March 8, 2020 / Second Sunday in Lent / Richard Holmer
First Reading Genesis 12:1-4a / Second Reading Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 / Gospel John 3:1-17
God Loves You
I don’t need to tell you the bad news. You know it already. From the threat of a worldwide pandemic to your own very personal failings and inadequacies you are well aware of what’s wrong. We are imperfect persons, living in a broken world.
Today I want to remind you of the good news! Most all of you have heard this before but today I am telling of the joyful wonder and the life-giving power that comes to us in the gracious love of God. Here’s the message: ready or not, like it or not, believe it or not. God loves you, every one of you – always has and always will.
This is the gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (Jn 3:16-17).
You and I are saved by love. Nothing less could do it (save us, that is.) This broken world, full of imperfect sinners, is redeemed by the gracious love of God. As Nicodemus inquired of Jesus, so you and I might be moved to ask: How can this be? How can a holy and perfect God really love people like us? And, more to the point, how can we know that God loves us?
Actually, people are pretty good at figuring out who loves them. We learn to tell the difference between feigned love – love that is self-serving, manipulative and conditional – and the real deal: the love that is liberating and vitalizing and transforming.
You can tell someone loves you when they want to be with you. When a person pays extra attention to you. When they are in no hurry to depart from your company. When they keep showing up, wanting to do things together with you. The birth of Jesus is God showing us how much he wants to be with us. God comes in person, one of us. Jesus comes looking for us, knocking on our door. Jesus assures us: “I am with you always.”
You can tell someone loves you when they “get” you. They see and appreciate the real you. There’s no need to explain yourself. They laugh at your jokes; they share your concerns. They are on your wavelength. Jesus was able to do this with everyone he met. There was the woman who came and washed and anointed Jesus’ feet while he was having dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Simon is upset, thinking: “If Jesus knew how sinful this woman is, he wouldn’t allow her to touch him.” But Jesus commended her humble generosity and said to Simon: “You have shown me no hospitality since I arrived – but she has shown great love.” He concludes: “She has shown great love because her sins, which were many, have been forgiven.” Jesus saw the woman truly – beyond the labels the community had placed on her. He saw her with the eyes of love.
When someone loves you, they listen to you. You probably recall how in the crush of love, you can’t bear to hang up on your beloved. You want to be heard by them – and you want to listen to every word. When someone loves you, they give you their undivided attention. Jesus was a very skilled listener. He paid attention to whomever he was with. We never see Jesus turning his back or ignoring other people. Today we saw how he listened patiently to the earnest inquiries of Nicodemus, who was struggling to understand Jesus. Jesus listens eagerly whenever we turn to him in prayer.
You can tell someone loves you when they don’t give up on you. Love is for the long haul – or it’s not really love. Marriage vows promise lifelong faithfulness: for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow. Recall how Jesus loved Peter. Peter ran hot and cold, but Jesus never stopped loving him. In the most dire moment, when Jesus was arrested, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus – didn’t lift a finger. Yet how did Jesus treat Peter? He didn’t hold a grudge. He didn’t write him off. Jesus embraced Peter and called him to carry on the ministry.
You can tell someone loves you when they make you feel more alive. To be loved adds a palpable zest to your life. Love energizes and invigorates us. Life seems all the more worth living when you experience the warmth of love. Next Sunday we’ll hear the story of the Samaritan woman that Jesus met at a well. She was an outcast – a five time loser. She came to the well at noon – when no one else would be there – so she would not have to deal with the contempt of others. Jesus treats her not with scorn, but with dignity and respect. She is so energized by their conversation that she forgets her water jar in her rush to get to town and tell everyone: “Come and see a man who knows me inside and out. Could he be the Messiah?”
You can tell someone loves you when they welcome you as you are. You don’t have to hide your identity or pretend to be something other than who you are. You don’t need to dress a certain way or meet any special standards of status. They accept you just as you are. Jesus amazed everyone by sitting down to have lunch with well known sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes. People were surprised and outraged that Jesus would spend time with such deplorables. No doubt the tax collectors and prostitutes were also quite surprised – shocked that someone as good as Jesus could actually love even them.
When someone loves you, they always find time for you. They are not too busy, too important, or too self-centered to spend time with you. Even more than money, it is how we spend our time that reveals who we truly love and value. Jesus found time to share with unlikely persons. In his time, children were largely ignored. The disciples of Jesus thought he was much too important to be bothered by mothers who wanted Jesus to bless their children. Jesus rebuked his disciples, saying, “Let the children come to me, for they belong to the Kingdom of God.” And he took the children in his arms and blessed them. He took time to show them he loved them.
When someone loves you, they’re honest with you. A person who loves you doesn’t just tell you what you want to hear – they tell you the truth you need to hear. We depend on those who loves us to tell it like it is. We need those who care for us to speak the truth to us in a spirit of love. Jesus saw persons truly, and spoke to them truly. There was no bait and switch with Jesus. He told people that they needed to change – and that they actually could change. He spoke the truth to a rich young man who came to him asking: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said: ‘You lack one thing; go sell what you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
When someone loves you, they comfort you in times of sorrow and distress. When hard times come, we often discover who really loves us. Those who love us don’t turn away when we are sad or grieving. They draw closer and help us to bear the burden. At the Last Supper, when his own heart was weighed down in anticipation of what was in store for him, Jesus didn’t think of himself, but reached out to comfort and reassure his disciples. He was about to suffer greatly, yet he said to them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And he promised them that there was a place for them in his Father’s house.
When someone loves you, they forgive you. All relationships are tested by hurts, disappointments and betrayals. We know we are loved when the one we have offended does not reject us, but instead forgives us and works to be reconciled. Love doesn’t give what we deserve – love gives what we need: mercy. The gospels are filled with stories of how Jesus extended the blessing of forgiveness. There was a woman who was to be stoned to death for adultery. Jesus does not question her guilt. Instead he says: “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” He does not condemn her, but shows her mercy – and urges her to begin a new and better life.
Those who love you take care of you. Love is more than talk and sentiment. When someone loves you, they look to your needs. Parents gladly and sacrificially provide for their children. Whether he was feeding the multitudes, or healing lepers, or restoring sight to the blind – Jesus not only cared for the souls of people, he cared for them in their most basic needs. Picture Jesus washing the feet of his disciples if you want an image of what genuine love is, what love does.
When someone loves you, they lay down their life for you. We know this to be true. Parents will sacrifice their lives for the sake of their children. The ultimate commitment of love is to say: “I would gladly die for you.” Jesus said: “there is no greater love than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And we know what Jesus did. Jesus said: “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” On the cross, Jesus gave his life for the sake of the whole world.
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When someone loves you, they selflessly give themselves, all that they are, to you. God so loved the world, and everyone in it, that God gave us his own self. God took on our human flesh, born of Mary, and came and lived among us, sharing life as you and I live it, with all its challenges and contradictions, joys and sorrows, hopes and uncertainties. On the cross, Jesus gave his life in order to save yours and mine.
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Friends, you are loved – believe it or not. Some things are true whether we understand them or not. We can tell when love is real. We know what true and lasting love is because we know Jesus. We know how much God loves us, because we believe in Jesus. We can love one another because we are blessed and redeemed by the love of Jesus.
Thanks be to God.