No terms and conditions on Jesus

(I preached this sermon in response to Number 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21. You can find the video of worship, including the sermon at www.ststephenlc.org)

If you are like our house, you get ads in the mail.  You are probably also familiar with all the ads on TV and on the radio.  And these days, you get ads on most websites you visit on the internet as well as in your inbox, and maybe even through texts.  

Ads try to catch our attention with something that sounds like a great deal.  Who doesn’t love a sale?  Especially on something that we either need or have been thinking about.  Even better is when we hear about a sale for something we haven’t even been considering – it starts to get us thinking about whether we want or need the service or product.  We can get excited about the possibilities all of a sudden.  

I just went through our pile of mail that we have thrown out over the last couple of weeks.  And I found a variety of ads.  All selling us on so many different things.  

We receive the Val Pack, and it’s loaded with all sorts of ads for a variety of things.  

Maybe you get the postcards.  Some are huge and you wonder how they fit in your mailbox. 

And some show up looking like a newspaper.  

But many have what is called the fine print.  It’s at the bottom of the page and printed with really small lettering.  Or it’s at the end of a spoken ad – said at the speed that an auctioneer would be jealous of.  It gives the details of the ads.  The terms and conditions.  Essentially, the fine print that lays out how the claims in the ads aren’t quite as good as they sound.  There are often restrictions.  

None of this shocking to us.  In fact, it’s quite common.  We hear or read an ad, and we’re already thinking about what the terms and conditions are, what the exclusions are.  

We have an eternal hope that somehow, we’re going to make out really good, forgetting that ads are just a way for a company to get you to part with your money for whatever service or product they have.  In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing.  It’s how businesses work and operate.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to get someone to buy something that is being sold.  And in most cases, what companies are selling is actually quite helpful to our lives – they make our lives more enjoyable, or efficient, or healthier, or help us to do something.  That’s a great thing.  

But those terms and conditions.  There’s a reason why they are in really small print or said really, really fast.  They diminish the sales pitch.  After we hear or read them, our enthusiasm for the service or product is often cut down a bit, sometimes quite a lot.  When we hear the terms and restrictions, the exceptions, qualifications, we start to see that what’s being offered is not so great.  

Imagine if God worked the same way.  Go back to Moses and the Israelites.  The people have a problem.  They are getting bitten by poisonous snakes after complaining – some are dying.  They recognize they have sinned again God and Moses.  And are looking for a way out.  Imagine if God used the same logic as some of the ads we have seen.  “Got a problem with poisonous snakes?  We’ve got your answer.”  And God goes on to tell Moses to make the poisonous serpent and put it on a pole and present it to people.  God thinks, hmm, I’ve got something really great here.  So, I’m going to offer healing for anyone who has been bitten.  But it’s going to come with a price and some conditions.  I’ll just put in the fine print.  

And so, Moses goes out and says, “Hey, you want to heal from that snake bite, sign here on the dotted line.  Some conditions apply, but don’t worry about that.  You need this product.  And the terms and conditions as the bottom of the page say something like this – You’ll need to sign up for the annual contract which includes sacrifice requirements, and this is really only a valid offer in the wilderness.  It’s only for new snake bites, and only for the poisonous snakes that were sent.  Other snake bites need not apply.  Payment by shekel can be made in advance with approved credit.  Great deal, huh?  

Or reimagine John 3 with the same kind of terms and conditions.  

John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  Hey look, there’s an asterisk at the end.  It’s really small.  Let me see what the fine print says.  

Terms and conditions.  Some restrictions apply.  Valid only in creation.  God loving the world not applicable to your enemies or those people that you don’t like, anyone your nation is at war with or has some hostility with, people of other religions, sexual orientations, or opposing political views.  See God for details.  

Such terms and conditions really kill the good news in either case doesn’t it?  Makes it less special.  A whole lot less good news.  It’s no longer proclamation of salvation.  It just turns into more of what we come to expect in the world – something that sounds too good to be true and the fine print shows that what is offered is not really all that great.  

But that’s not how faith works.  There’s no asterisk in the scripture.  For God so loved the world doesn’t come with an exception clause.  It doesn’t come with qualifications.  It doesn’t include extra fees.  No fine print.  And the only terms and conditions that apply are that Jesus has done all the heavy lifting for us.  He’s taken care of the terms and conditions.  He’s ripped up the fine print and offered us something incredible.  And he delivers.  Every time.  

But this can be really upsetting to people.  We’re so used to terms and conditions, to the fine print, that we aren’t sure what to do when we really grasp that the fine print doesn’t apply to Jesus and to faith.  Some folks really struggle with this.  This is the challenge of the message of grace.  There’s no paying for it.  There’s no earning it.  There’s nothing we can do to deserve it.  We so desperately want Jesus to work the same way everything else does – I pay money and I get something in return.  A transaction.  

When grace is proclaimed, our natural inclination is to put an asterisk beside it and create the terms and conditions.  It’s just too good of news.  There has to be some restrictions and qualifications.  We have to make it something less than what it is because that’s what we are hit with in every other area of our lives.  But that’s not how Jesus works though. 

Jesus offers us something incredible – with no hook.  No certain conditions apply.  No monthly contracts, no exclusion of salvation services.  No specific locations.  Everyone’s credit is good enough.  

The good news in this is that Jesus isn’t like the world and what the world offers. And the kingdom doesn’t operate like the world does either.  Jesus loves us – and it’s a love that doesn’t make sense.  It’s a love that is completely vulnerable.  It’s a love that goes beyond what we are capable of offering.  And we may even have trouble receiving or accepting it because it is something that we don’t receive from the world – we aren’t used to it.  It’s a love that breaks through barriers and is willing to go to great lengths for us.  All the way to the point of death and beyond.  To risk being rejected and still to love us anyway.  

If God truly loves the world in that kind of vulnerable way, think about what that means.  That means that God loves you and me – without exception.  Even when we do things that push God away.  It means that God loves all people – even the ones that do things that are terrible.  God loves our enemies as much as God loves us.  That can be a tough pill to swallow because it’s unfair.  God’s love though is unfair.  And that’s a good thing – a great thing.  Because if it was fair, we wouldn’t receive it – we wouldn’t deserve it.  

Lent is a time in which we intentionally examine our relationship with Jesus.  When we look at the times we try to put ourselves in the place of Jesus, when we try to dictate to Jesus what he can and cannot do, what he has a say in and what he must stay out of in our lives, and who God loves and who God should hate.  We aren’t God, but we are loved by God.  

For God so loved the world doesn’t have an asterisk.  No terms and conditions.  No qualifiers.  No fine print.  No for a limited time either.  Only an incredible offer of salvation and love for everyone.  You can bank on that.  Amen. 

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