Sermon – Not to condemn

John 3:1-17

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 20th March 2011, Second Sunday in Lent.

There is a special time in everyone’s life when they come face to face with the vastness of the ocean or the sea for the first time. I remember many holidays we took at the Black Sea as a child, and I distinctly remember every time the train approached the sea shore and I could just spot the shore over the top of some buildings. The excitement of that first view of the water extending all the way to the horizon never really died down for me. I still feel that excitement today, whenever I go to the sea side. This is true perhaps because the sea has a special capacity to bring eternity within our reach.

The idea of eternity, of anything that is never-ending, of something that cannot be measured is a very strange idea for human beings. We can’t really cope with that. Our tendency is to try to explain and measure everything. One may attempt to measure the quantity of water in the Black Sea or the Atlantic Ocean, but the mathematical result may be even scarier than simply looking at it, taking a deep salty breath, and saying: “Wow, this is endless!”

For me, at least, the vastness of the ocean is the best experience of eternity, of something which cannot be measured or limited. I find this image to be very helpful in understanding eternity.

Another way of experiencing the immeasurable is looking at the sky on a cloudless night. In Genesis God told Abram to look up in the sky and try to count the stars, this representing the number of descendants that would come from him.

I can imagine Abram calling Sarai out of the tent: “Sarai, Sarai, come out here and look at the sky. Try to count the stars!” I can imagine Sarai coming out of the tent: “Abram, it’s past your bedtime! If you want to be romantic, let’s go back in the tent, it’s freezing out here!” – Just imagine how foolish it would be to try to count the stars. It just cannot be done. The sky is immeasurable. No wonder the ancients imagined that the heavens are the dwelling place of God…

Just as Abram struggled perhaps to process just how many descendants he would have, we could also struggle to understand the immeasurable.

One of the things we really struggle with is the depth and scope of God’s love. How deep is God’s love? How far does it go? Where are the boundaries of God’s love? We sometimes say that God’s love is endless, but we don’t really believe it, do we?

I find that there is always a tendency in human beings to limit God’s love. We cannot cope with a love that is limitless. Yes, we can understand that God’s love is vast, but it has to have limits. And we build ironclad theologies around these limits. Yes, ‘For God so loved the world’, we read the verse – but only those who believe will not perish. Those who do not believe will end up in hell. This is how many Christians read it. Yes, God loves the whole world, but he will only save a few – those who choose to believe in Jesus.

God’s love is vast, but it has limits, doesn’t it? Human calculations lead us to believe that if God’s love was limitless, what could possibly stop people from committing sin? If God’s love wins in the end, what is the point of being a Christian and what is the point of striving to live a godly and circumspect life? If people were no longer afraid of the fires of hell, why would they come to faith? What would we do without the fear incentive?

What is most confusing for non-Christians is to hear us talking about God being a God of love, and then putting limits to his love, while removing any limits from the length of eternal punishment. Christians often are much too ready to point out the eternal punishment of hell, but hesitate to speak about God’s eternal love.

I saw a comic last week of a skinny African child, with the caption saying: “Just think: not only do I get to starve to death, but go to hell after that. Just because of where I was born.” It is so easy for us in the west to think that God loves us so much more than he loves others. Does God love Muslims? Or Hindus?

We were born in Christian countries, we learned about God from our infancy, we are church members – surelly God loves us more than those who were born in abject poverty and die before they even find out who Jesus was. They didn’t have the chance to believe in him. Will those people perish? Or will they also have eternal life?

These are difficult questions that we cannot avoid. These are the questions of many people who are not in church, and of many who are sitting in the pews. Because of these questions many people don’t want anything to do with Christianity, because the dominant voice of Christianity says that God’s love is conditional and limited, while punishment in hell is unlimited and eternal.

For the vast majority of people there is a contradiction between God’s love and the idea of eternal punishment in hell. The idea that any human being who committed sins during his limited time on earth will pay for it with an eternity of torment doesn’t exactly sound like the proportional punishment we read about in the Old Testament. It is not consistent, and it makes a mockery of God’s justice and love.

For me the answer to these questions and struggles is in the vastness of God’s love. It is not something we can limit, measure or capture with our minds. God’s love cannot be limited by any of our theologies. And even if it could be limited, it is not for us to decide where these limits are to be placed. We must always resist the temptation to limit God’s love and to exclude those who do not fit within the limits that make sense to us.

