Student Guest Service - John 3:16-21

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 30th September 2001.

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One of the films that has taken the box offices by storm over the last few weeks, is the film Moulin Rouge. It tells the story of a young penniless writer, Christian, who turns up in Paris in 1899 and visits the famous, or rather infamous, Moulin Rouge, a club where dancing girls entertain the Parisian men. There Christian falls in love with the most sought after of the dancers Satine, the sparkling diamond as she is known. And the rest of the film describes how the two conceal their love from an evil duke who has taken over the Moulin Rouge and who wants Satine for himself. And all the way through the film one line keeps coming up. "The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return." And in many ways that is theme of the film. "The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return."

And I guess for many of us the longing to love someone and be loved ourselves is one of our greatest desires in life. A great deal of time is spent by many of us in finding what we might call true love. It’s not just romance of course. We long for deep and lasting friendships where people will take us for who we are, and not critique us every time we walk into a room. I remember for me this was a particular issue in my first weeks at university. Like all the first years at college, I was desperate to find a group of friends who I could fit in with. The first days and weeks were simply an endless whirl, centring on three questions: What course are you doing, what did you do for A Levels and did you take a year off. I discovered that most people had spent their summers feeding goats in Southern Chile or trekking in Nepal, whilst I was cleaning in a psychiatric hospital two miles from home.

And yet for all our efforts and for all the names we might have in the diary, good, lasting friendships and true love which is committed is hard to come by. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, the socialite who spends most of her time going to posh parties with Prince William, said in a recent magazine interview that she receives 35 text messages a day on her mobile, but then added: "I’m still lonely, I just want one call from someone I want to hear from." There is a woman who has everything, and yet is very lonely. She might say she just want to be loved. And perhaps for many of us, our experiences of love have been less than good. Friendships betrayed, marriages broken, parents uninterested, leaving us lost and isolated. The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. It sounds great doesn’t it. But actually the reality is often a shattered dream and unreachable goal.

But when we turn to the Bible, we find that its message is of a God who loves us beyond our wildest dreams. Here we find a God whose love for us never fails, a God who loves us despite our unloveliness, a God who goes to incredible lengths to restore the friendship with him that has been broken. If you want to know what true love is, then look at the God of the Bible. And it’s Jesus Christ who shows us God’s love in the fullest possible extent. And that’s why we are studying one of the books about Jesus tonight. We’re looking at John’s gospel, and John’s claim as an eye witness of Jesus’ life is that in Jesus we can know God’s true love and find out what life is really all about. It’s an extraordinary claim but one which we must take seriously. Because the claims of Jesus are so outrageous, they can only be true or false. If they are false, then we can get rid of Christianity forever and live life the way we want, and I could take early retirement and go to the Bahamas; but if they are true, then there is nothing we can do but to accept Jesus for who he is. God in human form.

So come with me to this passage in John’s gospel and we’ll discover two important things, and then we’ll see our response:


1) Our Greatest Need

2) God’s Greatest Gift

1) Our Greatest Need

So first, then, our greatest need. Have a look at verse 16 on your sheets. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life." John says that God sent his Son into the world to save the world and at the end of the verse John says we are perishing. And that implies there is a problem that we need to be saved from. So why do we need to be saved? In what sense are we perishing? Well they may be strange words to us, but the Bible makes it very clear that human beings have a very serious problem. And that is that we are rebels against our maker. God made us for a relationship with him, a joyful and intimate friendship with the God of the universe. And yet the terrible truth is that we have pushed God out of the picture, and made ourselves king over the world. None of us want to be told how to lead our lives, and we’ve done it with God as well. We push him off his throne, and take over the running of our lives.

You can see it most easily in children. Just take two toddlers and put a yellow Teletubbie between them and see what happens. I can tell you every time, the Teletubbie always comes off worse. Children are essentially selfish. And so are adults. Wanting to rule our lives our way with no reference to God. The trouble is of course is not only are we not very good at it, as our lives and our messed up world show, but that also God is deeply offended. Our lives and world have been ruined by our rebellion. Now God allows that to happen. He gives us the responsibility to make those decisions ourselves. It’s part of his love for us. And yet he is still a just God. And any injustice which is in the universe will be paid for at the end of time when God balances the books. We will have to pay the price for our decision to dethrone him as the king. And the punishment is to be separated from him forever. He actually confirms our own decision we’ve made in this life forever. And that will be terrible. It’s what the Bible calls hell, a place where we will be driven from God’s presence and all that is good. That’s the problem we face- the problem is actually us. We’ve chosen to ignore God and we must face the consequences.

