For God So Loved the World
Lent 4B John 3:14-21
For you students in grades 5-9 who are taking notes on the sermons during Lent, the title of this sermon is “For God So Loved the World.” The text is from John 3:16.
For students taking notes. Write Point A, The Introduction: the word, "so."
Today I would like to focus on a small, two-lettered word. It is a word that is used very often. It is a word that we often use to express intensity of feeling. It is the word “so,” spelled S. O. It is not "sew" spelled S.E.W like sewing a button on a shirt. The word we are thinking about today is spelled S.O.
I have been thinking about the word “so” this past week, and I began to realize that the word, “so,” can be used in so many different ways. I need to clarify the way in which I am going to use the word, “so” today.
You can use the word in a sentence, saying, “Are you going to the movie? SO am I?” And then the word is used as a conjunction in that sentence.
Or you can say, “SO, it is you!” or “SO what!” And then it is used as an exclamation.
Or you can use the word SO in another way such as “I read a page or SO in a book.” There the word was used as a pronoun.
Thus you can use the word SO in at least three different ways.
But today, I am not going to use the word SO in those ways. Not as a conjunction. Not as an exclamation. Not as a pronoun. Rather, today I am going to use the word SO as an adverb, as an intensifier, such as “The cake was SO good.” Or, “she was SO good looking.” Or, “I am SO mad.” You can use the word SO in that way and SO then expresses intensity of feeling. It expresses intense, inner emotion. “I feel SO happy today.”
For example, one night at dinner, my wife experimented with a new recipe. She made ham balls. Can you believe? Ham balls. She unfortunately asked me how I liked the ham balls. Well, they weren’t so good, so I said, “So-so.” But she also made beautiful cinnamon rolls, dripping with brown sugar and butter. She asked, “Well, how did you like the cinnamon rolls?” I said, “They were SO good, SO yumscious, SO delicious.” The little word SO revealed my inner feelings and delight.
The word SO is a stronger word than the word, “very.” If I had said, “The cinnamon rolls were very good,” that would have been complimentary. But when I say to my wife, “They were SO good; they were SO delicious,” she knows that I REALLY like them.
We discover that the word SO is even stronger than the adverb, “very.”
The little word SO can be used positively to express love or negatively to express anger. Let me give you an example of using the word SO in order to positively express the intensity of inner feeling. When I was a teenager, as many of you recall from other sermons, I was madly in love with Lorna Finkelbaum. Lorna Finkelbaum, there was no one else in the world like Lorna Finelbaum. We had lockers next to each other at school. We telephoned each other every night. She wore my class ring around her neck, and we were SO much in love that she even wore my letter jacket. We were SO serious. We were going steady. We went out every Friday and Saturday night, We were SO much in love. We were SO happy with each other. It was SO great to go out on a date. She was SO good looking. She would whisper to her girl friends in the privacy of their conversation that “Eddie is SO neat. (I think that is what she said.) Here again, the little word SO revealed an intensity of feeling, the intensity of love, the most vibrant of our inner emotions. We were SO much in love.
But the word SO can also be used to express the opposite of love; that is, to express intense feelings of anger. “I was SO mad.” For example, at times when I get angry and it is at myself that I usually get most angry, but sometimes at my wife, or sat some mechanical thing I am doing. But I do get mad occasionally on my job as a pastor. I think the angriest I ever got as a pastor was many years ago, when I was on a retreat with the ninth graders in Eugene, Oregon. We had a great retreat up in the mountains, with wonderful sessions and a grand closing worship service on a Saturday night. And then some of the boys. Why is it always the boys. Some of the boys had brought booze along and were drinking in their cabin. Pretty some girls were involved with tasting the alcohol. I heard about it and I was furious. I was SO mad. Talk about spoiling a weekend. Spoiling a retreat. I had spent so much time and energy working with that retreat to make it happen. I was SO mad. I will never forget that night. I literally took those four boys in my car, drove them home to Eugene in the middle of the night, called their parents at 3:00 AM, and told them to come down to the church and get their blankety-blank kids. I was SO mad. Years later, when I see those young men, they occasionally look at me and say, “Do you remember that night?” I say to them, “The night that I was SO mad?” They say, “Yeah. That night.”
And so the word SO can be used to express intensity of feeling either positively or negatively. “Lorna and I were SO much in love.” “I was SO mad at those boys.”
It is with this mood that we approach the gospel lesson for today, John 3:16. John 3:16 is the most important verse in the Bible. John 3:16 begins “For God SO loved the world.” It is indeed one of the most beautiful lines in the Bible. “God SO loved the world.” Many people say that John 3:16 is the gospel in a nutshell. John 3:16 is the one Bible verse that every Christian should know by memory. “God SO loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” God SO loved the world, and the word SO expresses the intensity, the dramatic intensity of God’s feelings for the world.
