You can find it along basketball sidelines, behind field goal posts in football, and over home plate at baseball games: a sign with the big bold writing, "John 3:16." It's been held up at just the right moment with the camera on at sporting events for years on end. So, what exactly is the purpose? Are they hardcore Christians trying to make sure the entire mass audience watching on television have fully converted to the light of Christ? Are they just trying to give a sense of hope in people's lives of uncertainty and gloom? Or are they reminding fans that no matter what happens, no matter who wins, even if, God forbid, Ohio State can't pull it off every time on the court, God loves the world; and that is all that matters: far, far more important than any outcome determined on the field of play. The only result that matters for the athletes, officials, coaches, families, fans and everyone else is what happened on the cross and three days later. That's what wins us all the victory for eternity.
"For 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." It is a wonderful verse overwhelming with hope, almost the encapsulation of the entire Christian faith in one sentence. Except, there's a problem: what does that verse then say for those who don't believe? Ask all the Christians watching on television as that title for the Christian fight song is displayed on a poster-board, and you'll get just as many different answers with just as many different reasonings, life experiences, interpretation of Scripture, and on and on. The truth is we don't know for sure, but I only ask because I especially worry about the children who didn't have the chance to decide what to believe at all.
I worry about the children in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram, a terrorist organization that has instilled just as much horror before ISIS ever came along, and in the process has kidnapped and killed those who never even had a chance to spell any word of love, let alone hear any Good News whatsoever. What happens to them, who never even had the chance to engage in a conversation about the God who doesn't desire violence or war of any sort, but only a Kingdom of peaceful serenity? What happens to those children?
I worry about young people, even much younger than me, who are manipulated into joining ISIS; who are told it is the only way they'll survive. Profess exactly what they believe or die. Pick up a weapon and fight alongside one of the deadliest groups in our time, or face a torture of the most catastrophic extremes. What happens to them, including the Christians? What happens if they're simply trying to keep their family alive? What if they say publicly they no longer believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah? Do we dare say God will not have mercy on people who are trying to save their loved ones from death? What happens to those far too young people?
But this isn't just a question for international warfare. What about children in this very country? What about those who die far too young from genetic anomalies to stray bullets from a gang fight on their front porch? What about the children who never had a chance to read a Bible, walk inside a church for a soup kitchen, or even hear the name of Jesus Christ? Do we really think God's going to love the people who are baptized and confirmed and go to church nearly every Sunday...do we really have the ego to think God is going to love those dedicated Christians more than the children who never even had the chance to know what John 3:16 even says?
Now they're not the only ones. There are plenty of people all over the world who don't read a page of the Bible. They not only have zero clue what John 3:16 says: they have no idea how to look it up at all. But honestly, there's a part of me that's okay with that, because John 3:16 in all its simple but powerful beauty does not encapsulate the boundless grace of God. There's much, much more to God, because the Holy Spirit has been active in transforming lives well beyond the first century, and those stories are just as essential to hear as the words of a single verse.
John 3:16 is wonderful. It's filled with hope, but it by no means tells the whole story of the Great News. I cannot fathom the idea that this God limits love based on church attendance or baptism records. I cannot accept that this God will allow the children to suffer beyond what they endured at the hands of Boko Haram, ISIS, gangs, or whatever else. I cannot believe for a second that the undying love of Jesus Christ that was brought to life on the cross was meant for anything less than all of humanity. God's grace is meant to be exactly that radical, that nearly impossible to imagine, that absolutely incredible. God did love the world just that much, and God still does, so that all children of God, may experience the Kingdom with no more fear, no more hatred; just the Kingdom of God in all its fullness of new, beautiful life. Let it be so, oh God, for all the children of this world then, now, and forevermore. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon