John 3:14-17
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 26, 2017

He didn’t notice his self-contradictory message, the man who lamented to a psychologist, “Doc, I have to tell you how much I suffer from low-esteem – and how much I don’t deserve it!”

Most of us think quite highly of ourselves. Most of us think we can handle our challenges and build ourselves a pretty good life whatever happens. Most of us trust in our capabilities. Most of us hope in ourselves. Should we? Is this confident self-reliance in fact warranted?

One wonders, especially in light of our tendency to see ourselves and our prospects in an unrealistically flattering light. We overestimate our positive qualities and underestimate our negative ones.

Numerous research studies have revealed our propensity to inflate how well we’re doing in our conduct and character. For instance, when researchers asked a million high school students how good they were at getting along with their peers, next to none of the students rated themselves below average, 60% rated themselves in the top 10%, and 25% more rated themselves in the top 1%.

You’d think teachers might have more realistic perceptions of themselves, but they also in self-evaluation are biased to their own favor. Only 2% believed themselves below average; while 10% believed themselves average; 63%, above average; and an additional 25% more, “truly exceptional”. This is of course statistically impossible.

One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he or she is better than the average person.” One analyst noted we assume the best about ourselves, deny the worst, and think ourselves better than we really are.

Here’s another example of our tendency to exercise wishful thinking about ourselves and exaggerate our good qualities: The dating website, OkCupid, asks users a number of questions. One of them used to be, “Are you a genius?” Two in five people – and nearly half the men – said that, Yes, they are extraordinarily brilliant. You know something is wrong when 50% of men think they’re geniuses!

Not only do we overestimate our positive qualities; we turn a blind eye to our negative ones. A recent New York Times piece reported that, while two thirds of Americans view the typical American as selfish, less than a fifth of Americans view themselves as selfish.

Given our penchant to overstate our strengths and to minimize our weaknesses, why do we hang such hope on the capacities of self-help? Shouldn’t we hold back on some of our trust in ourselves, in light of the flattering delusions of our ego?

While some of us can achieve more than the rest of us, the Bible says that all of us lack what it takes to attain life at its best. The Bible says that, to fulfill the greatest possibilities for life, we all need help from outside of ourselves. We all need to rely on someone other than ourselves to reach our full potential.

Jesus, the Son of God who preferred to refer to Himself as “the Son of Man”, says that He came to be our Help and our Hope. Recalling the story of how, when many Israelites were dying from an infestation of aggressive poisonous snakes, Moses lifted up on a pole a bronze serpent, that the people might look upon it with faith in God and be saved, Jesus says here that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” – eternal life being a better life which leads to heaven but whose better life is a present possession even before heaven.

In His speaking of His being “lifted up”, Jesus is certainly thinking of His being lifted up on the cross at His crucifixion, but very likely also of His being lifted up from His grave at His resurrection and of His being lifted up from earth at His ascension. Be that at it may, Jesus is urging us to look, not to ourselves, but to Him, in order to be saved and to enjoy life in its full abundance.

The help and hope Jesus offers are for anyone who realizes self-help cannot do what Jesus-help can and hangs their highest hopes on Him. The help that Jesus is in Himself is something, verse 16 says, that God “gave” for the sake of “the world”: that is, for everyone no matter how helpless or hopeless they may be. The love behind this giving is so inclusive, so universal, that it opens the way for even the worst of us to escape “perishing” and to experience “eternal life”, to escape condemnation and to experience salvation!

We receive this gift if only we believe in Jesus – that is, if only we put our hope in Him. He blesses us with this better life even when this troubled world hits us hard.

About twenty years ago, Nancy Guthrie had just about everything: a happy marriage, a beautiful son, a successful career in publishing, good health and good reason to think she could handle whatever life threw at her. When, however, she gave birth to her daughter, tragedy knocked her off her feet and showed her the impotence of self-help for getting back up again. It brought her to the end of herself and made it clear there was no hope for her apart from a power and a benevolence from beyond herself.
Her baby girl, whom her husband David and she had decided ahead of time to name Hope, had club feet, extreme lethargy and an inability to suck, among other problems. Hope had a fatal condition called Zeilweger Syndrome, for which there is no treatment or cure, and from which most babies die within six months. There was nothing, Nancy and David thought, to be hopeful about.

As the weeks passed, the grieving got heavier, the pain got sharper, the work got harder, and Hope got sicker. Then, in her seventh month, little Hope died.

Because genetics made it highly likely any other child of theirs would have the disease, the Guthries decided that David would have a vasectomy, a surgery that put their chances of conceiving a baby again at less than one in two-thousand. But one year after Hope died, the nearly impossible happened, and Nancy was pregnant once more. And prenatal testing confirmed their worst fears: this new child also had Zeilweger syndrome. Nancy could only say, “We often cannot see the hidden purposes of God, but we can determine to be faithful and keep walking toward Him in the darkness.”

When little Gabriel was born, Nancy and David knew what to expect. His first day would be his best.

Gabriel’s last day was his 183rd; and, if it had not been for the Lord’s being a very present help in trouble, and very real pledge of hope, it would have been Nancy’s last day as well.

Nancy says that prior to the question “Why?” is the question “What?” What do I believe about God? What can I hope for, given His loving faithfulness and power, and His promise to work in all things for good? What can I do through Him that I could never do on my own? What possibilities of endurance and triumph at last are mine because of a friendship with Jesus?

Nancy has in her hard life found answers to those tough questions. She says, “I’ve experienced one of the worst things that can happen, and I haven’t found that I am strong and that I can handle it. But I have found out God’s promise is true; His grace is sufficient.” Nancy has found hope…hope in Jesus to see her through anything and to see her to a great life despite everything. Let us live with such hope. Let us pray.

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