SERMON Lent4a 2018
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
When I learned it, it went like this: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.
I have to say that I think it was a good thing when there was only one version of the English bible in use; everybody knew the words the same way. They had to be explained in order to be understood, but they have to be explained anyway. They are words that are meant to be explained.
That’s my job. What a great job I have.
This verse, John 3:16 – what they called the Little Gospel at Southern Baptist vacation bible school – is really precious to Christians; one sentence and it’s really all we need to know.
For God so loved the world…
The thing that makes this particular verse so precious is as much what it doesn’t say as what it says. There’s no ifs, ands or buts. No if you are good enough or if you are sorry enough. There is no question of deserving or earning (much less buying) God’s love. The operative word is whosover and the sole purpose of God’s whole project is everlasting life, for you and me. And it comes absolutely free of charge; God’s love cannot be deserved, earned, or bought.
It’s called FORGIVENESS, which in practical terms means healing of our wounds and lifting of our burdens. Healing begins when we wash our wounds with forgiveness, pouring that forgiveness on everybody that ever hurt us or disappointed us.
Healing for our own sins begins when we accept God’s forgiveness for every debt we owe, for the sins we have committed against others and against ourselves.
Sitting in traffic on the Belt not long ago, I heard somebody on the radio tell a story about enrolling at Liberty University in Virginia, (the belly-of-the-beast Jerry Fallwell Christian college in whitest Virginia), and pretending to be a Christian so he could write a book about it. After hanging around Christians for a year, the thing that impressed him most was that, no matter what happened, the first thing they did in the face of any trouble was forgive. For him it was weird; it seemed to him that forgiveness was Christian crack. No matter what happened and no matter how complicated or difficult the problem, they forgave first.
There are words for this kind of kind of forgiveness: unconditional, radical, divine. We have found the radical corner of the Christian faith: Unconditional love is radical. Unconditional forgiveness is radical. We can’t do it by ourselves, it is divine; it comes from God. Forgiveness is who we are as Christians; forgiveness is what we do.
Sometimes this kind of radical Christian forgiveness can be hard work. So it was for the people of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, when it was time to forgive that stupid white boy Dylann Roof for murdering their pastor and grandmothers and children and sisters and brothers. It was hard, and I watched them do it on television – I happened to be lying on my back in the hospital at the time – those people wailed and cried, but somehow they forgave him.
That was the beginning of their healing.
That’s my point this morning: forgiveness first.
I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that there’s a lot in our world today that needs forgiving. I think this old world needs a bath of forgiveness just now. There’s a lot of victims crying out for recognition, for justice. Black people carrying the wounds of slavery and racism; women in Hollywood and everywhere, routinely abused by men in the workplace; children abused by priests; refugees persecuted for all kinds of reasons and exploited by everybody; Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped and kept as sex slaves; Jews, gay people, the disabled, Rohingya muslims, etc., denied an identity and targeted for genocide … there are a lot of victims, and there is a lot of victimhood.
The first step in any healing is to wash the wound, the first step for even the most horrific sin is forgiveness.
It’s true for the great howling injustices in the world today, and it’s true for you and me. So if any of you are carrying a burden this morning – and if you are you will know it – I’d like to invite you to lay it down today. If someone has wronged you, offer final unconditional forgiveness. If its’s guilt you are carrying, the burden of having wounded to someone else, then take a deep breath and accept final unconditional forgiveness from God. That’s what’s on offer here today, from the one who loved the world so much that he gave his son to die for us, to open the way to undeserved, unearned, unconditional, radical divine forgiveness. Even for the thing you have vowed never to forget, never to forgive, never to let go of. Let it go. Lift up your hearts. Lift them to the Lord.
Now don’t get your hopes up: it won’t solve all your problems; and real healing can take a long time. The people at Mother Emmanuel are still working to rebuild their lives. I dare say they have a lot of work, spiritual work, still ahead.
Think of the work that will have to be done in Syria, where so much evil, so much greed and lust for power has destroyed the lives and homes of millions of people, our brothers and sisters. How much forgiveness will be needed over generations to heal that society, the individuals and families who have suffered through this savage war.
But here’s the deal: even though the work may be hard and the healing long in coming, forgiveness comes first. Forgiveness lifts the spiritual burdens now. As I say, as I hope you remember, that’s when the healing begins. Forgive us, renew us and lead us, O God. Wash the wickedness out of us, and give us peace. Bring us home.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life.
Let us pray.