... and not much has changed.
Three Church years ago, in mid-February 2008, I was sitting at this desk pondering the lessons for Lent 2, Year A. I wasn't preaching that year, but I kept my habit of reflecting on the Sunday Lectionary anyway. During that week, I was compelled to write a post arguing that while John 3.16 may be a very important piece of scripture, John 3.17 was even more important.
Three years later, I'm preaching this week, and I still think John 3.17 is at least as important as 3.16. The change is that I think you can't make sense of one without the other.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believed in him might have life everlasting." - 3.16
"Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that the world might be saved through him." - 3.17
God's love, as expressed in 3.16, makes sense of his hope for salvation (literally "make whole, heal, restore") in 3.17. His desire not to condemn, as laid out in 3.17, explains why God would be so bold as to send his only Son to die on a cross.
They are part and parcel of one another and can not, and should not be separated. And while I'm at it, let me make the case here for you preachers to not stop reading at 3.17 either. The Lectionary folk decided to split the difference between those who think Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus stopped at 3.15 and those who think it runs on to 3.21. Either that, or they needed a way to shoehorn in the most popular verse in the Bible into some, regular, Sunday lesson. Either way, they did it a disservice by removing it from its rightful context.
3.18-21 continues and reads, "18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."
If you've been paying attention at all these past couple of weeks, you have by now heard of the debate raging over Rob Bell's new book, "Love Wins." My copy is back-ordered, but the reviews I have read make me wonder why it wasn't just a 200 page exegesis paper on John 3.16-21. This mini-colloquy by Jesus is all about how love wins. Even though we constantly choose darkness over light. Even though, as John puts it, we love darkness rather than light. Even though we choose poorly over and over and over again.
God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. God desires not to condemn the world, but to save it. Or to borrow from our Ash Wednesday liturgy, God desires not the death of sinners, but that they should repent of their sin and live.
Even when we screw it up royally, love wins.