I am Nicodemus

A sermon for Lent 2; Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Wednesday a week ago, we had a long power outage. Most it was a big inconvenience; especially at night. It was dark; really dark; scary dark. Then again, if you were outside and if you looked up, as we did, you saw a sight we rarely ever see, the stars; all of the stars. Stars you can only see if you are in the dark. The dark enables you to see the night sky in an entirely new way; it is an inspiring experience; all because it is dark; really dark; enabling dark. Wednesday, it was dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark.

Some Wednesday night some 2000 years ago, a leader of the Jews is walking through the dark. He is seeking the leader of a new and growing group of followers. The leader is a rabbi, known for signs, perhaps a miracle worker, Nicodemus may simply be curious about this Jesus. On the other hand, he goes to see him in the dark and nighttime is the traditional time to study Torah, so perhaps he is seeking an in-depth conversation (Vena). Then again, night time and darkness are metaphors for separation from the presence of God (O’Day; Harrelson) so perhaps this devoted community leader has his doubts, his questions about all their ways of life. Perhaps it more than curiosity, perhaps Nicodemus wants to see the Kingdom as Jesus, and his followers do. Whatever his reason Nicodemus speaks with Jesus and life is never the same.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born from ‘above.’ Nicodemus asks him How can one be born ‘again’? The confusion come from a word with two meanings; it means both ‘above’ and ‘again.’ Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking literally. And that causes him trouble mostly because,

to be born again, as Nicodemus understood it, would have meant altering [his] … honor status in a very radical way and he was not ready to trade his honorable position in society for an uncertain new status (Vena).

 Perhaps Nicodemus just simply misunderstood (Gaventa and Petersen). But, Gail O’Day writes

that Jesus is being intentionally ambiguous and intends Nicodemus to hear both meanings inviting him to explore below the surface seeking deeper revelations. But his imagination is not flexible enough (O’Day).

Next, Jesus using Nicodemus’ confusion about live birth says no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). Paralleling the double meaning of ‘again’ and ’above’ Jesus connects entrance into the Kingdom with both live birth, and spiritual birth; birth in the flesh, and birth in the spirit; thus, connecting flesh and spirit, which is very much against the thought of his day (Harrelson; O’Day). He compares this to the wind which blows where it will. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘spirit,’ so Jesus connects new birth to the mysteries of free moving wind/spirit that is, quite simply, beyond our control (O’Day).

Comparing the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness also makes use of a double meaning word. ‘Lift up’ also means ‘exalt.’ Jesus exaltation is how we, by belief, have eternal life (Harrelson).

 For John, eternal life is defined by God, not as future immortality in heaven, but as a spiritual reality that can only be seen by those born of water and spirit as living in God’s unending presence right here, right now (Harrelson; O’Day; Vena). All this is too much for Nicodemus. And that is the intention. Nicodemus is intended to struggle with this trifecta of double meanings as he discerns what eternal new life, born from above, in water and spirit given by the raised up/exalted Son of Man really is. And so are we. The discerning struggle calls us into deeper and deeper listening to all Jesus shares that John recounts (O’Day).

This is not an easy trip for Nicodemus. He appears twice more; once saying that law requires that the Pharisees give Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:45-52) (Sakenfeld). His last appearance is when Pilate give Jesus’ body to him and Joseph of Arimathea for burial (John 19:38-42) (Sakenfeld). Nicodemus is not alone in a long perhaps wandering journey to belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who died so we could have life in God’s presence. It took all the disciples a long time, a good three years, to understand.

So, if you have questions or doubts; if you don’t quite get all the nuances of how Jesus’ death brings you life you are in good company. If you aren’t quite ready to toss off whatever honor and status you have in life and commit to being vaccinated against death by a dead, resurrected, ascended Jesus, neither was Nicodemus (Hoezee; Harrelson).

I know, we all know,

that 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. (John 3:16).

We know it so well, it is trite. We believe it so strongly, it divides us. We know it so well, believe it so strongly that I doubt its Lenten value because it is too common, or too divisive to help us see ourselves and change our lives.

