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.
Is there a more familiar passage in the Bible? It’s everywhere—on greeting cards and t-shirts and key chains and on big yellow banners at sporting events. We quote this passage a lot, which is great. It sums up so much of what we believe and hope. Some people have said that if you had to reduce the entire Bible down to one verse, this one would be it. They’re not far off. But when we think of this verse we tend to focus on the payoff in the passage more than the rest. If we believe, says the text, we’ll have eternal life in heaven. That’s great—that’s part of the good news of being a Christian in a nutshell. But today, as we look ahead to Christmas next week, I want to spend some time on the first part of the passage, the part that talks about why God did what he did in sending his Son to us. Listen to the words again: ‘For God so loved the world…’ Isn’t that amazing?
Now at the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton here, it’s important to spend a minute on just what the meaning of ‘so’ is. There’s two ways we can hear those words: First, we can just bask in the good news that God loves us so much, that the ‘so’ is about quantity. Nothing wrong with that—who here doesn’t need a reminder of the hugeness of God’s love for us? It’s so easy to forget, and yet it’s the foundation of everything that matters to us. God loves us SO much.
But there’s a second way to understand that sentence. It can also be heard to mean that God loves us just so—that he loves us like this. That’s the way I think of it, especially at Christmastime. ‘For God so loved the world.’ You can also say it this way: Here’s how God loves us—here’s how he does it, how it actually works. God loved the world in this way, he sent us his Son. Merry Christmas.
Now about our passage. John’s gospel is different in style from the other three stories of Jesus in the New Testament, but the point is exactly the same: to present the story of Jesus and invite people to believe in him. This is the ‘good news’ of the Bible, and that’s what gospel means—good news. John’s gospel emphasizes two themes in his telling of Jesus’ story: believing and loving. All through the book John talks about believing and loving as the true marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ—we believe and love because we have been loved by God first. That’s what’s happening in our passage today.
And that’s where we get back to the part of our passage that talks about how God loves us—what he did to show us the extent of that love. This is where people who have been churchified over a long period of time start to talk about the Incarnation. It’s funny, the literal definition of incarnation is ‘to turn something into meat.’ God is a spirit, but for a brief time, completely for our benefit, and purely because he loves us, God took on the form of a human—flesh and bone like us. Now, we throw those words around a lot in church, but how often do we think about what an amazing, generous gift that was. The God of the universe took on all the limitations and boundaries and pain and dangers of being a human being. He took on a body when he didn’t have to. Some writers have called this ‘the great condescension’. It’s not condescension in the way we use the term—God wasn’t being condescending as we say it. It literally means that he descended to be with us—that he came to our level.
God sent his son here so that through his life we could all live the lives he intended for us in the first place. Like a life-giving transplant, God in human form made it possible for us to live, even though it cost him his life.
Ahmed Khatib was a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was accidentally shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in the town of Jenin in the West Bank. He would have become just another tragic statistic if it hadn’t been for a decision made by his parents after his death. Ahmed’s father had seen his own brother die waiting for a liver transplant, and so he and his wife decided immediately that their son should be an organ donor. But there was a catch—the only hospitals performing transplant surgeries were Israeli hospitals. Still, the Khatib family decided to allow the doctors to do their work and three Israeli girls had life-saving transplant surgeries, receiving Ahmed’s lungs, his heart and his liver. One parent didn’t find out who the donor was until the surgery was underway. He was stunned. All he could say was that it was a remarkable gift—such a gesture of love. Another parent wanted to invite Ahmed’s parents to a celebration. He said: “I want to thank him and his family. I would like for them to think that my daughter is their daughter.”
Just as Jesus gave up all of the prerogatives and privileges of being God in order to save us, this Palestinian family gave up everything—their anger at the Israelis, their frustration at how they’ve been treated by everyone in the Middle East, their right to withhold what was theirs from people who were their enemies—they gave up all of those things to offer a gift of life to people they didn’t even know. Whatever you think about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, we can’t help but be amazed, and even a little in awe at how this one family, in the middle of a terrible tragedy, made peace with their neighbors, by giving up their son.
That’s what we’re celebrating on Christmas. It’s God making it possible for us to live. It’s God transplanting his son into our lives so that we can be forgiven, so we can be the people he made us to be, so that we can live with him forever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”
So what do we do? How do we live the Christmas story in a way that honors and reflects what it really means? I said before that there are two themes that drive the gospel of John: believing and loving. Both of those represent the foundation of what our life of faith is supposed to be like.
First, we’re called to Believe: We have to believe, even when it seems impossible, that this Christ-child we celebrate really did bring the good news of forgiveness and salvation. It’s such an amazing story—who would make up something like this? The message of the baby in a manger is that God loves his creation so much that no expense was too great for him to reach out and find us, even when we hide from him. That’s really the basic message of the Christian faith: God made us to be with him, but our sin drives us into hiding. Through Christ we’re offered a way back to him, if we believe.
We also have to Love: this one has two parts.
First, we have to allow ourselves to be loved. This one is so hard. My preaching professor, who my son is named for, used to tell a story in class that helped us understand what it means to be loved by God. Ian’s daughter was given a rag doll when she was 3 or 4 years old, and it became her favorite toy—she couldn’t bear to be away from it for any length of time—she slept with it and traveled with it and played with it. Over the years the doll became worn and dirty—after a while it really looked awful. But what my professor came to understand was that the doll’s value wasn’t based on what its parts were worth, it was based on how much his young daughter loved it. The doll had enormous worth to that little girl, because it was loved. When we can begin to see our value through the eyes of the God who loves us, then we can grasp what happened at the first Christmas.
But it’s not just about receiving love. The call to each of us is to find meaningful ways to show love to others. Think back on our text: the love that God models for us is a kind of love that makes sacrifices—that gives up things even when we’re entitled to them. It’s the sort of love that drives action—to provide comfort, to speak the truth, to meet needs. In our culture that spends so much time talking about the happiness we’re entitled to, this kind of love is truly radical—revolutionary, and life-changing. Later on in this gospel John quotes Jesus again when he says: A new commandment I give you: Love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Just to close. Mo Leverett is a minister to urban youth in New Orleans, and a singer-songwriter too. In one of his songs he says this: “I believe in the love of God, it is an orphan’s wildest dream.” Think about that. If there’s a message of Christmas that we don’t think about enough, it’s that God’s love for us draws us into a new family, a family of people who know they need a savior, one based not on our blood, but on his. I can’t forget the words of that Israeli father, inviting the Palestinian family to join his party, because his daughter’s life had been saved through their sacrifice. “My daughter is their daughter,” he said. When we accept the love of God in our lives we are invited to a new party—a new family rooted in the life and work of Jesus Christ—a new way of living our lives.
If you have been in this faith for a while, take this message with you and make it a part of your Christmas celebration. As you drive around looking at lights and banners and nativity scenes, remember that the foundation for Christmas is God’s unmeasurable love for us, love that gave up so much for our benefit. If you’re new here or if you’re not sure about what all this means, let me invite you to take a chance today. This life of faith that we talk about here is messy and hard and confusing sometimes, but it’s the life God meant for us to live, full of meaning and service and challenge. Don’t leave today without talking with someone.
But either way, hear Christ’s words for us one last time: “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.”