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.