A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Well, It IS a crisis…Sermon on John 3 Lent 2A March 8, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on March 8, 2020. The texts were:

Genesis 12: 1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4: 1-6, 13-17
John 3: 1-21

Children’s sermon: Do you ever worry about things? I do! I worry all the time. Sometimes I worry about things that I can’t control or do anything about by myself. Such as I worry about will it snow. Can I control that? Nooo, even though I want to! Our bible story today is about a man named Nicodemus, or Nic for short and he was worried about who Jesus was and why Jesus was doing the things he was doing. Nic was someone who knew a lot, he had a lot of education and he liked to know what was happening but he didn’t understand Jesus, so he went to talk to him. Jesus understood this worry and sat and chatted with Nic about how it’s hard to understand, but he didn’t have to worry about having answers or knowing the right things because God’s love took care of him! Nic needed to realize what really mattered, not his learning or knowledge but God’s love that is for everyone no matter what! Here is a big heart and during worship and during the week, write or draw where you see Jesus’ love in the world.

I was reminded in our gospel reading this week that the word that we often translate as “judgment” in the bible, as we get in this John text, in the Greek is krisis-where we derive our English word for “crisis.” It seems to me that as humans, we jump from one crisis to the next in our lives. Crisis arise when how we think life should be is juxtaposed with something different and seemingly threatening. When the world appears to be in continual turmoil, the best that we can do is to react. Except that reacting is exhausting isn’t it? Reacting means getting involved, getting our hands dirty, the feeling that we can’t just ignore the current crisis at hand, and that we have to respond in some way, even if it’s risky and maybe against our better judgment. There are times when reacting matters, such as when our neighbor is in need, as in TN after the tornadoes. And there are times when reacting drains every bit of physical and emotional energy that we have such as in a chronic situation. Humans aren’t wired to stay in constant state of crisis and yet, we seem to thrive on it a bit. Until we can’t and we burn out. And then it can seem that the easiest and safest thing to do is to ignore everything, even true crisis’, hunker down, keep your head low, stay cocooned in the comfort and safety of your own community, family, friends and simply opt out of the drama. But the reality is that crisis is part of our existence, crisis also pushes us to become very clear about what matters when crisis demands a response from us of one sort or another. We can choose to step into the mess, or we can hide. We also learn to define what is a true crisis and what is mere theater.

Many of us have experienced crisis’ in our lives, probably several on one level or another. Daily life crisis’ such as severe economic downturns, job losses, bankruptcy, health challenges or the more existential and spiritual crisis’ of grief, hurt, and shame. What John of the Cross (a 16th century priest) called “the dark night of the soul.” When it seems that darkness will last forever and will hold us hostage. And yet, that darkness is not always bad. We forget that things grow in the dark, if you’ve ever cared for poinsettias outside of the Christmas season, you know that they need to be in dark for a few months of the year in order to grow. Seeds germinate underground, caterpillars hide out in dark cocoons, and humans grow in the darkness of wombs. But life can’t stay in the dark. In order to be vibrant and to thrive, the crisis of leaving the darkness must occur and when it does, it’s often messy, frightening, liberating and breathtaking.

Our gospel story from John about Nicodemus is all about crisis. Nic is in crisis. What he knows about God is juxtaposed against what he’s seen from Jesus. He’s heard about water to wine, and of Jesus’ angry outburst in temple-the story that precedes this one.  Nic knows what he knows, he’s a religious scholar, a Pharisee, and he has the rules, the rituals, the doctrine and the academia down pat. But something else is growing in him that he can’t quite control and can’t quite articulate. While all his learning and knowledge lead him to judge Jesus’ actions as anarchy and agitation, Nic also senses the truth resting underneath those actions. The truth that perhaps there is something more than rituals, rules, and doctrines. Maybe there is something more to this Jesus and so he needed to check it out. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark, which we assume is about cover but it could be about comfort and quiet. Nic knew what he knew AND knew that there were things he didn’t. Jesus doesn’t offer pat answers but acknowledges the crisis moment Nic is in. Yep, you don’t know everything that God is doing. Yep, this faith that is growing inside you, it’s very hard to control because once you recognize the Holy Spirit loose in the world and your life, nothing will be the same. You won’t view the world and the crisis’ of the world in the same way. This is what judgment is, not God’s judgment but yours, Nic. But you are in this moment, this liminal space where how you respond to the Spirit and your flesh together, matters. Will you trust that I am here from God with grace and love? Not because your personal salvation is at stake, that is already done, but healing, wholeness and truth in your life and in the world is at stake.

