A friend told me of an elderly woman who spoke a brief but powerful message at his church. She stood at the pulpit and said, “I would like to read a verse in the Bible you have probably never heard – It’s John 3:16.” Everyone laughed, since that verse is one of the most well known verses in Scripture. Sunday school children can rattle it off by memory with lighting speed. The people thought, “She’s joking; John 3:16 is the verse held up behind the goalposts, for heaven’s sake; of course we’ve heard it.” Undeterred, the woman began to read: “For God so loved the world, that He gave…” But at that point in her reading, her throat became constricted, there was a catch in her voice, and she had to stop to pull herself together. She inhaled that jerky breath of intense sorrow. Her eyes rimmed red. She started again: “For God so loved the world that He…. (sob)… that He gave… (silent pause, clearing of throat)… He gave His one and only Son…” At that point she could not go on. Her chest was heaving as she tried to take control of her emotions. A tear snaked its way down her cheek. She leaned over and fiercely glared at the text in the Bible, unsuccessfully willing herself to stop weeping. And then, one by one, people in the congregation began to weep with her. They began to “hear” this verse and to understand the profound generosity and the horrible cost represented by those simple words: “He gave His one and only Son.” Soon the whole congregation was gripped by the shocking enormity conveyed in that verse. Tears flowed, noses were blown. The old woman just waited. And then, she closed her Bible and sat back down. They had “heard” it.
How can God be loving and forgiving and at the same time be perfectly just? How can He forgive our sins without also demanding the just punishment for them? He gradually revealed to Isaiah what He would do to reconcile the apparent conflict between perfect love and perfect justice. He told Isaiah:
“…For unto us a child is born, to us a Son is given…” (Isaiah 9:6a)
The word, given, means given over. Like a mother who stands by the bus and gives her son over to basic training. In the marriage ceremony, the pastor asks, “Who gives this woman…” The parents let go of their child and give her over. Young women make the heroic choice to bear a child, and then, knowing their own inability to provide for that child, give him over for adoption. Gifts, in the truest sense, have no strings. They are given over, forever. In giving His Son, God takes His hands off, removes His shield of protection. He gives Jesus – to us.
God gave Jesus over to whatever would happen to Him in this world. You know what happened. In that Gift, God accomplished love and justice.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)