03/16/14 Sermon (March 16, 2014)

posted Apr 22, 2014, 12:14 PM by David Hawkins

Scripture Reading: John 3:1-17  (Liturgist)

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.”


You know, I saw a bumper sticker on a car a couple of days ago that really made me mad. Now, you wouldn’t think it was the kind of bumper sticker that should make a pastor mad, but it did. It really did. It was simple, direct, to the point. In all caps, black letters against a white background, it said, “ARE YOU SAVED?”

Now, I wasn’t mad so much because of the way it assumed that I wasn’t saved. Although, I mean, that is a little bit offensive, right ? but that’s not the main thing. It made me mad because to this person, the only thing that matters about other people is this question. There is nothing else to consider. This random person hasn’t made any effort to ask my name, my profession, anything about my family. He hasn’t asked me where I’m from, what I like to eat, what my hopes and dreams are.

Nope, he doesn’t want to know any of that relationship junk like that. He doesn’t want to know anything actually real or personal about me. In fact, he doesn’t want to know me at all. He truly could care less about me, as a person, as an individual. All he wants to know is if I’m saved.

You know, I’ve looked at the Bible once or twice, and I can’t say that I’m an expert, but I’ve never heard of Jesus or anybody else for that matter shouting “ARE YOU SAVED” at people as they rode past him on their camels. Have you?

For Jesus, it was the person, the whole person, that was important. He talked to them, he got to know them. Do you remember the story of the woman with the 12 year hemorrhage? She didn’t care if she talked to Jesus. She didn’t care if he knew her name. All she wanted was to be healed. And she managed to force her way through the crowds and got close enough to Jesus that she could touch the fringe of his robe, and her bleeding stopped, right then. And that was enough for her.

But that was not enough for Jesus. He stopped, and he said, “Who touched me? Who was it that was in such pain? Who believed in me, and became whole? I want to meet this person. I want to talk to this person.”

And Jesus wouldn’t walk on until he had the chance to talk to the woman face to face.

This business of drive-by bumper-sticker salvation has nothing to do with Jesus.

On the other hand, now that I’m on my soap-box, it has everything to do with dividing people into camps of these people who belong, and those people who don’t. And to save time and energy, I guess it’s just easiest to figure out who’s who if we shout, “ARE YOU SAVED?” at each other often and loudly enough.

Another phrase that really gets my goat is the expression, “Have you been born again?” This has also been turned into a litmus test of inclusion and exclusion, with very particular standards that have to be met in order for the answer to be yes.

For some churches, manifestations of the Spirit must be observed for a successful re-birthing: Speaking in tongues, miracles of some kind. For others a particular sin must be overcome, a specific way of life has to be demonstrated. Otherwise, the new birth just didn’t take, I guess. Of course, this raises the question: Who gets to decide when the being born again was actually valid? Who sets the rules? Who judges the process?

And so this passage that we’re looking at today kind of raises my hackles. And if I’m really honest, I’m a little bit afraid to really look at it, because what if it simply reinforces my worst expectations?

This morning, we find Jesus discreetly entertaining a guest during the week of passover.

(You know, it’s amazing how much of the book of John takes place during the week of passover. In fact, over half the Gospel of John takes place during the festival of Passover. Not the same week, mind you, different ones. But, that’s interesting, I think.

And if you count the other two major festivals, the festival of Tabernacles and the festival of Weeks, then more than 75% of the Gospel of John takes place during a Jewish festival. And if we really want to stretch things, a whole bunch of stuff also happens on the Sabbath.  It’s as though John is trying to remind us that Jesus is fundamentally Jewish, somehow.)

Anyway, not too long ago, Jesus turned some water into wine at a wedding party. And not some cheapo Two-Buck Chuck, either. This was the good stuff. You might remember that I once did a mathematical exegesis on that scripture and found out that this miracle added about 80 cases of excellent wine to the party, which would have cost about $57,000. It was the first of his miracles, done at the request of his mother. I mean, who can say ‘no’ to mom?

And earlier this passover week Jesus drove out all the money changers in the temple with a whip. That kind of challenges our understanding of Jesus, meek and mild, right? I mean, that took some chutzpah, as they say. Maybe it was all the wine.

In any case, Jesus has been making a name for himself. The people are buzzing, the authorities have been alerted. Everybody has an opinion about this Jesus.

And now, we find Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, a Pharisee, coming to meet Jesus, secretly, at night. On the down-low, you might say. Keepin’ it casual. No need to get everyone riled up, amirite? It’s just a quick chat. Nicodemus and Jesus. No need to read too much into it.

And Nicodemus has respect for this new Rabbi. He’s even willing to say that Jesus is doing the work of God. There’s something to all these wild stories of miracles and healing. And that Temple-cleansing bit. You kind of have to be a true believer to pull that one off.

And so it make sense that Nicodemus wants to see Jesus up close and personal. But he doesn’t want to upset his friends and colleagues. What would they think if they found out that he was meeting with this rabble-rouser? What would his church think if they found out that their pastor had been consorting with this first-century community organizer, this friend of lepers and sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors and political zealots?

