One summer Sunday morning, the nine-person choir moved to the center of the chancel in our Maine island Methodist chapel, and the piano sounded the opening chords of John Stainer’s “God So Loved the World.” I couldn’t help but groan inwardly. In over fifty years of ministry, I have heard this potentially lovely piece sung poorly more times than I can remember. With such a small and relatively untrained choir, I suspected I was in for yet another disappointment. But there was something about that rendition: the voices were few but fine, the conductor worked to bring out the underlying tenderness of both the music and the words, and my own needy spirit responded to the sheer, transparent simplicity of it all. I experienced a genuine encounter with the good news of the gospel, the real presence of our risen Lord.
In today’s high-speed, high-tech world oriented toward entertainment and commerce, we encounter the most famous verse from today’s reading as a brand name, an advertising slogan. We meet it on a billboard beside the highway, a sign held up at a sporting event: JOHN 3:16. But this brief passage captures the essence of our faith, our unique Christian story. It cries out to be read, heard, and sung slowly, richly, and meditatively. Stainer’s piece, when performed well, is powerful because it doesn’t shout at you or sweep you away on a tidal wave of sound. There are times to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus,” but here at the center, the heart, where the truth of all ages, the deepest secret of past and future is finally spoken, we find a time to speak and sing gently with an eternal tenderness, in a way that embraces all who hear.
Renew for me, my Savior, the grace, the wonder, and the promise of your words. I want to rest in their gentle power. Amen.
The readings for this week provide an overview of the history of God’s people. Genesis recounts the story of Abraham, who because of his great faith leaves his home and goes to a land that God has promised to show him. The psalmist speaks for the descendants of Abraham, who trust in the Lord to watch over them and be their helper. Paul in Romans argues against those who believe that God’s grace is a result of correctly following religious law. It is Abraham’s faith (for there is no law in Abraham’s time) that prompts him to follow God, and for this he is commended. Both Gospel passages (John and Matthew) emphasize that the story of Jesus is the continuation of a relationship with God’s faithful people that began with Abraham.
Read Genesis 12:1-4a. Recall a major and a minor crossroads in your life. How did you listen for God’s call during each time?
Read Psalm 121. Reflect on the times in your life when this psalm has most strongly resonated with you. How do your strongest emotions point you to God’s presence?
Read Romans 4:1-5, 13-17. What motivates you to do good works? How do you balance “faith alone” and the action to which God calls you?
Read John 3:1-17. How do you hear again the powerful words of verses so familiar they permeate culture? What makes these words fresh for you?
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