“Waking Up to This Wide and Wondrous Universe”
A sermon preached by the Rev. David S. Heald
All Saint’s Chapel, Orr’s Island, ME
June 7, 2009
Drive anywhere through the country side in Maine and you’re likely to pass any number of roadside church billboards. Gospel signage, I like to call them. Last year, I often had occasion to drive by a Baptist church in Auburn, ME. The minister there is a gospel signage overachiever. Here are some examples of his work:
The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.
Don’t wait for the hearse to bring you back to church.
God takes the stains out that others leave behind.
Faith in Jesus is the believer’s passport to heaven.
And here’s my favorite:
Where will you be spending eternity—smoking or non-smoking?
I recently saw a variation on that theme in an online Time magazine photo essay entitled, “John 3:16 in Pop Culture.” A North Carolina bible-belt church’s sign, without the creative flair of its Maine counterpart, says rather bluntly:
Where will you be spending eternity?
Heaven or hell?
Read John 3:16.
For those of you who don’t know it by heart, John 3:16 says:
“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.”
That photo essay had several other images:
Florida Gator’s quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow, wearing the famous verse on his eye black during the NCAA championship last January.
Rollen Stewart—known as the rainbow man—who, having been born-again, became obsessed with sharing his faith, attending big-time sporting events wearing a rainbow-colored wig and carrying a sign saying John 3:16.
A cardboard coffee cup from an “In and Out” burger franchise, with the verse emblazoned on the bottom.
John 3:16 is embedded in the culture of evangelical America, especially in the South. It is the clarion call of that culture’s missionary zeal to convert souls to Jesus.
All well and good you might say, but unfortunately John 3:16 has taken on an exclusivist edge, a foreboding “you’re in or you’re out” sensibility, reflected in the “where will you be spending eternity” motif, a choice between smoking and non-smoking sections.
This biblical verse, which Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell,” has become a byword, a throw-away statement, that the more secular-minded among us are inclined to give little heed to, if not ignore altogether.
Re-examining John 3:16—within its context of the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night—opens up another point of view: the way that Jesus incarnates is a universal way, inclusive of us all, Christians and non-Christians alike.
Marcus Borg, professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, in a two and half minute video on Beliefnet.com, offers a corrective to what he feels is a misreading of John 3:16. He describes that misreading as follows: that the way you get to heaven is by believing in Jesus and, in particular, believing that Jesus died for the sins of the world.
He asserts that John’s gospel means something quite different. Borg then goes on to examine the verse phrase by phrase.
First, “for God so loved the world.” It doesn’t say for God so loved Christians or God so loved the elect or God so loved the Church but God so loved the world.
Next, “that he gave his only son.” In John’s gospel this does not refer to Jesus dying on the cross but to the incarnation itself—“the word was made flesh.” That is, God so loved the world that Jesus became a part of it.
Next, “that everyone who believes in him.” The word “believe” doesn’t mean believing a set of statements about Jesus. The pre-modern meaning of the word meant “to give your heart to, to commit yourself to.”
Finally, “may not perish but may have eternal life.” In John’s gospel, eternal life doesn’t mean life after death. It means the life of the world to come, a Jewish notion. For John’s gospel, the life of the age to come is already here.
As it is said elsewhere in John, “for this is eternal life, to know God.” To know God in the present is already to participate in eternal life.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night, which is to say, Nicodemus is in the dark, like the rest of us. He comes to the one who is light shining in darkness, the light of the world, the true light that enlightens every person, the one who gives light to the blind.
Nicodemus praises Jesus as the one who has come from God. But Jesus abruptly changes the subject and says that no one can see God without being born from above. Which is to say, without being born again. But still Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is a literalist; he is unable to experience life metaphorically or poetically. “How can anyone be born after having grown old,” he says, “can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus drives his point home again.
“Do not be astonished that I say to you ‘You must be born from above.’” He connects the experience of being born again with the life of the Spirit. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”
Nicodemus needs a spiritual rebirth, a personal transformation. Isn’t this what we are all seeking, what we all need?
As a hospice chaplain, I have occasion to visit many of our patients who reside in long-term care facilities. One such patient is a retired space engineer who was instrumental in promoting a flight path that proved decisive in the success of the first lunar mission.
Now confined to a wheelchair, only able to speak haltingly and with few words, he is often agitated, frustrated by his inability to give voice to his brilliant mind. I know that he can’t be rushed; that he requires a patient, attentive listening presence.
A few weeks ago, the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Hubble Telescope to make repairs and install new optical equipment. I shared this news with my patient, knowing that he might be interested, and watched as he became visibly excited, his eyes widening. I wheeled him over to a computer and googled images of deep space made by the telescope—those mind-blowing, brilliantly colored images of an unimaginably wondrous and vast universe. He uttered exclamations of awe and delight as I downloaded one image after another—star clusters, spiral galaxies, and supernova remnants trailing through the cosmos.
For a few minutes his agitation and frustration subsided and he was attentive—awake—with every fiber of his being.
And Jesus said: “Do not be astonished that you must be born from above.”
Moments of self-forgetfulness—even in spite of our confusion or anxiety or feeling ourselves to be in the dark—come to us all, unbidden and freely given. To paraphrase Philip Simmons from his book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, the experience of God, like falling in love, is not something we choose or reason our way into; but rather, is something into which we fall, something in which we find ourselves.
To fall into God has the nature of an accident. And though we can’t choose our accidents, we can learn to make ourselves accident prone, to make ourselves available for the fall into God—into eternal life—which always comes as grace.
John’s gospel promises that we need not wait for some hoped for heaven. Eternal life is in our midst now. It is as if God was saying to us all, as to Moses before the burning bush: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
You and I are standing on holy ground.
We need only awaken and walk into this wide and wondrous universe.