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Lent 4: For God So Loves the World

March 18, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 11, 2012

John 3: 11-17

On the first Sunday of Lent we heard from Genesis’ story about Noah, that sin has serious consequences in our world, but that never (again) will there be violence or coercion in God’s dealings with us. Rather, God’s (intimate) love provides a way for us to begin again, and supplies rich resources for new life to emerge and flourish among us.

On the second Sunday of Lent we learned from the book of Romans, and from the fourteenth century theologian Julian of Norwich, what sin does to us: sin constricts and narrows our perspective. Living as we do “in a broken and fearful world,”[1] we are apt to think that God is, or should be, angry with us.  From this perspective we are unable to see, or even to believe, how God loves us tenderly, without condition, seeing always the best in us. Salvation is an ever widening and deepening perspective that helps us see and experience God’s love for us.

As we return to the lectionary today we hear Jesus’ profound question to the Pharisee Nicodemus: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.”

I want to suggest today that our Christian discipleship and our Lenten journey would benefit from “paying attention” to some “earthly things.”

We have this great text this morning, and many of us know it by heart.  I found out that this was the first bible verse Noelle was asked to memorize as when she was 5 years old.

For God so loved the world

that he gave his only begotten son

so that whosoever believeth in him

shall not perish

but have eternal life.

That’s right, most all of us memorized it in the King James Version.

But though many of us know it by heart, it is important still for us to attend to it carefully.  We note that it says that Christ came into the world not because God loved us, sinful human beings, but because God loved, and loves the world. The Greek word here is kosmos – the whole creation that God made and called good. This includes what Paul calls “all things visible and invisible”, and what the Creed describes as “all that is – seen and unseen.”[2]  God loves the world, the water, earth and sky; the creatures swimming, walking, crawling and flying. We are a part of that world.  God loves all things living and growing, and all things dying and decaying, all things, intimately, tenderly, without condition.

In scripture,

                the animals glorify God by being animals, and the trees by being trees,[3]

                even the rocks proclaim the glory of God;

                all God has made speaks of God, all nature sings,

                and all creation groans for the fulfillment of God’s purposes,

God loves creation for its own sake, not just for its role in sustaining human life, and God became flesh, incarnate in world, so that all flesh, all creation might be saved and enjoy eternal life. The idea here is a very Hebrew one – taken right from Genesis. God made the first human, the Adam, from the earth, the adamah. This word-play works in English too, a human being is one made from the humus, the earth, and our proper vocation is one of humility, of being grounded, of knowing our proper place in God’s creation. We might also say that God so loved the world that God became earthly so that all the earth would be saved.[4]

Our Christian discipleship and our Lenten journey would benefit from “paying attention” to such “earthly things.”

How do we do this? One way is through prayer.

Simone Weil deepens the meaning of prayer with her comment that “absolute attention is prayer.” She does not say that prayer is absolute attention, but that absolute attention is prayer. By paying attention to something, she says, we are, in fact praying. … By paying attention to some fragment, some piece of matter in the world, we are in fact praying.[5]

Sallie McFague suggests that this may be what Alice Walker means when she writes in The Color Purple, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

Another way is by bringing the created world into our worship. Our Reformed faith proclaims that “the world is the theater of God’s Glory,” and that creation is God’s first book. John Calvin dedicated the first quarter of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion to the Book of Creation through which we see and glorify God. What would it mean to take this idea seriously and include a reading from the world, from the “Book of Creation” in our worship service each week?[6] For example, we might make this observation about the abundant diversity and interconnectedness of a tree:

“The six million leaves on a big elm tree are each toothed – and these toothed leaves are also toothed – all differently –and the six million individual leaves survive only through being united by means of an intricate network of ducts, veins, capillaries, and roots as well as extended underground set of connections with other life forms. It is hard to imagine individuality and unity in a more radical way.”[7]

Just to be is a blessing.

Just to live is holy.[8]

Or perhaps we could include as a “First Scripture Reading” something like Annie Dillard’s description of a goldfish named Ellery. “The details of this passage – Dillard’s paying attention to the particularities of Ellery – call forth in her, and in me, a sense of wonder and affection.”[9]

A reading from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. Listen for the Word of God.

This Ellery cost me twenty-five cents. He is a deep red-orange, darker than most goldfish. He steers short distances mainly with his slender red lateral fins; they seem to provide impetus for going backward, up, or down. It took me a few days to discover his ventral fins; they are completely transparent and all but invisible – dream fins. He also has a short anal fin, and a tail that is deeply notched and perfectly transparent at the two tapered tips. He can extend his mouth, so it looks like a length of pipe; he can shift the angle of his eyes in his head so he can look before and behind himself, instead of simply out to his side. His belly, what there is of it, it white ventrally, and a patch of this white extends up his sides – the variegated Ellery. When he opens his gill slit he shows a thin crescent of silver where the flap overlapped – as though all his brightness were sunburn.

For this creature, as I said, I paid twenty-five cents. I had never bought an animal before. It was simple; I went to a store in Roanoke called Wet Pets”; I handed the man a quarter, and he handed me a knotted plastic bag bouncing with water in which a green plant floated and the goldfish swam. This fish, two bits’ worth, has a coiled guy, a spine radiating fine bones, and a brain. Just before I sprinkle food flakes into his bowl, I rap three times on the bowl’s edge; now he is conditioned, and swims to the surface when I rap. And, he has a heart.[10]

Last Sunday seven members of our congregation attended the Earth Care and Green Stewardship conference. We went to become more intentional about how we practice earth care in all aspects of our church’s life.  That we are a part of the earth for which we care; we have come from it, we return to it. 

God loves the world and all that is in it, we and every creature and plant and thing belong to God.  We are part of one family, beloved by God and related to one another.  God’s intimate and tender care is known, is experienced, in that very relationship we have with, as St. Francis put it “brother son and sister moon.”

Let us celebrate that God created us for one another – human beings, plants, animals, earth, sea, and sky – and join our voices to praise this One who creates, redeems and sustains us all, for we are all creatures of our God and King.



[1] “In a broken and fearful world…” Line 65 in the Brief Statement of Faith, one of the eleven confessional documents in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part I, The Book Confessions.

[2] The Nicene Creed, adopted in 325, Article 1,

[3] Acc. to Thomas Merton: “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means

                                                it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love.

                                                It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from

                                                the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”

[4] See James Jones, “Jesus, Savior of the Earth” in The Green Bible, NRSV (Harper One, 2008), adapted from Jones, Jesus and the Earth (SPCK, 2003).

[5] Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians: How Christians Should Love Nature (Fortress Press, 1997). The linking of Alice Walker and Simone Weil can be found in Sallie McFague on page 29.

[6] For more on a Reformed theology of creation, see Belden Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford, 2011).

[7] McFague, Super, Natural Christians, p. 51.

[8] The blessing is from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and seems a fitting collect to the reading.

[9] This summary sentence is McFague’s, but I deliver it as my own, especially the words “and in me.”

[10] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: A Mystical Excursion into the Natural World (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), p. 126. Cited in McFague, pp. 30-31.

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