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…

Do you recall a message, a sermon, that you still remember, that sometimes when you recall it you almost re-capture the feeling, the warmth, the sense that you are finally coming close to breaking through to something that is so warm, so good, so beautiful, so truthful that its reality grips you as nothing ever did before…

I grew up in Texarkana in the 1950’s. I guess my connection with a church began when my parents dropped my brother and I off for Sunday School at the First Methodist Church, Arkansas. It became an important part of our lives. I guess I was in high school when I heard the message that I particularly remember. The preacher was Dr. Arthur Terry.

He had sort of a raspy voice, surprising for someone known for his speaking. But once you got used to it you begin to listen to what he was saying, what he was sharing with you – not words so much as feelings, as himself, what he really believed and some really good news he wanted to share with you.

In that sermon he used a text from the 26th chapter of Acts – from the King James version. Paul is under arrest, in Caesarea, after being brought from Jerusalem after barely escaping death at the hands of the Jewish religious authorities. The local Roman authorities aren’t sure what to do with him. Some other local Roman officials visit and are curious to hear this source of so much controversy.

And as the King James version describes it: “…on the morrow when Agrippa was come, and Bernice, with great pomp, and was entered into the place of hearing with the chief captains, many prominent men of the city…Paul was brought forth [in chains].

And he delivers a heartfelt message describing his conversion, his experience on the road to Damascus…. Toward the end one of the high officials Festus declares in a loud voice, “Paul, you are beside yourself; much learning doth make thee mad.” Paul continues his arguments to which King Agrippa replies, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”

Almost persuaded.

Maybe I remember it because that was a time of uncertainty in my life – I so wanted to believe – I so wanted to be “fully persuaded.”

On a visit to Israel several years ago one of the places I most wanted to visit was Caesaria. I wanted to see the place where Paul spoke before Agrippa. It is on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, a beautiful place with beaches. The location of Paul’s message is still there although the buildings are gone. A breakwater out into the sea where today the waves crash against the stone as they did that day that Paul spoke.

Our Gospel reading this morning is as popular today with preachers of a certain cast as Paul’s speech in Caesarea that so moved me many years ago. Indeed, I bet you money that many of you on your way home from church today will see a sign that says “John 3:16.” Some of you may even count the number of times between now and next Sunday that you come across “John 3:16.”

Yet do you recall a sermon about John 3:16?

So, what is John 3:16?

It is the 16th verse in the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of John.

And if we think about it, really listen to it – it says a lot.

It begins “For God.”

There is a “God.” The Venerable Bede, an English cleric and historian born in 627 A.D., described in his history a conversation in a pagan court of the time about this new thing, “Christianity.” One of the nobles speaks, “Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s night…In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door in the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

When I first read this some years ago, I thought this is our question, too. We are born, we live, we die – to what purpose?

What is the nature of this God, this Power? Has He created all this creation as a clockmaker builds a mechanical clock, with the world ticking away as he has wound it up for all eternity? And left those who he created to fight and struggle and claw their way through life? We believe He created all of this out of his love – and His continuing love for us. We believe the beauty and majesty of his creation speak to that love – as well as our hard-wiring to know that some things are good -some things are right – and that He expects us to love as part of his creation all those other men and women he has created.

That he created man – he created us – and gave us the power to choose how we live our lives. This thing we call “free will.” And sometimes – many times –when we exercise our free will – we choose to do so in ways that are selfish, evil, hurtful to others – this is the thing we call “sin.”

And despite this, notwithstanding this, this God, this power still loves us. And then in an expression of this love for his creation does something – has done something – that we do not really understand even though we struggle to understand it. God honored us, loved us by sending His Son into our world, he gave his son into our world to die on a cross for us.

It is a great Mystery.

We do not understand it – and particularly in this season we struggle to understand it.

Further, we would understand that those who believe in Him “should not perish but have everlasting life.” That the life of those who believe will continue – eternally.

These brief words, these words we call “John 3:16,” express God’s creation of all that is, including us, God’s love for his creation, including us, the sacrifice of his son for us who have strayed from his love, to atone for our straying, and his assurance that those who believe in him shall continue to live with him, forever.

Powerful words, words of hope, words of loving forgiveness, for eternal life with him, for those who love and believe in him.

So much so that will see “John 3:16” on homemade signs at baseball games, written as graffiti on walls and fences.

Maybe for some this obsession with “John 3:16” seems sort of shallow, sort of a cheapening of the faith. Or maybe for some it has become associated with some denominations whose “Christianity” seems to be rigid, maybe even intolerant, insisting on narrow definitions of who is a “Christian” leading to the arbitrary exclusion of some.

Some years ago, I worked in Kansas. I would always come home for Christmas.  That’s a long, long drive. Sometimes I would find the long drive particularly tiring. And sometimes the holiday season can have its own tensions and drama. I suspect many feel our celebration of Christmas has become commercialized, cheapened. Merchants will tell you that it is the most important time of year so far as sales and profits are concerned. And I suppose feeding on that opinion, the fatigue of a long drive, my unhappiness at being separated for so much of the year from my family and loved ones I guess I had a major “Bah Humbug” moment. I recall getting really irritated at all those Christmas lights. Ever few miles there would be some more. Loud, bright, gaudy. Ho! Ho! Ho! Christmas is supposed to be a religious holiday -not noise, lights, expensive gifts, phony merriment…the longer I drove the more irritated I got.

But then I thought, ‘Does God get irritated with all this stuff?’

Crude, rude, gaudy, tasteless, loud, noisy?

But if God is the father of the Prodigal Son as Jesus would suggest, what would He feel?

Maybe He would see through all that crudeness, rudeness, – everything that goes with our “secular” celebration – the spark, the glimmer, that all of these people are celebrating the birth of his son. And maybe a bit of wry satisfaction that the biggest shopping day of the year, the most profitable profit day of the year remembers the birth date of his son, our savior.

And he saw – as I did not – the countless lights – those Christmas lights- that welcomed the son to the home of his older parents who has not seen him for some time, or the lights that welcomed the soldier returning from deployment to his wife and children – or even the lights that welcomed one weary traveler from Kansas to his home that night.

In these days of great challenge to the church of God it would seem that his followers would want to work together more than we do – I recall the days I worked with good Christians of many denominations in the work of the Kairos prison ministry. That should be our special prayer this season: asking God to help us and all the many Christians of all the varied denominations to realize that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

We are a church of tradition. Not so much a church of “This is how we have always done it” maybe as that of one that loves the Lord and loves his creation. Some many, many years ago a pope whose name I do not recall felt there should be a short “time out” during Lent from the austerities of Lenten observance. It is called “Rose” Sunday. Some even call it “Rejoicing” Sunday from the first word that begins the old Latin mass.

And that is now. That is today.

And so our bulletin art – rather than the picture of some great saint or event of the church year – shows a picture of a messy, ordinary garden with roses and a statue of Francis who so loved nature and people and animals and birds. It is a spring garden that shouts of God’s love for us. And that, my brothers and sisters, is the message for today.


Rejoice! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!

His mercy endures forever.

Let us give thanks to the Lord, for the wonders he gives to his children!




Richard Robertson

Reference:  Page 127, A History of the English Church and People by Bede, translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Dorset Press, New York, 1968