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4th Sunday in Lent

John 3:14-22

Strong Enough to Stand Upon

THE BENT LEG

The doctor told her that her foot was bruised but not broken. He recommended that she walk through the pain to strengthen the foot. Having the unqualified trust in his medical expertise, Marva walked and walked and walked, more than 400 miles on a broken foot. By the time she sought a second opinion, her foot was severely damaged. A second doctor said that the square bones had been turned 90 degrees and the smaller bones next to them were ground up like grape nut cereal. He put her foot in a cast to stabilize the bones. Then a surgeon in Seattle decided that the foot would not heal without an operation. He removed the little bones and screwed her metatarsal to the heal leaving her left foot shorter than her right foot. The surgery successfully cured her foot problem but it produced another one.

With one foot shorter than the other, her body compensated for the imbalance by breaking her leg. When her leg healed, it healed with a permanent bend in it. Misshapen, the leg can no longer support the wait of her body. Without the support of a cast, her body weight would snap the leg like a toothpick. She must wear a $2000 plastic cast to support her weight an protect the leg. Marva Dawn is not discouraged by this misfortune she has suffered. She teaches Spiritual Theology at Regent College and writes books on spirituality and theology so she uses her leg to illustrate the importance of sound doctrine. She says that if the church has doctrine that is bent, distorted, or misshaped in any form, the Church will snap under pressure. The doctrine of the church must be sound so that it will be strong enough to stand upon.1

The apostle John understood the importance of sound doctrine. Unlike the other three gospel accounts, John spends more time in theological reflection. He not only records as Matthew, Mark and Luke do, the historical events that took place during the ministry of Jesus but he devotes more time to considering the importance of those events.2 John's style was to omit the parables but record extensive dialogues and speeches sometimes even adding his own interpretation of the circumstances. He even tells the reader that he has a theological purpose. The apostle wants the reader to believe that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God." (John 20:30) This prompted John Calvin to write in the preface of his own commentary: "I am accustomed to say that this Gospel affords the key to open the door to the other gospels."3

This morning's passage is an excellent example of that style. John has taken a historical event and has reflected on its theological implications. Our Scripture lesson is primarily John's reflection of the dialogue that took place between Jesus and the Pharisee, Nicodemus. You remember the famous story. Nicodemus comes to our Lord under the cover of darkness. He is truly interested in learning more about Jesus but he is does not want to say or do anything that may not conform to the attitudes and expectations of his religious friends. Jesus startles Nicodemus by telling him that the pious man will never be able to understand his teaching unless he is born again. Bound by the limitation of his physical world, Nicodemus becomes confused. How can an old man reenter his mother's womb? What is this spiritual rebirth? To help the aged scholar Jesus reminds him of a story that every Jew learned as a child. 

The nation of Israel had escaped from Egypt. They were wondering in the desert when the people began to complain to Moses about not having enough food and water. God became impatient with their ingratitude and afflicted them with poisonous snakes. After the people confessed their sin to Moses, God told the prophet to kill one of the snakes, tie it to a post, and lift it over the heads of the people. If a snake then bit anyone, he or she would look up at the pole and be saved. Jesus tells Nicodemus that in the same way the Son of Man would be lifted up to bring salvation to the people.

Unfortunately, the gospel writers never used quotation marks or any punctuation, so we do not really know when the words of Jesus end and when the words of John begin.4 The more radical theologians would say that most if not all of the gospel stories are the words of the authors put into the mouth of Jesus. I disagree and remain unconvinced by the arguments of the critics. However, it seems to me that the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, did not come from the mouth of our Lord but from the pen of the disciple who Jesus loved. The idea may have first come to John during his meditation on that midnight meeting. The words may have been shaped by latter conversations that he had trying to persuade both Jew and Gentile to the faith. Whatever, their source in its polished version, the phrase contains the essence of the gospel and a doctrine strong enough to stand upon.
 

