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Our Old Testament reading that Camie Wiley read, Psalm 107,
recounts four occasions of God’s saving work among various populations of people.
I commend this psalm to you for a personal devotion this week.
The psalm reminds us of the grace of God at work in various human circumstances,
of God’s good intentions for the salvation for all.
Our New Testament passage for today comes from the third chapter of the Gospel of John.
This text includes the well-known verse John 3:16, “For God so loved the world…”
These words of Jesus are set in the context of two very different live –
Nicodemus, the righteous Pharisee, and the Samaritan woman at the well.
Nicodemus came to visit to Jesus at night time, under the cover of darkness.
He was afraid to speak openly to Jesus during the day.
Jesus speaks to the righteous Pharisee about the possibility and necessity of a person being born anew,
born from above, about entering the kingdom of God through the Spirit’s call for a new beginning,
a fresh start. Even the one who is late in life, who has lived a mostly righteous life,
who long ago settled their beliefs and practices, at least publicly, still needs salvation, daily renewal,
by the transforming grace of God.
Just after our text for today, in the very next chapter of John, we read the story of the woman at the well.
The Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well in the light of the day
was very different from Nicodemus. She had lived a very different life from that of a Pharisee,
yet she was not condemned by Jesus.
Jesus was very matter of fact about how she had had five husbands,
and that the one with whom she was now living was not her husband.
No part of the life that she had lived, nor her current living circumstances,
not her religion or nationality, not her current beliefs or practices,
could separate her from the love of God made known in Jesus Christ.
Whether you relate more today to the community leader Nicodemus with hidden questions,
or to the woman who went to the well at noon to avoid the judgment of other women,
in the presence of Jesus,
both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman were fully known and still fully loved.
This is the good news of the gospel. This is the heart of Christian faith. This is the hope of the world.
Hear the Word of God from John 3:14-21.
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son not to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
God so loves the world, ton cosmos in the Greek – all of it, all of us.
God loves not only the supposed “Christian” nation, but also the “secular” and “pagan” nations as well.
God loves not only the “good” people, but also those who some call “bad” people.
God loves the unloveable and the unlovely, and the lonely who have no one else to love them.
God loves the one who loves God as well as the one who never thinks of God.
God loves the one who rests in the love of God as well as the one who spurns the love of God.
All are included in the vast, inclusive love of God, the loving Parent.
As St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century: “God loves each of us as if there was only one of us.”
(William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Volume 1, Westminster Press)
This is a great mystery, no doubt, and one that can be exceedingly difficult for humankind to take to heart,
both about ourselves and about others. Let’s talk first about ourselves.
Many a child has sung the old song and believed it with all their heart:
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me…
but then when we become snarky teenagers who are very careful about to whom they “belong”,
and then we become rebellious young adults who push the boundaries of our own morality,
then we become self-reliant workers who are not so innocent or weak any more,
we may not be so convinced of the Bible’s words about anything, let alone Jesus loving us.
We know our sin, our faults and our failings; they are ever before us.
But may not want or feel like we need God; we may not want God to have anything to do with us.
Jesus’ words, Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,
fall on deaf ears.
Do you still believe that God loves you, as you are, all of you,
even that part of you that you keep hidden from the rest of the world?
Some do believe that God truly loves them, can accept and handle everything that is good
or not so good about them. They believe that forgives afresh each new day
and so they entrust their lives wholly unto God.
They are the ones who live at peace with God and with everyone around them,
and they live at peace with their own mortality.
For me to live is Christ, Paul exclaimed, and to die is gain.
Others do not believe that God could possibly love all of who they are,
and so they do not entrust their whole lives before God.
They keep themselves, or at least part of themselves, hidden from God and thus, as the gospel claims,
they are condemned already.
Their hidden sins keep the transforming power of unconditional love at bay.
Though God holds out God’s loving hands to them all day long, they turn their backs.
They keep parts of their life hidden from God and others, and they suffer in fear and anxiety.
Countless souls go through life in this manner, unreconciled to God,
afraid that God is out to get them, to condemn them.
They are certain that they are not worthy of God’s love,
not good enough to receive what others have received.
They do not trust the gospel: God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn.
As long as one’s sins remain hidden, there cannot be acceptance of unconditional love.
As long as part of our lives is hidden from God or from others, we are condemned already.
This is like a child who has stolen something.
As long as the theft is hidden from the parent, then the relationship cannot be whole.
Only when the child confesses the sin or is caught red-handed,
only then can the unconditional love of the parent be made known.
The parent will discipline the child, but the parent will love that child regardless,
will love them despite their sin.
