God loves the world?

Titus' arch

Titus’ arch

Lent 2. 2014

John 3:1-17 (Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-17)

Marian Free

In the name of God whose love embraces a world torn apart by violence, hatred, fear and greed. Amen.

During the week I came across a graphic description of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The author, Reza Aslan imaginatively recreates the turmoil and unrest of first century Palestine, the various revolts by “bandits” against the Roman rulers and how finally this ferment boiled over in the centre of the Hebrew faith – Jerusalem[1]. Aslan records the failure of successive Roman governors, the discontent of the people, the uprisings, the factions and the focus on Jerusalem and the Temple. Then he goes on to describe the callous ruthlessness of the Roman reaction.

When the Israelites expelled the Romans from Jerusalem, Vespasian was sent to quell the rebellion and restore order. Approaching Jerusalem from north and south, Vespasian and his son Titus retook control of all but Judea. In 68 CE Vespasian was distracted by the death of Nero and his ambition to fill that role. He abandoned the battle and returned to Rome where he was declared Emperor. The people of Rome were restless and Vespasian realized that he needed a decisive victory (or Triumph) to consolidate his hold on the office and to demonstrate his authority over the whole of the Roman Empire.

The revolt in Palestine provided the perfect scenario to show of what he was made. Vespasian decided not only restore order and reclaim authority in the nation, but to utterly destroy it – its people and, more particularly its God. To this end Vespasian dispatched his son Titus to bring the Hebrews to their knees. Titus set siege to Jerusalem, cut off the water supply and ensured that no one could go in or out. Those who did escape, he crucified in full view of the city. Slowly the people starved to death. They ate grass and cow dung and chewed the leather from their belts and shoes. Soon the dead were piled high in the streets, as there was nowhere to bury them. Titus needed nothing more for victory, but his task was to annihilate the people completely. His troops stormed the city, slaying men, women and children and burning the city to the ground so nothing remained[2].

The world doesn’t change. The situation of those imprisoned in Jerusalem in 70 CE is not too different from that of those in many parts of Syria in 2014. The city of Homs has been under siege for two years now. Its inhabitants – men, women and children – have lived on grass boiled in water and killed cats for food. Schools are shut, only one hospital remains open and there is no electricity or running water. Those who emerged during the recent cease-fire were gaunt and hollow-cheeked, often caked with dirt. No one has been excluded from the horror, not the elderly, the disabled or the very young.

Syria is perhaps the most graphic example of a world gone wrong, of the way in which human beings can inflict the most horrific suffering on their brothers and sisters and of the way in which our primal fears can boil over into violence and destruction. As the world waits with bated breath to see what will be the outcome of the strife in the Ukraine, we cannot overlook the fact that Syria and the Ukraine are not isolated situations but are the face of a world in crisis – a world which reveals the very worst that humankind can be. Even to begin to list the nations at war or in the grip of civil strife would take too long. What is more, our minds simply cannot encompass the scale of suffering on a global scale. War and civil strife are just one example of a world that bears no hint of a good creator God. When we add to that human trafficking, extreme poverty, corrupt or ineffectual government, we could be tempted to ask: “Is this the world that God loves so much that he sent his Son?”

The answer is of course a resounding “yes”!

Today’s readings remind us that God’s love is not restricted to a privileged few or to those parts of the world that are free from strife and turmoil. God’s love reaches out to include the whole world.

The biblical story of God’s inclusive love begins in Genesis with Abraham and Sarah (12:1-4a). When God calls Abraham, God’s intention is clear – it is to make Abraham the Father of many nations – “in you all the families of the world will be blessed”. Initially it appears that through Abraham, God has chosen a select group of people for Godself. Certainly that is how the story plays out for centuries. All the while though there are constant hints that God’s love extends farther and embraces those who do not belong to the family of Abraham. Consider the following for example. Rahab was an outsider, yet it was she who enabled the victory at Jericho and facilitated entry into the Promised Land. Ruth, the forebear of Jesus was not a member of the Hebrew nation. God relented and saved the Gentiles city of Nineveh (despite Jonah’s objection) and the Psalmist tells us that all nations will flock to Jerusalem. Even Cyrus the King of Babylon is called God’s “anointed”. It is clear that God’s love and attention was not focused on the children of Abraham alone.

Paul picks up on this theme in both the letter to the Romans (4:1-17) and the letter to the Galatians (3:3-9). It was, he informs his readers, always God’s intention to include all people within the ambit of God’s love. No one is privileged in God’s eyes, all are equally worthy of God’s loving attention. “God is the father of all of us (Rom 4:16).”

It comes as no surprise then to read the familiar words of John 3:16 “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son”.

God’s love in not (and never was) restricted to a limited few, to those who belong to a particular group or to those who behave in a certain prescribed way. God’s love doesn’t pick and choose and it certainly does not wait until the world is ready or worthy of that love. The Palestine to whom God sent his Son was far from an ideal microcosm of human existence – far from it. In the first century, the Hebrew people were compromised, conflicted and divided, their priests were, at best, servants of Rome and, at worst, men seeking wealth and aggrandizement. Despite all this, it was to such a broken and imperfect people that God chose to send his Son.

Nothing much has changed – the world that God loves continues to be a long way from perfect but that doesn’t stop God from loving. However unlikely it seems, however undeserving the world continues to be, God reaches out in love giving us the opportunity for salvation. What it takes is for us to respond, for us to choose light over darkness, salvation not destruction.

God so loves the world – how then should the world respond?

[1] Aslan, Reza, Zealot – the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2013, 60ff.

[2] Vespasian’s Triumph, the procession of slaves and spoils of war were immortalized in the arch which can still be seen in Rome today.

The world God loves.

Devastation in South Sudan

Devastation in South Sudan

Riots in Egypt in 2013

Riots in Egypt in 2013

Syrian refugees lining up for food Syrian refugees lining up for food

Destruction of HomsDestruction of Homs


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