Gospel: John 3:14-21 (Lent 4: Series B)

Reading Time: 3 mins

When we recognize the reality of our insignificance as individuals and as a human race, we begin to marvel and cherish this grace of God more fully.

In his epic poem, “Paradise Lost,” John Milton offers a humbling image of the world and the human race. He describes the Earth as a pendant hanging from Heaven by a gold chain (Book II, lines 1051-52). It is a star “of smallest magnitude close by the moon” (II.1053). This little star is occupied by “puny inhabitants” (II.367).

Milton’s diminutive description of Earth reminds me of images we have been getting from the James Webb Space Telescope. With every picture of distant galaxies, we get even more perspective on the smallness of this planet and our lives. Neither Webb nor Milton is offering anything new, of course. Long ago the psalmist wondered out loud why the Creator, whose majesty extends so far beyond us, would be mindful of people as insignificant as the sons of man (see Psalm 8:4).

Yet, for some divine and unfathomable reason, the Creator is mindful of His human creatures. Even more, notes Milton, these people are His “darling sons” (II.373). They are “favored more of Him who rules above” (II.349-350) than all the angelic host.

This love and favor of God for the people He has made stands at the heart of the appointed Gospel reading from John 3. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is a familiar passage. Christians have memorized these words like no other verse in the Bible. It reminds me of my childhood pastor in confirmation. He insisted each of us knew (if nothing else) this “Gospel in a nutshell,” which makes preaching on this text a challenge. Familiarity with John 3:16 might not breed contempt, but it very well may breed a yawn. Which raises a question: How can you take a well-worn text like this and preach a message from it that engages your hearers in a fresh way?

Perhaps Milton (or Webb) can help. Both the poet’s eloquence and the telescope’s reach expose our embarrassingly relative insignificance. The human race and our pale blue home are so tiny in the grand scheme of the universe. But you would not know it from the way we imagine ourselves and our potential. The remarkable (from our perspective) advance of science and progress has bloated our collective self-estimation. We have bought into the deception that we are masters of our own lives, that there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it, and that it is up to us to decide who and what we are.

So, you might remind your hearers how our entire planet is nothing more than a pendant hanging on a chain. It is a single, not-so-bright dot in an immensely vast universe. Yet, we are God’s pendant. We are hanging from God’s chain. We are God’s not-so-bright dot. He sent His Son to suffer, die, and rise to save little old us. There is nothing intrinsic about us which warrants this kind of love. This is what makes the Gospel promise so good.

We are God’s not-so-bright dot. He sent His Son to suffer, die, and rise to save little old us.

A sermon on this text will proclaim the promise of God’s love for a planet and a people who are exceedingly small. Paul was certainly correct when he told the Corinthians, “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). Yet, it pleased God to save them, and it pleases God to save you and your hearers, too. It is your privilege to proclaim that, because of Jesus, your hearers will not perish but have eternal life. This eternal life will be characterized by eternal community, eternal joy, eternal peace, and eternal fullness. In short, it will be Paradise regained.

When we recognize the reality of our insignificance as individuals and as a human race, we begin to marvel and cherish this grace of God more fully. We are also reminded that this promise changes everything, not just our eternal fate. It also changes our lives from here on out.

To help your hearers consider the implications of God’s promises for their lives, you might refer briefly to one or more of the other appointed readings as well. God’s promise in Christ rules out grumbling for His failure to provide what we desire (Numbers 21:4-5). Instead, we thank and praise Him for His steadfast love (kheh-sed, in Hebrew) that endures forever (Psalm 107:1). Our thanks and praise turn toward acts of love for our neighbor, for the One who has saved us purely out of His grace has also prepared good works for us to walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

Our efforts may seem small, and in the grand scheme of things they are. But the God who loves us has prepared them for us. That, too, is part of His love and grace for His creation.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out out 1517’s resources on John 3:14-21.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 3:14-21.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 3:14-21.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Charless Gieschen of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through John 3:14-21.