“For God so loved the world.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
I’m going to begin my sermon this morning with a very unusual quotation. Here it is: “I saw a woman today who finally became as hard as wood all over.” Those words were written by a French physician in 1692, the first clinical description of a rare disease known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, or FOP. This disease affects the connective tissue between the bones, things like muscles, ligaments, and tendons, causing them to become ossified, or turned into bone, when damaged. In some cases injuries can cause joints to become permanently frozen in place. Perhaps the best known FOP case is that of Harry Eastlack. He began to show signs of the disease around the age of ten, and by the time of his death from pneumonia in November 1973 (six days before his fortieth birthday), his body had completely ossified, leaving him able to move only his lips.
The rogue gene that causes FOP has one goal in mind and that is to harden the entire body. Well, as tragic as this disease is, the Bible speaks of another disease with similar language that’s even more tragic. And that is the hardening not of the body, but of the heart. The stiffening not of the neck, but of the will. Listen to some of these verses that describe this disease: Deut. 10:16 says “Cleanse your sinful hearts and stop being stubborn.” 2 Chronicles 30:8 says “Do not be stiff-necked, as your fathers were; submit to the LORD.” Twice in the book of Hebrews we are told to not harden our hearts. Stubborn; stiff-necked; hard-hearted – can the soul, like the body, ossify? Can the heart, like the skeleton, fossilize?
We know the answer to those questions, don’t we? In fact, we know it all too well because we’ve felt our own hearts get hard with anger, haven’t we? We’ve felt our own necks stiffen with stubbornness. We know how hard we can get at times. And we know that God knows how hard we can get at times. Which makes us appreciate so much the passage of Scripture that we’re currently studying in a sermon series I have entitled “The Gospel in a Nutshell.” The passage is, of course, John 3:16. We’re working through this verse pretty well word by word, though some of the less important words like “for” and “the” we won’t be talking about. But when I started this series 3 weeks ago we looked at the word “God” and really the next one in line is the word “loved” – “God so loved the world.” But I really don’t think we can appreciate God’s love until we discover the object of his love. For that reason, this morning we’re going to leapfrog the verb “loved” and instead look at the noun, “world.”
So what is this world that God loves so much? When he looks at our planet, what exactly does he see? To answer that question, I want to take you to the book of Exodus where we will find, first of all, the picture of a hard heart.
Listen to the words of God as he speaks to Moses in Exodus 32:9: “I look at these people – oh! what a stubborn, hard-headed people!” Those words were spoken by God when he looked down from the top of Mt. Sinai and saw his chosen people, the Israelites, worshiping a golden calf and doing other unthinkable things. These were the very same people who had witnessed a millennium of miracles in just a short period of time back in Egypt. They had seen the Nile River become blood and the noontime sky become dark as night. They saw the Red Sea become the red carpet for them. And then they saw that same sea turn the pursuing Egyptian army into fish bait as it came crashing back upon them. They had witnessed one miracle after another. Manna came with the morning dew. Quail inundated their camp in the evening providing them with more than enough meat to eat. It was like God had given them a front row seat in the theater of his miracle-working majesty.
But when they reached Mt. Sinai in the middle of the desert, Moses was called up to the top of that mountain for a summit meeting with God. And for the first time since they left Egypt the Israelites were left alone. Now you would think that after all they had witnessed from the hand of God, they’d be ok for a few days. You’d think they wouldn’t panic. But you know what they did. They grabbed Aaron, Moses’ brother who had been left in charge, and said: “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” And you know what happened next. Aaron complied. And before you could say “The cow jumped over the moon,” those Israelites were on their faces before the image of a golden calf, worshiping it, claiming that this was the god that had brought them out of Egypt.
There’s a term we could use to describe such irrational and insane behavior. We could call it “udderly foolish.” Of course, we don’t do that kind of stuff, do we? We’re much too sophisticated to bow before a calf-shaped idol, right? So we don’t turn to a statue for help, but we do turn to other things like a bottle of alcohol or a gambling casino or an immoral relationship. And though we don’t seek comfort from the image of some farm animal, there may have been times when we have been known to binge on food or shopping or Internet pornography. And when we do those things that unfortunately have become all too common in our day and age, even among Christian people, that marks the beginning of a hard heart. Soon we find ourselves resisting God, ignoring God, maybe even running from God. Though he gives us sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset, friend after friend, blessing after blessing, that’s not enough. So we pursue all these other modern day golden calves and our hearts become hard, stubborn, resistant to God, just like happened with the Israelites.
