Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Pharisee and a Traveling Preacher Walk Into a Bar...

I stink at titling sermons, have you noticed?

Appreciation to The Center for Excellence in Preaching, as well as David Lose and Working Preacher, Kate Huey, AND Gil Bailie of the Girardian Lectionary. Though the text is not included here, I am again using "World In Prayer's weekly posting as the Prayers of the People.

Genesis 12:1-4a
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.
“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 is the Word of the Lord.

John 3:16 is, by far, the most universally well-known Bible verse of them all. You see it at football games (Tim Tebow wore the Scripture reference in his eye black during the 2009 championship game, not to mention the guy in the rainbow wig with the sign), you see it on everything from throw rugs to wristwatches to billboards, and just about everyone you meet on a daily basis can say the verse in the King James Version. Martin Luther called this verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

But we do the reading a disservice by separating this one verse, as beautiful as it is, from its deep and somewhat troubling context. Where it all began was with a late-night visit between a respected member of the religious community and a disheveled traveling preacher.

Late at night? Well, of course! You wouldn’t expect a well-known Pharisee, a Jerusalem V.I.P., to be hobnobbing with itinerant rabbis, it’s simply not done. Nicodemus is recognized, you see. People know who he is, he has wealth, influence, and a seat on the Sanhedrin, and to be knocking on the door in broad daylight, especially after this Jesus person had caused all that uproar in the Temple – knocking over the moneychangers tables, babbling about destroying the Temple and restoring it in three days!

Well, it would make sense if Nicodemus was at the head of a column of Temple guards and coming to arrest Jesus, but to simply speak with him? Preposterous!

Yet as hard as Nicodemus tried to fit in with his fellow Pharisees, as much as he tried to blend in with the other members of the Sanhedrin, he found himself up late, pacing the floor, trying to figure out what it all meant. He had to know. He had to see this Jesus fellow up-close, speak with him, and find out what made him tick.

So Nicodemus waited until all the lights were out, and made his way down the narrow, familiar streets to the house where the rabble-rouser and his motley crew were staying. The young man who answered the door raised his eyebrow when he made out who had knocked, but he ushered Nicodemus in as if this kind of thing happened every day. The Pharisee stood there as the man awoke Jesus, then returned to his own sleeping mat and almost immediately began snoring softly.

Jesus offered Nicodemus some wine in an earthen cup, and led him out to the small courtyard where they could speak without disturbing the others. Nicodemus was surprised to find that he was nervous.

Then again, if someone will overturn tables, swing a whip around, and caterwaul like an Old Testament prophet, they are, to say the least, unpredictable. But he had rehearsed his words carefully all the way over, and as Jesus settled on a rough bench, Nicodemus launched into his speech.

“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.”

Do you know how many dirt-poor rabbis from Podunk towns all over Judea would kill to have a powerful member of the Jewish ruling party acknowledge that their ministry, their preaching was blessed by God? And this upstart, this Galilean nobody, had the audacity, the gall, to interrupt him!

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Actually, the Greek, anothen, could mean “born from above,” “born anew,” or “born again.” Nicodemus heard it as “born again,” and was doubly incensed. Not only had he been interrupted, but interrupted with nonsense!
But Jesus, of course, meant it differently. You must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God.

Over the course of the conversation that followed, Nicodemus went from angry, to confused, to awestricken. What had begun as a quest for information became a journey to an unknown land.

You see, for Nicodemus, what you do and how you live has everything to do with if and to what degree God loves and accepts you. One must keep the laws, keep the feasts, make the sacrifices, observe the rules, and if one is diligent enough in those observances, over time, perhaps you will earn righteousness. Maybe, just maybe, God will bestow love upon you.

You control the outcome. You decide whether you are beloved or not. Redeemed or not. Blessed or not. Righteous or not. In a sense, with this kind of power over your destiny, God becomes almost irrelevant.

But a baby doesn’t have to observe rules, or feasts, or sacrifices in order to be born. The baby has no say at all in the process of being born. The whole matter is decided, initiated, and controlled from outside. Being born, as far as the baby is concerned, just happens.

So the message Jesus gave Nicodemus, and is giving us, is that getting born again is something with which we have very little to do. This is something that comes from God. Further, to be born again is to first die. Marcus Borg writes, “‘Dying and rising’ and ‘to be born again’ are the same ‘root image’ for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.”

And if Nicodemus wasn’t dizzy from all of these implications which whirled madly around him already, Jesus went on to detail how it’s done, and why.

He reached back to Numbers 21 and reminded Nicodemus of when the children of Israel, wandering in the wilderness, had once again displeased God and were being punished with a rash of deadly snakebites.
God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole. When someone was bitten, they had too look up, look at the very thing which had afflicted them, in order to live.

We spoke last week about how death and sin are so intricately related. If death is to be defeated, if it is to be conquered, then we must look upon that very thing which afflicts us: we must see Jesus, nailed to a cross, dead. Dead for us. In “The Joy of Being Wrong,” James Alison writes that “God raised up this man who had been killed in this way for us. The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. It was not just that God loved his son and so raised him up, but that the giving of the son and his raising up revealed God as love for us.”

Oh yeah, that’s the “why.” That’s where John 3:16 comes in. “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.”

The word “world” there is interesting. Usually, when John uses the word (which is “kosmos” in the Greek), he is signifying that entity which is hostile to God’s will. Some commentators suggest that the true force and scope of God’s unfathomable love can be seen by translating the verse, “For God so loved the God-hating world...!” After all, isn’t it true that God’s love is not only unfathomable but also somewhat offensive?

God does not ask the world if it wishes to be the recipient of God’s love. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves but gives the world God’s only beloved Son over to death. The one who dies for you clearly has a significant claim on you, and John makes that clear. God's love – surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved – is also given unconditionally. God loves us, that is, whether we like it or not.

And lest we think that the act of believing is a kind of mental assent to a rigid set of doctrines, a pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, some kind of self-hypnosis, or anything else that can once again place us in the driver’s seat of our own salvation, let’s return to Marcus Borg.

In his book, “The God We Never Knew,” he says, concerning the concept of belief in John, and indeed in the entire New Testament, that rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, belief is trust, is faithfulness, and, “in a very general sense…[it is] the belief that there’s something to all of this.” Borg says that faith that “believes God” is not something we can simply will, on our own: “we are led into it. It grows….It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But we do have to “take the first step,” he says, “and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).”

Lent is a time of disorientation, or at least it should be, for all of us who, like Nicodemus, live like we have it all figured out. Lent is supposed to remind us that all our dieting, fitness, and age-defying make-up products will not keep us alive. We are dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we will return. And Lent should remind us that for all our self-help, get-rich-quick schemes and for all the ways we self-aggrandize ourselves for being self-made individuals, we are finally helpless. We need a Savior to do it all for us. We need a Savior to die for us. Sin is that serious.

Lent is a time of disorientation. But it is also, thanks be to God, a time where we, like Nicodemus, can experience a reorientation to a new perspective!

Let us pray.

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