Jesus invites Nic and us into this crisis: will we allow ourselves to stay in the safety and comfort of the dark we know, where we don’t have to engage in the reality of the world or will we trust the truth that God, out of God’s unending, unconditional and unexplainable love, sent Jesus to be with us the crisis of our lives and the world for redemption and healing? Will we believe that the only condemnation we’re under is our own? But like Nic, we’re perplexed, confused and can’t see the whole picture from our places in the dark. We meet Nicodemus twice again in John, in chapter 7, sticking up for Jesus against the other religious authorities, and then at Jesus ‘burial where Nic stepped into the crisis of Jesus’ death and trusts God. We, too, are in a moment of crisis to trust in God’s promises of new life, to trust in the messy and uncontrollable process of being made new every day, and following the unpredictability of the Holy Spirit. If we live into this radical trust, what will others think? The crisis before us is: will we grow into the light, shine with our own brightness and work with the Holy Spirit for creation to be healed and made new or will we do what’s easy and stay in the dark?  Living in this trust will not keep us from crisis’ but will guide how we react-from a place of trust, hope and from our hearts.

We can’t stay in the dark as people of God. Jesus calls us to follow, yes sometimes even into the crisis to be a part of the solution. We follow Jesus to work for justice and to stand for inclusive love of God for all the world, trusting that the Holy Spirit is already there to lead us and to sustain us. We follow Jesus into the crisis of people who are not guaranteed civil and human rights because of the color of their skin, immigration status, gender identity or sexual orientation. We follow Jesus into the crisis of caring for creation, of stewarding what God has given us and knowing that the earth needs us to hear the cries of its crisis. We follow Jesus into the crisis of those who lack access to healthcare, adequate housing, education and economic opportunities. We follow Jesus into whatever the crisis of our neighbor and discover that Jesus is already with them.

We can’t be afraid, and we must love light and truth more than the dark, even if it means going into the dark to bring our neighbor to the light. We must say what we know of God, not of rules, rituals or doctrine, but what we know in our hearts of God’s loving presence with us, through Jesus and the Holy Spirit always, from crisis to crisis. We let our light so shine so that the world sees Jesus who was sent to heal, unify and free us all. Amen.


