Harrowing Of Hell
March 10, 2024

For God so Loved the World

The Rev. Lisa Ozaeta

To watch the sermon click here.

Today we read what may be the most famous verse in the entire Bible certainly in the New Testament. We see it written on billboards, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs. It is memorized by countless Sunday school children.

John 3:16 says for God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

This verse is so familiar that we lose its value. But, it tells us so much about who God is and how God considers us. Today, we are going to dissect this verse so that its full meaning is laid bare.If I were to ask you to describe God, what would you say?

Maybe you would hesitate, offering a description tinged with doubt or uncertainty, shaped by the abstract or the unknowable — a distant figure, perhaps a judge, or a silent observer.

If I were to ask you how God feels about you and your life, what would you say? Perhaps you would worry that regard for you might be conditional or earned by your merits or lessened by your mistakes. Perhaps you hope you are good enough for God.

Our reading today, offers a very different perspective. I want you to hear it.

This verse tells us who God is and how God feels about each of us. God is the essence of love itself.

For God so loved the world. This is both cosmic and personal.

It is cosmic because it is a love that stretches across the expanse of the universe, binding the fabric of creation with threads of grace and mercy. It is a love that tenderly cradles the entirety of creation, from the majestic galaxies above to the delicate ecosystems of our planet, affirming that divine affection is woven into the very essence of existence.

It is personal in that God loves you directly and individually. God loves you in your individual circumstance. You, with all of your joys and sorrows, are held with an affection that does not waver — a love that knows your deepest self and cherishes you wholly.

God is not distant. God is near to you. You are known and loved.

This is the love that fashioned the mountains, that paints the skies, that whispers through the silence — a love that is vast, but also incredibly personal and tender towards each one of us.

I spend a lot of time with kids. They use language in a way that can be unfamiliar to adults but at the same time highlights truth in a fresh way.

Kids talk about whether they feel like the main character or a NPC (a non-playable character) in life. When kids talk about being the “main character,” they’re typically referring to the idea of being the protagonist or the central figure in their own life story, sorta like the hero in a video game or movie. It means seeing themselves as playing an active, pivotal role in the events that unfold around them, with a sense of agency and importance. Being the main character means being caught in the gaze of others.

On the other hand, when they refer to being an “NPC” (Non-Playable Character), they’re alluding to those characters in video games that are controlled by the computer and not by the player. These characters often have limited roles and functions, and their actions are generally not central to the main storyline. So, when a kid says they feel like an NPC, they might be expressing a sense of passivity as if they’re on the sidelines rather than in the spotlight of their own story or any story.

The power of the main character vs. NPC narrative lies in its ability to expose our deepest human experiences—our quest for significance, our battle with fears of insignificance, our yearning for finding our place in the world.

But in the midst of this, God’s message to us through John 3:16 shines with unwavering clarity and simplicity. Unlike the world’s narratives, God’s word reveals a truth that cuts through the noise: in God’s love, we are each a main character. This isn’t a role we must earn or shy away from; it’s a divine assignment, an affirmation of our intrinsic value and unique place in His cosmic narrative. God’s assurance transcends the world’s ambiguity, inviting us into a story of redemption and grace where we are not only significant but essential. Through this lens, we understand that being the protagonist in God’s story isn’t about self-aggrandizement but about embracing the significance God has bestowed upon us—a significance that empowers us to live fully, love deeply, and reflect light in a world that needs it.

In God’s love, we are each a main character. We each have captured the gaze of God. We are the protagonist in God’s story.

The next part of the verse says – “He gave his only son” — these words echo the depth of generosity at the heart of who God is. I want you to imagine love not just as a feeling but as a constant act of giving.

This is the essence of divine love. It’s not only about the grand gesture of God giving His only Son, but also the day-to-day giving of God’s presence in our lives. From the beauty and bounty of creation that surrounds us to the profound intimacy of the incarnation, God’s love is a gift that keeps unfolding.

In every sunrise, every breath, every moment, we see this truth: God gave us Godself in the tapestry of creation. And then, in the incarnation, in Jesus, God gave God’s self again — a gift of love wrapped not in opulence but in humility, inviting us to know and experience God in the most personal way possible – by knowing and following Jesus.

The verse continues, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

This part of the verse has great hope and it may cause some discomfort. The great hope is that if we believe, we do not perish, but experience eternal life.

