Say it Five Times Fast
You're familiar with tongue twisters that are difficult if not impossible to say five times fast: rubber baby buggy bumpers, toy boat, or red bulb blue bulb. In our text John uses 3 different words 5 times each. Moreover, these 3 words are used by him more than they are by any other New Testament writer. John uses "light" 16 times; the next most is 10. John uses "world" 58 times; the next most is 17. John uses "believe" 86 times; the next most is 36. John uses believe, world, and light 5 times in our text. I think there's more than a potential tongue twister here. I think rather than saying them 5 times fast we should look slowly at his using them 5 times.
The first word is "believe." John says that "everyone who believes in Jesus may have eternal life;" "whoever believes in Him shall not perish;" "whoever believes in Him is not condemned;" "whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."
Notice the object of the belief. Not "God". People are relatively quick to say, "I believe in God." So what? St. James says the devils believe in God and that doesn't do them any good. The faith that brings salvation is not based on a generic God, a powerful God, merciful God, gracious God, or loving God. The faith that saves is in the lifted up Son of Man.
Jesus uses the image of the bronze snake we read about in the Old Testament lesson. The thing that was biting and killing them was a snake. The Lord commanded that a bronze snake, not a living one, be attached to a pole so that everyone could see it and whoever looked at it lived. What is killing and damning you and me is sin and sinfulness. It's in our very natures. God sent His only Son to take on flesh and blood. He wasn't a mere image like the bronze snake. He was the real deal. But as the bronze snake didn't really have poison, so Jesus wasn't really sinful. Our sins were imputed, assigned, loaded on Him.
Imagine if you were bit by one of the poisonous snakes, and Moses told you salvation from that deadly bite was to be found in looking at a bronze snake on a pole. Sounds silly, right? This is the foolishness of the cross. Salvation is not found in a powerful Jesus showing you how to overcome, a pious Jesus showing you how to feel, a lawgiving Jesus teaching you how to live, but in a Jesus nailed to a cross. Salvation from the deadly poison of sin that has been coursing through you since conception is found in the Son of Man who God lifted up for everyone to believe in.
And whoever believes in Him shall not perish and is not condemned. People who believe in generic gods or in a god that has neither been lifted up on a cross nor sacrificed for sinners do perish and are condemned. Is that an accurate statement of what this part of Holy Scriptures says? The liberal mainline churches deny this, so does Main Street America. Everyone in America who dies, particularly tragically, goes to heaven. That's not what Jesus says: Only the ones who believe in the crucified Son of Man do not perish and are never condemned.
But wait; this is for the world. Say believe, believe, believe, believe, believe in the lifted up Son of Man, but then see that: "God so loved the world;" "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world;" "but to save the world;" "light has come into the world;" The uplifted Son of Man that is to be the object of our belief is not only for us but for the whole world. My sinful, fallen mind has a hard time processing this. Every Ash Wednesday I'm confronted with this truth. The ancient Ash Wednesday prayer begins with, "Almighty and everlasting God, because You hate nothing You have made"
When we started actually using ashes, I almost changed that prayer. Scripture does speak of God hating, but then I realized what God hates were all things that He didn't make: idolatry, greed, abominations, the lying tongue, unbelief, the wicked. God made done of these. You can't lay evil at God's feet; He is not responsible for it being in the world. Evil has polluted, brought down, infected, and made disgusting the creation God made and declared to be very good, but God isn't letting go of what He made without a fight. The object of God's salvation is nothing less than the whole world. It was for the world that God sent His only beloved Son. God sent Him not to condemn the world but to save the world through Him.
Did you catch the two different ways "so" is used in the opening sentences? "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of man must be lifted up." "So" here means "in this way." The second use of "so" doesn't means "in this way," but "to such an extent." "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son." "To such an extent" did God love not saints, not believers, not the Church, not good' people but the world that He "gave" not sent, not loaned, not sold, but gave His only beloved Son." This understanding of "so" is where the illustration comes from: "I asked God how much He loved me, and He spread out His arms and said this much." But that's not quite right is it? The question is not how much He loved me, but the world? The answer is the same: "This much."
