God’s Gracious Surprise

By Paul Koch

This week our congregation hosted Vacation Bible School. It was a week of songs, food, and fun as together we shared God’s great story of promise and salvation with the children that gathered here. Now, there are a lot of reasons why a church might choose to hold or not hold a Vacation Bible School. Is it to reach out into the community? Is it to make new contacts or serve our neighbors as best we can? Is it sort of a PR move where we demonstrate our compassion and love for all God’s children? It could very well be a mixture of all these. However, our theme verse for this year suggests that perhaps it may be something a little bit more. The theme around which we gathered was rooted in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, the whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

This verse is arguably the most familiar verse in the Bible. It has been on signs in stadiums for years. If people know any verse of the Bible outside of parts of Psalm 23, this is the verse they would know, and rightly so. This verse has been called the Gospel in a nutshell. That is, if you wanted to boil down the Gospel, get it as succinct as you can, then this verse is what you would get. If someone would ask you to give them just a quick summary of the Good News of Jesus Christ, I doubt you could do any better than say, “God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” And yet there is always a danger with being overly familiar with a verse. We no longer hear it through new ears. Its shock and wonder are lost on us. The reason we memorized it in the first place is forgotten. And though we may know it we do not know why.

So, let us this day take a new look at this old verse. Let us examine it again and rediscover why it matters and what it means. It starts out, “God so loved the world.” That makes sense to us, but should it? I mean, why does God love the world? What has the world done to earn that love, to deserve that love? If we start at the beginning, we know that God created this world. He spoke it into being. In the story of Genesis, after each of the first five days of creation, God looked at what he had created and saw that it was good. After the sixth day of creation, God looked at everything He had created, including mankind, and declared that it was very good. But that goodness he created changes in the rebellion of Adam and Eve. In the fall into sin, not only did they bring death to themselves, but they ushered in sin and death into the world. This creation, as we have grown to know it, is not very good, but broken and groaning under the weight of sin.

Now we don’t have to look too hard for evidence of this. Not only do we see it in our world, but we feel it in our own lives. The good things you know you ought to do, the faithful and righteous things you want to do, these are the very things you fail to do. And yet the things you know you ought not do. The things that your God despises, the things that he has given his command concerning, these are the very things that you do, over and over again. You have trusted more in the amount of money in your bank account than the one true God. You have more readily found your identity and security in your family or your job than in him. You will abandon his worship if almost anything else comes up. You have hated others in your heart. You have spoken ill of them and held grudges. You cannot deny that you have lived in active rebellion against your God, and you are not alone in it. You have joined with the rest of humanity in this enmity against God. It would be just for God to despise the world. It would make sense for him to reject the world or abandon the world.

But the story of our God revealed to us in his Word is surprisingly different. It isn’t rooted in what we see as fair or right or just. It is not about what you deserve. His great mission to save this world is rooted in his grace. And grace isn’t about what you deserve but about what God gives. Grace is fueled by his love. In the beginning, he promises a seed from the offspring of the woman that would crush Satan’s head. He promises Abraham that their offspring would lead to a blessing for all the families of the earth. This promised seed is tracked throughout the Old Testament, through David and others until our Savior was born in Bethlehem. And all of this is wrapped up in Jesus words in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world.” It is a word of hope, a word of undeserved mercy, a word that brings life out of death and shines light in the darkness. God loves the world.

And that love drove him to give. He gave his Son for you. He doesn’t just show you his Son from afar. He doesn’t set him up as a simple example of how you ought to do things or as an inspirational figurehead for your emulation. And he didn’t give him into glory and honor and prestige. He gave him into death, into suffering and shame and pain. He gave his Son, washed him completely in your sin so that he who knew no sin might become sin for you. Where every door what shut, where every pathway for your salvation was cut off God gave one way, one solution, one hope, he gave his Son to do what you could never do. God kept the Word that he gave to Adam and Eve, to Abraham and David, by giving his Son in love.

So, with joy and surprise and a little bit of shock, we gladly say, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, the whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God loved, and so he gave. But his gift has eternal ramification. He gives his Son with one purpose: so that those who believe in him might have eternal life. Again, if you or I had written this, it would no doubt sound a bit different. You might write “whoever does enough will have eternal life” or “whoever demonstrates God’s love in their own life will have eternal life.” But no, you don’t earn this love from God. The very nature of a gift is that it cannot be earned or worked for. It is not payment or recompense, but a gift. It can only be received or rejected. And you receive it by faith with a loud “amen” as your hands grasp what he has placed in them.

The miraculous mission of our God is given freely to you, and by faith you take ahold of it. There is no sin of yours so great that it was too heavy for Jesus to carry, and there is no sin of yours so small that Jesus forgot to carry it. No, Christ has accomplished everything for you. And his gifts continue to be given even now. His word is spoken into your ears this very day as he forgives you. His righteousness has been washed over you in the waters of Holy Baptism declaring that all that is his is now yours. His blessings are given to you in with and under the bread and wine of his Supper. God so loved the world that he gave, and he still gives so that you will not perish.

All of this miraculous good news is summarized in John 3:16. This news is why we do Vacation Bible School. It is why we gather for worship. It is why we do any of this. It is the heart of the church; it is what we are about. From beginning to end, we are bearers of a message, a promise of hope and life, to a broken and dying world. Let us then hand over what we’ve been given. Let us speak not of what one has deserved or what is just, but speak of the love of God, a love formed into a gift that was born, suffered, died, and rose again. Let us tell the Good News of eternal life in Christ alone.