by Daniel Harrell
John 3:16 is among the first Bible verses Christians commit to memory: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” It encapsulates the gospel like few other verses do. Jesus expresses God’s deep devotion to his creation, though this verse has also served other purposes. My own confirmation occurred in a little North Carolina church following a year of Saturday morning meetings with our minister—a huge sacrifice for any teenager to make given all that happens on Saturdays. I made the mistake once of mentioning the great sacrifice I was making for confirmation, only to have my minister impale my impertinence by firmly reminding me how God sacrificed his one and only Son so I’d have a faith to confirm. I felt so guilty that I ended up becoming a minister myself.
Thinking about John 3:16 over the years, I grew more grateful to God for his sacrifice, but I also grew confused. It’s one thing to sacrifice yourself for the world. It’s another thing to sacrifice your kid. The whole thing could be twisted into divine sanction for child abuse. This is when I learned that it’s also important to memorize John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word, through whom all things came into being, is Jesus, who while being God’s Son is also fully God himself.
God did not send his Son to the cross as an innocent third party. Christ who bore human sins on the cross did so as God himself. Yet at the same time, in the mystery of the incarnation, Christ bore human sin as a human being. Jesus who is one with God is also one with us. What happened to Him happened to us. Jesus died and took our sinful selves down with him. Jesus rose and brought us up with him. Eternal life has already started.
The apostle Paul wrote that his sinful self was crucified with Jesus, “it is no longer I who live, but Jesus who lives in me” by the Holy Spirit. He said, “The new life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Baptism symbolizes this new life. Water washes you clean. But it’s not enough just to take a bath. You have to get up and get dressed and go live your new life in the world. This is what confirmation is about. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” Paul wrote. Therefore, “Live honorable lives for everyone to see. Not in partying and drunkenness, not in sleeping around and losing control, not in quarreling and coveting. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
I must say our confirmands looked all look pretty spiffy in your white robes. “Dressed in white” is one way the church has tried to illustrate what it means to “put on Jesus” and “clothe yourself with Christ.” At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, we read about how those who lived their lives for Jesus are all dressed in white. White is the color of righteousness. And your robe looks cool in church—not so cool if you wore it to school tomorrow. Other kids would probably notice. They might even laugh. Lives lived for Jesus are lives that other people notice: telling the truth, forgiving your enemies, respecting your bodies, honoring your parents, loving your neighbors, being generous with your money, serving the poor, working for justice, practicing patience and exuding joy. Such behavior can look weird in high school. It can look weird everywhere else too. To make it in America, the idea is to get all you can get while you can get it. Love yourself and do what’s best for you. But Christians have this tendency to love others first and give all they can. We’re not normal people.
One of you wrote in your confirmation paper about what it was like to try and actually live your life as a Christian. About how it cost you a best friend who cared more about impressing other people, what clothes to wear, and started putting you down on almost a daily basis. She said you weren’t good enough to sit next to her on the bus, that you sucked at basketball and that you needed better clothes. One night she texted you something that made clear she no longer wanted to be your friend, and you cried in the bathroom for hours. “I was mad at God for letting me lose my best friend,” you wrote, “but then later looking back, I realized that He filled back up what I lost with even greater friends who are still my best friends today.” In a strange way, “this experience brought me closer to Jesus.”
Christians aren’t normal people. We wear white robes in public. We act like Jesus. Paul says we shine like stars. In one of the most important passages of the Bible, Jesus took some of his disciples up a hill for what we call the Transfiguration. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus’ clothes turned dazzling white, just like light, as he displayed his true identity. He literally shined with the glory of God. Which brings us back to John’s gospel. “The Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him was life, and his life was the light of all people.” Jesus who is one with God is also one with us. Therefore, his true identity is our identity too. We have put on Christ. Therefore, “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his followers. Let your good deeds shine for all to see, so that everyone will see the glory of your Father in heaven.
We have been talking a lot about light this fall because there’s a lot of light in the Bible to talk about. There’s a lot of light in the universe to talk about too. We covered some of that light last weekend with NASA’s Dr. Jennifer Wiseman. She described the universe beginning with a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Telescopes enable us to see almost all the way back to that beginning, to that first flash of light. The problem is that when you look through a telescope deep into space and back into time, what you see is mostly darkness. Despite the mammoth number of massively bright galaxies and stars, the voids between them are even more massive, rendering the universe essentially empty. In fact, there’s so much darkness in space that were you to remove everything that you can see, the cosmos would hardly be any different. It’s as if the heavens and the earth are totally trivial.