No, it’s better if they just meet at night. Not so many prying eyes. No need to freak people out. Let’s just keep things cool.

You know, I think we know Nicodemus much better than we want to admit. We know what it’s like to want to be a secret Christian. To follow Christ from a discreet distance, to acknowledge him as a good teacher and a Godly person, sent to heal, and preach, and feed.

These are all good things, and its easy to think that is all that there is to being a Christian. To do the right things and say the right things, but keep it cool, you know, keep it private, just me and Jesus. Because Jesus says some hard things, sometimes. Jesus asks a lot of us.

And Nicodemus has some good reasons to not shine light on this meeting. He doesn’t name these reasons here in this passage, but it doesn’t take too much imagination to think about what they might be.

After all, he’s a Pharisee, a leader in the Jewish Community. Pharisees were consumed with, almost obsessed with, the idea of purity. The very word ‘Pharisee’ itself comes from the Hebrew word for ‘separation’.

They cared very deeply about the rituals of purity. Not so much the purity of human character, but purity of human behavior. Sin, for Pharisees, is purely external. It’s defined by external codes, that is, by the law. It’s evaluated purely in terms of external observances, and it is expiated, that is, it is forgiven, it is taken away, by purely external means.

That means sacrifices, traditions, laws. These are the watchwords of what it means to be a person of faith, at least, for a Pharisee. It’s not so much what’s going on inside the mind. Rather, what is going on outside the body that matters.

And so meeting with someone like Jesus, who apparently doesn’t share his feelings about purity and separation, is hard for Nicodemus. And it would be harder for him if other people get to know about it. He would lose his position in the community. He would be accused of treason or, worse, heresy. People would shun him, and he would live the rest of his life on the margins of society.

As we read about Jesus and Nicodemus talking, it might be easy to think that Nicodemus is somehow kind of stupid. That he is too dense to figure out what Jesus is trying to say. But I don’t think so. I want to give Nicodemus some credit.

After all, Pharisees were extremely educated men. They were used to debate and to argument. They were prominent not only in Jewish religious circles, but also in civil leadership and government. This is no intellectual light-weight that Jesus is talking too. This is a smart, well-read, biblically literate political and religious leader in the holy city of Jerusalem.

But it’s obvious that this conversation is hard for him. And I think we know why it’s hard for him. Because there’s a part of him that doesn’t want to hear what Jesus is saying about being born again. There’s a part of him that doesn't want to understand what Jesus is saying. Because once he understands it, he’s all in. There’s no going back.

Being born again means things. Being born again changes things. Being born again means that from here on out, we can’t live our lives in the dark anymore. We have to step out into the light and be vulnerable to the consequences.

A life lived in the light of Jesus Christ means that it’s not just our good behaviour that is a key indicator of our faith. A life lived in the light of Christ means that the motivations behind our actions count as well. And that is a big deal. And for some of us, that’s a deal breaker.

Living our lives in the light of Jesus Christ means that our hearts and and bodies act in concert with each other, not against each other. Our actions and our mindsets are in agreement. Our faith is not just embraced, but embodied.

Living our lives in the light of Jesus Christ means taking the time to get to know a homeless person -- not just give them money, or to look the other way when we see them -- but to actually talk to them and hear their story.
Living our lives in the light of Jesus Christ means that we walk away from someone telling a joke whose punch line depends on racial or gender stereotypes -- not because we are afraid of what the PC police might say, but because we don’t want to continue to degrade those who, though they might look and talk different than we do, are also made in God’s image.

Living our lives in the light of Jesus Christ means refusing to hear and spread gossip about another person’s problems, even when that gossip is dressed up in in pious-sounding Christian expressions of love and concern -- not because gossip is wrong, but because it reveals the pride and judgment that we conceal in our own hearts.

Living our lives in the light of Jesus Christ means stepping out of the shadows politically for a cause or person we believe in, whether that means donating more than the minimum for amount for public disclosure, or standing our ground in a discussion around the coffee table at the Broadway Brew -- not because we want to win a political point, but because living in the light of Christ means having the courage to live out our convictions even when it’s uncomfortable.

Living our lives in the light of Jesus Christ means living a life of discipleship not because we will go to hell if we don’t, but because our love of Jesus leaves us no choice. Our acts of obedience are no longer carried out from a sense of obligation, but rather, they rise from the deepest wells of gratitude.

Being born again means that it’s our internal faith that determines our external words and actions, rather than some sort of imposed external code of behavior. It means much, much more than just saying, “Yes, Jesus, I recognize who you are and I acknowledge your authority.”

Being born again means that our faith changes who we are, deeply, thoroughly. And that change is not something that we do, but is something that is done to us, for us. It’s not something that we decide, or force, or commit to. It’s not dependant on the denomination, the right church, the right prayers, the the right doctrine. In fact, being born again is something that has already been done for us, two thousand years ago on a cross on a hill.

All we can do, all that we are invited to do, is to step out into the light and live into the change that has already been made in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.