My age means that I fall into the original generation for several cultural phenomenons. I am the original generation of “
Street kids.” I mean forget “who shot J.R?” I
still remember when it was revealed that Mr. Snuffleupagus was real and not
just a figment of Big Bird’s imagination. I was a high school student when MTV
aired, and that was a major influence in my life and in the life of my friends.
And I was the first generation of Mr. Rogers’ kids. While my mother made
dinner, and my older sister and brother did their homework, I would curl up in
my dad’s lap and we would watch Mr. Rogers together.
It has been 50 years since “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” first aired on public television. It was the simplest of programs. There was almost no budget, and the host, Fred Rogers, was unlike other hosts of other popular kids programs. He didn’t act like a clown, although I know he wasn’t afraid to try different things or even look silly. He never talked down to kids, he just talked to them. He was gentle and humble, and if I remember my facts correctly, the sweaters he wore were ones that his mother knitted for him. He was always kind, and he always made you feel welcome. In a time when “inclusive” was not yet a buzz word, Fred Rogers went out of his way to be inclusive. People of every race and creed were welcomed into his neighborhood, and he also made sure to include people of differing abilities.
I will never forget watching a tribute to him, when a young man in a wheelchair told him that when he could not navigate other places in the world because of his limitations, he could watch “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and always feel welcome.
Fred Rogers testified before the Senate about the importance of keeping children’s public television available to everyone, and managed to sway the most cynical of senators. One thing about him that I did not know until after I went to seminary was that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister; ordained, as I understand it, to his ministry with working with children through the medium of television. I like to believe that this man, one of my earliest role models, encouraged my own ministry, although that’s not a connection I made for a long, long time.
Other than the fact that his show is still remembered and honored 50 years later, why talk about Fred Rogers today? Is it just nostalgia on my part? Maybe, but I also think that Fred Rogers, in his own human, humble, flawed way, did his best to love the world as he believed God loved the world.
“For God so loved the world…” That’s the beginning of perhaps the most well-known verse in all of our scripture; John .
“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.”
Or, if you learned the King James Version…
“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.”
This verse is everywhere. It’s at football games and on license plates. I’ve seen it on billboards and bumper stickers. “For God so loved the world…”
But the problem with a verse that is as iconic as this one is that it is easy to forget it was not written in a vacuum. It has a context. There are other verses around it. It’s part of a larger story. We don’t read the whole story today, but it’s important to know that Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and confessed that he knew Jesus was of God. No one could do what Jesus was doing if he was not of God. In response, Jesus confused Nicodemus by telling him that no one could see God’s kingdom if they were not born from above. From that part of the story, we get into the debate over what it means to be born again, and I don’t want to jump into those difficult waters today.
Yet it is all part of what Jesus was trying to teach Nicodemus, of what he was trying to make him understand about who he, Jesus, was. Yes, he was of God, but what did that mean? Yes, he was God’s Son, but what did that look like? He ushered in God’s kingdom, but what did the kingdom actually require?
The first verse in our part of the passage this morning is about the Son of Man being lifted up. Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the wilderness to cure the people of their snake bites – that’s the story we have from the book of Numbers this morning. Just like Moses lifted up that metal serpent, so the Son of Man will be lifted up.
The Son of Man will be literally lifted up on the cross, and don’t we look to the cross as the “cure” for sin and death. But the Greek for lifted up also means “exalted.” The Son of Man will be exalted, lifted up not just on a cross, but lifted up as living proof of God’s love for the world.
For God so loved the world … It would seem that since this verse is so ubiquitous in our culture that it must be because we love its meaning so deeply. But I’m not so sure. We may say it, proclaim it, display it, but do we really love it? Do we live it?
I realize that some people are attracted to this verse because of the promise of judgment that is implied for those who don’t believe. Yet, go one verse further and we read that God didn’t send the Son into the world to condemn the world but to save it. Yes, those who do not believe are condemned already by their own inability or refusal to believe. Yet, the judgment we read about is from the same Greek that we get the word, “crisis.” There is a crisis for those who remain in the darkness. There is a crisis for those who are afraid to come into the light, afraid of what the light might reveal; what it might reveal about them, about their own hearts and minds.
Remember that Nicodemus came to Jesus in darkness? It seems to me that he was in crisis; crisis about what it would mean to believe this man in front of him was the Son of God, crisis about what that would mean for him as a Pharisee. Nicodemus was facing a judgment, but it wasn’t of the hellfire, brimstone sort. It was a crisis, a crisis of faith. Can you step into the Light, knowing what it may reveal? Or will you choose to stay in the darkness because the darkness is easier, because it seems safer, because it is more familiar, because you are afraid?
It seems to me that our beloved John is not so much a verse of comfort, but of crisis. Because if we believe that God so loved the world, if we believe that God did not send God’s Son to condemn the world, then what is our response? What is our response to the world God loves? What is our response to the people God loves? We may proclaim on banners and billboards that God so loved the world, but when it comes right down to it, do we?
I know I don’t. I know I fail. I know that I refuse to pray for my enemies, that I constantly look for the speck in others’ eyes while ignoring the log in my own. I know how I struggle to remember that every person I meet is a child of God. Not only that, I completely and utterly forget that every person I meet could be Christ himself; as I said last week, God right in front of me, only I’m too busy or distracted or too blind to see. I walk in darkness and I don’t even realize it.
Yet, isn’t that what this season of Lent is about – a time of intention and preparation, a time of examination and reflection, a season to recognize the darkness and once more choose the Light.
I stick with my earlier statement that John 3:16 is a verse of crisis. But that does not lessen its good news. It is good news. It is incredible and wonderful news. For God so loved the world is not only in the past tense. For God so loves the world, for God so loves us, that God’s Son was lifted up, exalted, so that we might have see the Light, have new life, and learn to love as we are deeply and truly and completely loved.
For God so loves the world.
Amen and amen.