Back in the 1980s, there was a controversial guy who attended as many major league sporting events in the USA as he could fit into a year’s schedule. He was not there to cheer for his favorite baseball or football team; his mission was to wave a large homemade sign which simply read:
As I was writing today’s Christmas-themed column based on this Bible verse, I decided to learn more about the determined and dedicated sign-waver. Rollen Stewart was born in 1945 in Spokane, Washington, and grew up in a dysfunctional home. Later, he found religion as a “born-again Christian” and felt called to share his new faith through displaying a sign where it would be best seen by millions of television viewers. (All biographical information is from Wikipedia.)
Supporters presumably donated tickets for Stewart to sit in expensive stadium and arena seats. He placed himself strategically behind goal posts or backboards for maximum exposure. In later life, Stewart fell into serious troubles, mostly of his own making and then disappeared from public view. Among the many postings which followed his story were a number of puzzled writers who had no idea what “John 3:16” was. This best-known Bible passage was obviously a mystery to many in our growing post-Christian North American world.
While that 1980s messenger is gone, the message remains …
“For God so loved the world that he gave … ”
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent in the church year calendar. From many pulpits across our region, the theme will be about “love.” If you will forgive a well-worn cliché, one can give without loving but one cannot love without giving.
I was recently in my local pharmacy. At check out, the young woman asked if I wanted to round up the amount I spent to support a children’s toy drive. Without pausing to care about where the little bit of extra change was going, I automatically said “Yes”. One can easily choose to give, or not, … without needing to feel love for the recipient of the gift. Think of large offices where a routine practice may be to “pass the hat” to buy a retirement gift for a colleague whom you barely know. You give to be polite but not out of love.
The message of the first few words of John 3:16 is that love is always interwoven with giving. God loved and so He gave. In your own life, can you think of separating the two acts? At Christmas we might give presents to some folks we don’t have to love. But for those for whom we deeply care, we are impelled by love to give a gift. We cannot not give. If you do not instinctively want to give in a personal relationship, perhaps it is one not bathed in love. But one can still choose from other giving motives — kindness, tradition or habit.
In 2022, what if we moved John 3:16 beyond those commercialized gift-buying occasions of Christmas or birthdays? For those we deeply and unconditionally love, any day of the year is the right time to give — gifts of our caring, of our time, our support, our words, our practical acts of helping. Jesus’ message perfectly reflected God’s love in his own personal relationships. His words encourage us to share those love gifts we keep in our possession. By doing so, we shall find ourselves in living that abundant fullness of life that John describes in his Gospel. In our troubled world, this will be a far better demonstration of the loving/giving connection inherent in close relationships than noted in Rollen Stewart’s lonely sign.
I wish each of my readers a holiday season of rest and renewed hope, peace, joy—and love. Merry Christmas!