Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
16th February 2015: Morning Prayer
Gracious God, as we gather this morning around your word, we thank you that you are a God who speaks. Therefore with Samuel of old we say: “Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.” In the name of your Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It’s week 5 of Hilary Term. We’re midway through an academic year at theological college. Naturally, therefore, I’m assuming that our heads are so caught up in essays on the Matthean understanding of mission or Abelard’s moral theory of atonement that we’ve forgotten what the gospel actually is. Thankfully, John 3:16 reminds us in just 25 words of Greek: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Martin Luther called John 3:16 the gospel in miniature. If you want a short, succinct, and (quite astonishingly for John’s Gospel) simple verse, telling you what the gospel is all about, then this is it. Let’s take some time now to meditate on this wonderful text and five things it tells us about the gospel.
I. The gospel is about God’s great love.
“For God…” It may sound obvious, but the gospel is about God. The gospel is not about us. It’s about who God is. It’s about what God does. Just as the creation story begins, “In the beginning, God…” so the salvation story begins, “For God…” God is the principal actor in this drama. Salvation is God’s self-assigned task. We’re here because we want to be faithful stewards of the gospel; but to be that we must remember that the gospel is not up to us, but up to God. Moreover, if the gospel is up to God, it’s up to a God whose name and nature is love. The word ‘love’ appears 56 times in John’s Gospel. Yet God didn’t just love, He so loved. This is abundant, extravagant, reckless love. The gospel is about a God who refuses to be alone; a God determined to be God with us—Immanuel; a God who calls to us: “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.” (Song of Songs 2:10)
II. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world.
God, the Creator, the Lord and Judge of the Universe, loves us; He loves the world. If God’s love is excessive in extent, then it’s boundless in breadth. In John, the word kosmos tends not only to describe the world or universe, but a world or universe set in opposition to God. That is the world God loves. In Hosea 1, God tells Hosea to go marry a whore. And we think to ourselves: “What kind of God would tell someone to do that?” Answer: the kind of God who does it Himself: “Love to the loveless shown/ That they might lovely be.” So often we love the idea of something more than the reality of it. Not so with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in his Meditations on the Cross, says: “God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world.” God knew exactly what He was getting into with us, and He did it all the same.
III. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world, demonstrated in costly self-giving.
Missionary Amy Carmichael once said, “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” God demonstrates His love for us through an unparalleled act of self-giving. But, for love of our love, He thought it a price worth paying! God gave His one and only Son for you. Never has there been a Valentine’s Day gift like it. God doesn’t give proportionately. He doesn’t ask “What are you getting me?” or “This year, please can we agree a budget?” No. He gives with abandon. The gospel is about a God who gives Himself away without holding anything back—and to sinners of all people, to people who have no trouble playing the prostitute! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Yet this is the gospel. This is God’s loud, decisive and incomprehensible ‘yes’ to us in Jesus Christ. God is for us, or as the Nicene Creed puts it, He is “for us and for our salvation.”
IV. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world, demonstrated in costly self-giving, made available to all by faith.
This salvation is available to all through faith. It is for anyone, “whoever believes” in Jesus. This gospel is for priests and prostitutes; teachers and truants; detainees and despots. And we are all equally unworthy of it because we receive it through faith, not by merit. In the words of Fanny Crosby’s hymn, “The vilest offender who truly believes/ That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” The one criterion for receiving God’s blank cheque in Jesus is cashing the cheque. Faith doesn’t mean agreeing to a list of doctrinal statements about Jesus. It simply means trusting Jesus. It requires relationship. It means casting in your lot with Jesus and confessing that He is Lord. Faith like this demands our ultimate allegiance.
V. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world, demonstrated in costly self-giving, made available to all by faith and for the purpose of bringing new life.
Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus is all about new life: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (v. 3); “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit” (v. 5); “You must be born again” (v. 7). Our condition is so serious it requires the birth of an entirely new person; a few lifestyle adjustments here and there won’t cut it. Apart from God, we’re dead. This isn’t just some kind of post-mortem death. We’re dead now; spiritually dead. But Jesus comes to make us alive to God in the Spirit. “This is eternal life,” Jesus says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We’re saved to know God. American scholar Will Willimon writes: “[Salvation is the] invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever.” To know God means to start becoming like God.
Sometimes we evangelicals make salvation sound like a get-out-of-hell-free card. We focus so much on the need to be born again, we forget why. We know what we are saved from; but do we know what we are saved for? Being born again is just the start; it’s only how our new life begins. We are saved to know God, to be with God and to become like God. So what are we waiting for? Let’s take hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. Let’s take hold of eternal life now—life in conformity to our crucified, risen and glorious Lord. Amen.