God did what?
March 11, 2018
Scripture: John 3:16-21 Good News Translation (GNT)
Every once in a while you hear something that strikes you as not only different, but quite important as well. Especially when it comes to matters of faith. And I say that because for much of my life I have been seeking a deeper understanding of the true nature of our God. For I was never fully satisfied with the definition I had learned in the early years of my life as to what everyone said God was like, and felt that in order for God to be the God I needed there must be more…there had to be more than what so often seemed like tired doctrines of the church of my youth…many of which tended to present a God who was alternatively gracious, loving, and forgiving…and damning, horrific, and filled with wrathful anger. And I found that I just could not wrap my arms around what seemed like such an unpredictable, even unreliable God, let alone ‘Savior’.
I needed to find out which ‘God’ was the real one, which characteristics attributed to God both in the bible and in the doctrinal teachings of the church were the real ones…which among these seeming irreconcilable traits or characteristics were the ones which accurately described the nature of our God?
And for years I steeped myself in Christian literature which either asked the same questions or painted a different view of our God as truly and only loving…most of which tended to focus on the person of Jesus such as in the works of Fr. Joe Girzone or Gayle Erwin. And slowly I began to see our Lord in a new way. However there always were those pesky passages that traditionalists would throw at me which depicted God as ‘just’ in his wrath and anger, or where God, Paul, or Jesus seemed to be hinting of destruction and condemnation to come for all who did not figure out the proper way to think, speak, or believe…in other words, for all who did not have the right formulas to insure ‘eternal life’.
And mine was a search and a journey which lasted much of my adult life…in fact it still is a central quest in my prayers and musings. However, it took a turn for the better in terms of my being convinced that God was indeed a loving presence when I heard one of my professors in seminary caution all of us students never to preach on John 3:16…without also including ‘verse 17’…which of course at the time was a verse totally unfamiliar to me. For I, along with most of us I imagine was only ever asked to memorize John 3:16 as a youth, never looking to see if there was more.
And this is where that ‘thing’ I referred to in the beginning comes into play…when I said, ‘every once in a while you hear something that strikes you as not only different, but quite important as well’. For John 3:17 appears to fly fully in the face of all that tries to picture or depict our God as angry and wrathful and somehow capable of consigning the vast majority of humanity to eternal conscious torment in the ‘hell’ that has emerged out of the thought and teachings of the church over the ages.
Walk with me for a moment through these two verses if you would…
…John 3:16 tells us that ‘God so loved the world’…God so loved the world in its less than perfect, less than holy, less than worthy state. In other words God so loved the world as it was, and as it still is…that he chose to send his only begotten Son…chose to come and dwell within the midst of all that fallen-ness and less than holiness…chose to dwell in the middle of all that humanness…in order to show us the true and loving nature of God…in order to reveal the depth of love God had and still holds for us. And that whoever might believe in this Good News, in this heaven sent message of forgiving love might enter into an eternal loving relationship with this God of ours.
And if we were to stop there, as most of us did for the whole of our lives, then we would very carefully construct at that point a bridge allowing us to reconcile all of the humanly-attributed horrible traits we find describing God elsewhere in the bible with an exclusive place for all of the ‘proper-formula-following’ Christians, in order to allow them to rest assured of their eventual paradise-to-come, either after death or when a great world-destroying ‘rapture-horror-show’ somehow manages to scoop them all up and ferry them off to safety while the rest of us I guess, just burn…
And that is where verse 17 comes in like a huge pipe wrench thrown into the workings of a fine-tuned machine. For John 3:17 tells us in no uncertain terms that God did not send Jesus in order to condemn the world (remember God started this because God so loved the broken, fallen, human world), but rather that God sent Jesus in order that the world might be saved through him. God sent Jesus to be for us the way, the truth, and the life and truthfully…to save us from ourselves, from our own worst impulses, from our tendency to divide rather than unify, from our penchant to seek only to save ourselves rather than to do the harder work of loving one another…
John 3:17 reminds us of the truths in 3:16 and affirms that our God is first and only a God of love not of condemnation. This then is one of those kernels of truth, those pearls of great value, those words of wisdom that truly reveal not only the true nature of our God of love but our call in following after to do the same.
Which is not to say that there is no justice or to imply that there are no boundaries to follow in living our human lives…it is not to say that God does not hold us accountable for those choices we make that run counter to God’s nature for surely we must at some point stand alone before God. But I would propose that that moment is more a reckoning of how we have imitated our Savior rather than whether we are still worthy of the love of this one who loved us first in our fallen-ness. For I believe not only in the love of God but in God’s mercy and forgiveness as well. And as much as I believe that God still pursues justice for all through the living out of our lives as his disciples, the ability to judge or ultimately to condemn is the sole purview of God rather than our own.
But…but…but some will argue, does not Jesus speak of punishment for those who do not recognize or come to the ‘light of God’s love’. Does not Jesus say that these who do not follow after at least some of the formulas or some of the proper ‘declarations’ or ‘phrasing’ will suffer punishment? Don’t you need to affirm the Lordship of Jesus in order to be saved? Does that not mean some sort of divine retribution or negative consequence for the one guilty of this offense?
