The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare Sunday)

John 3:14-21

For as long I can remember, there has been a man who walks the streets of Boston, wearing a sandwich board that features a depiction of people being cast into the fires of hell.  Below this picture is an injunction handwritten in block letters: “REPENT!”  In addition to wearing the sandwich board, this man holds Scriptural tracts in each hand, one of which always bears the verse from our gospel reading for the day.  The really eerie thing about this gentleman is not necessarily his fire and brimstone message, but the fact that he doesn’t ever speak.  He walks silently through the Common and down the streets, he’ll appear on the subway and outside Red Sox games, and he never says a word.  I’ve always wanted to walk up to him and ask him how effective he thought this ministry was.  How many people looked at this silent sentinel, read John 3:16, and decided to turn away from their sinful ways and give their lives to the Lord?  This silent preacher seemed to operate under the assumption that if people simply saw the consequences of not believing the gospel, they would turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as their Savior.

This is often the way that our popular culture treats the famous verse from John’s gospel.  John 3:16 becomes a thumbnail sketch of the redemption given to us through Jesus Christ; we have only to read those words and be transformed.  More to the point, one who wishes to spread the gospel only has to put “John 3:16” on a bumper sticker or a sign at a football game in order to be an evangelist.  This tendency to think of John 3:16 as the “gospel in miniature,” however, ignores the fact that it describes an extraordinarily awe-filled event.  God loved the world to the point that he gave the only-begotten Son of God, the very Word of God, to live in the world, be rejected by his own people, and die on our behalf.  This is not something we simply assent to; we don’t grasp the immensity of God’s love by merely reading a single verse from John’s gospel.  The fact of God’s love should bring us to our knees, fill us with so much awe that all we can do is fall down in worship.  Moreover, just as God gave the only-begotten Son to us, we are called to give ourselves to each other.  We are called to show the world how much God loves it by reaching out to those who are in need, those who have been laid low by the evil powers of the world.  This is why the gospel cannot be boiled down to the words of John 3:16.  The very words of that verse teach us that God’s love is beyond our intellectual grasp; it is something that requires our entire being to truly appreciate it.

Today is known as laetare Sunday (from the Latin for “be joyful”).  It marks the midpoint between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is traditionally an opportunity to take a break from the penitential language of the first few weeks of Lent and remind ourselves about the goal toward which we are working.  It is also a chance to pause before we collectively set our faces toward Jerusalem and begin to prepare for the journey of Holy Week.  As we reflect on God’s love this laetare Sunday, I invite you to use it as a time to reflect on how much God loves you and, more importantly, how you might show God’s love to the world.

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