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     Sermons | Passionate worship

    This sermon was preached by Pastor Keith Cardwell at Swift Presbyterian Church.

    March 14, 2021 | Fourth Sunday in Lent

    Again and Again, God Loves First
    John 3:13–22

     G OD DIDN’T ASK our permission before sending Jesus to die for us. Like it or not. God loving us first puts us in an odd spot.

    Have you ever had someone give you something you didn’t ask for? You’re sick and they knock on the door with soup. Perhaps they should have called first to ask if you would like some food, or what particular food. I suppose you’d be grateful for their kindness even though you didn’t ask for it, maybe didn’t even want it.

    But now you feel some sort of obligation in return. A note of thanks, a soup bowl returned filled with a different soup.

    † † †

    NOW SUPPOSE SOMEONE saves your life. Maybe something dramatic like pulling you from burning wreckage. Maybe they really listened when you talked about your depression and suicidal thoughts.

    Or it could be someone steered you onto the right course when you were going astray.

    How do you repay them?

    Now suppose that person died while doing it. Think of the claim that person has on you. In the face of such love, such sacrifice, how do you respond? I like to think I would commit to making sure my life going forward was somehow worthy of the sacrifice. But I’m not sure I could live up to that. Can anyone?

    † † †

    I READ A STORY this week of a minister who used these words in baptism:

    “Child of God, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit … like it or not.”

    A few weeks later, a friend shared a bedtime encounter with his 6-year-old son, Benjamin. Like many kids, Ben was upset that his father made him go to bed earlier than he wanted to go, Benjamin said, “Daddy, I hate you.” Ben’s father, exercising the kind of parental wisdom we all hope for, replied, “Ben, I’m sorry you feel that way, but I love you.” Such gracious words. You know how Ben responded? How would you respond? Ben’s response: “Don’t say that!”

    “I’m sorry Benjamin, but it’s true. I love you.”

    “Don’t,” his son protested. “Don’t say that again!”

    At which point Ben’s father, remembering the words of the sermon, said:

    “Benjamin, I love you … like it or not!”

    † † †

    WHY WAS BENJAMIN protesting his father’s love?

    Because he realized he could not control his father’s love. He couldn’t twist his father’s words to his advantage. Benjamin had no bargaining power, so ultimately, no control whatsoever.

    If his dad had said Ben could stay up late if he ate all his vegetables; or if Dad agreed that Ben could stay up later tonight if he went to bed earlier tomorrow, then Benjamin would have some measure of control over the situation and over his dad.

    But in the face of unconditional love, we are powerless.

    Yes, perhaps we can choose to accept it or not, perhaps we can run away from it, but we cannot influence it, manipulate it, or control it. We can’t make our parent, or our God, stop loving us. In the face of this kind of love, we are powerless. When we recognize that, we are on our way to living.

    † † †

    GOD’S LOVE is tenacious. And so God’s love will continue to chase after us, seeking to hold onto us and redeem us all the days of our lives, whether we like it or not.

    As we remember God’s tenacious love, we might also realize that, precisely because this is the one relationship in our lives over which we have no power, it is also the one relationship we cannot screw up.

    Because God created it, God maintains it, and God will bring it to a good end, all through the power of God’s vulnerabile, sacrificial, and ever-so-tenacious love.

    † † †

    I’VE BEEN WATCHING “The Chosen.” It’s a unique program about the life of Jesus. Unique in that it is a multi-season program.  I just watched the eight episodes of season one. In Episode 7 (31 minutes in) this encounter is acted. [I’ve provided that clip at the end of the online service.] Nicodemus visits Jesus by night.

    By rooftop candlelight, the conversation between the two plays out over 10 minutes. Nicodemus truly struggles to understand what Jesus is talking about.

    What he does understand is that to accept Jesus’ love, to follow Jesus, is costly. Nicodemus has a high position in the religious Sanhedrin. He has status as a well respected teacher. His life is a life of comfort. His wife would be heartbroken to give all this up. He is aging. To accept that good news that he and all people are unconditionally loved, to take on this new life, to live in this way, to follow that message is dangerous and costly.


    JESUS SAYS to Nicodemus and to us, “I love you, like it or not.” To like it, to “believe” this Good News in a way that brings salvation requires more than “believing something that happened long ago. Believing means to let our lives be transformed by the Jesus we encounter in this story.

    ■ Placing our trust in this Jesus means withholding our ultimate loyalty and trust from other things that ask us to pledge our allegiance.

    ■ Placing our trust in this Jesus means noticing that the new life Jesus offers is especially difficult for the religious folks. We must repent of the ways our self-satisfied religiousness becomes a barrier to understanding the new things Jesus offers and asks of us. Jesus is a stumbling block for those obsessed with tradition.

    ■ Placing our trust in this Jesus means confronting the inconvenient truth that God’s purposes are not synonymous with our own common-sense values of happiness, health, and safety.

    Nicodemus weighs trust in Jesus against his loyalties, against his religious authority, against his common-sense. Jesus says, “I love you, follow me.” Nicodemus knows he’s standing on holy ground with Jesus but cannot commit. “Stop! Don’t say that.” And he walks away in tears.

    † † †

    FREDERICK BUECHNER wrote about this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. It is a word for us as well. Jesus said, “I’m telling you God’s so in love with this world that he’s sent me down, so if you don’t believe your own eyes, then maybe you’ll believe mine, maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life!’

    With those words come the quickening of our breathing and the pounding of our hearts. We haven’t felt like that since our first kiss, since the time our first child was born.

    Later on, when Jesus was dead, Nicodemus went in broad daylight with Joseph of Arimathea to pay his last respects at the tomb. It was a crazy thing to do, but he decided it was more than worth it. When he heard the next day that some of the disciples had seen Jesus alive again, he wept like a newborn child.

    † † †

    GOD’S MOTIVATION for sending Jesus is not condemnation, but love.

    Like it or not.

    — Keith Cardwell   

    «God’s love is tenacious. And so God’s love will continue to chase after us, seeking to hold onto us and redeem us all the days of our lives, whether we like it or not.»


    ►This is the Word of God for the people of God:

    John 3:13–22
    Holy Bible, New International Version

    13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man.[a] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[b] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[c]

    16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

    John testifies again about Jesus
    22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.

    — This is the Word of the Lord.
    — Thanks be to God.



    a.  John 3:13  Some manuscripts Man, who is in heaven
    b.  John 3:14  The Greek for lifted up also means exalted.
    c.  John 3:15  Some interpreters end the quotation with verse 21.

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