I’ve been reading a novel recently which tells the story of how one man in his mid thirties was leading an incredible double life. For half of the week he was living in North London with his wife, Catherine, and two small children. And the other half of the week he told his wife he was working in the North of England, while all the time he was 4 miles across the Thames in South London with three bachelor friends having a wild time just to get away from screaming babies and a stressed out wife. But then it suddenly dawns on the man that he is just as fed up with the family as he his away from the family. His three bachelor friends drove him up the wall as much his young family. Here’s what the man says: "Then a terrible realisation struck me….That wherever I was in my life, I would always want to be somewhere else. That I had gone to all this trouble, deceived the woman I loved, and got myself into debt, only to find that the things which annoyed me and oppressed me followed me around. It wasn’t Catherine or the children that were the problem. It wasn’t even my three weird bachelor flatmates. It was me."

Now as far as I know the author of the book is not a Christian, but here the character in his book sees what the Bible has been saying for centuries. That we are the biggest problem in the world, and its because of our breach in friendship with the God who made us. We have a serious problem. It’s begun in this life and will be unbelievably worse in the next if we continue on this path of self rule. That’s our greatest need. We’re perishing. And we’re heading for an eternity without God. Is there any help? Is there anyone to rescue us from this terrible position?


2) God’s Greatest Gift

Well that brings us onto our second point, and that is God’s greatest gift. Because the incredible truth of this passage before us is that despite our terrible rebellion against God, yet God still wants to do something about it. And what is that? Verse 16 gives us the answer: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The fact is that God still loves the world. He loves you and me despite our incredible arrogance at wanting to rule the lives he’s given us our way. That is a love which we can never fully understand. And yet it was also a love with a purpose. His love was seen in action. How? Because he gave his only Son Jesus to die on a cross so that you and I might have life, that we might be forgiven. You see it was on the cross that Jesus took the punishment that we deserve for our rebellion. He died where you and I should have. He died so we could go free. The greatest need we have, to be rescued and forgiven, was found in Jesus Christ. That is how much God loves you. You only have to look at the cross to see that. Jesus is God’s greatest gift. We can be forgiven and we can go free. And so John can write in verse 17: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." And it was on the cross that Jesus paid the price to save the world. That’s how serious rebellion against God is. And yet that is how deep the God’s love is for us is. One man dying in the place of others so that they might live.

Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest during the Second World War. In September 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland and within eighteen months Father Kolbe found himself in Auschwitz on the charge of publishing unapproved materials, which were in fact sermons. Maximilian Kolbe set about trying to help the other prisoners in the simplest of ways, praying with them, sharing what meagre food he had, and in the dire conditions that the prisoners found themselves in, such love was a huge boost. One day a prisoner escaped and was successful. But the remaining prisoners would have to pay the ultimate price. Ten would have to die by forced starvation. Ten were chosen, including a man who had three young children. But at just the moment when the men were being taken away, the unthinkable happened. One man stepped forward out of line, a execution offence in itself. It was Maximilian Kolbe. He offered to take the place of the man with three children and die in his place. The officer agreed and they were led away. Maximilian Kolbe faced a slow and painful death, and yet he was willing to pay it so that another might go free. He gave his life so that one man might not perish but instead have life. It was an act of incredible love.

It is an incredible story, and yet more amazing is what Jesus did for us on the cross. He gave his life so that we could go free. He bore what we deserved so that we could be forgiven. I wonder if it has ever struck you before just how much you are loved. You may not feel it, but you are. God loves you so much, and longs to have you back so much, that he was willing to give up his only Son to die on a cross. You need not ever doubt that you are loved again. The cross shows it clearly for all to see. And the even more amazing thing is that we had done nothing to deserve it. Our greatest need- we’re perishing and we need rescuing. God’s greatest gift- His own Son Jesus Christ who died in your place and mine to offer us forgiveness and a fresh start.


