Sermon: Born to Love

In the city of Chicago, one cold, dark night, a blizzard was settling in. A little boy was selling newspapers on the corner, while other people were in and out of the cold. The little boy was so cold that he wasn’t trying to sell many papers. He walked up to a policeman and said, “Mister, you wouldn’t happen to know where a poor boy could find a warm place to sleep tonight would you? You see, I sleep in a box up around the corner there down the alley, and it’s awful cold in there at night. It sure would be nice to have a warm place to stay.”

The policeman looked down at the little boy and said, “You go down the street to that big white house and you knock on the door. When they open the door you just say, `John 3:16’ and they will let you in.”

So the boy walked up the steps to the door, and knocked on the door and a lady answered. The little boy looked up and said, “John 3:16.”

The lady said, “Come on in, Son.” She took him in and she sat him down in a split bottom rocker in front of a great big old fireplace and she went off. He sat there for a while, and thought to himself, “John 3:16 . . . I don’t understand it, but it sure makes a cold boy feel warm.”

Later, the lady came back and asked him, “Are you hungry?”

He said, “Well, just a little. I haven’t eaten in a couple of days and guess I could stand a little bit of food.”

The lady took him into the kitchen and sat him down at a table full of wonderful food. He ate and ate until he couldn’t eat any more. Then he thought to himself, “John 3:16 . . . Boy, I sure don’t understand it, but it sure makes a hungry boy feel full.”

The lady then took him upstairs to a bathroom with a huge bathtub filled with hot water, and the boy said, “You know, I’ve not had a real bath my whole life. The only bath I ever had was when I stood in front of that big old fire hydrant as they flushed it out.” So he sat in that tub and soaked for a long while. As he soaked, he thought to himself, “John 3:16 . . . I sure don’t understand it, but it sure makes a dirty boy feel clean.”

After a while the lady came in and got the boy, took him to a room and tucked him into a big old feather bed and pulled the covers up around his neck and kissed him goodnight; then turned out the lights. As he laid in the darkness and looked out the window at the snow coming down on that cold night, he thought to himself, “John 3:16 . . . I don’t understand it, but it sure makes a tired boy feel rested.”

The next morning she came back up and took the boy down again to that same big table full of food. After he ate, she took him back to that same big old split bottom rocker in front of the fireplace, and she got a big old Bible and sat down and asked him, “Do you understand John 3:16?”

And he said, “No Ma’am, I don’t. The first time I ever heard it was last night when the policeman told me to say John 3:16.”

She opened the Bible to John 3:16, and started to tell the little boy about Jesus. Right there in front of that big old fireplace he gave his heart and life to Jesus. He sat there and thought, John 3:16. I don’t understand it, but it sure makes a lost boy feel safe.”

The lady then said, “You know, I have to confess I don’t understand it either; how God would be willing to send His own son to die for you and me, and how Jesus would agree to do such a thing. I don’t understand it either, but it sure does make life worth living.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (KJV)

John 3:16 is without a doubt the best known and most widely quoted Bible verse in the world. Googling it pulled up about 76,700,000 references. The folksy little tale I just shared kept popping up on various websites.

It’s often been called the “Gospel in a nutshell,” because it so concisely – and so precisely – summarizes the central theme of Christianity. Those of us who have been hanging around the faith for any time at all can probably quote that verse by heart. But explain to another the mystery of its meaning? That’s another story.

Quarterback Tim Tebow has faced a lot of criticism for wearing his faith on his sleeve. From days at Florida University, he made it a practice of putting the inscription of his favorite Bible passage – John 3:16 – in eye black. More than once, he has been seen kneeling in a posture of prayer during games.

On January 8, 2012, as quarterback for the Denver Broncos, Tebow played his first NFL playoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And what unfolded that Sunday night led to millions of sports fans Googling the meaning of John 3:16.

During the game, Tebow threw for 316 yards; averaging 31.6 yards per completion (the highest single-game postseason average in NFL history). The second quarter interception by Ben Roethlisberger, which then led to a Matt Prater field goal and a 17 – 6 Broncos’ lead, came on 3rd-and-16.

The Steelers finished the game with a time possession of 31:06. And at the time Tebow threw the game-winning 80 yard touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas (the NFL’s longest postseason pass in overtime history), CBS’s final quarter-hour television ratings were – you guessed it – 31.6%.

According to ESPN’s sports columnist, Adam Schefter, when this string of 3:16 facts was relayed to one NFL executive the next week, he remarked, “Is that right? I’m converting!”

“That’s how many people feel now,” writes Schefter. “Tebow is winning more converts with each game.”

Now, we intelligent Christian apologists might reasonably argue that such numbers are accidental or coincidental. But at least two things are abundantly clear by the witness of these events: first of all, countless millions of people are hungry to know the truth about God’s love in Jesus Christ; secondly, the best way to help them understand that great mystery is, not through words, but through actions.

Therefore, Part One of the truth about God’s love is: Wherever Jesus shows up controversy seems always to follow. Part Two is: Whenever Jesus appears on the scene, some kind of decision is usually called for.

“For God so loved the world . . .”

On the front cover of the bulletin this morning is a picture of Timothy Schmalz’s bronze sculpture “Homeless Jesus,” which depicts Jesus lying on a park bench under a blanket. His face and hands are covered. His feet, wounded from the crucifixion, are exposed.

