by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
FREE ASSOCIATION is a funny thing: when I think of John 3:16, football is inevitably the first thing that comes to mind. The gridiron and God so loved the world — what gives? Maybe you remember seeing the man with the crazy colorful wig in the stands behind the goalposts at NFL games, holding up a sign that read “John 3:16” just as the ball sailed through the uprights for a score.
Now that “Tebowing” has become a verb for football fans, it seems that John 3:16 has made a comeback of sorts. When Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow played for the University of Florida Gators in the Jan. 8, 2009 BCS Championship Game at the Orange Bowl, he had “John” etched in the eye black under one eye, and “3:16” under the other. By the way, the Gators went on to defeat the Oklahoma Sooners by a score of 24-14 to take the BCS National Championship. During a press conference several months later, Tebow proudly announced that in the days following the big game, curious fans had googled John 3:16 more than 90 million times!
Last year the University of Florida unveiled a statue of Heisman Trophy winner Tebow along with statues of the Gators’ two other Heisman winners (Danny Wuerffel and Steve Spurrier, in case you’re curious), and the life-sized bronze likeness of Tebow depicts the quarterback wearing John 3:16 on his eye black just as he had during Florida’s BCS victory. By the way, when the Broncos defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime this January in an exciting AFC wildcard game, Tebow threw for 316 yards, averaging 31.6 yards per pass. No kidding!
During this season of Lent, we hear the well-known verse once again in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, the conclusion of Jesus’ memorable encounter with Nicodemus. Here it isn’t just about a big game. It’s about the big picture, the perennial question about the relationship between God and the world.
For some people — they’re called deists — God made the world and all that’s in it, and then left it up to its own devices. Like a craftsman who designs and builds a clock and then leaves it to itself to keep on ticking, such a God doesn’t interfere or intervene, but lets the laws of nature do their thing. For deists, there’s no such thing as divine revelation: we human beings are left to our own devices to figure things out as best we can. As for salvation, deists would suggest we should forget about it: when the clock stops ticking, it’s all over.
That’s not how Jesus sees it, and with good reason, because John’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus is God’s Word-made-flesh, the fullness of God’s self-disclosure in person. Unlike the distant, disinterested, divine clockmaker that deists imagine God to be, the true God, who is the Father of Jesus, loves the world audaciously enough to intervene in person, sending His Son (as Tebow’s favorite Bible verse tells us) “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
Discerning the Divine Plan
The Incarnation isn’t the exception that proves the rule. The Scriptures testify that God has been at work throughout human history, and people of faith have long been accustomed to scrutinizing the signs of the times to discern the divine plan at work in their daily lives.
Chronicles, from which this Sunday’s first reading is taken, surveys the big picture, the whole grand sweep of Israel’s history from the very beginning, starting with creation, taking a close hard look at that story as a drama of divine initiatives and human responses, of faith and of failure in the ebb and flow of God’s constant commitment to the covenant.
The Chronicler tells us that “Early and often did the Lord, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place” (2 Chronicles 36:15). Even when these messengers went unheeded, God did not let go. Even when the tragedy and trouble made it easy for people to lose sight of God, God did not lose sight of them, taking decisive action again and again through the ups and downs of history to rebuild and to restore, to bring hope and healing even under the direst of circumstances.
We are part of the big picture, part of God’s plan. That’s what we’re told in this Sunday’s reading from Ephesians. We’re not left on our own, since, as Paul reminds the Ephesians, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Even so, Paul reminds us that the life of faith is not a spectator sport: “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
With all its ups and downs, its joys and its sorrows, life is no game. It’s for keeps, and God grants victory to those who live the truth and seek the light.[hr] Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent:
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
John 3:14-21[hr] Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.