I remember as a kid, on warm summer nights, my Dad would ask me if I wanted to go out and play catch. I know…cue the “Field of Dreams” soundtrack music here.
As we’d throw the baseball back and forth, my Dad would constantly tell me, “keep your eye on the ball!” (Anyone else ever hear that line?) As a little kid, I was a concrete, sequential. So I never really understood what that meant. Keep your eye on the ball? “Keep your eye on the ball,” he would tell me. I remember my Dad explaining. “Watch the ball leave my hand…and try to keep watching it, all the way into your glove.” I remember protesting: “But Dad, the problem is, the ball isn’t going into the glove.” “If you keep your eye on it, eventually it will” he said. And, he was right.
Yes, I mostly learned to catch. But I think that the more important lesson my Dad taught me in those moments was to focus, to focus on the moment; to “Keep my eye on the ball.’
Focus is critical.
Ask any figure skater. I was always amazed that they could spin around-and-around the way they do and not just get dizzy and fall over. Then someone who had done it explained to me that figure skaters learn to pick a spot and keep their eye on that spot as long as they can, until they quickly spin their head, and then return their vision to that single spot. Their focus on that single spot keeps them oriented and keeps them from dizziness.
Focus. Focus is critical. And one might even say, after reading our Gospel text for today, that focus is everything.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. That means, he was a religious and political leader during Jesus’ time.
And it was nighttime when Nicodemus came and knocked on Jesus’ door. Nicodemus came, we think, late at night because he didn’t want to be seen talking to Jesus, who the other Pharisees viewed with a lot of suspicion.
Jesus lets Nicodemus in, and they sat down, and Nicodemus says to Jesus, “teacher, we know that you have come from God, because no one could possibly do the things you do without having God with them.”
Jesus then, says something kind of strange. He says: “I’m telling you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus is confused by this. “What do you mean ‘born from above?’ No one can be born a second time.”
And then Jesus explains. He talks about what it is to be born again…to experience being made new. He explains how the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives.
And then Jesus says something. Something important.
Jesus says, “Nicodemus, God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will never perish, but will have eternal life.”
There it is. The verse. Last week, Pastor Barb preached and talked about Jesus’ first mic-drop moment. Well, this is the second one. And it is a doozey: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will never perish, but will have eternal life.” How many of you have heard this verse before?
This single piece of scripture, John 3:16, has been called the “entire Gospel boiled down to a single sentence.” “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will never perish, but will have eternal life.”
This is the ultimate in bumper sticker theology. It is printed on more plaques, hanging in more kitchens or dining rooms than just about anything else. You see it on t-shirts…you see people holding signs with it in end zones at football games. And while it is 100% true, 100% accurate and 1000% powerful as a description of God’s love…it is only 50% complete. It’s not the whole story. Because it is only the first half of what Jesus said to Nicodemus that day. Jesus said John 3:16. But then he continued on with John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. That is, to borrow a phrase, the rest of the story.
Now, we can only speculate as to what is going on in the mind of Nicodemus on this particular night. But I think it is safe to assume that if Nicodemus is making his way across town late at night, after dark, in order not to be seen, there is a good chance that he is wrestling with something inside him…something important. Nicodemus has questions…maybe even doubts…questions that he doesn’t want the rest of the world to know about.
I think Nicodemus comes to Jesus that night because he is doubting his own life’s work. And maybe he’s finally realized that he wants to change, but that he cannot do it by himself.
Years ago, theologian Everett Falconer observed that “the most superficial thing that can be attempted in the name of religion” is to call on someone to simply “turn over a new leaf, to be better, to be different.” Maybe Nicodemus has realized here that he needs something bigger…he needs not a subtle change, Nicodemus needs an overhaul…he needs to be made new. And that he cannot do it alone. Everett Falconer says that “birth…new birth…is never achieved. It is given to us.”
Nicodemus doesn’t get this. He’s spent his whole life trying to figure out how to make himself righteous in the eyes of God. An impossible task. And so Jesus, in John 3:16 and 17, drops the hammer.
Nicodemus, God loves you so much that sent me…for you. And…for the world. I came not to condemn the world, but rather to save the world! It’s that simple.
Jesus is saying that real faith…true faith…is not about what an individual does, but rather what God does. And the faith is not supposed to be about who is “in,” and who is “out,” but rather it is about God’s consistent intent to love, save, and bless the whole world. Jesus is telling Nicodemus, that the God he has spent his life serving, is simply too small.
In September of 1954, a young Martin Luther King Jr., had been called to serve at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In his very first sermon in his new congregation, King preached on these very verses: John 3:16 and 17.
“God’s love has breadth,” said King. “It is a big love; it is a broad love…God’s love is too big to be limited to a particular race. It is too big to be wrapped in a particular garment. It is too great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God,” said King.
This was, I believe, the fundamental message that Jesus was trying to help Nicodemus understand that night 2,000 years ago. The God that Nicodemus had proclaimed and taught about for his entire life was simply too small. When Nicodemus and the other Pharisees focused only on the individual righteousness of the Jewish people…on whether or not they were appropriately following the laws…the “rules.” They were missing the point: God is much bigger than they could possibly conceive. And the breadth and depth of God’s love goes way beyond what they could imagine. God did not send Jesus to condemn the world, but rather to save it. The world. The whole world. Jesus was saying “Keep your eye on the ball, Nicodemus. Focus. Focus on the God that is infinite. Focus on the depth and breadth of God’s expansive and ever-growing love.”
Yes, Jesus wants people to do what is right, but simply because it is what is right…not because God’s love depends on it in any way. God’s love is too big to be dependent in any way on us.
So, this leads us to a question today that we simply cannot avoid: How big is your God? How expansive do you imagine God’s love to be? Do you find yourself limiting what you think God is capable of?
- Do you try to make God fit into a neat, tidy and understandable box? If so, you may be in for a surprise.
- Do you try to make God’s love dependent on our actions…or our inactions? If so, you may be disappointed.
- Do you say “yes, God’s love is for everyone.” But then, maybe under your breath, you say “except maybe for them…and for them…and…for them.” If so, you may be focusing on the wrong thing.
Understand what Jesus is telling you today: God does not live, or love, within our limits. That is not who God is, nor is it how God works. God is simply too big.
Jesus’ Word to you today is the same as it was to Nicodemus. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t waste energy being concerned about questions of salvation, or who is in our who is out. Instead, focus on God’s great love…for you…for the world…the whole world. Focus on that…and the rest will follow.
Hear again Jesus’ Word for you today: “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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Keep your eye on that ball. Thanks be to God!