“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Most of us know this passage. At least, the first half of it, anyway.
It comes from John, chapter 3, verses 16 and 17.
And it’s all about God’s love.
God so loved the world. God didn’t just love some of the people in the world. God didn’t just love one nation or one “chosen people.” God didn’t just love the people like us, or the people we like. God loved everyone. The whole world.
God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Other scripture passages say that God became human in Jesus of Nazareth. Even John says that God and Jesus are one. So one could even say that God loved the world so much, that he gave himself.
And God did this so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish, but will have eternal life. And by “eternal life,” scripture means “the life of the ages,” life in the kingdom of God, a life of wholeness, which starts now, in the present, and continues even beyond death.
All because of God’s love.
The second half of this passage, verse 17, isn’t as well known, but it’s important.
God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world. Other translations say “God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” That’s not what God is about. That’s not what Jesus is about. It’s not about judging and condemning people. It’s about loving people.
God sent his Son into the world so that the world might be saved through him... that the world might be made whole through him… that all the brokenness and all the fragmentation might be put back together again… that all the world may find healing.
That’s why God sent his Son into the world.
That’s what it’s about. Love. Healing. Wholeness. Kindness. Compassion.
That’s what God wants for the world.
Here’s a love story for you on this fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of love: Once there was a man. His name was Joseph. And Joseph loved a woman named Mary.
Joseph and Mary lived in a world that was broken. A world that was in need of healing. A world that showed little love. The love they had was so small when compared to the brokenness and fragmentation of the world.
But together they decided, against all odds, to give love a chance.
They almost didn’t make it to their marriage day. Mary became pregnant, and in a world that did judge and condemn, this was a big problem.
Joseph didn’t think he could possibly marry her. After all, it had appeared that she had given herself to someone else. A situation like that is no way to begin a marriage.
But Joseph was a righteous man. He always tried to do what was right. He treated people with kindness as much as he could. It was a dog-eat-dog world, a world where people tried to prove how tough they were, how bad-ass they were, but that was not Joseph’s way. Joseph was a gentleman. He favored gentleness and kindness. He showed respect toward all people. And because he did still love Mary despite what had happened, he decided to dismiss her quietly (as the scripture says), without dragging her name through the mud, without judging her or condemning her.
Before acting, he decided to sleep on it, just to be sure.
Good thing, too, because that night, in a dream, an angel of the Lord appeared to him.
“Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “Do not be afraid.”
That right there is a powerful message. In Luke’s gospel, the angels deliver the same message to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. “Do not be afraid.”
And yet they had every reason to be afraid. In that troubled time, fear is what kept you alive. And then, to have a messenger from God Almighty come speak to you personally! Imagine that! God, the master of the universe, singling you out! I know my first instinct would be to be afraid.
But remember: nothing God does is about judging or condemning. It’s all about God so loving the world. Have we forgotten that already?
The angel said, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
And Joseph, when he awoke, followed the angel’s instructions. He stayed with Mary. Their love continued. And together, they raised the baby that was born, the baby they named Jesus.
Now, they were just a poor young couple living in a remote village of no consequence. Their love for each other and for their new baby was everything to them, but compared to the vast Roman Empire, it was miniscule. Even if they wanted to create a better world, what could they do? They weren’t anyone that anyone would pay any attention to. They were just Joseph and Mary. Their love was like a speck of dust compared to the might and power of the great and terrible Roman Empire. Their love couldn’t possibly be enough.
And yet, you already know: it was.
We never give love enough credit. It’s mushy. It’s sentimental. And, yeah, sometimes it is, but the type of love the Bible talks about is so much more than that.
The type of love the Bible talks about is all that really matters. That kind of love is everything. It is kindness and compassion and commitment and generosity and sacrifice and grace. It’s defending the weak and working for justice and fighting for equality and being a peacemaker.
That’s what love is.
Now, you can be a part of this denomination or that denomination, but if you don’t have love, then it doesn’t matter.
And you can sing ancient hymns or you can sing loud, rockin’ praise songs, but if you don’t have love, then it doesn’t matter what you sing.
And you can worship in a great cathedral or a giant, cavernous megachurch, or you can worship in a tiny chapel or a storefront church or even a bar, but if you don’t have love, then all your worship is wasted.
And you can be part of a big church with dozens of different ministries and dozens of different programs, or you can be part of a small, family church, but if you don’t have love, it doesn’t matter.
If you go to church but you aren’t learning how to love, it doesn’t matter.
Brian McLaren is a great author and teacher, and his new book is called “The Great Spiritual Migration.” In it, he says that churches should be “schools of love.” The world needs more people who are educated in love, because even when love is small, it has the power to change the world. It has the power to take a world that is broken and torn apart, and transform it into a world that is restored to wholeness, a world that is healed, a world that is saved.
It happened two thousand years ago. And it can happen again today.
So let’s all follow the example set for us by Joseph, and be students of love.
Now, being educated in love requires commitment. In the school of love, if you have too many absences, you won’t make the progress that you might hope to make. Too many absences, and you won’t pass when love is put to the test.
And love is put to the test every day. Especially in this time in which we live. There is a lot of hate in our world, and the temptation is to respond to hate with more hate, and with anger.
But hate does not put out hate. Fire does not put out fire, only water does. Darkness does not get rid of darkness, only light does. And hate does not overcome hate. Only love does.
We worship a God who loves. And in the story of Joseph and Mary, we see the power that even a little bit of love has to transform the world.
Love is put to the test every day. Every day is an opportunity for you to demonstrate what you’ve learned.
Every time you hear someone make a negative comment about someone in our society; every time you hear something negative about someone who is of a different race, for example, or of a different religion, or who is from another country, or who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender… every time anything like that happens, love is being put to the test.
Brian McLaren suggests that our education in love be divided into four parts. Love 101 involves loving your neighbors. Start at the most basic level: loving your friends and family, and then move on to loving strangers, outcasts, and even enemies. That’s hard. The course is long, and lots of practice is required.
The second part – Love 201 – involves loving yourself. When you hear over and over the negative things that the world says about you, you start to believe them. It will take a whole series of courses to learn that you are worthy of being loved, that God loves even you, and that you can therefore love yourself.
Love 301 involves love for the earth. We cannot separate ourselves from creation. All things are connected. Love is not complete until we love creation, until we learn to care for creation as we have learned to care for ourselves and for our neighbors.
And Love 401 puts it all together. The goal of Love 401 is to recognize God in everything you love. Recognize the presence of God in your friend, your neighbor, your enemy. Recognize the holy presence of God in yourself. Recognize the sacredness of every aspect of creation.
This learning doesn’t happen in a day.
It doesn’t happen in a week.
It doesn’t happen in a month or a year.
It takes a lifetime.
A lifetime of daily practice.
Only the most committed will fully incorporate love into every aspect of their lives.
It is quite a challenge.
But we can do it. Because we have Jesus as our teacher. Because God so loves us, we can learn to love. And the world will be made whole again.