Two weeks ago the Epistle reading from Romans spelled this out by saying that Christ died not for righteous men, not for good men, and not just for sinners but for ungodly sinners. The sins of the whole world were on Jesus when He was uplifted on the cross. There is not a sin you can think of be it yours or anyone else's that was not there. John makes this plain in chapter 1 where he identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God carrying away the sins of the world, and then in his first epistle, just in case we might have missed it, he says, "He was the wrath removing sacrifice not only for our sins but the sins of the whole world."
No limited atonement here. No limit to the forgiveness of sins. No limit to the light. God sends the light of the knowledge of the glory of God that is in the face of Christ into the whole world. Yes, after saying "believe" and "world" five times, say light, light, light, light, light. "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light;" "everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light;" "whoever lives by the truth comes into the light."
The Son of Man was attached to a cross with nails and lifted up for all the world to believe in so as not to perish or be condemned. God sent this beacon of light into all the world. Baptism where the death and life of Jesus are applied to sinners is for all nations. Absolution is for whoever sins. The Body and Blood of Jesus in Holy Communion are for as many as whom He first gave His Body on the cross and shed His Blood there for: the world.
But what has happened? Men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. They didn't want their foul, evil deeds exposed. In these last dark, dark ages, you have to see what is happening. There are whole churches, whole denominations that are devoted to telling people they can have their darkness and come to the light. They can believe in the Jesus crucified for their sins while keeping, protecting, using, and defending their sins. The most obvious ones are the Metropolitan churches where gays and lesbians are assured that homosexuality is not darkness and they can stand in the light of Jesus with it. But there are liberal Lutheran churches saying the same thing, and there are conservative ones who tell couple's living together or fornicating that they can keep their darkness and have their light too.
No, no, no. I would not be preaching the whole counsel of God; I would fall under the judgment of an unfaithful watchman if I stood I Zion's wall and told you God loves the world so much that there is no need to repent of your sins. Indeed you can keep them, defend them, and die in them and you will neither perish nor be condemned. No, that's not doing the truth.
Isn't that a strange phrase? We speak of speaking the truth; the insert translates "whoever lives by the truth," but that's not what John wrote. He wrote, "whoever does the truth comes to the light." This goes with the sentence above which correctly translated is "all who practice worthlessness hate the light." "Worthless" is not the Greek word for the antithesis of good; neither is it the word for an active worker of evil. It's the word for good for nothing, foul, worthless. If the worthless, the base, the good for nothing are said to hate the light how much more those who actively pursue their sins, don't wish to be freed from them, and declare them not to be sins at all hate the light? Whether those sins be against the 6th, the 5th, the 4th, or 3rd. The judgment is the same. They hate the light and remain in darkness.
Doing the truth is acknowledging the truth that your sins all of them, one of them, any of them are damning. Doing the truth is confessing the truth that you do not have the strength to break with your sins. Doing the truth brings you into the light, and at first the site can be horrible. That's what your sins really are; that's how horrible, ugly, and gross they are. But the light shows you the uplifted Son of Man, Jesus, on the cross; it shows you there's where all your sins have been placed, punished, and paid for. How can you know that for sure? Well the world's sins were there; are you part of the world? Then your sins were there. God no more wishes to condemn you to perish than He does the world.
You are doing the truth every time you say the 5 amens in the liturgy that are after the Invocation, Absolution, Pax Domini, Communion, and Benediction. It's true; I have been baptized into the Triune God. It's true; I've been absolved of all my sins. It's true; the peace of the Lord is with me through the Body and Blood of Jesus on the altar. It's true; the Body I've ate and the Blood I've drank do strengthen and preserve me in the true faith. It's true; the Triune Lord has put His name on me and has granted me peace.
Go ahead. Say it five times fast: believe, world, light, amen, but think about it real slow. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20120318); John 3: 14-21