 UNFATHOMABLE LOVE

John begins the verse by telling the reader that the love of God is so unfathomable that it stretches out to the whole world. This was a startling announce to both Jew and Gentile. The Jew knew that God loved the people of Israel but they would have been shocked to hear that that love was offered to the world. The Gentile would never have considered the idea. Even for the Greek philosopher Plato, who considered God to be the principle of all Good, would have met the statement, "God is love" with a bewildering shake of the head. The thought would have been utter nonsense. Plato believed that we love that which we do not possess and that which we lack. God on the other hand is entirely self-sufficient. God lacks nothing and so therefore does not need to love anything. The Greek mind would have understood the importance of men and women loving God but John's words would have stunned them.5

The heart of the New Testament message is expressed in the statement "God is love." Whereas the message of the Old Testament is built upon the holiness of God, the foundation of the Gospel message is built upon the Love of God. This unfathomable love is not based on anything that God needs, wants, or desires. Nor is this love deserving based upon any quality, attribute are characteristic in the person but "solely [and entirely] in the election which is rooted in the will of God."6
Have you ever considered, why does God love you?

Later in her talk to the presbytery, Marva Dawn, told us about a conversation that she had with her husband in which she asked him a similar question. In order to appreciate fully his response you need to know a little more about Marva Dawn. As I have said, she is a very talented and gifted writer but she also suffers from several aliments besides a badly injured leg. She is visually impaired and is a diabetic who has also had cancer. Her kidneys are failing and his digestive track does not work properly. She never thought that she would get married so after a few months she asked her husband, "Why do love me?" She said that she was expecting him to give her some romantic answer or to say that he loved her for her wit or writing abilities. Instead, he said, "Because you need," and Marva added "He is right." She publicly acknowledges that because of her physical limitations and ministry of writing and teaching, she needs him far more than he needs her.

We would like to think that God needs or even wants us because of some inner quality or because we have done something wonderful for the kingdom. However, when it is all stripped away. When we take it down to its barest essentials, God loves us for one reason and one reason only, because we need it. Without his love we would simple not know what love really is.
 

 THE SON

In his book on love, Canon William Vanstone lists three marks of false love. John Stott summarizes them in his insightful book, The Cross of Christ. Vanstone says that false love is exposed by the mark of limitation. A person gives a gift but withholds something. The gift giver could have given more. False love is also exposed by the mark of control. When a gift is given to influence or manipulate the behavior of the other person it losses its meaning. And the third mark of false love is detachment. Money that is hastily slipped into an envelope or a pair of gloves that are casual brought are inauthentic tokens of appreciation. Vantstone says that true love in contrast is expressed through limitless self giving, risk taking with no certainty of success and a vulnerability that is easily hurt. This is the love that God demonstrated when he gave us his son.7 The apostle John writes, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son." (John 3:16)

John Stott describes the beauty of this unqualified love of God. He writes, "If God had sent a man, as he had sent the prophets to Israel, we would have been grateful. If he had sent an angel, as he did to Mary at the annunciation, we would have counted it a great privilege." Yet, in both cases a limitation and detachment would have marked the gift. Men and angels are God's creation but they are third parties. "But in sending his own Son, eternally begotten from his own Being, God was not sending a someone else, he was sending himself. God's love is in its essences a self-giving love.
 

 THOUGHTS IN ACTIONS

The essence of the gospel has a logical, sequential flow for John. Salvation begins with God. It is possible only because of the love of God. Salvation is obtained not by human effort but by the work of God in offering his only Son as a perfect sacrifice. This is amazing grace, the unmerited favor of God in Jesus Christ. But humanity must make a decision. We must decide whether or not we will believe that this love is offered to us. Belief does not happen automatically. To believe in the saving love of God in Christ requires a decision. It requires that a person place their unqualified trust in the work of Christ on the Cross. It demands that the person demonstrate unwavering confidence in that salvation event.

The teacher assigned the class to draft a 20-minute instructional speech on a topic of their choosing. He would grade them on their creativity and ability to impress upon the class their main point in a memorable way. Ken selected "The Law of the Pendulum" for his title. He spent 15 minutes carefully explaining the physics of that governs a swinging pendulum. He even used a working model to illustrate his lesson. He attached a 3-foot string to a child's toy top and secured it  to the top of the blackboard with a thumbtack. After pulling the top to one side, he released it and made a mark on the blackboard at the point he let go. Each time it swung back, he make a new mark. He explained that a pendulum never returns to a point higher than the point of its release because of friction and gravity. With each swing, the pendulum fell short until it finally came to a rest, or a state of equilibrium, where all forces acting on the pendulum are equal. The series of marks on the blackboard proved his thesis. 