Which takes us to the 2nd point that we need to look at this morning. We’ve seen the picture of a hard heart. Now let us examine the product of a hard heart. What does a hard heart ultimately lead to? Well, in Romans 1 the Apostle Paul answers that question for us when he describes the product of a hard heart in very graphic terms. After presenting a persistent pattern of resistance to God that some people had demonstrated and that had resulted in increasing hardness and stubbornness on their part, Paul says in vv.29-32: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” Wow! That’s not just a description of the product of a hard heart. That’s a description of modern man today, isn’t it? And that is why our world is in the mess it’s in because hard hearts ruin lives. They ruin families. They ruin societies. They ruin churches. Hard hearts lead to chaos: personal chaos, domestic chaos, cultural chaos, moral chaos, and spiritual chaos.
Recently I came across a story that illustrates the product of a hard heart. It’s about a woman who lived on a farm. One day she found that one of their cows had stuck its nose into a can and that can was now securely fastened to that cows’ nose. Now you don’t have to be a veterinarian to know that a can on a cow’s nose is not a good thing. The cow won’t be able to eat well or drink well or breathe well. So when this farm wife saw this cow with a can on its nose, she did what any of us would have done. She tried to rescue the cow. She tried to get that can off its nose. But when the cow saw her coming to help, guess what it did? It ran away. So she kept pursuing the cow, but the cow kept running.
What made this even more problematic was that the cow had a calf. Consequently the calf was suffering because of the stubbornness of its mom. So this farm wife kept pursuing the cow all day long. And the next day. And the 3rd day. It took 3 days, recruited family members, and pick-ups with ropes to finally corner that cow so that one of them could snatch that can from its nose.
Have you run into any people like that lately? People whom God is trying to help, wanting to help, longing to help, but because their hearts are hard and their necks are stiff and their wills are stubborn, they run the other way. Maybe their marriage is in shambles or their finances are a wreck. Maybe their spiritual life which was once vibrant and active has been in a state of deterioration and decline for far too long. And though God is reaching out to them, though he is saying to them, “You know, I can help you with that,” they turn a deaf ear to him and like that cow, they try to make it on their own.
Well, with the image of that cow with that can on its nose in your mind, try multiplying that by, say, 7½ billion – the number of people that inhabit this planet. For then you get a picture of the world, the world that God loves. “For God so loved the world – yes, this hard-hearted, stubborn, stiff-necked world – that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Amazing, isn’t it? Even when we turn from him, even when we stick our noses where they shouldn’t be, he still loves us. He still pursues us. Sounds to me like that’s a God worth getting to know better, don’t you agree? Which brings us to our final point.
So far we’ve looked at the picture of a hard heart and the product of a hard heart. Let’s wrap things up by looking at the prescription for a hard heart. What’s the best way to treat a hard heart? I have 3 quick suggestions for you. First of all, remember what God has done for you. A short memory leads to a hard heart, doesn’t it? That’s what happened to the Israelites after they left Egypt. They quickly forgot the great things God had done for them and just as quickly developed a pattern of grumbling and complaining and rebellion that ultimately led God to become so upset with them that none of those who left Egypt, except for faithful Joshua and Caleb, were allowed to enter the Promised Land. So remember what God has done for you, especially what he has done for you through his Son Jesus Christ, through whom all the treasures and joys of heaven can one day be yours.
Then secondly, remember what you have done to God. And if you can’t think of anything that you’ve done to hurt him or offend him, I would suggest that you look in the mirror. Not your bathroom mirror, but rather the mirror of God’s law. Do an honest and thorough examination and assessment of your life in the light of the 10 Commandments and you will see all too clearly those times in your life when you failed miserably to live up to his expectations. And yet in spite of that, he still loves you. So let his love tenderize and sensitize your heart to his leading and to his will.
So remember what God has done for you. Remember what you have done to God. And then lastly, remember to give your heart to God. If your children have ever played with Play-Do, you’ve probably run into the same problem most parents have. No matter how many times you tell them to put the lid on those containers, they forget or they fail to get it on properly. And you know what happens to that Play-Do that has been exposed to the air and atmosphere too long. It gets hard, doesn’t it? It gets crusty and stiff, just like our hearts sometimes get when exposed to the atmosphere around us. Well, when that would happen with my daughters’ Play-Do years ago, guess what they would do? They would bring it to me. Why? Because my hands were bigger and stronger than theirs. And I could rub that Play-Do and massage it, maybe add a little water to it, and I could make it soft and pliable again.
Well, guess what? God can do the same with a hard heart if we’ll just stop running from him and really and truly give him our heart. Would you do that, my friends? I hope so because we live in a hard world, don’t we? But I do hope that if there’s one message you take home with you from this sermon today, it is this: We may live in a hard world, but thanks to God, we don’t have to live with a hard heart.