A matter of choice

Lent 4 – 2012
John 3:14-21
Marian Free

In the name of God who reaches out and draws us to himself. Amen.

Some time ago a member of this Parish helpfully gave me an extract of a book “because he knew I was always on the look out for sermon illustrations”. At the time, I read it and filed it, only to have it resurface as I prepared for today’s sermon. Let me share a little of it with you.

“The preacher’s voice sank. He paused, joined his palms for an instant, parted them. Then he resumed: Now let us try for a moment to realize as far as we can the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foul smelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke. There by reason of the great number of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their aweful prison.

They lie in exterior darkness. For remember, the fire of hell gives forth no light. As at the command of God, the fire of the Babylonian furnace lost its heat but not its light, so, at the command of God, the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness. It is a never ending storm of darkness, dark flames and dark smoke of burning brimstone.”

I don’t know about you, but popular as they may be, I can’t reconcile these ideas of eternal torment with a God who came to earth as a new born child and held out his arms to be nailed to the cross. Images such as these are used to terrify people into obedience rather than loving them into faith.

It is this latter that the Gospel of John emphasises. Rather than threaten us with punishment, john suggests that God loves us into salvation.

As we have seen on previous occasions, John’s gospel is very dense – not a word is wasted. Every sentence is laden with meaning and words are chosen carefully sometimes because they can be understood in more than one way. If you look carefully at today’s passage, you will notice that a number of words recur, helping us to see the points that the author is trying to stress. “World” and “light” are repeated five times. In the Greek words for judging occur four times. “Believe” is used three times in one verse and the phrase “eternal life” occurs twice. It is clear that John is talking here about judgement, but he does so in a way that revises previous understandings of judgement and in a way that asks us to re-think what judgement might mean.

Let me try to unpack the passage a little. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Two things are obvious from this sentence. First, the object of God’s interest is no longer a relatively small and select group of people but the whole world. God loved the whole world so much that he gave something that was absolutely precious – his only Son. Second, the criterion for judgement appears to have changed – eternal life or salvation relates to belief in Jesus rather than to what we do or don’t do.

When we read further, we can see that the primary purpose of God’s giving Jesus to the world is not judgement but so that the world can be saved through him. Gods’ intention is to save, not judge and to save everyone not just a select few. In fact, according to verse 18, God does not judge, rather judgement relates to the way in which the world responds to Jesus. In other words, by our reaction to Jesus we reveal whether or not we want to be part of what Jesus offers. In effect, we judge ourselves. We can choose to believe or choose not to believe. God does force our hand – we choose. Surprisingly, the choice is not what we have been led to expect. Judgement does not depend on whether or not we do good or do evil (though that may determine our choice), judgement relates to a life (and therefore eternity) that accepts Jesus or a life (therefore eternity) lived without Jesus. We have a choice to open our lives to God’s influence (and to never being separated) or close ourselves off from God and risk eternal separation.

We determine our future by the choice we make in the present.

John turns to different imagery to further illustrate this point. Jesus is the light of the world. Our response to Jesus reveals our preference for a new life in the light or a life and an eternity in the dark. Again, the choice is ours – we can open our lives to God’s love and scrutiny or we can choose to remain in darkness, living as we have always lived, unchanged by the presence of God in the world. Once again, John makes the point that judgement does not relate to what a person does or does not do, but to whether or not they trust in God’s love and allow that love to transform their lives. God does not shut us out but we can choose to shut God (the light) out of our lives.

God’s gift of Jesus is so generous and God’s love so powerful and overwhelming, that the writer of the Gospel finds it almost impossible to believe that anyone would choose not to be embraced by it. God’s love and the life that Jesus offers are so seductive that those who choose to turn away must do so because they do not trust God, because they are afraid of what God will see if they come into the light or because they do not want to live a life that will stand up to God’s gaze.

It is God’s desire to give us eternal life, but God will not force himself on us. God will not twist our arms or use coercion to make us love him or accept him. God want us to come to him through our own free choice, to offer our lives to him, not because we have to but because we want to. God’s love for the world is such that God has given and will continue to give everything in the hope that the world will accept God’s gift. Judgment in this sense is that which separates those who chose to be with God and those who choose to turn away. God will not make us love him – we have a choice but no matter what that choice we make God will not stop loving us in the hope that one day our choice will be for God.

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