On the other hand, Nicodemus is a good Lenten model. He comes to Jesus full of expectations, ready to learn and misunderstands from the very beginning. He doesn’t understand life in God’s presence. He doesn’t understand water/flesh and the spirit as one, in the presence of God. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Moses, and the healing snake lifted up over Israel that saves them from death. He is bound to social customs of honor, prestige, and power he finds hard to give up. And so am I.

I hold miss expectations of Jesus and misunderstand his call if not daily, most certainly regularly. I look at the world and just don’t get life in God’s presence, especially in the here and now. There are too many people who are oppressed for arbitrary human divisions of race, gender, sex, skin color, national origin, faith, illness and lack of success. I believe; I have faith that Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension makes a difference in this world. But the failure of corrupt justice that crucified Jesus is still far too prevalent, and so I doubt. And I ponder my own subtle complicity in all this corruption. I find it as hard to give up social customs of honor, prestige, and power that I benefit from as Nicodemus did. So I am drawn to confess; I am Nicodemus.

So, in so much as you find yourself looking in the mirror and seeing Nicodemus looking back, I invite you to invite Nicodemus to guide your Lenten repentance. However, beware, it is a journey that is dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark. It is a journey from misunderstanding born of darkness, to darkness born of burying the one who loves you.


References

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 9 2017. 12. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Jolly, Marshall A. “Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A).” 12 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. John 3:16. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 2 A: Just One More Verse! 12 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 3:117. 12 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

What’s going on?

A sermon for Advent 3

Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, Canticle 15

 

It’s been a week, and we tend to forget readings from previous weeks, especially since we didn’t hear them ‘cause ice caused us to cancel corporate worship. We would have heard Matthew’s account of John down by the river side; he was calling the people of Judah and Jerusalem to repent. Actually he calls for them to prepare the way of the Lord; either way, the people need to change their behavior. We also hear John talks about the ax at the root of the tree, a reference of divine judgment against Israel. He also goes on about the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire, a likely reference to Israel’s corrupt leadership. So we have a pretty good idea of Matthew’s vision of John the Baptist.

Skip forward some time, not sure how much, though it is eight chapters, and this morning we hear John asking Jesus a question, through his disciples, because he is in jail. He wants to know if Jesus is the messiah. It’s a queer question, he did baptize him. However, only Jesus hears God’s voice, so we cannot know for sure that John knows Jesus is God beloved son. In fact we have a previous hint that there are questions; in chapter 11 John’s disciples ask Jesus’ disciples why they (John’s disciples) fast and they (Jesus’ disciples) don’t. There is no way of knowing if John’s disciples ask of their own or if John asks them to, because he is already in jail, having been arrested in chapter 4.

What we have is John down by the river side at his prophetic best; Jesus’ baptism, John’s arrest a question about fasting that may be from John, a question if Jesus is the messiah that is from John. 

John has put everything he has into this prophet thing, and now he is in jail; not what is expected. And to top it all off, Jesus isn’t exactly acting like a messiah, he isn’t wielding the ax, he isn’t burning chaff, and when he confront sinners, he eats with them. This is not what is expected. What is going on?

What is going on? Recently we’ve heard news of: Adam’s brain tumor, Mary Gay’s brother’s death, Bill’s arrest, Sally’s death, Brandon’s ATV accident, Jenny’s health concern’s, Joey’s heath concern’s, Mrs. Gladden’s death, Jerry’s cancer, Laura’s accident, and Gladys’ death. What’s going on? None of this is expected, at least not now!

I mean look around town, everything is decorated there are bright lights, brilliant vivid colors, the radio if a constant stream of holiday music. Our mail boxes are collecting more and more cards wishing us Happy Holidays! This is a happy, joyful time of year. We are looking forward to celebrating Jesus birth, we are looking forward to the return of the King, Jesus in full divine regalia! Yesterday the Ignite Christmas Box ministry gave 800 families a box of food, a box of hygiene products, a box of Avon products, a ham and a loaf of bread. That ~ is what is expected this time of year. So, what’s going on?

