When it comes to passages from Scripture, it’s probably not all that useful from a spiritual or theological perspective to use popularity as a guide.
This isn’t to say that every passage is equally laden with insight or guidance for every person who reads them. Depending on your particular situation or background, you may find one chapter or verse deeply meaningful that another person simply doesn’t respond to the same way. Our individual hearts or minds may take away different lessons from the same reading, and some may stick with us more or grab us with more power than others.
But whether or not many people know or love a specific passage doesn’t necessarily correlate with how much it has to teach us. I suspect that some of Jesus’ more direct instructions about justice, or his expectations for how we use whatever wealth we may have, may not number among the best beloved passages in Christendom, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our attention. Frankly, the opposite is probably more true; I suspect some of the harder truths are ones most of us would just as soon skip.
Yet even those lengthy lists of “begats” that seem like they’re little more than historical filler might mean something most of us could miss. My late mother-in-law came to Christianity after having been raised in the Jewish faith, and seeing the genealogy of Jesus helped remind her of his own Jewishness, and thus affirmed her bond within her relationship to him.
There’s wisdom everywhere in Scripture, even in those obscure books you may never had explored beyond hearing their names in Sunday school.
However, with all that said, this morning our lesson holds perhaps the most famous and beloved Bible verse of all. I suspect if you surveyed Christians across the country, the one they’re most likely to know by heart is John 3:16. According to the blog at Bible Gateway, a widely-used online tool for looking up passages from Scripture, it’s the most-read verse on their website. (In case you really are curious about the least popular verses, according to Bible Gateway they’re 1 Chronicles 23-27. Apparently, most of us aren’t all that interested in the organization of priestly officials under King David.)
John 3:16 — “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.”
It’s not hard to see why those words are so deeply cherished. They make clear, in terms anyone can understand, the depth and intensity of God’s love for humankind. That God loved us all so much as send to us the most precious gift imaginable. We may not fully understand the divine nature of God’s relationship with Christ, but we can understand very well the love a parent feels for a child, and why giving a child surpasses all other examples of generosity or charity.
John 3: 16 is well-known and well-loved for a good reason.
On the one hand, there’s something nice about discussing a passage everyone is likely to know. The story surrounding the specific verse is pretty familiar, as well. One of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time has come to meet with him in secret, and Jesus is laying out a new theology for him. Nicodemus is initially thrown off by the birth metaphor Jesus uses, but Jesus explains that a second birth isn’t literal, but spiritual. Once again, I suspect many of you here may know the story well. It’s a famous enough passage that “born again” is used by many Christians as a way of describing their own relationship with God.
But like all things familiar, it can be hard to see these famous words with new eyes. What new lessons are there to be discerned? What new angle can I find into what these words have to teach us?
As it happens, we’re in the season of Lent. We read these words during the season devoted to self-examination, to reflecting on our own relationships with God. While commonly associated with the idea of giving up some pleasure, guilty or otherwise, Lent is meant to bring our attention back to God, and to laying aside things that may be hindering our walk toward the kingdom of heaven.
So that leads me to ask – is there something you love God enough to lay aside?
Not caffeine or chocolate or reality TV shows, or some other frivolous thing. (By all means, if your choice this Lent is to do without something along those lines, please don’t take me to mean doing so is silly or meaningless. Any practice that orients our attention to God day by day is worthwhile, even if it’s something like skipping your latté.) But is there something deeper than needs to be let go? Is there some burden you carry that is past time to put down? Is there some grievance or grudge that pulls you toward its own gravity, and diverts your energy and attention from living the life God calls us all to live?
God’s own example is, of course, impossible to match. We’re not sitting around a spiritual card table, upping any kind of ante. I am not standing here suggesting we all collectively renounce our relationships with family members and set up hermitages where we do nothing but read the Bible and pray.
However, I also think the enormity of God’s gift to us is not an excuse to laugh the whole notion of sacrifice off entirely, or tell ourselves that seeing what it’s like to live without gluten until Easter is what this season is all about. I’d challenge you to dig deeper than that.
True spiritual work is hard. I sometimes fear we don’t say that aloud often enough, and that we too often shy away from making statements like that in church nowadays. But that doesn’t make it less true, and if we’re not going to say it in church, then where? And if not during Lent, then when?
God loved us all so much that God departed from heaven, took human form, and lived a hard human life telling hard human truths. God had the whole span of human history to choose from, and showed up in a society without many material comforts, and among an oppressed, occupied people to boot! God loved us in extravagant excess of anything we can hope to match.
But I challenge you to try your best. I challenge you to look within this season, and find those barriers and burdens that it’s past time to live without. I urge you to consider what you truly value in life, and where God fits among the distractions and follies of this fallen world. And, beyond that, what you may do to know God better, and thus better do God’s work.
God so loved the world that Jesus came to live in it. God loved us so much that we have the example of Christ’s life among us to follow. And by loving us that much, God gave us an example to follow that leads to eternal life.