John 3:16 was the first Bible verse I ever memorized. It is the reference that we see behind goal posts in football games when extra points and field goals are kicked. It is a favorite text of preachers. A pastor I knew would preach on John 3:16 almost every Christmas and Easter.
This third chapter of John’s Gospel is replete with popular verses for preachers. There’s John 3:3, sometimes translated, “you must be born again.” There’s John 3:5, a favorite of Baptists, “you must be born of water and the Spirit.” (Baptists, it seems to me, appreciate every mention of water in the Bible more than the rest of us do.)
About 25 years ago, I heard a Navy Chaplain preach on this passage, and he took a different approach. He called his sermon, “Nick at Night”—a reference to Nicodemus’s visit in the dark. The chaplain began his sermon by telling the story of another time, when he had put off sermon preparation until the last minute. When he delivered the hastily-prepared sermon, the Chaplain said, “I listened as platitude after platitude, cliché after cliché came out of my mouth. In the back of my mind, I was preparing my defense for after the service.”
“Yet,” the Chaplain said, “When I was shaking hands at the back of the chapel after the service, one man said, ‘Thank you, chaplain, that sermon truly changed my life.’ An elderly woman, practically in tears, said ‘that’s the best sermon you’ve ever preached, Chaplain.” Coming back to his story, the Chaplain said, “I wanted to run after them and say, ‘What did you hear?’ I was certain they hadn’t heard the sermon that I had preached.’” And then the chaplain turned our attention to John 3:8: “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”
John 3:16 is the first verse I memorized as a child. As an adult, however, there’s one word in the verse that troubled me for many years: the word believe. What does it mean to “believe in Jesus?” Is it the same thing as believing my doctor when he tells me to exercise more? Is it the same thing as believing the inmates I work with in the County jails when they tell me they’ll call me as soon as they have a phone after they’re released?
While I was in graduate school at Miami of Ohio, I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Edwin Yamauchi. Dr. Y—as we called him—is an internationally known scholar in Ancient History. But we just knew him as the faculty advisor to our campus Christian fellowship. Dr. Y was well versed in several ancient languages, including the koine Greek of the New Testament. He taught us that the “believe” word of John 3:16 meant, “trust,” but more than to trust as you might trust an employee with the keys to the office, or trust your broker to recommend good investments. No, Dr. Y said, the “believe” of John 3:16 is “to put your total trust in.” Thus more the trust of a paratrooper in his parachute—trust, belief, that your life depends on.
A good way to understand the “believe” of this Gospel reading, I think, is to see the belief of Abraham in our Old Testament and Epistle readings of today.
St. Paul uses the word “believe” twice in today’s Epistle. In Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s belief made him righteous—a credit he did not deserve. The 2nd “believe” is in v. 17: “as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Here also, Abraham didn’t believe in God, he believed God.
To see Abraham’s faith in action, we turn to our Old Testament reading. There, in Genesis 12, God says to Abram—his name was later changed to Abraham—God says, “Go.” What does Abram do? He goes. Abram has no Bible, no church, no pastor, no prayer meetings, no men’s Bible study. Just God. “Go.” And he goes. No discernment period. No environmental impact study. No cost-benefit analysis. No run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.
Just God. “Go.” And Abram goes. No GPS and no map either.
Years ago, when I was in campus ministry, I asked a freshman this question: If God told you to sell all you had and move to Africa as a missionary, would you do it and go? You know how he answered? He said, “How would I know it was God?”
That’s what we all want to know, right? How did Abram know it was God? That brings us back to John 3:8: The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. The wind blew on Abram and he believed. The wind blew and he got up and went.
In every mass, including this one, we say the Creed. The word creed means “believe”. Thus our creeds begin “I believe” or “We believe” and are followed by our beliefs in God the Father as Creator, in Jesus as God the Son (including his virgin birth, his suffering, his crucifixion, his bodily resurrection, his ascension, and his imminent return to judge), and in God the Holy Spirit. We also confess our belief in the Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal life.
We confess what we believe—not what we do, right? Can you imagine what that would sound like? “I pray before my meals. I attend mass every week. I read my Bible. I pray for the sick. I drive the speed limit. I smile at people.” If we tried to say that together, we wouldn’t be able to say it together and we’d all be saying our own good works, thinking about what we’ve done, and we’d end up either ignoring our brother or sister beside us, or trying to “out-speak” them so our good works are heard above theirs. This is not what Christians do.
Instead, we say what we believe. We have that in common. We live out our beliefs in different ways, but to be Christian means to believe certain things, and not believe other things. What we believe, however, does affect what we do. If I believe my doctor, I will exercise more. If I think my doctor gets kickbacks from 24-hour Fitness, I might not.
I teach this concept to men in jail by using a diagram of an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg is our behavior; the base of the iceberg (which is underwater and therefore not visible) is our beliefs. In between our behavior and our beliefs—but still underwater and not visible—are our values. Our values usually come from our environment—the way we were raised, or the people we spend time with—but our beliefs are our own.
But we can also tell our beliefs from our behavior, can’t we? If a man steals a car (and many of the men I work I with in the jails have stolen cars), that tells us something about what he believes. For one thing, he doesn’t believe that the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal” was written with him in mind. Or he believes that God doesn’t care whether he steals the car or not. Or a dozen other beliefs might lead to the stealing of a car. Thus if our behavior is unacceptable—to society, to our family, to the Law—this is because we believe something wrong. What we should be concerned about is not whether our behavior is acceptable to society, but whether it is acceptable to God.
A few chapters later in John’s Gospel, we find our Lord asked “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And Jesus answers them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” The work of God is to believe.
In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 9, our Lord has an encounter with a man whose son who has been possessed by an evil spirit since childhood. The spirit causes the boy to fall on the ground and roll about, foaming at the mouth when the spirit sees Jesus. The father says to Jesus, in Mark 9:22, “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Our Lord responds, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.”
That’s quite a promise, isn’t it? It’s the kind of promise Abraham understood when he heard God say, “Go.” It’s the kind of belief our Lord is talking about with Nicodemus when he comes at night. Indeed, it is the same kind of belief that we say in the Creed. The belief that gets up and goes is the same belief that lifts its eyes to the hills, as in Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills;
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.
Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep;
The LORD himself watches over you;
the LORD is your shade at your right hand,
So that the sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
it is he who shall keep you safe.
The LORD shall watch over your going out and your coming in,
from this time forth for evermore.
This is the God we believe in. Lord, help us in our unbelief.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Adapted from the sermon. Audio available here.