You may have heard that we are living in an age of incredibly shrinking attention span. A 2016 survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found. Although, I don’t know how they determined a goldfish’s attention span… I will take their word for it.
Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”
One commentary puts it this way, “Putting aside Microsoft’s self-interest in promoting quick-flash digital ads with what may be junk science, there seems little doubt that our devices have rewired our brains. We think in McNugget time. The trash flows, unfiltered, along with the relevant stuff, in an eternal stream. And the last hit of dopamine only accelerates the need for another one.”
This reality is evident in the increased use of social media outlets such as twitter. For those of you who don’t use Twitter, and I join you there, one unique aspect of Twitter is that you can only use 140 CHARACTERS OR FEWER – and this is what makes it powerful.
As a person who strives to be a good writer has always been a reader of literature, I have wondered how the writers of history would feel about Twitter. Writers who used long, complex sentences with full descriptions and expression of thought. Hemmingway probably would have loved Twitter. He could have written a whole book in one tweet storm. Dickens would have hated it. Melville would have hated it. Mark Twain would have made fun of it, but he probably would have been creative with it. Shakespeare would have seen it as a challenge. It likely would have depressed Sylvia Plath and offended James Joyce. Writers who are worth their weight are careful with their words, they do not plant them in the ground without knowing what will grow from them. I don’t think anyone who writes worries about whether or not someone will be able to keep their attention through their writing. And yet we live in a time when we have to work harder to keep our attention on one thing long enough to grasp the concept, hold the thought and come to a greater understanding. In other words, our attention may have shortened, but the time it takes to fully grasp a concept has not.
And this got me thinking – if we had to tweet the message of the Bible, what would we say?
If you were going to tell someone who didn’t have the attention span to read the Bible, or sit through a 14 minute sermon, without checking their phone, what would the message of the Gospel is, you may summarize it in these fourteen words – “For God So loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him, will not perish but have eternal life.” Even Martin Luther called this the Gospel in miniature.
This is often the first Bible verse that people learn and it is often used to summarize the whole Gospel. It’s so familiar, I think we think just because we know it by heart, we understand what it means. – Or at least we think we should understand what Jesus means. But if Jesus tweeted this out to the world and that was all we had, we might be able to interpret the passage based on our own context and need. That is called proof texting and it can be harmful.
So, let’s widen the lens a bit here and see if we can more fully understand what it happening. First, this scripture passage is spoken to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a prominent Pharisees who knew his old testament well. Widening out a bit more, Jesus had just made a spectacle of himself in the temple. He had just turned over the tables and called out the Pharisees as hypocrites. In the late hours of the night, Nicodemus comes in secret to try to understand who Jesus is and what he’s about. He comes with a question and the question is,
“ Rabbi—you must be someone very important because of all these wonderful acts you are performing—to turn water into wine. No one could do that without supernatural power.”
Jesus’ answers, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, or born again.”
Nicodemus is a literalist and he just can’t see how a middle age man is going to be born again. Frederick Buechner has a little fun with Nicodemus’ literalism, and has him ask, “Just how are you supposed to pull a thing like that off when you are pushing sixty-five?
Nicodemus defines faith as keeping the law. He’s an expert at it. You live up to God’s expectations by living a good, pure, moral life. And he can’t see the new reality in front of his eyes, can’t give himself to newness and hopefulness. “Are you a teacher and you cannot understand?” Jesus asks him.
And then John, writing this all down, adds an editorial comment, does a little preaching.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
Now, I have often read and interpreted this passage as saying, For God so loved the world, as if to say God loved the world “this much.” Like a parent saying to a child, I love you sooo much. But that is not the correct translation. What he means is God loves the world in this way. Look back a verse and see the reference to Moses and the staff and the snake and what happened to the people and in the same way that Moses lifted up the snake, so does Jesus lift up and love the world. Now, what was happening in that Old Testament story that Nicodemus would have taken to memory?
Well the people were worshipping false idols, they were sinning right and left, they had lost there way, and so Moses shows them their sin and gives them the ability to repent and begin again, in the same way, Jesus will be lifted up on a cross that all the world may look upon it, see their sin, repent and begin, or be born again. To be born again means to have a rebirth and start over. To be free of sin. And here’s the other important piece – and the piece I’d like for you to mull over – Jesus did not go to the cross and die for your death, he came for your life. Our salvation in Jesus Christ isn’t something that happens once, or at the end of life it happens every day we recognized that we are saved, loved, called, named, healed, claimed by him.
For God so loved the world. Now just sit in that for a minute, and don’t devour it, but let it rest on your tongue. Like the bread you will take in a moment to remember that Jesus died for you. Just let that soak in that, that every animal, every child, every tree, every flower, all of creation God loves the world – the entire cosmos. All animate and inanimate elements of the created order. There is nothing outside the love of God. "For God so loved the world (the cosmos). God is not some distant mystic being, but right in the thick things.
Some lines of G. A. Studdert Kennedy I read recently remind us of how close God is - "As far as meaning is from ·speech, As beauty from a rose, As far as music is from sound, As poetry from prose, As far as art from cleverness,, As painting is from paints, As far as signs from sacraments, As Pharisees from saints, As far as love from friendship is, As reason is from truth, As far as laughter is from joy, And early years from youth, As far as love from shining eyes, As passion from a kiss
So far is God from God's ·green earth that world from this.”
Preacher Robert Young wrote a sermon in 1981 at Duke Chapel, and he said,
There are times in my life when it is important for me to know that God loves the world. There are other times when I couldn’t care less whether God ·loves the world. What I really want to know is that God loves me! There is a part of me th says it is important to know that God loves the world. There is another part of me that says, I don't give a damn whether or not God loves the world.
What I really want to know--what each one of us wants to know is that God loves me.
We need to know that we are loved, and not condemned, and God knows there is plenty of condemnation in the world. I know lots of people who need a word of grace, who need a word of hope, who need a word of forgiveness, who need a word of love, who need a word to make them whole.
Do not be distracted by the voices and messages that deter you from this message that you are savable, redeemable and loveable. You are worthy of God’s love.
Will you stand, please.
Repeat these words after me, will you?
''For God so loved the world/that he gave his only Son/that whoever believes in him/should not perish/ but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world,
/not to condemn the world/ but that the world through him might be saved."
"For God so loved the people of the world/that he gave his only Son/that whoever believes in him/should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son to us/not to condemn us/but that through the Son/we all might be made whole."
And that is the Gospel truth!