And that would have been the conclusion if not for the discovery, a few years back, that the universe is actually expanding instead of gravitationally contracting like everybody assumed. Astronomers realized that all that darkness was not emptiness, but a power stronger than gravity itself. At the first millisecond of creation, enormous light released but then dispersed, rapidly spreading out to permeate the entire cosmos, carrying with it the bulk of the universe’s luminous energy. It is this energy that pushes space apart. And what’s weird is that light looks like darkness. But it’s not. The pure light that burst forth in the beginning, due to billions of years of cosmic expansion, has just been stretched out, its wavelength having expanded to that microwave frequency invisible to our eyes. It’s called Cosmic Background Radiation, residue from the Big Bang itself that continually bathes all creation in light from every direction. Though you cannot see it, it is everywhere. Just like the Lord himself. John’s gospel described it better than he could have realized: “The light shines in darkness, and darkness can not overcome it.”
Scripture describes God as dwelling in glory—a light so bright that you can’t comprehend it. But Scripture also describes God as dwelling in flesh you can see. Given that people were made in the image of God, it made total sense that if God was going to become any visible thing, he would become a person. Paul called Jesus the visible “icon of the invisible God.” If you want to see what God is like, what God’s love is like, you look long and hard at Jesus. This is why Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but to save the world and make eternal life possible. Eternal life is that kind of life Jesus shares with God, a glorious life we all instinctively crave, a life where time no longer matters. But here’s the thing: “light came to the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
To the ancients, light and darkness served as emblems of right and wrong, good and evil. Lovers of light did what was good and right. Lovers of darkness did not. “They hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed,” Jesus said. “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that their deeds may be clearly seen in God’s sight.” Jesus didn’t come to the world to condemn us. We condemn ourselves by our actions. We make our own choices.
This past week I was talking with a minister friend struggling with reaching a certain age and realizing that his life wasn’t going to turn out like he’d hoped. He’d looked out on his congregation Sunday and suddenly couldn’t bear to behold what he imagined to be the full lives they enjoyed. Their happy relationships, their high paying jobs, their perfect children, their good hair. He could have chosen to rejoice in their happiness; but he chose instead to begrudge their existence and fuel his own misery. He said he couldn’t help it. He was going through a midlife crisis. “No you’re not,” I replied, showing off my gifts as an empathetic counselor. “You’re just coveting. You know there’s a commandment against that.” (Guilt is still the language we ministers use with each other.) I told him he could choose to be grateful for what he had. Or he could be miserable over what he lacked. He agreed. We all make our choices.
I have experience with this. Some years ago I was being considered for an excellent job opportunity in one of my favorite cities (I mean, besides Minneapolis). They flew me in for interviews which I thought went tremendously well, and I left excited and confident about what I was sure would be a fabulous fit. However, I soon received my rejection letter with the requisite “so many qualified candidates” blather leaving me depressed and resentful. Then came the phone call. It was them. They were calling me back? Had they recognized their error? Had they reconsidered their rejection? No. They called to ask if I could provide a personal reference for their preferred candidate—a good friend of mine whose name I had submitted as a personal reference of my own. The same friend who had already enjoyed a string of other job experiences I would have loved. The caller asked, “do you know any reason why we should not hire this person?” I’m like, “you’re asking me?”
Our penchant for darkness derives from a bitter refusal to trust in a God who obviously plays favorites. Why does the Lord bless him but not me? Why can’t my life have the happiness that others enjoy? Why does my life have no purpose? Why is my family so screwed up? Why do I feel so lonely? Why can’t I have what I want? Behind so much human evil is outrage at the unfairness of life. And it’s true: Life is not fair. But neither is the gospel. The Bible says that “It was while we were yet sinners that Christ died for us.” And that “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.” “In Christ,” we read, “God reconciled the world to himself, no longer counting our sins against us.” “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” There’s nothing fair about any of that. Which is why the Bible calls it love. And why I gave my friend a glowing recommendation.