Ken then asked the class to raise their hands if they believed that the law of the pendulum was true. Everyone's hand was raised as the teacher started to walk to the front of the room but Ken's demonstration had only begun. He then asked that teacher to sit in a chair on a table with the back of his head to the wall. Before the class, Ken had attached 250 lbs of metal weights to the center steel beam with four strands of 500-lb test cord. He took the weights and brought them to within a fraction of an inch from his instructor's nose. He again explained the law of the pendulum and added, "If the law of the pendulum is true, then when I release this mass of metal, it will swing across the room and return short of the release point. You nose will not be in danger." Ken looked his instructor in the eye and asked, "Sir, do you believe this law is true." Huge beads of sweet formed on the instructor's upper lip and he weakly nodded. Ken released the pendulum. It made a swish sound as it arced across the room. At the zenith of its swing it paused and then started its return swing. At that moment the instructor dived from the table. Ken asked the class, "Does he believe in the law of the pendulum?" With a unison voice the class responded, "NO!"8

Too many Christian act like that teacher. They have heard the presentations. They have applauded the speeches from the safety of a back pew. Yet, when the moment arrives and they are called to sit in the chair and wait for the pendulum to swing back, they bail out in timid trepidation. If we truly believe that God is love, and if we truly believe that God gave us his Son, then let us live what we believe in confidence and boldness, even in the face of danger and distress.
 

 ETERNAL LIFE

After introducing us to the love of God by explaining that this love was expressed in the sacrificial giving of God's own Son, the apostle John states the ultimate purpose of his message, both positively and negatively. Those who believe on him do not "perish" but have eternal life. Whereas the fire and brimstone preacher may use their creative energies to warn people of the terror that awaits the impenitent, the apostle John does not offer any expanded description. His purpose is simply to present its awful reality. John's words are a warning. When this life ends we will not automatically walk through a shower of radiant light into a blissful eternity. The apostle wishes to offer hope but he also is compelled to offer a warning. "John sets perishing and life starkly over against one another."9 

That is an unpopular message today. In a pluralistic society, a theology that condemns some to judgement but exonerates others is considered heresy. Yet, this dual stance is common place throughout the Bible. The holy God finds the injustice of humanity detestable but that does not prevent him from crying out, "Do I take pleasure in the death of the wicked?" (Ezekiel 18:23) Similarly in the New Testament, the dual nature of his love and holiness is shown side by side. The apostle Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23) but in the same breath he tells us that "the gift of God is eternal life." Apart from God's love the world stands under God's wrath, no-one would be saved. However, this love is only offered to the redeemed community of faith.
 

 Neglecting the Familiar

The famous British preacher Charles Spurgeon discovered during a review of his sermons that although he made frequent reverence to John 3:16 he had never preached on the text alone. He was startled because he believed that "this sole verse contained the sole topic of [his] life's ministry."10 Spurgeon discovered how easy it is to neglect the familiar.

This mornings passage has become one of the most familiar Scripture references in America. Sports enthusiast sit in the grandstands at football games with mulit-dyed hair holding up signs with the verse painted on them. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote in his book, Sources of Strength, that John 3:16 and Ephesians 4:32 define the basic message of the Christian faith.11 Yet, as familiar as the passage is, its message will have a minimum impact unless the people of God live out what they believe.
 


1 Marva Dawn from a lecture entitled "Exhibiting the Kingdom of God" delivered to the Central Washington Presbytery, February 25, 2000.

2 Earl F. Palmer, The Intimate Gospel, (Waco: Word Books, 1982), 12.

3 Palmer, The Intimate Gospel, 13 quoting John Calvin, Comentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to John, 22.

4 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 203.

5 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), 183.

6 Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 184.

7 John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 215.

8 Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com quoting Ken Davis, How To Speak To Youth, 104-106.

9 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1995), 204.

10 Charles H. Spurgeon, Online: http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/1850.htm.

11 Online: http://www.sermonillustrations.com quoting Jimmy Carter, Sources of Strength, (Random House, 1997), 83.

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