3) Our Response

So we’ve seen our greatest need and God’s greatest gift. Well so what? How should we respond? Well John in this passage shows that a response is required if we are to enjoy the full benefits of this incredible gift and offer that God has given us through Jesus. And verse 18 shows us what our responses can be. There are two- either to accept this incredible gift, or reject it. See what John says: "Whoever believes in him [that is Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son." Can you see the two choices? Either we can accept Jesus’ offer, as John says we can believe and trust in Jesus as the one who has provided the rescue we so desperately need; or we can reject him. But please notice the verdict that is passed on you in verse 18. If you reject God, then be aware that he has rejected you. You are already condemned. You’re happy to take the flak yourself and pay the penalty you deserve. You stand condemned. And if you are happy with that then you are accountable for your own blood. No-one will stand up for you when God judges the world. You’ll be on your own. The verdict is you’re condemned already. But there is another option. And that is to believe in Jesus. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. We can move from condemnation to forgiveness. How? We must believe or trust in what Jesus has done for us on the cross. It means we have picked up the gift Jesus has offered and we’re free and forgiven. No condemnation.

Those are the two options. There are no other options. Condemned or forgiven. I’m sure many of you will have seen the film Titanic. And you’ll remember very clearly that there was a big difference between the top class passengers and the luxury they lived in and the passengers in steerage and the poverty of their accommodation and the difference in the treatment of the two by the crew. But when the ship went down on a cold April night in 1912, there were only two sorts of people, but it wasn’t based on wealth or fame or importance or achievement. The two lists posted outside the White Star Line offices in Southampton in the following days were simply Lost and Saved. And the human race is divided into those two categories- Lost and Saved, condemned and forgiven, those who have rejected Jesus’ offer and those who have accepted it. There is no third way. And notice that it all hangs on what we make of Jesus. That’s why I said at the start that his claims were so important that they have to investigated. If he claims to be the one who deals with mankind’s greatest need, that it’s worth a check. Because putting it as clearly as I can, what we make of Jesus Christ determines our eternal destiny. This is not a matter of interesting religious debate. This is a matter of life and death. Eternal life and eternal death. It is very serious indeed.

So where do you stand? Well it maybe that all this is very new to you. You may be a little fazed by all that has happened and all that you have heard tonight. Well I would urge you to do some investigation. Read John’s gospel or take away one of the booklets I’ll have at the back of church, or do join one of the groups we lay on which helps people to come to grips with Jesus’ claims. But whatever you do, don’t ignore what you’ve heard. It’s just too important for that. At least show some integrity and check out the evidence before you discard Jesus Christ to the rubbish of other forgotten heroes. He’s just too important to ignore. Maybe you are Christian and you’ve heard this before. Well I urge you to rejoice. Thank God again that you have been forgiven and you are loved at a great price. When you look at the cross you realise that the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to be loved. Or maybe you’re a Christian who has come to university for the first time. Can I ask you, what will you live for at uni? Can you think of anything more exciting than living for Jesus Christ who died for you? Get stuck in and make the most of the incredible opportunities you have to serve God here in Hull.

But maybe there are some who have realised for the first time that you are in a desperate position. You know you are a rebel and you’ve lived without reference to God all your life. You know Jesus died for you on the cross and you want to make amends. Can I urge you to get it sorted tonight. Receive God’s greatest gift tonight and start afresh. If that’s you I suggest you pray this prayer I’m going to pray. In it we say that we are sorry for the way we have lived our lives, we thank God for all he has done for us in sending Jesus to die for us, and we ask Jesus to come into our lives and be the rightful king. Here’s the prayer. And if you want to, then do pray it with me.


Dear God, I admit that I have not lived your way and have offended you deeply. I believe and trust that you sent your one and only son into the world to die for me on the cross that I might be forgiven. Please forgive me and come into my life as my King and Saviour. Amen.

Well if you’ve prayed that prayer, then tonight is a great night for you. As John says: "Whoever believes in Jesus is not condemned." You are forgiven. Please do tell someone, and do take away a booklet which will be at the back which will go over what I’ve said tonight about the Christian faith and give you some more help. But wherever you stand with Christ tonight, please don’t ignore him- He’s just too important for that.


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