For Nicodemus, the fact that he was born a Jew was enough. He was already among the chosen, he already had God’s favour. He was a descendant of Abraham, he was a member of the chosen nation of Israel. That is why for Jesus to speak of another birth made absolutely no sense to him. Having God’s favour was his birth right. The limits were clear to him: if you are born a Jew, you’re in; if you’re not born a Jew, you’re out.

The birth that Jesus talked about made absolute nonsense of these limits which made Nicodemus so comfortable. The whole idea of being born of the Spirit, of how the Spirit is like the wind and it blows wherever it wishes, was much too impredictable and immeasurable for Nicodemus. “How can this be?” he asked.

If the wind blows wherever it wants, could it blow outside of Israel? If the Spirit cannot be limited and controlled, could the Spirit move in non-Jewish nations and generate new birth among the Gentiles? This was a revolutionary idea for Nicodemus, and it continues to be revolutionary to us today. Just as in the mind of Nicodemus God’s favour and love was limited to his ethnicity, in our minds God’s favour and love is limited to what our theologies can accommodate, and not an inch more.

The Apostle John writes: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And then he says: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” When you hear these verses, do they sound like good news, or bad news? It sounds like they are only good news to those who believe. But they sound like bad news to those who do not or cannot believe.

John goes on to say that those who did not believe have already been judged. Doesn’t this sound like there is a limit to God’s love? Doesn’t this sound like God’s love only works if one chooses to accept it and believe in Jesus?

For many people these questions are heartbreaking when they think about their loved ones who died perhaps before they could accept God’s love, for whatever reason. But it doesn’t have to be about others. We all may wonder and be afraid about what happens if we find ourselves sometimes doubting the very existence of God or the reality of his love for us.

Because I believe in a God of justice and a God of love, I believe the answer lies precisely in this immeasurable, uncontrollable and limitless love of God. It cannot be a measured answer. It cannot be a rationally quantifiable answer. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” And this Son came not to condemn the world, but to save it. He came not to condemn, but to forgive. And yes, even to forgive those who did not ask to be forgiven. Even those who did not think they needed forgiveness. If Jesus could forgive his enemies who put him to death on the cross, how much more can he forgive us, with all our inconsistencies and failures, with all our doubts and questions?

What remains for us is to walk by the sea shore and stand in awe of the vastness of God’s love and admit our ignorance regarding its limits.

We are all invited by God to take a step out in faith and immerse ourselves in this never-ending love, which is from everlasting to everlasting, and invite others to experience this birth from water and the Spirit.

11 thoughts on “Sermon – Not to condemn

  1. Ahhh, slightly similar tangents – I was talking about the ‘wideness of God’s mercy’ – how we journey with / to God, who we journey with, who we’re afraid to journey with, and who we refuse to journey with… and talked of Jn 3:17…
    Interesting to see where Facbook conversations go to 🙂

  2. Daniel, you are so very right in stressing God’s love and that Jesus came back then to reconcile the world with God. Since Bible says God is love, so love is the very thing of what or how God is — love must indeed be immeasurable. That to me seems to be plain simple truth. However, what if hell is also an expression of God’s love? Your thesis stresses to some extent that hell is intended (as viewed by many) as a place of punishment, hence the apparent conflict between God’s infinite love and the very existence of an eternal hell. But mind you, what if hell is simply the flipped coin of heaven? Heaven is reality accepted. Hell is then reality rejected. Time in heaven might not flow the same way as time in hell, so I give you this, that what eternity means for hell (or heaven) I don’t yet know… Infinite or not, hell exists and was intended for the devil and his angels. The fact that we are told humans would share such a destiny is still as much truth as the fact God is love. I would rather educate people that hell is not primarily a punishment, that seems secondary, but rather the fulfilled freedom to make your own destiny apart from the God of all hosts. The same Jesus that came not to condemn, was also the first to teach us about the reality beyond our eyes. Just be careful how you teach people.

  3. Hi Paul! Thanks for your comment. I realize this is a very contentious topic and there will be many people for whom hell is a very important dogmatic flavour that they would never even negotiate, because it is so central to their understanding of God and salvation. I appreciate that there are many views on this and that my view may not be to some people’s liking. Fair enough.

    You’d be surprised actually that I don’t deny the existence of hell. I hope it does exist, since I know a few people who deserve it for a few years at least. I know I do 🙂 But I don’t deny it. How could I? You drew that conclusion without reading my sermon properly. I never deny hell. What I deny is ‘hell as eternal punishment’, because it is incongruent with both God’s love and God’s justice, even if we only consider proportional punishment which we see in the OT – but even that is thwarted by Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies. And I’m referring to ‘eternal’ in terms of the never-ending. I believe that when the authors of the Bible talk about eternal punishment they are referring to the quality of that punishment, not the quantity (i.e., after this life, not never-ending). Otherwise we contradict ourselves.

