Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lectionary 1st Reading Psalm 2nd Reading Gospel
Anglican lectionary
Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21
Catholic lectionary:
2 Chronicles 36:14-23

Draft Sermon/Sermon Outline


God so loved the world

John 3:14-21

Today we read about Nicodemus – a Pharisee – an important religious leader. In our day he would be an archdeacon, a member of chapter, quite high up in the structures of the church and he hears of Jesus who has started a movement, things are happening, lives are changing what is going on. Jesus doesn’t seem to be quite going by the rules, but Nicodemus is keen to meet him. But he doesn’t want anybody to see him so he sneaks out to see Jesus at night.

Jesus says something rather weird to him – you need to be born again in order to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus is like “What, go back into my mother’s womb? What on earth are you talking about?” And then Jesus says the most famous verse in the Bible John 3: 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.”

God so loved the world. That was the first verse I learned at Sunday School. I was brought up with that verse, understanding clearly that in order to be saved a person, an individual needs to be born again. People have sinned and people must come to God, and they will receive salvation and be born again. So for most of my life, I understood that Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, you Mr Nick – Jesus came down to this earth to die to save your sins and my sins and for each person who believes they will be saved. When we hear “God so loved the world” we think God loved the people and the individuals in the world.

But Nicodemus would have understood those words in a very different way.

In Jesus’ day and with the early church, the world was understood to be the whole of creation. Their understanding of God’s kingdom was based on the Genesis idea of creation, humans were part of creation, put in the Garden of Eden to care for it. When Jesus said God so loved the world, then Nicodemus would have understood God so loved the world, the whole of the Earth, all living creatures, creation.

About 400 years ago this idea began to change. Up until then, people understood that the world was the centre of everything. The sun rises in the morning and goes down at night, so the sun goes round the earth.

Copernicus a Polish astronomer, a canon in the cathedral, proved the opposite, that the Earth goes round a stationary sun. The Church was horrified, the earth is the centre of the universe how can it be otherwise?

The dethronement of the Earth was a challenge to theology. Galileo built a telescope and found more proof of Copernicus’ theory. What heresy! he was tried in 1633, tortured by the Inquisition condemned and imprisoned for the rest of his life.

There began the big split between scientists and theologians.
Religious thinkers began to withdraw their attention from wider cosmic and earthly concerns and concentrate on the uniqueness of the Christian story. Their focus was to look at redemption and salvation of the individual, and the interior personal disciplines needed for salvation.

The Protestant Reformation split the church. Protestants insisted on the primacy of salvation – we are justified by faith (as individuals). The Church became inward-looking, focussing on the conflict between protestants and Catholics. Catholic kings burned protestants at the stake, and Protestant kings burnt Catholics at the stake. You were saved by what you personally believed. Justified, saved by your faith.

Meanwhile, Scientists continued to study the world and living forms. Geologists and biologists discovered the wonders of the new world. The discovery of fossils – challenged the belief in creation in 7 days. The origin of the species and Darwin’s theory of evolution led to even more shock and outrage in the religious community.

Up until then, most people looked at nature as a vital living reality. It needs to be respected to ensure harmony.
Many religious leaders attempted to build a wall around faith. Moral and religious values are quite separate from those involved in science.

The scientific community became very mechanistic, nature was not endowed with the presence of the spirit. Nature became objectified, with no rights or dignity. It was something to be used, manipulated, to satisfy greed, not a gift made by the Creator. The world would be saved by technology- the industrial revolution, the green revolution. Captains of industry can use and manipulate the living world as they wish. Nature has no rights or value. It is a machine to be used.
The world will be saved by technology or by new economic systems. People were transformed to become part of the efficient industrial process, and recipients of consumer goods.
What are the values? – peace comes from having a strong defence force or nuclear weapons, and happiness comes from having enough consumer goods.

We had created a lonely, squalid world.

Some of those dreams have turned into nightmares as industry clogs our seas, and destroys our earth. Advances in technology and consumerism have not saved the world, they are leading to its destruction, and the gap between the poor and rich continues to grow.

On the other hand, the faith community withdrew from what science was saying about the world and saw the work of God in the individual. We are only here for a short while then Christ will come again, so it doesn’t matter what we do to the world, what matters is how many souls are saved. Creation has been given to us to use since we are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We see this theology in songs such as ’this world is not my home I’m just a passing thru’. So if we use up resources or mess up this world it doesn’t matter, Jesus is coming again.

So since the late Middle Ages and especially in the Reformation, there was an emphasis on the Fall and Redemption of the individual. Greek dualistic theology had crept in, – separation of the body from the soul. We had no adequate theology of creation- twenty billion years of God’s creative love is either the stage on which human salvation is worked out or else it is sinful and needs to be transformed.

However, we are emerging from the past 400 years of seeing God as separate from his world. A new awareness was sparked by the first pictures of the Earth from outer space – the blue planet. A living planet- the garden planet of the universe. Those images reminded us that humans are part of the family of the living. The entire chain of living beings from simple bacteria to human beings are interconnected.

Salvation is beginning to be understood not just as me the individual being saved but actually salvation means life and renewal for the whole of creation. There is terrible darkness and evil in the world. Walking in the way of the Lord brings order and harmony between humans between us and God and between us and the rest of the world.

At the time of the fall: Adams and Eve messed up their relationship with each other – with God and with the natural world. Gen 3;17-19.
Redemption heals humans’ relationships with each other, with God and with the whole world.
Col 1: 20 God was pleased through Jesus to reconcile all things to him whether things on earth or in heaven by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.”

God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son to die for you and me and the whole of creation on the cross. Nicodemus a religious leader, a religious person was being asked to be born again, to become a follower of Jesus. This is the challenge for us, are you a religious person, following the church, faithful, or have you taken up the challenge to become a follower of Jesus, part of the Jesus movement here on earth – called to bring salvation to the whole earth – whether that is in fighting injustice, reaching out to the poor, hungry and hurting, or fighting pollution and destruction on the earth – Jesus calls you to be born again to become a living Spirit-filled follower, walking with him the way of life for all of Creation.

McDonagh, Sean: The Greening of the Church, 1990
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Rachel Mash

Rev. Rachel Mash

Rev Dr Rachel Mash is the environmental Coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. 

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