For students taking notes, we now move to the main section of the sermon. Write down, Point B and write, The Body of the Sermon.
Point 1. God so loved.
The Greek word for SO is the Greek word, houtos. The Greek word for the word SO is the Greek word, houtos. Like in English, the word, houtos, can be used in many different ways. For example, “Are you going to the movies today? Houtos am I.” SO am I. Or, “I read a page or houtos in a book. I read a page or so in a book.” Or, “Houtos what. So what.” In Greek, the word, houtos, can be used in many different ways like the English word, SO, can be used in many different ways.
BUT, only rarely in Greek, is the word, houtos, ever used to express deep feelings. Only rarely in the Greek language would the word, houtos, ever be used to express deep feeling. Only rarely would a Greek person ever say, “Lorna and I are houtos in love. The cinnomon rolls were houtos good. I am houtos mad.” Only rarely in the Greek language is houtos ever used to express deep emotion.
In fact, there are only two places in John’s gospel and all of Johanine literature where houtos is used to express deep and intense emotion. In both Bible verses, it is the same: John 3:16 says that “God SO loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not die but have everlasting life.” The second is found in I John 4:11, “God sent his son to die on the cross for us. My friends, if God loved us SO much, ought we not also love one another?” If God loved us SO much, should we not love one another? The same thoughtful intensity is expressed in the book of Ephesians where the Apostle Paul says, “God’s love for us is SO abundant and God’s care for us is SO great.”
Now, what if I say to you, “I love my wife SO much. I love my children SO much. I love my grandchildren SO much.” Would not that reveal the inner intensity of feeling that I have for them? You just don’t say those words to anybody. Or, what if I said to you, “I love you SO much.” Or what if I said to you, “I love you SO much.” Or if I said to you, “I love you SO much.” Wouldn’t that make you feel somewhat uncomfortable? A little uneasy? A little squeamish? Why? Because we both know that we don’t love each other that much. I mean, we love each other, but not that much. The phrase, SO MUCH, is reserved for very special people and very special relationships. You don’t say, “I love you SO MUCH to just anyone. You reserve that phrase for very special people.
Similarly, in the Bible, when God says “I love you SO much,” those words are reserved for very special and sacred relationships.
So for you students taking notes, if point one of the sermon is that God SO loved, then point two of the sermon is that God SO LOVED the WORLD. Not just the church. Not just Christians. Not just good people who stay out of trouble. Not just you and me. But killers and rapists and murderers. And Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus. And Americans and Russians and Iraqis. And Catholics and Presbyterians and Baptists and Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses. And the deaf, and the blind and the lame. For God SO LOVE the WORLD, the whole cosmos. Good people and bad people. White people and red people and black people and brown people and yellow people. God SO LOVED THE WORLD.
I love that Negro spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got the whole wide world in his hands.”
It is not merely, God so loved me. It is not merely, for God so loved you. But God loved the whole world. That is what is so amazing. That God loved people who don’t like him, who don’t believe in him, who could care less about him. God loves the world, and the world does not love God. That is what is so absolutely amazing.
Let me give you an every day example of this. Down by our house in lower Woodmont, there is a very bad curve. You drive down through the woods on a windy road, and as you go up a hill, the road takes a very sharp curve. As you come down that hill through the canyon of trees, your car can easily pick up speed and your car can get going too fast. Meanwhile, we find ourselves often walking that curve down to the beach. Years ago, I would walk to the beach with our children. Nowadays, I walk to that same beach with the grandchildren. We are walking on the left side of the road, listening for cars coming down the canyon road much too fast. I always had the children and now the grandchildren walk in front of me one step to be ready, just in case a car comes racing down the canyon out of control. I am ready to shove the grandchildren off of the road and into the bushes, so that they would not be hit by an out of control car. In the process, I may be killed trying to save their life. But that is OK. The point is: the grandchildren would be safe and I would be killed. I love my grandchildren SO much that I would be willing to do.
But let’s imagine that the child in front of me is not my grand child. Rather, the kid in front of me is a kid from the neighborhood and I know that this kid is a bad apple. The kid has broken windows in our house before. The kid has splattered paint on our cars before. The kid uses four letter words every time he sees me and he calls me foul names. The kid has shot at the neighbor’s dog with his B-B gun. To be honest, I don’t like this kid very much. In fact, I don’t like this kid at all. And obviously, this kid does not like me.