    Now, after I got over your kind advice – ‘ Just be careful how you teach people.’ – and thanking you for supervising me in my preaching, I will just point out two issues with your comment, just for the sake of the conversation:

    1. The idea that somehow hell is not punishment, and that it is a reflection of God’s love is ludicrous and irrational. I’ve heard this said too often with a straight face, as if this solves the problem. It does not hold water. Eternal punishment is not an expression of love – it is an expression of wrath and vengeance. It is only love if you’re lucky to be among the ‘few’. Nobody can say “Hey, it’s water, but it’s not wet.” If it’s water, it’s wet.

    2. You seem to be very certain that ‘hell exists’. Really? Have you been there? That kind of certainty smacks of arrogance and is counterproductive. (I suspect this is also the source of your good advice at the end.)

    Keeping an open mind is very important, I find. I doubt my own ideas all the time and never presume that I got God figured out and I know everything. I could be wrong. The Bible itself does not allow us to come to any final conclusions that supersedes it. Humility is paramount. Micah 6:8 is essential – walk humbly with your God…

  4. Dear Daniel, thanks for replying. I feel that you overreacted a little bit to what I said, reading between the lines. Please allow me to clarify and state that (1) I did not assert that you deny hell, it is obvious in your original post that you do believe in some sort of hell, (2) I myself admitted that I do not know what eternity means for concepts like heaven and hell, so how time flies and how lengthy is the hell I wasn’t saying — and (3) the purpose of my intervention was not to fuel the fight between ‘traditionalists’ and liberals here, so I wasn’t “supervising” your preaching out of my own pride but rather I was frankly concerned about why you considered so much important to overload and almost override the ‘hell perspective’ with the ocean of God’s love minimizing the concept of hell. Now please forgive me if I’m reading between the lines here and trying to guess, but this may be indicative of some disgust you may held towards conservative values (if there is an intentional attitude after all). To be honest, I don’t like (and I suppose you dont like it either) when some will go a long way in the other direction just because they wanted to reach balance in the first place.

    In regard with your objection #2, asking “have you been there?” seems rather childish. How can I be certain of God’s existance in the first place? How can I be certain if Scripture is really accurate when talking about hell? Of course we operate with some good level of faith here!

    In regard with your objection #1, I did not say hell is not to be understood as a punishment. I rather invited readers to see the punishment as secondary, as an effect rather than the intentional motive of why hell exists. Please read my first post in this light.

    Thank you for being open and always humble enough for debating. I struggle to do the same.

  5. Thanks for your reply, Paul! Since I don’t know who you are, thus I lack the context of what you’re trying to say, it is easy to misunderstand and make wrong assumptions. Such are the limits of blogging with people you don’t know. It’s a risk I am sometimes willing to take for the sake of discussion.

    I’m glad you agree that we cannot be certain about hell or God’s existence. That is a major common point of agreement between us. We all struggle to make sense of reality and we are not given certainties. Otherwise we don’t need faith.

    On what you said above – “concerned about why you considered so much important to overload and almost override the ‘hell perspective’ with the ocean of God’s love minimizing the concept of hell” – this is what I’m talking about when I mentioned supervising my preaching. Why are you ‘concerned’? I can’t help but interpret that as patronizing. You may not intend it that way, but you know what they say about good intentions… 🙂

    It would be fair for you to say that you ‘do not agree’ with my accent on God’s love to the detriment of hell. Fair enough. I can accept that. I think you’re wrong, but I understand your position.

    Here’s why I think you’re wrong: The only reason you would even consider this tension is if you saw God’s love and hell as opposites that need to be balanced against each-other. In other words, if you speak of God’s love, you HAVE to speak of hell in just as many words to balance it out. The same rule would apply to speaking about hell. This is where our disagreement is drastic: I do not believe I need to balance out God’s love with the idea of hell. I do not think in terms of ‘either receive God’s love, or go to hell’. No. Besides, homiletically speaking, this sermon was not about hell. When I will preach about hell, I will talk mostly about hell and focus on the subject, or at least my understanding of what the biblical authors thought about hell.

