Circle of love

By December 6, 2021Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

Circle of love, by the Rev. Joel Boyd

Edited & formatted for publication by J. Tucker, MPH
 September 19, 2021


Numbers 21:4-9 (NRSV)1

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So, Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.


When you throw the boomerang out it curves around and makes its way back to you, just where it started. In our families, we are children, teens, and then adults; perhaps we marry and raise children of our own, and in time, we pass on all that we have learned to the next generation. And the circle turns round again.

In the Gospel [according to] John, in the amazing, treasured passage from the third chapter (Jn. 3:17-21), what we see is a picture of how much God loves us and how much God desires for us to love and to return to God.

This beautiful picture of God’s love is a bit like a circle: all begins with God as the source, and by God’s great love, all ends with God, according to God’s infinite compassion and grace.

First, even at the very beginning, God loves. God makes all things, including us, and God loves us, God’s creation. And God loves us so much that God wants us to be with God, to live according to God’s will and God’s ways. Throughout the Bible, we witness how God continually reaches out to God’s people. Whenever they may be seen to try to go it alone, or to think they’ve got better plans, well, God intervenes and calls them back. And God’s main thrust here is not one of anger, or judgment, or of a desire to cause harm. No, much to the contrary, the main thrust of God’s action throughout the [scriptures] is that God continually pursues God’s people, desiring their return to faithfulness. Interestingly, note this is not sameness, or the absence of change, but rather, faithfulness, which may be discerned by God in ways that are relevant to any time in which God’s people live.

God goes to great lengths to deliver God’s people; be it from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, from the brokenness of tyrannical kings, or from the idol of praising themselves, God continues to reach out to God’s people by God’s great love and mercy. And we witness this most supremely in the testimony of John when he shows how God sent God’s one and only son, Jesus the Christ, to accomplish our ultimate return to God’s embrace. [With] Jesus, nothing comes between us and our loving God.

God loves, and God gives. God gives us Jesus for our hearts to be restored to God. By the gift of faith in our hearts, we believe in Jesus, and inherit eternal life in God’s kingdom. And amazingly, the Bible shows time and time again how God does not discriminate between God’s people. Sisters and brothers from all backgrounds and walks of life receive the call to serve. In today’s passage, we witness how Jesus responds to the inquiry of Nicodemus, a Pharisee (Jn. 3:1). While we might give Nicodemus a hard time about being so undercover in the way he approaches Jesus, we must acknowledge that he was indeed a Pharisee. God gave Jesus to children, to those suffering from illness and being ostracized, so many of whom were likely kept on the margins of society in that time. Women receive the gift and are even present at the resurrection.

And yet, while all of these received the gift of Jesus during his earthly ministry, many more did in the years following his resurrection and ascension. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s gift of love was granted to the Gentiles, causing a stir among the [early] Jewish Christians. Again, God calls us to faithfulness, not sameness. Stephen, among the first called deacons in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:5), Stephen was called to share the gift of Jesus in stunning ways to the people, so much so that he drew attention to himself. Leaders of the day were not pleased by Stephen’s teachings or behavior, but he lived out his call extending from the gift God gave to him.

Perhaps among the most surprising of those to receive God’s gift of love in Jesus the Christ is the Apostle Paul [of Tarsus]. Many will remember that before he came to faith in Jesus, Paul was among those who persecuted early Christians. Just imagine that after his conversion, Paul would go on to plant many churches in a time when travel was difficult and be guided by the Spirit to write a great deal of the [Second] Testament, all of which, it should be noted, comes in the form of correspondence to new churches.

God loves, and God gives that we may believe. Jesus Christ, our Lord, and Savior became human and dwelled among us. His earthly ministry came as loving, teaching, healing, guiding, and leading us to salvation, according to God’s plan.

In our passage this morning, the writer of John’s gospel reminds us that Jesus was not sent to condemn, but rather to save the world (Jn. 3:17). Again, the main thrust of God’s action is that of love, giving, and as we witness by the Gospel when God expresses God’s love and gives, God’s people are restored by faith: they believe. Yet in Jesus, we are not simply returned to one of many paths; by Jesus the Christ, we are restored to the path of God’s righteousness. You see, it is God who remains as God. We, however, change, adapt, and are relevant to the times in which God has blessed us to be in, and so our charge is not to dig in our heels and demand the old ways, the sameness of “this is how we always have done things.” Instead, our charge is to change to remain faithful. When we take a bird’s eye view of the Bible, what we see is that God is continually loving, giving, and calling God’s people to faith, all the while including and welcoming those who may be seen as different or on the outside by the world. Scripture shows us, Jesus shows us that we are called to be relevant. Faithfulness will look different today in 2021 than it did in the 1980s, 1950s, 1800s, the time of the Separatist pilgrims, Reformation, and even the early Church. Sure, our prayers, sacraments, music, and teachings may continue to take root in scripture. But does our service still look the same as in the churches Paul wrote to? Indeed, we need look no further than our pilgrim forebears, when they left the conformity of the Church of England, they were most certainly making a change if even to return to a Christian life they found to be more soundly rooted in the Bible.

Now rounding the bend of that circle, we have the beautiful, good news of the Gospel. God loves, God gives Jesus so that we may believe, and by our belief, we are restored to wholeness, completeness in and with the God who has always loved us, always called us home.

Friends, in this blessed circle of love, we are called to do as our great God shows us through Jesus: we are called to love, to give, to believe, and to be restored.

So how can we inhabit this circle of love today? What kind of choices can we make to love, give, believe, and be restored?

Well, the writers of John’s gospel show us that Jesus did not come to condemn, but that he came to save. And while we certainly can see that Jesus is operating on a level way beyond our abilities, maybe we can focus on this circle of love. Maybe we can be inspired to include and to welcome people in the ways the Father had done and in how Jesus in his humanity had done. And let’s remember that these were radical ways of inclusion. God the Father sent God’s prophet Jonah to preach to the Ninevites and they changed course even though Jonah didn’t like it. Jesus spent time among people on the margins of society, healing them, yes, but also simply being with them. Jesus was even present to a criminal dying on the cross next to him, not just listening to him, but including, welcoming him into the coming kingdom (Lk. 23:43). Friends, it may be that among the very last things Jesus did before dying on the cross was to include someone who was perhaps the most outcast and written off by the broader culture. So, Jesus’s coming to save did not center on big shots, those with power, or condescending elites. It centered on those the world did not.

If we take it from there, how can we, as a church and as individuals, love and give in ways that include those on the margins? Aside from pointing towards and worshipping God, it’s the primary action of Jesus, so perhaps it’s also the primary action of the church around the world.

Sisters and brothers, I believe it is no mistake that what we’ve gleaned from this famous passage of the fourth Gospel also speaks to the “Greatest Commandment” shared by Jesus himself in the Gospel according to Matthew. When asked by an expert in the Law—that is, Halakha—to try to trip him up, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (See the Shema in Deut. 6:5.) This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37)

May the daily life of our faith be rooted in God’s call to love, give, believe, and be restored. By our love of God and one another, we participate in the circle of love, a circle that includes all people.

May it be so. AMEN.


  1. Society of Biblical Literature. The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated. (Meeks WA, Bassler JM, Lemke W, Niditch S, Schuller E, Attridge HW, eds.). HarperCollins; 2006.