Well, now, this particular kid is right out in front of me, walking down to the beach. This car comes whistling down the canyon far too fast and is out of control. I can jump forward and shove that kid into the safety of the bushes and risk my own life so that I might be injured or killed by the car. Would I love that mean neighbor kid SO much that I would be willing to die in his place?
The Bible says, “For God SO LOVE the world. The world. People who don’t love God. People who could care less about God. People who reject God. People who snub God. People who say, “I don’t need God.” The Bible teaches that God SO loved the world, and the world doesn’t love God in return. That is what is truly amazing, that the intensity of God’s emotion is not just directed towards Christians. That the intensity of God’s love is not just directed towards church people. That the intensity of God’s love is not just directed to your little life or my little life. The intensity of God’s emotion is for the world.
To be honest, I don’t get it. I don’t comprehend or understand grace, that God so loves people who do not love him. I don’t get grace, that God can love people who so deeply reject him.
For students taking notes: Point one: For God so loved. Point two: the world. Point three is this: “that God gave his only Son to die for the world that the world might be saved.”
Now, this is very hard for us to understand why God would give his only Son to die for us on the cross to atone for our sins. This is very hard for us modern people and modern Americans to understand. We don’t understand the Jewish sacrificial system. We don’t understand the Old Testament logic of sacrifices of animals in order to atone for our sins. We don’t understand it. We don’t understand about sacrificing animals to atone for our sins. It can be explained to us, but it still sounds barbaric and primitive.
Even so, I would like to tell you a story, an extended analogy that has many loopholes. This extended analogy will give us a feeling for what it means that God sacrificed his Son in order that the world might be saved. I would like to tell you a story.
Imagine that you are on a train. Do you have yourself on a train and going on a train ride, south from Seattle going into Tacoma? You need to create the geographic setting in your mind. On that train, you are traveling south of Tacoma and have crossed a high ridge east of the Narrows and are now turning right, dropping down a steep grade towards the water, turning to the west. The train is coming down this hill and is going to cross a large body of water on a train bridge at the Narrows. It so happens that as the tracks cross the water, there is a drawbridge that is part of those tracks and a small ship has just gone through the upraised bridge. The railroad bridge is raised up, small ship has just gone through the opening in that bridge, and the train is coming down the hill so that the train can get across the water. The operator of the drawbridge wants to drop that drawbridge as quickly as possible, or that train will crash into the drawbridge and the water.
You have the setting in mind. Now let’s put people on that train. Let’s say that this train is filled with one hundred people. Good people and bad. Rich and poor. Cops and robbers. Sixty of them are Asian. Ten are from Africa. Nine are from North America. Five are from South America. Sixteen of them are from Europe. That makes a hundred people on board. Ninety-four of them are poor. Fifty of them are hungry. Twenty-five of them are starving. Six of them are eating sumptuously in the dining car, enjoying an exquisite meal. The doors on the dining car are locked so that the other hungry people cannot get in.
Now, here comes this train, this train, heading west towards the railroad drawbridge. The bridge man, the manager of the bridge, sees this train coming down and he has to lower the bridge very quickly so that the train can cross. Just as the manager of the bridge was going to lower the bridge, he looks out and sees his son out there in the middle of the bridge. His son is caught in the gears of the bridge. The pants and coat that his son is wearing are caught in the bridge and he cannot get them off. The manager has to make a choice. He can lower the bridge and crush his son or he can leave the bridge up and kill all the people on the train. The manager looks out at his son whom he deeply loves and he looks back at the train. Those hundred people on the train don’t love him at all. What should he do? He makes a decision to lower the bridge and his own son is crushed to death.
For God SO loved the world, that he gave his only Son to die on the cross that the world might be saved.
It is all so incomprehensible, that God loved the world SO much that he gave his only Son to die that the world might be saved.
I don’t get it. I just don’t get grace. My mind cannot comprehend the heart of God, how God elects to sacrifice his Son so that the world may live.
The little word, SO. It is SO small. It is SO short. SO seemingly insignificant. There is SO much locked up in that little word. It expresses such great intensity. The word, SO, is an intensifier. “Those cinnamon rolls were SO good. Lorna and I were SO much in love. I was SO mad at a group of boys.” The word SO is such a good word. In the Gospel of John, the word SO is only used twice and both times to express intensity of emotion. For God SO LOVED the world that he gave his only Son to die on the cross.
CHILDREN’S SERMON. I played the game with the children, “Do I love you this much?” How much do your parent(s) love you? This much? (Fingers are spread about an inch apart?) NO. This much? (Fingers spread to six inches apart.) NO. This much? You repeat the process until your arms are outstretched as much as possible and I ask: Do your parents love you SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO much? And the children all shout, YES. So does God.
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