March 4, 2018

“The Greatest SO On Earth”

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

The beginning of today’s passage refers back to our Old Testament passage, where God sent poisonous snakes to judge a rebellious Israel while they wandered in the wilderness. God condemned the people for their lack of faith, yet provided an instrument of salvation for them when Moses interceded for his people. God provided a way of salvation in the form of a raised bronze serpent. Anyone who looked upon the snake and had been bitten would live. Just as this passage in Numbers was a message of God’s salvation, so it is in John; we see a new instrument of salvation. The bronze serpent is replaced with the son of Man, Jesus.


A more inclusive translation of this famous verse is, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Child, so that everyone who believes in that Child may not perish but may have eternal life.”(The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version.1995 by Oxford University Press)


This is the one of the most celebrated and quoted expressions in the Bible. For a long time, one could see John 3:16 on posters at all sorts of sporting venues. It is probably the first verse a child memorizes, and certainly one of the first ones I remember spending time learning. Here for the first time John uses the word "love." Love is what prompts God's gracious purpose for our liberation from sin, and establishing a relationship of grace.



A Chinese minister once commented on this particular text, expressing great fascination over the word "so." The Chinese language has no such word, and he said many other languages don't either. The beginning of this famous verse reads in Chinese: "God loved the world...." Kind of loses its punch, doesn't it? We're fortunate to have in English, as well as in the original Greek, "God so loved...." It speaks of an intensity of love and adds much to the meaning.


For all you fans of grammar, or who remember Grammar Rock from the early1970's, the short word "so" is basically, an adverb, but is used in other ways. As an interjection, for example, as in our Old Testament story for today, "So Moses prayed for his people," and "So Moses made a serpent of bronze...."  In John 3:16, however, "so" gets its strongest use--as an intensive. God so loved the world. It conveys a very high degree of love, and puts emphasis on the word love. What kind of love is this, that God would give us God’s only child?



To understand that divine love we must see how love has evolved among the Hebrew, Greek, and Christian writers. The first awakenings to the idea that God and love are connected centered on a concept of love called “nomos.” Nomos is a Greek word but the idea belongs primarily to the Jewish nation. It is a submissive love, submission to God's will. Nomos means law.  The book of Deuteronomy--which means second telling of the law--gets its name from nomos. It is a reciprocal love, the type seen in another "nomos" word, monogamy, the law of marriage. Thankfully the marriage relationship has evolved over the decades, but used to be one of submission- the wife expressed her love by doing the husband's laundry, preparing meals, bearing and raising children. The husband, in turn, showed his love by providing for her and the household, being faithful and just. Not a whole lot of equality, sentiment and romance. One could call this the June and Ward Cleaver version of marriage. That was pretty much the way in which my parents functioned. “Nomos” submissive love is very much in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, but it is not the word used in John 3:16.


During the OT days of “nomos”, the Greeks were developing a divine-human love idea that is a little more exciting. It is “eros” - erotic love, deriving its name from the mythological Greek god of love. There is a similar concept in the Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Scriptures. The word translated as love in much of the poetry of that book is “dowd”- which really means “boiling hot”. You get the idea.


Eros, the counterpart to the Roman love god Cupid, is not the distorted thing that it is made out to be today. It is tied to the sensual appetite, but it also has a mystical-divine dimension, which is ignored by those who exploit erotic love. The concept of Eros love is that God mystically makes contact with humanity in the way that rain and sun come down from above and replenish the earth. The ancient Greeks, in trying to determine the configuration of Eros love did a perfectly natural thing in thinking it had mostly to do with the physical act. In its purest sense it has less to do with the sensual, and more to do with a mystical contact through nature. But Eros erotic love is not the word used in John 3:16, either.


Yet another beautiful concept of love followed eros love in Greek philosophy, called “philia”.  This understanding of love was formulated by such great Greek minds as Plato and Aristotle. It is a marked departure from erotic love.  Love was to Plato and Aristotle a fellowship of like-minded friends. “Philia” is love of the good. The word “Philharmonic” is love of harmony; The city of Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love.




“Philia,” too, is found throughout the NT. Paul, especially, used it often in expressing love of the brothers and sisters in the churches he founded--a love "in Christ," in the fellowship of the group. But this filial love is not what is spoken of in the text, either.


Here is the word used for love in today’s text: It is the word “agape.” -A beautiful word that doesn't appear until New Testament times, and one that hasn't ever been improved upon. Kathleen Bliss tells the story of someone at the World Council of Churches Assembly at Evanston, Illinois, some years ago, who kept on hearing the word "agape" being used, but had no idea what it meant. Eventually, in his frustration, he looked it up in an English dictionary… only to discover that it meant "with mouth wide open." Of course he should have looked in a Greek dictionary, he would then have discovered it means "love." But then the English definition isn't too far afield, is it? "With mouth wide open," can describe what our reactions should be to the divine Agape.



Agape love is the ultimate love, the kind a mother has who will stand by a child no matter what. It is full loyalty, a sacrificial love. Princess Alice, second daughter of the British monarch, Queen Victoria, had a four-year-old son, Ernest, who contracted the dread disease "black diphtheria," highly contagious and a killer. Alice had already lost an older daughter, Marie to this dreaded disease. The princess was quite frail and was repeatedly warned not to go near her son. One day while standing in a far corner of her child's room, she heard him whisper to a nurse who walked near his bed, "Why doesn't mother kiss me anymore?" This was more than she could bear. She raced to the bed, clasped the little one in her arms, and smothered him with kisses--to reassure him of her love. It was the kiss of death. She contracted the disease, and in a matter of weeks both mother and son were buried. She agape loved her son so much she had been willing to risk death.


Agape love takes us away from the submissiveness of nomos love, the physicality of erotic love, and the togetherness of filial love. Agape is that love which is nothing short of a miracle.   Agape love can completely turn a life around when a person receives affection, and deserves the very opposite. It cannot be explained, only experienced, and enjoyed. Even Jesus had to employ illustrative parables to try and get it across. It is love in the highest form, the greatest degree.


If the text read, "God so “nomased” the world, it would have to continue by saying that God gave us a set of laws to follow. If it read, "God so “erosed” the world," it would have to conclude by saying that he gave us the world of nature, and that one could only experience God’s love physically. If John 3:16 read, "God so phileoed the world," it would have to continue by saying that God gave us an institution, a place for fellowship.



John 3:16 reads: "God so agapasen (loved) the world that God gave God’s only Child, so that everyone who believes in that Child may not perish but may have eternal life.” Agape love cannot come through laws; it can't come through any sensual avenue or through nature; it can't even come through friendships; it can only come from God. God SO loved the world that God gave us God’s only child. That is why that little word "so" is important to the text. It wouldn't have been necessary if the gospel writer were speaking of nomos, eros, or philia, but it is necessary with agape, for it is a love so amazing, so divine.


There's a story out of England from World War II about a Christian gentleman who wished to communicate with soldiers on a military base God's agape love for every one of them. He was prohibited by regulations from coming within the army base to spread the message, so he had several thousand hand mirrors delivered as gifts, care of the chaplain. On the mirror's back, he had printed the message from John 3:16. A message below the text read, "If you wish to see whom God loves so, turn to the other side."






God SO loves us. It is the greatest “so” on earth. And if we understand that God SO loves us, with an incredible, never ending love, we can show that kind of love for others- an intense love of commitment and of sacrifice, an unselfish love, a love in the highest degree. God loves us SO much- enough to sacrifice the Son on the cross for us, that we might find salvation-liberation, emancipation from sin. May we go from here, following the way of agape love, that others might also know that God loves them So.  Amen.

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