But the child does not know that love or receive that love until what is hidden has come into the light.
This is like the addict who does not admit their addiction.
As long as the addiction remains hidden, then the power of transforming love will not be known.
To walk through any 12 step program, one has to acknowledge all of oneself before God.
There cannot be any hidden parts. In order for recovery to begin,
one has to admit powerlessness over the addiction, and confess that one’s life has become unmanageable.
Not many adults are willing to admit powerlessness, or that their lives are unmanageable.
There is an old hymn my home congregation sang every communion Sunday. Join with me, if you will:
Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou biddest me come to Thee. O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
God sent Jesus into the world to condemn sin, but not to condemn people.
God sent Jesus into the world us to bid people to come to him, to be saved.
The word “salvation” has as its root the word “salve”, as in healing for a wound.
To save is to make whole, to make well.
A particular one middle-aged woman in my former congregation was transformed
by the realization of grace in her 40’s. She experience a radical spiritual change in mid-life.
For forty years, she had lived as someone who, when she thought of God,
would literally hold her head down, fearful of punishment by an impersonal judge.
When she came to know grace, she became someone who would hold her head uplifted toward heaven,
and literally dance with joy before her loving and caring Heavenly Father.
She had lived the whole first half of her life in fear and anxiety.
She was convinced that she could never be good enough for God.
She had a husband who did not encourage her faith or her self-esteem.
She never felt fully forgiven or free.
But she began the second half of her life aware that she could be fully known by God
and also fully loved. She, who grew up in the life of the church, was astounded,
that as God’s beloved child, she could be fully accepted, fully forgiven,
and freed for the rest of her life, each new day, from the heavy weight of sin.
As the wonderful hymn concludes, talking about living in the presence of God,
she was “no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”
What in your life or your family needs saving? What is your mind or heart is broken or hurting?
What in our community is not whole? Which relationships seem beyond redemption?
What brings you anxiety? What unresolved fears do you fight? What keeps you awake at night?
As Scripture claims, we all must ultimately stand before the Righteous Judge.
Our sins will be laid bare before the One who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Like the one at the corn maze who stands in the tower, who can view the entire maze from above,
so God sees where we are all the time. God knows what we do.
God is aware of our public selves and our private selves.
Someone once said that to refuse God’s forgiveness is to ask Jesus to get back up on that cross
as if his sacrifice did not include your sin the first time.
The good news for Nicodemus and for the woman at well, and for us!,
is that we are loved and we are forgiven.
Now to others – If we struggle with the idea that God truly loves us, as we are,
then we are likely having difficulty loving the stranger.
Those who are uncertain of God’s love for them will certainly struggle with love for neighbor.
This is all very simple and all very complex, psychologically and theologically.
Where did we get the idea that we could decide who were going to love or not love?
Remember how Jesus said love your enemies? Do good to those to harm you?
Christian faith doesn’t allow us to draw lines in the sand and write people off
because they are different from us.
God loves the left side of the aisle as well as the right side the aisle.
God loves the homeless poor, who have too little,
and God loves the multiple home owners, who probably have too much.
God loves the black and the white and those of mixed race.
God loves the gay and the straight, the Christian and the Muslim.
God loves the citizen and the undocumented immigrant, the gun owner and the gun controller.
Do you believe this?!
We are the people of the golden rule, who do under others as we would have them do unto us.
We are not people of the silver rule, who do not do unto others what they do not do to us.
Just as God was proactive in loving the world through Jesus,
so we are to be proactive in our love, even, or especially for those who are difficult for us to love.
Our salvation and the salvation of the world lie in this.
All are included in the vast, inclusive love of God, our loving Parent.
As Augustine wrote: “God loves each of us as if there was only one of us.”
In a sermon on this text a few years ago, I spoke of how eternal life begins with peace with God.
Once we know peace with God, we can discover peace with ourselves.
When we are peace with God and with ourselves, all of ourselves, as loved and forgiven by God,
then we can move into peace with others.
When we live in peace with others, friend and foe,
then we will come to know peace with life itself.
When we enjoy peace with this human life, as it is, then we will finally know peace with death.
We need not be afraid because we will live daily in the joy of God’s coming kingdom.
Believing in Jesus is more than intellectual assent.
Believing in him is to place our lives and the salvation of the world in his hands,
to put Jesus in charge of our daily plans and in charge of the eternal destiny of all.
Jesus said: I am the light of the world. I am the way for you.
I am the truth that will set humankind free. I am the life that will never die.
Friends, Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, til all the world adore his sacred name.
O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, your death has brought us life eternally.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 11, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 am and at 5 pm on the 1st Sunday.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God’s Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030