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The Struggle Is Real

St. John’s Lutheran Church
10 March 2024 + Lent 4b
John 3:14-21
Rev. Josh Evans


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It’s been printed on the bottom of shopping bags and fast food beverage cups. It’s often spotted on homemade poster board signs at sports games. By one count, it’s been translated into over a thousand different languages, and it’s quite possibly the one Bible verse most, if not all, of us could recite from memory.

How has a verse like John 3:16 become so popular? Perhaps the credit lies in part with Rollen Stewart, aka “Rainbow Man,” a born-again Christian with a rainbow wig and a desire to spread the gospel who took himself, along with signs and shirts bearing the famous scripture citation, to sporting events around the country throughout the 1970s and 80s. Why Stewart chose that particular verse remains a mystery, but his impact – in spite of the ways his own life took a few dark turns – can still be seen to this day.

Regardless of his selection of this particular verse, maybe Stewart was on to something.

“We live in a soundbite culture,” Pastor E. Carrington Heath writes. “The message has to fit the billboard, or the T-shirt, or the five-second preview of the news.” Even more so now than when Stewart started showing up in the stands at sports games.

If you had to pick one “soundbite” to encapsulate the Christian faith, what verse would you pick? John 3:16 fits the bill for many. Martin Luther even called it “the gospel in miniature.” And maybe he’s right, but … I might pick something else, Ephesians 2:8-9, for example: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Except of course, that’s two verses – and you might have trouble fitting “Ephesians” on a t-shirt.

It’s hard – if not impossible – to summarize the Christian faith in just one, or even two sentences.

Maybe that’s why, growing up in Lutheran schools as I did, we were assigned a different verse (or two) every week to commit to memory – and later be quizzed on by Friday. Then, by the time confirmation rolled around in seventh grade, we were to choose – among all those many verses we were made to memorize – one verse to be our verse. Mine was Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (I’d likely choose something different now, but that’s a sermon for another day.)

Many church signs with changeable letters – such as ours – often go to great lengths to come up with a clever message to catch the attention of drivers and pedestrians passing by. In my first congregation, we spent the end of nearly every Tuesday morning staff meeting coming up with ideas for the sign that week. Sometimes, I have to wonder how many people actually took time to read them – or, in the rush from point A to point B, even noticed there was a sign at all.

It’s a struggle to encapsulate the whole of the Christian faith into one, singular verse – as though it were really that simple.

For those of us who call ourselves “progressive” Christians, it’s a struggle to even bring ourselves to quote Bible verses at all – lest we find ourselves confused with “those Christians” who pluck verses out of context to fit a particular agenda. (Are we really any better than they are?)

***

Amirah Orozco reflects on her own struggle approaching a gospel text that underscores God’s love on this Sunday – Laetare (“Rejoice”) Sunday, so named for the “joy” of the reminder, even in penitential Lent, that God loves us freely and unconditionally.

Orozco names the overlapping realities of a world plagued by the ongoing genocide in Gaza, a bitterly divisive and fearful presidential election, and a rapidly changing church. For her, in such a context, the good news of the gospel feels “ephemeral” – fleeting.

“In past years, I might have been able to understand that reading these passages during Lent allows us to think about our sins through ‘Easter eyes,’” she writes. “This year, however, I found myself bitter that the readings spoil the surprise […] What in past years seem like a ‘break’ this year seem like a distraction. The scandal of the Resurrection, I must admit, feels blunted in these readings. In a time where most of us should be torn apart by how drastically we have failed, these readings just seem to jump too fast to love and forgiveness.”

It seems strange to hear that aloud, but I think Orozco is on to something. It’s hard to hear any good news in a world dominated by headlines of war and violence, divisiveness and inequality, a changing climate and increasing natural disasters.

Truthfully, it feels like little cause for rejoicing – as though all of the world’s problems can be swept under the rug (or bright rose-colored vestments) so easily. “All you need is love” – really?

You need only to keep reading until the end of John’s gospel to know the struggle is real. Even though the very same disciples who heard Jesus remind them that God loves them deeply and that he will rise again, resurrection was, for them, “anything but predictable.” They were afraid, and they doubted.

***

The struggle is real.

Which is precisely why we need this reminder: that “God so loved the world.”

It’s tempting to read just the one, singular verse and stop there, but it turns out, we need John 3:16 and 17 – even if it doesn’t quite fit on the t-shirt or church sign.

“God so loved the world” – the kosmos, John writes, a word often used as “shorthand for sin or estrangement from God.” (SALT)

“God loved the kosmos.”

Not: “God hated the world but loved only the remnant of those who believe.”

But instead: God loves the world – flaws and all – and this God is not in the business of condemnation, but salvation and liberation.

These words reveal the heart of our faith because they reveal the scandal of a God “who so loves the world” – a God who loves the world so much and in this way:

that God was willing to become one of us, to live as we live and to struggle, in order to liberate us from the ways we are trapped by systems and cycles we cannot free ourselves from.

There is good news in this verse – but let it not be good news that we take for granted.

Let it be good news that constantly catches us by surprise, good news that subverts our expectations of what is possible, good news that is “anything but predictable,” good news that even scandalizes us.

And: Let this good news not let us become complacent, but move us to further struggle, as Orozco puts it: “to push ourselves to struggle in community with one another […  to] struggle against oppression and marginalization of all people and struggle for those whose struggle is silenced or made to be invisible by social structures.”

Let this good news move us to struggle as the Ash Wednesday liturgy invites us, year after year: “contend[ing] against evil and resist[ing] whatever leads us away from love of God and neighbor.”

The struggle is real.

So is God’s love: for you, for me, for the world.

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