What’s going on is life. All of life, including those parts that are: grievous, frustrating, frightening, and emotionally and spiritually debilitating. The raw edges of life didn’t stop on the occasion of Jesus birth. We glamorized Luke’s version, but there is nothing glamorous about a day long (or more) donkey ride, to pay taxes to a foreign King. Matthew’s version is far less glamorous; he takes a scant six verses to tell the tale of Jesus birth. That is followed by the terrorizing tale, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaping Herod’s rage, and the slaughter of thousands of innocent infant boys.

Life goes on. The dark side of life continues. Whether we expect it or not, whether it is fair or not, whether we are prepared or not, whether it causes us to question Jesus or not, life goes on.

 And now we come to Jesus answer. Well actually he doesn’t answer the question. He tells John’s disciples to tell John what they see. I wonder if he gets a blank stare, you know the kind teachers sometimes get, because then he tells them what they see: the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, the poor having good news brought to them, and anyone who takes no offense at me is being blessed. ..

Each scene, relates to a portion of Isaiah’s messianic prophecy. Each scene, is evidence that the Kingdom of God is already on earth, is already transforming all creation.

The transformation of all creation is a facet of Jesus’ birth I fear we ignore. The incarnation is God’s fully divine presence being birthed in the fully human Jesus. The incarnation is also an infusion of the divine presence in every human, in every micro-corner of creation. That transformation of all creation is a facet of our messiah’s return I fear we tend to miss, ‘cause we get all caught up in judgment etc. Nonetheless our messiah’s return is the end of a transformation already in the making. In short, even as life goes on, God is in our midst. God is present in every corner of our lives, the resplendently bright bits, the surprisingly righteous one, the ones where justice reigns; even the scary, dark and lonely corners. But that presence is not static, far from it.

When we accept it, listen for it, listen to it, respond in faith and trust, God’s presence will enable ~ well some call it miracles, we know it to be the power of God in everyday life.

So, what’s going on? Life in the presence of God is going on, and there is no waiting because it’s right here right now. Amen!

___________________________

David Lose Working Preacher, Craft of Preaching, Disappointed with God at Christmastime, Sunday, December 08, 2013 12:43 PM

Arland J. Hultgren, Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11, 12/15/2013

Brett Younge, Ministry Matters, KeepHerod in Christmas, November 30th, 2013

Greater light of deeper darkness.

Since Thanksgiving my small parish has experienced one anticipated death, though earlier than expected, an arrest for armed assault, an emotionally crush absolutely unexpected death, and a sever ATV accident. One only involves us liturgically, a burial rite. All of the them require a lot of emotional and spiritual energy at any time. But at this time of year, they seem to be over the top.

Arland J. Hultgren raises this over the top emotionally, spiritually draining aspect of Matthew’s story of John sending a question to Jesus Are you the Messiah or not? I’ve always preached on Jesus’ answer. Hultgren jerks my attention to John’s question. [i]

Brett Younger in a commentary for last week draws our attention to a story from Matthew we will likely never hear. It is selected for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, and it is the 3rd option for a Gospel reading. It’s the story of Herod’s slaughter of the Innocents. [ii] And yes they have their Holy Day, how many churches will observe it?

In this season of silver bells and choral swells, life goes on, all of life goes on, including the very messy, the very ugly, the very unfair parts of life. I do not want to dampen your Advent and growing Christmas joy. I just want to remind us all the God’s transforming presence is in the darkest corners of live as well as the moment of incredible light we are preparing for; both the birth of old, and the return to come. And we know the fuller grace of both when we know God’s presence in the dark. We know the greater light when we dare to walk in to deeper darkness.  


[i] Arland J. Hultgren, Working Preacher, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11, December 15

[ii] Brett Younger , Keep Herod in Christmas, November 30th, 2013, Ministry Matters