Belief here is not some intellectual acknowledgement that God exists or that Jesus was a real person. It’s an active trust and relational commitment that shapes how we live our lives and interact with the world around us. It is stepping into a daily walk that reflects our belief, where trust in the divine shapes our decisions, our actions, and our responses to life’s challenges.

It’s an ongoing engagement, where we not only affirm our faith in God but also live it out, building a relationship that is nurtured through prayer, reflection, and community, and manifested in acts of love, service, and presence in the lives of others.

The “prize”, if you will, for this living in God, is eternal life. This is not a life that we wait for until we die. Our belief in God and Jesus is less about a distant future and more about the fullness of life today. It’s an invitation to recognize that the quality of ‘eternal life’ starts now, in the way we live, love, and connect with the world around us.

It suggests that when we are rooted in the divine, we experience life with a vibrancy and a sense of purpose that is a foretaste of the eternal, transforming our here and now into something sacred and profound.

So, this is good right. We know that God loves us. We are the main character who has captured God’s gaze. Our life is lived in congruence with God’s love and we experience vibrancy and purpose in our lives.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son so whosoever believes shall not perish but have ever lasting life.

So, what about those who don’t believe? This is the whisper of this verse that can cause pause. It has been used to beat people over the head with threats of damnation and eternal torture. Is that really good news? How are we to understand this?

I can tell you how some theologians have understood it and how I understand it. The heart of the Gospel, the very essence of the good news, isn’t fear—it’s love, redemption, restoration. If we believe that God’s essence is love, then the incarnation is the embodiment of that love for all—without exception.

In the fullness of God’s love revealed through the incarnation, we see a universal embrace.

It’s here, in the very act of God becoming human, that we find an inclusive love that refuses to be contained by our belief systems. The incarnation is not only a one-time event but is the ongoing process of God’s self-giving to humanity, where every life is swept up in the divine narrative.

In Jesus, God has said a resounding “yes” to humanity—a “yes” that echoes through time and space, affirming that every person is included in the divine plan of love and salvation.

Karl Barth, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century explains that Christ’s ‘No’ to sin is an absolute rejection of everything that separates humanity from God. It is God’s definitive judgment against sin. This ‘No’ is not just for a few but is seen as encompassing all sin for all time.

Christ’s ‘Yes’ to humanity is an affirmation of God’s eternal will for human life and relationship. In Jesus Christ, God has chosen humanity for Himself in a way that is irrevocable and complete.

This is the Good News. God has said yes to humanity.

You might be asking, what about Freedom? At Epiphany we teach that without freedom there is no love.

Human freedom is actualized in our response to what God has done in Christ. Freedom is not the power to determine our salvation status but the freedom to respond to the salvation already accomplished in Jesus.

Human freedom is not the freedom to achieve salvation on our own terms but the freedom to live within the reality of Christ’s ‘No’ and ‘Yes.’

In this, our freedom is given proper context and purpose: to live as creatures reconciled to God, who are free to live in joyful obedience and thankful response to God’s gracious election in Christ.

Freedom that comes with choosing faith as a response is a liberation from the bondage of sin and the freedom to become who we were truly created to be, participating in God’s ongoing work in the world.

Something amazing happens when we understand this.

A few weeks ago, my daughter started a new job at a doctor’s office, where she is required to wear scrubs. This was both an exciting and daunting prospect—exciting because, in a way, it’s like wearing pajamas to work, yet daunting because how do you look professional and put together wearing pajamas to work?

So we went to the scrubs store to find pajamas that say, “You can trust me to take out your sutures, Don’t worry. I know what I am doing.” The store was filled with scrubs. There were different fabrics, different colors and lots of different fits. Some of the scrubs were way too form fitting and others fit more like a potato sack. We choose a few pairs that were okay. They weren’t too loose or too tight.

But after her first week, she noticed that her co-workers looked more comfortable and yet still professional. She did a little sleuthing to find out the right store, the right brand, and the right fit.

After work, she went to this new store and purchased new scrubs. She tried them on and was amazed at the difference. The next day on the way to work, she texted me, elated, saying “I didn’t know it could be like this.”

This moment of revelation for my daughter mirrors the journey we are invited to embark upon with God. Just as she experienced something better, something more fitting and comfortable waiting for her once she sought it, so too are we invited to discover the depth and breadth of God’s love for us. “I didn’t know it could be like this” can be our own realization as we move deeper into the heart of God’s love, discovering that it’s more profound, more comforting, and more transformative than we ever imagined.