    You mentioned conservative values. On that, let me just say that I’m not conservative. I find that being conservative is reading the Bible backwards – reading dogmas into ancient texts. For me to be conservative is to be denominationally biased and dogmatically overconfident. I admit I struggle with my conservative brothers and sisters for this reason. I still love them, but I struggle with them. While we’re on the subject, one conservative idea about hell I find completely ridiculous: that preaching about hell will produce holiness. Rubbish! You can’t scare people into God’s love! You may disagree with me on this, but I don’t see this technique in Jesus’ ministry at all.

    On another point of homiletics: a preacher is not called to say everything they believe on any given subject in any one sermon. The idea of always balancing things out and being dogmatically bullet proof is not appealing to me. In the act of preaching the Spirit speaks to people as they need it, often in spite of the preacher. Preaching is not lecturing, where all the arguments have to be boolean. Preaching is not science.

    I hope this clarifies things a bit. Maybe. Maybe not. Thanks again for your comment!

  6. Here’s how I would put it in a nutshell: I agree with your accent on God’s love to the detriment of hell (contrary to what you thought of me). I too am convinced that character transformation is the ultimate value here and that happens when people hear love and good news, not judgement. Let’s simply say this is how we’re all wired. But I am still concerned (meaning circumspect) not particulary with your sermon but with the big picture. I constantly learned about the world I live in that the new stuff coming in is not necessarily what’s best (more so in times like ours when the pace of world dynamics leaves less and less room for timely assimilation). In other words, whoever came after pioneers may had it better. The virulence of ideas followed many times by physical violence seems to be rampant. I too am a liberal in the sense that I desire progress in anyhing. I too like to keep my mind open and make use of feedback loop to constantly improve myself, ideas and the world I live in. However, I cannot afford to be liberal if there is a hidden agenda. Or any agenda. There are times when I wonder (and have no definitive answer) if realistically there can be any peaceful debate behind thoughts and ideas. It sounds so great any proposal to decency and respect in debating ideas, but I sense that in our times the “speed to market” of those ideas generates almost instantly actual results in the physical realm. Results that hurt people in one way or another. The world is at war regardless. I’m siding with liberals in that I’m a pacifist. Any termination of war is a good result. But then liberals are at war with conservatives in that they are on the offensive here, it’s them trying to push new ideas on the market, while conservatives are trying to defend their embraced values. Honestly, I don’t know if we all can live without war, one way or another. What I do know is that I’m naturally born doubter. And I think so are you. God’s love is inviting both of us to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But I’m asking you realistically: as you “struggle” with your conservative brothers and sisters, how much better can I be? I too will “struggle” with you. At least be concerned about what you represent. And why so? Because you admitted you’re not a teacher, you’re a preacher. And preaching is art. Preachers can draw, mold and modelate their audience any way they feel so. Historically, it has been mostly art that ushered new concepts into the world. If it’s true God’s Spirit is always with the mouth of the preacher, fine. But my inescapable nature is crying what if it isn’t? My dilemma remains. So you see Daniel, it’s not only about love and hell, preaching or teaching, liberals or conservatives. It’s about what is the truth after all and what are the best channels to promote that truth. God’s love was known to mankind even before Jesus. But he specifically came to testify for truth. And what truth will we embrace at the end of the day. A convenient truth? Or can we stick with the whole counsel of God? I have a feeling that nobody can stay too long in a debate state. As people get older they draw lines and take stances. They understand there are sides. Hence war.

  7. Well, I wouldn’t be that pessimistic. I’ve seen older people change their minds about things they would never even think of negotiating. Think about Tony Campolo and Billy Graham. There are others as well. I think as long as we acknowledge that we see things differently, and that this is OK, and enriching of the human experience, there is still hope. I think I will take a more optimistic stance on this one 🙂

    • TC & BG: they defected. 😉

      Oh good that you brought big names on the table. Cause that’s another concern: what happened with being crazy in the eyes of this world and wise for God? Let’s face it: there does not seem to be many big names and popular in this world who did not compromise. Power corrupts. Achieving world status corrupts. That to me is a constant.

      Daniel, this is of a slightly different topic but I would appreciate your help on this (I promise I’m an honest seeker here): how do universalists reconcile the apparent difference between humans that will all be saved eventually and other created beings, say angels. Will all the created beings be reconciled with God eventually and no created being left for hell at some point? If so, what would happen with the concept of hell after that point? If not, on what basis the difference is made? Thank you.

      p.s. I’m in the process to being coverted to universalism because it is attracting but I do have major stumbling blocks. I know we should leave room for mistery with God, but still any consistent system that borders philosophy needs to be explained in detail.

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