There is nothing like having a toddler around to make you question everything you think you know about words. My daughter is constantly mimicking us these days, both the good and the bad. She is trying on words for size, letting them emerge from her tongue just to hear what they sound like in her own voice. Day by day, her linguistic expeditions discover new lands and possibilities. On these journeys, she is discovering and creating a world at one and the same time. She is only three and a half years old. Our son is only a year and half, but even he is reaching out to the world in monosyllabic words of his own creation. Every dog he sees, he wants to identify, to claim some sort of knowledge and insight that the whole world needs to know.
How do they even learn how to speak? We don't hand them a dictionary and ask them to read it and get back to us. We don't make lists of vocabulary words and drill them. We didn't sign them up for language classes. They simply listen and try. They simply experiment and mimic. But mostly, I think, they see, experience, and feel. They don't learn this marvelous world of words so much as they live into it.
But perhaps no word is more wonderful, more meaningful than "love." Few things are as affecting in this world than when my daughter tells me she loves me. And yet she can't possibly understand what she's saying, can she? Does she understand what love is? If I asked her what love is, she would only laugh at me and return to her toys. How did she learn what it is to be loved?
Perhaps here we discover something indispensable and inescapable about love. Many of us would likely struggle to define love succinctly. Many of us would not even know where to start. Love is one of those words that you can't possibly understand just by looking it up in the dictionary. No definition can encapsulate it. You don't know you love someone in the same way that you know that two plus two is four. You sense it. You feel it. It shapes not only your thoughts but your very identity as a child, a spouse, a friend, or a child of God.
John 3:16 is perhaps the most ubiquitous verse from the Bible in our culture. It may be rivaled by Psalm 23, but the competition really isn't even close. For example, no other verse makes as many cameo appearances on signs at sporting events. Even the number 316 by itself is a magical number at times. Tim Tebow attracted an equal level of detractors as supporters this last season. Miraculously, he would follow up three quarters of mediocre play with a final quarter of inspired winning. During one of these miraculous comebacks, Tebow won at the last minute and threw for, you guessed it, 316 yards! I'm sure that wasn't just a coincidence, right? The sports media went nuts for a day or two, dwelling on this magical number, 316.
But John 3:16 is not magic. The verse is not some talisman. It does, however, contain a mystery and a miracle. In it, we find the very core of the good news. God's love for us is both deeper and wider than we could even imagine. God's love is at the very center of God's action in the world. God's love paved the path on the road to the cross. God's love is the very guarantee of eternal life.
But as we hear of God's love, we also hear of God's judgment. The image of God sending poisonous snakes to punish Israel in its wilderness wanderings will sound strange to most of us. The story in Numbers 21 finds Israel wandering in the wilderness and lamenting that they ever left Egypt. We're hungry. We're thirsty. This food stinks. We would rather be back in chains then wandering, hungry and tired. God reacts swiftly and sends poisonous snakes in their midst as judgment. Even as God sends the snakes, God also sends a way of healing. God instruct Moses to craft a bronze snake and attach it to a pole. Anyone who looks at the snake would be healed. In this story, God's care and God's judgment are not at odds but two sides of the same coin. This is a difficult notion for us but is very powerfully present in John's text.
Think about it this way: God's love does not abide with oppression and evil. God's love will not abide the harming of others or systems in which the poor get poorer and the powerful exercise their will solely for their own sake. God's love and God's judgment against oppression and evil go hand in hand. God's love calls us to walk in a new light of compassion and love for one another; to leave the dark paths of deceptive ease, mere comfort, intoxicating wealth, and blind consumption. We need to remember that God's love embraces not only our souls but the fractured relationships of neighbors near and far.
However, John also reminds us that God's love is not reciprocated by a world that lives in darkness. The light shines, but some will refuse to see God's love. How do we know the world has not heard? How do we know that the darkness continues to fight against the encroachment of the light of God's gospel? We know because the raw exercise of power dominates the world. We know because warfare continues to tear us apart. We know because peace is fleeting and suffering too easily inflicted.
We need to remember that John and his community hears this comfort and this admonition from a place on the margins. Theirs was not a place of power or privilege. To them, the promise of God's love was not just another boost to their self-esteem, not another accomplishment along many others. Instead, God's love was the sole anchor of life, the only source of hope in a hopeless world.
How do we receive this then as people in power and privilege? How do people who have so much experience a love so great that everything else pales in comparison? How do people of privilege receive this word of judgment intertwined with God's love for the crushed and the suffering? Let's receive God's love this morning as an exhortation to step out into a world that may accept or reject us, that may accept or reject Christ. Let us step into that world simply and only because God loves the world. God never ceases reaching out to the world in love and thus our call is never done as long as the world has not heard of God's love for all. Let us step in the world with humility and love. Let us be willing to relinquish our privilege, no matter the costs. Let us embrace that God's love covers us all.
In the end, we may find that in the light of God's love, we are mere toddlers. We're not sure of the words we speak. We're not sure we know what we mean when we say love. But we sense it, we experience it, we know it but not in the way we know that two plus two is four. God has planted love in our hearts and called us to share that love with all we meet. So, go and love, even if you don't know what you're doing.