Upon completion, Schmalz, a Canadian artist, first offered to install the piece at St.  Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto, and then St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Both churches rejected the offer. Finally, “Homeless Jesus” found a home outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, an upscale suburban church in Davidson, North Carolina; whereupon it immediately began to brew controversy and division amongst the residents.

The statue is so lifelike, in fact, that one neighborhood woman called the cops on Jesus, telling them, `It just doesn’t look good having a homeless person sleeping on a bench in our community.’ When this woman found out that it was a statue of Jesus, she still objected: “Jesus is not a vagrant; Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help. We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is needy.”

Although, ironically, Timothy Schmalz’s inspiration for the artwork was Matthew 25, called by many the Heart of the Gospel, and which ends with Jesus’ saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.” [25:40 nkjv]

Ultimately, “Homeless Jesus” did find a home with a number of churches in various cities. In Washington D.C, “Homeless Jesus” has become a sort of patron saint for the homeless in the area. People visit him daily. Sit down next to him and pray. The front cover pictures a homeless man huddling up next to “Homeless Jesus,” which is not an uncommon sight in DC.

Eventually, even the Pope visited “Homeless Jesus” outside a church in Toronto, subsequently blessing the statue. About a month later, that statue was stolen.[i]

“For God so loved the world . . .”

The late Fred Craddock, preaching guru, puts a finer point on all this with a much more personal story, one that hits a bit closer to home, at least for me: “I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt,” he writes. “I had left the family and children in the little parish I served and moved into a little room to prepare for those terrible comprehensive exams. It’s make-it-or-break-it time; they can kill you.

“I would go every night about 11:30 or 12:00 to a little all-night-diner—no tables, just little stools—and have a grilled cheese and a cup of coffee to take a break from my studies. It was the same every night; the fellow behind the counter at the grill knew when I walked in to prepare a grilled cheese and a cup of coffee. He’d give me a refill, sometimes come again and give me another refill. I joined the men of the night sitting there hovering over coffee, still thinking about my own possible questions about the New Testament oral exams.

“Then I noticed a man who was there when I went in, but had not been waited on. I had been waited on, had a refill, and so had the others. Then finally, the man behind the counter went to the man at the end of the counter and said, “What do you want?” He was an old, gray-haired, black man. Whatever the man said, the fellow went to the grill, scooped up a little dark patty off the back of the grill, and put it on a piece of bread without condiment and without a napkin. The cook handed it to the man, who gave him money, and then went out the side door by the garbage can and out on the street. He sat on the curb with the eighteen-wheelers of the night; with the salt and pepper from the street to season his sandwich.

“I didn’t say anything. I did not reprimand, protest, or witness to the cook. I did not go out and sit beside the man on the curb, on the edge. I didn’t do anything. I was thinking about the questions coming up on the New Testament [exam]. And I left the little place, went up the hill back to my room to resume my studies, and off in the distance I heard a cock crow.”[ii]

“For God so loved the world . . .” John’s Gospel says. And the question that keeps coming to mind is: “Why?! Why in the world do you love this world so much, O God?”

Can it be that you see something redeemable about even the worst who live among us?

Do you see something redeemable in spite of the worst that resides within each of us?

So much love that you would offer the very Best for the very worst?

“The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians agree on is that it works.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his own 25 year old son in a tragic mountain-climbing accident. Wolterstorff experienced all the heartache, grief and doubt, and anger and bitterness toward God that one might expect of a bereaved parent. He wrote a book reflecting on the excruciating experience of loss and his slow journey back to the wholeness of faith. Toward the end of the book, Wolterstorff finds some resolution: “God is love. That is why he suffers. To love our sinful world is to suffer. God so suffered for the world that he gave up his only Son to suffering. The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love. God is suffering love. So suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For love is the meaning. And love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. Instead of explaining our suffering, God shares it.”[iii]

“What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I’m only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth’s closet icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him.”[iv]

God’s long suffering love. “Hesed” is the word the Bible uses to describe it.

“It comes from the Hebrew word for womb. God’s love is like a mother’s unconditional, unrelenting, indestructible, fierce love for her child. It is a love that never gives up, a love that will follow and pursue and understand and forgive and reclaim a lost child no matter where he goes, no matter what she has done.”[v]

When we have known that kind of love in Jesus Christ, everything changes.

Says John Buchanan. “If there is guilt, now it is not because a rule has been broken, but because God has been disappointed. God’s steadfast love has been betrayed. If there is confession and repentance, it is because God’s steadfast love invites us to be confident about God’s forgiveness and loving embrace. If there is alienation and isolation and the dryness of the desert about our lives, there is an announcement—that we are not alone, that even if everyone else in the world has abandoned us and given up on us, God has not. God will not. It is the very best news. The steadfast love of God.”[vi]

Why does God love us so? Sometimes that’s a real mystery.

But the message of Lent is the message of Love. And God’s love in Jesus Christ frees us to love God in return; love ourselves; and love each other.

[i] From New York Daily News (Apr. 18, 2013), USA Today (Apr. 17, 2014), Religion (Apr. 17, 2014), CBSDC (Sept. 18, 2015),  CTV News (Nov. 29, 2013)  & CP World (Dec. 2, 2013).

[ii] Graves, Mike & Ward, Richard, ed., Craddock Stories, Chalice Press, St. Louis, MO., 2001, pp. 60-62.

[iii] Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Lament for a Son, Eerdmans Pub., Grand Rapids, Mich. 1987, p. 90.

[iv] Ibid. pp. 81-82.

[v] Buchanan, John, “How About Love?”, March 5, 2006.

[vi] Ibid.