Weeds: So much promise and mystery in one sentence

John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

The King James Bible adds “only begotten Son” and the poetic “whosoever believeth.” Whichever version, John 3:16 distills this Christian faith that many of us profess down to a few words. Next week is Christmas. It is a Holy Day and a holiday surrounded by all sorts of trappings: the tree, cookies, lights. At the center of it is this: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Christmas is that Son’s humble birth.

The epithet itself, “John 3:16” has come to be shorthand for all we believe. There are other verses that similarly summarize our faith. Romans 4:25, “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Titus 2:14, “He gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.”

John’s verse is the one we see most often. I have seen “John 3:16” written on a chalkboard at Starbucks, carved on a bench in San Francisco, and scribbled on a wall in Spain. It is meant as a small evangelization. The inscriber hopes that an unknown reader might be at a point in his or her life where seeing the John 3:16 message ― maybe for the first time, maybe for the thousandth time ― that it touches them.

If you were a sports fan in the eighties, you remember the guy wearing a rainbow wig holding a “John 3:16” sign at all the major events. I remember seeing the rainbow wig guy for the umpteenth time and going to find a bible to look up what John 3:16 actually said.

Now that verse is one of those phrases that bounces around in my head and shows itself at odd times. Like when I’m picking rocks or driving with the radio off or awake in the middle of the night. It shares room inside my head with bits of Shakespeare, lines by Robert Frost, and certain baseball clips. (“And we’ll see you tomorrow night.”)

In that part of the Book of John, Jesus is in Jerusalem. Nicodemus is a Jewish leader, during a time when Rome was the ultimate power. Nicodemus comes to Jesus. It is night, according to John. Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” They have a discussion about being born again. You can see Nicodemus struggling to understand.

Different versions of the bible put quotation marks in different places. Depending, the words of 3:16 are spoken by Jesus or are commentary by John. Reading on, John says that light has come to the world, and whoever lives by the truth comes into the light. John’s Gospel is charged with such imagery.

Later Nicodemus defends Jesus to the Pharisees, saying he should not be condemned without being heard. Then in John 19:39, after Jesus’ death on the cross, Nicodemus “the man who had earlier come to Jesus at night” helps Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body to the tomb. It appears that Nicodemus was moved by meeting Jesus. We don’t know much about Nicodemus, but his humanness shines through.

As often as I’ve thought these words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” they are comforting and challenging and vexing, all at the same time.

Comforting. That’s God in my corner. He’s got my back. Perishing sounds bad and eternal life sure sounds good. This life can have its bad days. But there’s God offering something greater than this life. Here is Jesus, like a brother, who came to Earth and had bad days just like me. And one terrible day upon a cross. And he did that all for me.

Challenging. John 3:16 says eternal life will be granted to those who believe in him. I believe in him, right? But I ask myself, what does that really mean? Wouldn’t I be living a better life if I really believed? Shouldn’t I? God offers this, and it requires a response. I should be a changed person. Some days I am, and some days not so much.

If we are to take God up on the offer implicit in John 3:16, we are to be light to a sometimes-dark world. On our best days we should shine like a beacon of love, a lighthouse to those who are struggling. On our worst days, a small flame should stay alight in us, burning in the wind. That love needs to be for all God’s people, not just the easy ones.

Vexing. I am not a theologian; I’m a guy in a pew. Does any of this make sense? That the Creator would send his son to Earth, and the son would die for our sins and rise on the third day, granting eternal life to you and me? These are big concepts, and I sometimes feel like Winnie the Pooh, “a bear of very little brain.” It is difficult to grasp part of this, much less the whole.

Here faith enters in. John 3:16 is never going to read like instructions for hooking up a DVD player. We can’t see with our eyes God and can’t touch with our hands eternal life. No matter how much scientists learn about our human bodies, they will never locate our soul. It is that soul that seeks Jesus and eternal life.

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” I’m not sure how it comes to be that Christmas is the season of gifting. That goes way back. It is interesting that John uses the word “gave” here. God’s son will forever be the greatest gift.

Sometime on Christmas Eve, I will be outside alone. Maybe I will be getting the car or walking to Midnight Mass. It might be still; it might be windy. There might be stars; there might be clouds. It will likely be cold and for sure dark, set among the longest nights of the year. I’ll take a moment to lift my eyes, think of John 3:16, and whisper a “Thank you.”