The Crisis of “For God So Loved the World” Lent 4B John 3:1-21 March 16, 2015

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How many of you can remember either your first year of college, or the first year you lived on your own? It was scary at first wasn’t it? We longed for the familiarity, comfort and security of living at home with our family (even though we probably pushed back on them). We didn’t know who we were, what we were doing or where we were going. Being on our own was a completely new way of living for us. It was frightening and exciting all at the same time. In a sense, this new found freedom and new way of living was a crisis for many of us. But it was a crisis that moved us from where we were as teenagers into adulthood. It was a crisis that opened up for us the possibilities of who we were and who we could become. If not for that crisis though, we might not have met our spouses and had our own children otherwise, or had the vocations that we now have. I know my parents were supportive but out of love, knew I had to be in the crisis and risk a little in order to grow and be all God created me to be. I think all of us would say that was worth the risk of moving out of our family’s homes.
A crisis can be caused by a positive event in our lives, as well as a negative event. It’s a defining period of time where we see the world differently, see our lives through a new lens and are open to new possibilities. Moving away from home, getting married, a new job, a new baby, a uncertain diagnosis, job loss or death of a loved one or any new experience invites us to think, be and live in a different way. Sometimes we handle a crisis well; we open up to the new way of living and explore it, learn from it and grow. Sometimes not so well. Sometimes we choose to go back to what we know and are familiar with, stay stuck if you will in the comfortable, even if that is not ultimately what is best for us, or the people around us. The system of what we know runs smack into something we have never seen before, and in that crisis, we are presented with a choice of what to do next.
Nicodemus, in John 3, is in such a crisis. He is a Pharisee, steeped in the Jewish system of the temple, the law and what he thinks it means to be God’s chosen people. Nicodemus, as a leader, personally benefits from this system; he’s comfortable, he has status, power and probably some financial security. But he admits that when he experiences Jesus and what Jesus is doing in the world, it puts him in crisis. He sees that everything Jesus does points to God and is part of who God is, despite the fact that it doesn’t follow the system Nicodemus currently knows and takes part. So, Jesus’ very presence causes a crisis for him; what he knows is running head long into a new way and what does it all mean?
Jesus affirms for Nicodemus that he does indeed recognize God’s work and
Jesus also affirms his crisis. Yep, Jesus says, this is new, God is doing a new thing
and let me tell you a bit more because it’s not what you think and it’s going to put the whole system that you know into a deeper crisis. God has come to be among you and so you cannot stay the same, the world cannot stay the same and the system that you cling to, cannot stay the same, no matter how hard you try to cling to it. The world cannot stay the same because God loves the world too much to leave it, and us, alone. God sees who God created us to be and wants that transformation for us.
John 3:16 is probably the most quoted Bible verse and yet, is the most misunderstood. Cherry picked from the middle of this rich story of the encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus, it loses it depth, breadth and role of God shaking up the world’s system and gets used to set up and support our own comfortable system that we can control and cling to. It becomes an indictment or a measuring stick for who’s in and who’s out. We focus our attention on the “who believes” and we gloss over God’s sacrificial and unconditional love for the whole world. And we completely ignore verse 17, that this in breaking of the kingdom of God through Jesus for the purpose of all people being gathered to God. We dilute this whole story down to one of pointing our fingers at people who think different than us, we use it as a self-justification that what we believe is correct and therefore makes us ok with God. We make it about us and not the world.
In doing so, we are attempting to keep ourselves comfortable and ignore the crisis at hand. The root of the words condemnation and judgment used in John is the same as our English word of crisis. Jesus coming into the world, the spirit blowing where she chooses presents a crisis, judgment or condemnation for us all. The light of God is now in the world and now everything is exposed whether we like it or not. The whole world, our whole system that we think keeps us comfortable, safe, and secure is in crisis. God is doing and showing us a new thing through Jesus and it’s a good thing but it presents us with some choices, even though that makes us uncomfortable to think about.
One of the tensions in this story is that Jesus acknowledges that not everyone will be on board, there will always be the naysayers, those who will resist the change to the system and will respond to the crisis of the light and love of God coming into the world by doubling down on the system that keeps them in their safe cocoon of the illusion of having power and control. It doesn’t mean that salvation is not theirs because Jesus is equally clear on that: God’s love, forgiveness, mercy and grace are for all-the whole world whether they like it or not or acknowledge it or not. That’s done; no one needs to worry about that. But Jesus invites all people now thrown into the crisis of God’s presence with them always, to be transformed, to grow, learn and made new, not just so that we can say that we believe and are ok, but to transform the world around us with God’s love and mercy. Our participation in God’s new system of love matters, God’s system won’t leave us alone to our own devices but offers us a way of truly responding and being a part of what God is up to around us. It’s risky because we will be set free from the world’s system and transformed by God’s presence and God’s system.
It’s risky when we step out of our comfort zone to volunteer at the Denver Rescue Mission, when we think about new ways of doing confirmation such as our Lakewood Lutheran Confirmation Cluster, when we put relationships with each other first and disregard our differences in preferences for how we live our lives, how we do Bible study, or worship, when we admit that we don’t know exactly what God is raising up but are willing to look for signs of new life and nurture them. It’s risky by the standards of the world to live this way and you need to know that. But love is always worth the risk. God risked through the cross and the empty tomb God’s very own son, Jesus, because loving us and the whole of creation is worth the risk. You, me, and all people are worth the risk to God. Like Nicodemus, we aren’t able to imagine that Jesus’ death on the cross is really about life and that the empty tomb is really about no separation from God and God’s system, but is about God’s imagination for life, hope and forgiveness. This carried Nicodemus and carries us through the crisis of the new way of system of living in Jesus. God is here no matter what and invites us each and every day to imagine and participate with God in this risky endeavor of love. Thanks be to God!