Sermon – 03-12-17 – Lent II – Cycle A
Scripture – Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17
Sermon Title – “There Once Was a Pharisee: Sharing the Blessing”
In the beginning, after Adam and Eve, after Noah, there was Abram. God later called him Abraham. God blessed Abram and made a big promise to Abram. God said to Abram, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” And so began a long, long story. It became our story, not because we were born in the Jewish/Hebrew line, but because God brought non-Jews into the same blessing. So when we discover a Jewish friend, we already share a blessing from God.
Once there was a Jewish Pharisee named Nicodemus. This was in the time when Jesus walked on this Earth. Nicodemus secretly came to Jesus when it was dark so as not to be seen. You see, the Hebrews, that is the Jews, thought God’s blessing to Abram was just for them. The people in charge of the Jewish religion, the Pharisees, thought they were following the rules very well. “Don’t let any false prophets draw our attention and the way we live!” they thought. So it was a situation of them against them; the Jews against non-Jews.
But, God had other plans. Sure, God blessed Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants; but, God cared, and still cares, about all of the people in the world. Nevertheless, while Jesus walked on this earth, antagonism existed. So Nicodemus comes in this clandestine manner to talk with Jesus. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
In that one statement we hear Nicodemus making a confession; the kind of confession which states our beliefs, just as we sometimes use the Apostles Creed or other Creeds to make known what is in our hearts and minds, what we believe. And, Nicodemus said “we” as though he has been talking to other Jewish religious leaders and they have quietly come to this conclusion.
Jesus takes his turn in the conversation. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Strange answer, do you agree? Nicodemus thought it was strange also. He is puzzled. Born from above! He questions Jesus what he really means. Jesus replies that water and Spirit need to be involved in this new birth.
Then Jesus continues with a short discourse about the wind to explain the Spirit, capital “S.” Jesus says that the wind blows where it will, we can hear it, we can feel it, but we cannot actually see this force, only what it does. So it is with God’s Spirit. It causes an effect, but we cannot see this Holy Spirit. We can feel this Spirit as it changes our minds and hearts and sometimes our very physical being. We can usually see the change that the Spirit causes or allows in other people and, yes, even in ourselves.
A light heart – a happy, comfortable heart – changes our very minds, our view of each day, our view of the world. Did our friend, Nicodemus, feel this change? Did he allow the Spirit to enter his mind and heart? Apparently not. Nicodemus exits this episode with Jesus with a sad heart. He is caught in the middle as in a vise; seeing the truth but afraid to make the break, afraid to declare that he is leaving his position as a Pharisee, maybe leaving his family, to receive the Holy Spirit by the water of baptism.
Do we find ourselves wanting to be free of the grasping vise – that tool, that situation that is stronger than our own will? But it is not stronger than God’s will! But dare we? Do we dare give it to God no matter what the ensuing consequences?
Nicodemus did not dare. Jesus watched Nicodemus slowly and reluctantly walk into his old world. He was afraid to break loose now. But if you know the Jesus resurrection story you will recall a man named Nicodemus. This is a happy-ending story if we but wait.
Meanwhile, are we like Nicodemus? Do we miss opportunities to come close to God? Do we miss opportunities to be a live participant in the Kingdom of God on earth? Do we cling to our old world, the world we know, the world that we may have inherited or a world into which we were sucked like quicksand? Quicksand? Can a person break free of quicksand? Maybe other people are trained in the process of rescuing a person headed for a disappearance into that unusual natural phenomenon. What help is available to those of us who are stuck in the quicksand of beliefs and relationships? Who will help us? Who is trained or who has the power to save us?
We who are supposedly trained in such saving, will say, “God will help, give it to God, hand it to God, God has broad shoulders, God died on the cross to rescue us from our captive conditions, to save us!” To save us! Being saved! How do we plug into this “being saved” idea? Some of our Christian friends will name a date and sometimes the actual time when he or she was “saved.” Then there are other friends who don’t use that terminology. For these persons, being saved is a gradual process. These persons come into the Kingdom of God in a less precise way. Sometimes we can identify a moment when our perspective changes, when we are given insights, a drawing close to God. 1 Corinthians 13 brings to our insight the idea that now we see dimly, then we will see clearly.” When is then? When we are finally called face-to-face with God.
There is not only one way to “be saved.” Instantly or gradually. Sudden revelations or a slow slide show. It is our being drawn closer to God – sometimes in jolts, sometimes in a slow-moving snail pace. Do you think Nicodemus’ being-saved process actually started when he approached Jesus secretly? But when was the water applied with Nicodemus? When Jesus said that we must be born again with water and the Spirit, did Jesus give water and Spirit equal emphasis?
Is baptism required for our entrance to the ultimate Kingdom of God? If so, who shall administer the water with the Spirit? Must it be an ordained person? Could it be a friend? Could we baptize ourselves? [comments welcome]
God’s plan of having Jesus suffer on the cross so that our sins would be forgiven, without bringing perfect animals to the altar, requires a moment of acknowledgment, but that moment is only the first step. We are saved, we are redeemed, each time we confess our wrongdoing, our wrong attitudes, our wrong path. Each time we confess and are granted forgiveness, we are privileged to be drawn closer. This redemption is not given reluctantly. This redeeming is given graciously. You see, Jesus shows us the God who loves each one of us with a divine heart. There is no selfishness, no longing for revenge or punishment.
John 3:16 and 17 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This promise of eternal life is not granted because of our works. We could never earn such a gift because we are human. We are descendants of Adam and Noah. God’s gift of salvation comes to us through grace and faith. Abraham was reckoned to have righteousness not because of what he did but because he believed; Abraham had faith. We too must change from a works mentality to a faith mentality. We must submit ourselves; we must lose our longing for perfection, for control. How do we do this? How do we let go?
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
* Scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.