us, but a writer put it very nicely when he was anticipating his trip to meet some folks he longingly wanted to meet. Of course, that writer was St. Paul writing to the Christians in Rome—“Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” No wind, no rain, nor winter’s cold. No pandemic and no fire will stop God’s Spirit from calling us to live out God’s measureless love for us and for all creation. There is no mountain high enough, no valley low enough, no river wild enough to keep God from you.

God’s love is infinite. More than a year in a life of coronavirus and fire. More than five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. God’s love for us has no beginning and no end. How do you measure the love of God for us? By one metric, and one metric only—the life of Jesus given up for us that we who embrace relationship with God, really embrace it, never perish but enjoy infinite life.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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