A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

I wonder: what would you say if someone were to ask you later today what church was about this morning? And let’s say it was someone who wasn’t a regular churchgoer, and you really wanted that person to understand what you find meaningful in this great story that we tell.

I’m guessing you wouldn’t start with that strange story in our first reading about the healing power of a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. That one sounds a little pagan to me, so that might be kind of awkward.

I think I’d probably go with the safe choice, which is said to be the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “God so loved the world.” That’s the one that you see on t-shirts. You see John 3:16 on signs in the end zone at football games. For some reason. I really don’t get the connection with football, but be that as it may.

BibleGateway, which is a website and an app, confirmed that once again in the year 2020, “God so loved the world” – when we so needed that love – was the most popular Bible verse again. And love itself is the most popular keyword search.

And I was wondering, if I tried to sum up the entire Bible in a single verse, maybe it would be that those powerful words, God so loved the world.

I think we all want to believe that God’s love is what powers our whole story. We don’t just want to believe that God loves the whole world without reservation, though. We also want to believe that God loves each one of us as individuals, completely and unconditionally. And our faith assures us that this is true, but still so many of us, and I do include myself here, we have a hard time really believing that, or at least we have trouble living as if we really believed it were true.

And so in the words of that old song, we tend to go looking for love in all the wrong places. We try to find something to fill that emptiness which should be filled by God’s love. For some of us, we seek affirmation through overachieving, through perfectionism, in our jobs, in sports – maybe in academics – as if somehow by doing those things, we might be able to prove our own value and make ourselves lovable.

Or sometimes we turn to different forms of consumption looking for satisfaction. We look for satisfaction in possessions, large or small. And you don’t have to be wealthy to think that stuff is what makes us happy, the stuff that we have. Sometimes we try to find comfort in food or in alcohol.

But those kinds of satisfaction never last very long. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And the amazing thing is that it turns out, as desperately as we sometimes go looking for God’s love, trying to find it, it turns out that that love is there for us all along. We don’t have to do anything to deserve it, and in fact, as we heard in that letter to the Ephesians, we can’t do anything to earn it. All we have to do is open our hearts to receive it, which turns out to be no small thing.

Henri Nouwen, a famous Dutch priest and wonderful spiritual writer, said he spent most of his life trying to love God. And then finally he realized that was actually the wrong way to approach it. He said the big question is not, how am I supposed to love God, but rather, how am I going to let myself be loved by God?

How do we let ourselves be loved by God?

Well, first of all, I think we have to be willing to let ourselves be changed because that’s just how grace works. Grace is what we call the experience of God’s great love for us, and if we cooperate with grace, it will change us. Grace strengthen us. It inspires us. It makes our hearts bigger than they were. And it’s through the grace of God that we come closer to being the people we were created to be.

So I want to talk a little bit about how God’s love changes us. What are the things that happen when we overcome our resistance to letting ourselves be loved by God and we invite God’s grace to soften our hearts? And by the way, this process begins very simply through gratitude, when we make a point of thanking God for the love and the grace that are poured out for us.

So what happens? Well, I think the first thing that happens when we let God love us is we become better in turn at loving others, because all human love is actually a reflection of God’s love.

There’s an author named Bob Goff, who wrote a book called Everybody Always, which is who we’re supposed to love. And Goff says God intends us to be rivers of love, not reservoirs. What he means is that God’s love isn’t something that we receive in order to store it up and keep it for ourselves. It’s something that should overflow in us as we pass it on to others. So becoming better at loving, that’s one thing that happens.

The second thing that happens, I think, when we let God love us, is that we’re actually able to see ourselves more clearly. We drop the defenses that we have, the defenses that make us want to pretend to ourselves and others that we’re better than we really are. That comes out of insecurity, I think, because when we know that God already loves us and we don’t have to prove ourselves in order to earn that love, then we can have this clear-eyed vision of seeing ourselves as we are.

And we need to do that before we can ask for forgiveness where it’s needed, before we can seek grace to do better. And actually, that is exactly what was happening when the people looked at the bronze serpent in the Old Testament reading. It was a reminder that their failure to trust God in the wilderness had brought them to where they were. And they had to acknowledge that failure before they could be healed. So when we let God love us, we see ourselves more clearly.

And finally, the third thing that happens – among many – is that we’re more able to trust in God. In that Old Testament reading, the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. They were facing a future that felt so uncertain. I think it’s easy for us to feel superior. I mean, here were these people who had been delivered from slavery, and there they are in the wilderness and they’re whining about the food.

But we don’t like uncertainty any more than they do. We don’t like being in that middle space, that middle place where we’ve left the known world behind us and we don’t know what’s ahead of us. And the place we all find ourselves today feels very similar I think. We might hope that we’re beginning to come out of it now, but this time we’ve been in really has been a wilderness time.

We’re wondering still what happens after COVID or even a wondering if there will ever be a time after COVID. I think one thing we do know is that things are never going to be exactly the same again. Here we are worshiping online. We hope to be back in church, but we know that when we are, church isn’t going back to the way it was back in those good times we remember, back in those good times even before COVID.

So the question that matters now is not, how can we get back to the good old days, but how can we trust in the future that we’re moving toward? How can we trust that that’s where we’re meant to be? How can we trust God when we wonder where is love taking us next? How do we let God love us and let that love strengthen us as we go forward?

God so loved the world.

If anyone asked me what church was about this morning – and my husband might, when I come down for coffee when we’re done – that’s the message that I’d want them to hear. “God so loved the world” is what I’d take away from everything that we’ve heard here today. And actually, it’s where I’d begin to sum up the entire story of the Gospel or even all of Holy Scripture.

And what if we tried to sum up the work of Lent or even the work of our whole lives in a single phrase? I wonder if everything I’ve been doing in Lent and in my whole life as a follower of Jesus isn’t actually all about learning to let God love me.

God loves the world. God loves us without any conditions, without reservation. And all we have to do to receive God’s love and God’s grace is to open our hearts and let ourselves be changed.

Amen.

Preached for the Church of the Ascension, Parkesburg PA