Yes, in fact a close reading of these two verses does seem to leave the door open for those who wish to preserve the image of a God of wrath and vengeance to some degree. However I would argue that this notion of punishment is not necessarily the same as eternal damnation in a fire that never goes out, but rather is simply the consequence of a life lived outside of relationship with our Lord of love. In other words, according to the old saying, ‘you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink’! Or…just because God’s nature is love does not mean that you have to know or to acknowledge that. Just because God forgives and is ever-merciful does not mean that one has to accept that forgiveness. Just because God is love does not mean that we must accept that without question, or even acknowledge it whatsoever.
We can choose to live as though God did not exist…we can freely choose to remain outside of the reach of God’s love and to live our lives out in complete ignorance of God…for a time at least. However, if that is true, and I believe it is, I can think of no better description of ‘hell’. For what is life without hope, what is life without joy or without peace if not hellish? There is punishment to be sure, but I would submit that it is merely the sentence of a life already being served in darkness and sorrow.
I cannot imagine trying to live life without believing in our God. I cannot imagine trying to make sense of life, of all its ups and downs, of all its moments of grace and tragedy outside of a relationship with our God. I truly believe that such a life would be not only terribly lonely, but devoid of any of the grace that allows us to get by in those darkest moments of life…and surely that is what I would call ‘punishment’, self-inflicted though it might be.
But, it is not retribution for shortcomings in our faith and it does not have its source in our God of love, but rather is the consequence of a life in which one chooses to live outside of the reach of God’s love. It is the result of the absence of holy relationship and the absence of a life-framework derived from and centered in faith…and most profoundly, it is the absence of a lens through which to view and better interpret and understand all of the circumstances of life…both those joyous…and not.
Let me give you an example…I once worked for a woman who was deeply embittered towards the church and towards God. It was not that she didn’t somewhere believe in God, but rather that she had been deeply hurt almost beyond repair by a church which stood by while millions of innocents were sent to gas chambers to die. And this view, this anger of hers colored her whole family such that during the term of my employment I was asked never to refer to God or to make mention of my faith. If ever there was an opportunity to ‘live’ rather than to ‘outwardly proclaim’ my belief this surely was it.
And over time, and through the course of countless conversations we came to deeply respect, even to love each other as would a mother and son. And somewhere in the waning moments of her life she confided that her anger was gone and that she knew God was not the one responsible for the failure of the church. Somewhere she reconciled with our Lord of love…and I was by her side and holding her hand as she traveled those last few steps into the arms of our Lord.
But the hatred of God still persisted in other parts of her family. Her grand-daughter held tight to it but was comforted a bit when she had children of her own to give meaning and purpose to her life. However another relative by marriage remained deeply embittered towards God and also wanted nothing to do whatsoever with things of faith. And it was this one who decided to turn off the life assist device upon which my dear friend depended at times, without first consulting the grand-daughter who was pregnant at the time.
And shortly after that action was taken my dear friend passed on into the care of our God. However, when everything that had transpired was revealed, when the grand-daughter found out that there would be no opportunity for her dear grandmother to meet her child soon to be born she grew bitterly angry. And neither of those two, neither the grand-daughter nor the relative by marriage had a faith framework to fall back upon. Neither of them had anywhere to turn to relieve them of the hurt and brokenness that had descended so heavily upon them. They knew no God to turn to, not even a God to question why, no faith structure upon which to lean in this most tragic of times and circumstances. There was only darkness and anger, hatred and bitterness…a brokenness which even now many years later has no hope of healing, forgiveness, or reconciliation. And I have to ask you…is that not hell? Is that not the deepest of punishment? Is that not the epitome of hopelessness?
There are many of us here who have suffered deeply…many who have lost loved ones or been hurt to the core by another…many who have been in that place of not knowing where to turn, perhaps even spending time ourselves in deep anger towards God…but…through it all, and in the end…God was still there! No matter the circumstances of life, our God of love is there, unrelenting in his compassion towards us and refusing to walk away from our sorrow or hardship. For as much as Jesus promised that he would never leave or abandon us it is important to remember that neither did he promise that we would never encounter trial or profound heartache at some point in our life. Rather, the promise he did make and still honors is that he would walk through it with us. But in the end…how can you walk with someone you don’t know or perhaps don’t even know is there?
God so loved the world…so loved all of humanity…even as humanity sinned and fought, even as humanity did everything possible to make themselves unworthy of that love…
…God so loved humanity that Jesus came that we might come into the saving knowledge of that love…that we might find the way that is open to come into relationship with this Lord of love, grace, and forgiveness…
…and God sent Jesus to finish the task of the salvation of humanity…by teaching us how to love one another…and by teaching us to draw strength and inspiration from the well of salvation itself…from the river of life that never runs dry…the light that shines in the darkness and cannot be put out…our companion and friend Jesus…
Let us be about this holy call…amen