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/ Weekly Message / Weekly Message 09-07-08: Sunday Before The Cross
Weekly Message 09-07-08: Sunday Before The Cross

Today on the church calendar, we celebrate the Sunday before the Cross.  As such, the Gospel reading varies today from the prescribed Gospel reading for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost. 

Our church calendar also shows that today is the Forefeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, one of the important feasts on our church calendar. The icon for this feast is placed on the tetrapod for veneration, as we will continue to celebrate this feast until the end of the week.  On the calendar yesterday, we commemorated St. Michael the Archangel, whose icon is also on the tetrapod for veneration as well. 

Finally, today on the civil calendar, we celebrate Grandparents Day, a day for a spike in sales of greeting cards and Russell Stover chocolates, and a day for a spike in revenue at your local supermarkets and drug stores.  Don’t get me wrong – I personally feel that Grandparents Day is a nice gesture to commemorate the bond of love we have with our grandparents, but it pleases me more that Grandparents Day tends to fall around the same time as the Nativity of the Mother of God, for it is truly an appropriate way to commemorate SS Joachim and Anne, the parents of the Mother of God, and the grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Joachim and Anne were two righteous souls who were blessed by God in their old age to bear a child who would become an essential part of our salvation.  After all, her “yes” to the angel Gabriel brought Christ incarnate into the world to suffer, die, and rise again, all to save our souls from eternal damnation, an important point that is made in today’s Gospel reading.

Our Gospel reading for today, as selected by the early church fathers, is rather unique; it is perhaps one of the shortest Gospel readings you will hear, and yet, at the same time, it is one of the most popular readings in contemporary history.  In fact, the verse John 3:16 is probably one of the most frequently seen and quoted Gospel verses in all of Christianity. 

I feel the words in today’s Gospel reading don’t seem to make much sense on the surface – in order to have a better understanding of what Jesus was saying and trying to teach us, you must open up your bible and read from the beginning of Chapter 3 of St. John’s Gospel.

Enter Nicodemus, a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm, but not your typical, everyday, average Pharisee, a name that usually means there is trouble ahead. Recall that from all of our Gospel readings throughout the year, the Pharisees took issue with Jesus on many occasions. Jesus took every occasion to expose the Pharisees as hypocrites, for they were eager to boast and brag about how they followed the letter of the law when it came to Jewish observance.  Their beef with Jesus was that He broke the letter of the law by following the spirit of the law, a point that is the subject of many of our Gospel readings during the Sunday cycle of readings throughout the church year.  

Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night to speak with him privately, for in his heart, Nicodemus was a struggling believer in Jesus, yet he still maintained his position among the Sanhedrin.  When he approaches Jesus, Nicodemus compliments Jesus by telling him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” (John 3: 2)  This is Nicodemus’ profession of faith directly to Jesus – Lord, I believe in you, because only someone who comes from God has the ability to make miracles, and you are Him!  From that time on, Nicodemus counted himself as one of Jesus’ followers, despite keeping his position among with the Sanhedrin.  We don’t hear about Nicodemus again until later in John’s Gospel, where Nicodemus was actually one of Jesus’ defenders as the events unfolded that led to Jesus’ arrest, trial, scourging and crucifixion.  After Jesus’ brutal, agonizing death on the cross, it was Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower and believer, who arranged for Jesus’ burial, hastily prepared as the Sabbath approached. 

Jesus took Nicodemus’ compliment in stride, and replied to him, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3: 3)  Immediately Nicodemus questioned Jesus, for Jesus’ words were unlike anything else Nicodemus has ever heard, growing up as an Orthodox Jew, following the same commandments from the Torah that were handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Jesus went on to explain that man must be born of water and the Spirit to see the Kingdom of God.  My brothers and sisters, Jesus was speaking of Baptism, the first of the seven Mysteries of our blessed Orthodox Church, and the very first act that welcomes us into the company of other believers.  You cannot be a part of God’s kingdom without being branded as one of His own.  Jesus Himself told us, “I am the Good Shepherd…I know mine, and mine know me.” (John 10: 14)  Not only did Jesus talk about it, he did it!  He Himself was the example, consenting to be baptized by his own cousin John in the river Jordan.  Once Jesus came up from the water, the voice of God was heard to say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)

By now, Nicodemus is scratching his head, for this is so NOT Orthodox Jewish belief.  While he says he believes in Jesus, it is still overwhelming to be told such things, to which Jesus actually throws Nicodemus a zinger by saying, “How can you be a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand this?” (John 3: 10)  I love Jesus’ subtle humor…what he is saying to Nicodemus is, “for a really smart guy, what you don’t know is a lot.  If you don’t believe what I’m telling you of earthly things, how will you ever believe what I tell you about heavenly things?  Everyone says they believe, except for when they don’t; all of this talk of believing is just a lot of lip service.”

Now we come to the part where today’s Gospel reading begins.  Jesus further explains to Nicodemus, and those Disciples who are gathered with him, that no one has ever gone up to heaven except the One who came from heaven, referring to Himself.  And the Son of Man will be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent toward heaven.  Jesus is already foretelling them of the type of death He will endure for our sake, his agonizing death on the cross, so that all who believe in Him will have eternal life. 

This is where we come upon the famed verse of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  This verse, my brothers and sisters, is the crux of our faith – we are so loved by God that he allowed His Son to be sacrificed for us, in order to save us from ourselves and our own sinfulness; he died to save us from an eternal damnation in the fires of hell.  In fact, Martin Luther called this verse “the Gospel in a nutshell,” because the message of this verse alone speaks volumes about God and His enduring love for us.

I’m always amazed and surprised at the places I find “John 3:16” listed.  Of course, we all see it on placards and signs at different sporting events, but I was more surprised to learn this verse and several other Scripture verses were placed on the paper utensils, bags, wrappers, and other items at the In-N-Out restaurants in Southern California.  The print is small and out of the way and only contains the book, chapter and verse numbers, not the actual text of the passages. The practice began in the 1980s as a reflection of the beliefs held by the same family who has privately owned the restaurant chain since 1948.

The popular clothing chain Forever 21 prints the verse on the bottom of their shopping bags.

Christian author Max Lucado, author of 3:16: The Numbers of Hope, calls the well-known verse "a 26-word parade of hope: beginning with God, ending with life, and urging us to do the same." Lucado started a 3:16 movement, inviting individuals to join and add their names to the "I Believe in 3:16" list and post video clips on YouTube answering the question: "What does 3:16 mean to me?"

The website lists John 3:16 as their number one searched verse of the over 31,000 Scripture verses listed on their site in order of popularity.

And the next time you’re in a hotel, open up the night table drawer and pull out the Gideon Bible.  When you open it up, you will see they have translated John 3:16 into several languages, so that it can be read by almost anyone in their native language. 

Indeed, there is much to be said about the importance of this small Scripture verse.  The proof that it is an important piece of Scripture is evident by all of the usual and unusual places we find it; however, it’s up to us, my brothers and sisters, to decide how important this verse is in our own lives.  We know how much God loves us…do we, in return, love God even a fracture of that amount to devote our lives to serving Him?  Think about this and answer it in the silence of your own hearts. I can only hope and pray that your answer is the same as Joshua’s farewell address to Israel, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)  Amen.


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