A Lutheran Says What?

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

Unraveled by Christ, Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, John 3: 1-17, May 31st, 2015 May 31, 2015

Frayed heart

Last time I preached here at Lord of the Hills, I was a newbie seminary student. I had about two whole years under my belt and as can happen in graduate school, you start to think that you know stuff. With all of the reading, writing, pontificating, and conversations, one can convince oneself that you have quite a bit of knowledge rattling around in your brain.  In the past five years, I’ve been on internship, graduated and served a congregation on the west side of town for nearly three years, so hopefully, I’ve learned a bit more.  But sadly, here is what I have actually learned in all of my learning….I’ve got nothin’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can explain some of the finer points of doctrine, I can outline what changes should be in a constitution, or what leadership skills are necessary in a congregation, or what the Greek says about certain words in our reading today, or what topics should be covered in confirmation or in Sunday school. Yet, I’m acutely aware that the more I know, the less I know, as each encounter with a new situation or new person can remind me of how quickly “knowledge” can be unraveled through an experience that doesn’t quite fit with what I think I know. Maybe you’ve had that that experience of being unraveled too.

I think about this unraveling that can happen in life in our Nicodemus story this morning. Here is a Pharisee, a teacher in the rabbinic tradition, a man whom many relied upon and came to with questions about following God’s law, doctrines, festivals and all sorts of other ponderings on the religion of the Israelites. Nicodemus had a lot of theological education, if you will, was part of the leadership and the inner circle and probably felt pretty secure in who he was and his status. And then along came this Jesus fellow. Nicodemus would have seen other famous street preachers come and go, Jerusalem was full of them around the time of Jesus, even those who could allegedly perform magic. But there was something different about Jesus that when Nicodemus encountered him, this experience began to unravel all of what Nicodemus thought he knew about God in the world. Jesus didn’t just perform magic, Jesus performed miracles, he healed, he brought the dead back to life, he fed thousands of people with two loaves and five fish. Jesus didn’t just preach what the people wanted to hear, what made them feel good about themselves or their lives, Jesus proclaimed that God knew and saw their brokenness, all of the ways that they get it wrong, and loves them, forgives them and promises more than just the material wants of the world or status in the Roman Empire. No, Jesus was someone the likes of whom Nicodemus had never seen or heard before. Jesus didn’t really fit into all of the education that Nicodemus had attained. Could this man, whom some were calling the Messiah, really be the one whom God promised would come to redeem, claim, make whole and save God’s people? Is this the one who will overthrow the powers of this world and set things right? This homeless, uncouth, street preacher who hangs out with the riff raff of society? This unraveled what Nicodemus knew about the promised messiah!

So Nicodemus decides to see what he can learn about Jesus and meets up with him in the cover of darkness so that no will see that there is something that this well educated man doesn’t understand or know. Jesus and Nic have this little back and forth where it becomes clear that the two of them are not having the same conversation. Nicodemus is stuck in his earthly paradigm of what he can concretely know and cling to and so can’t follow Jesus down the road of what the Holy Spirit is up to through Jesus in the world. Born of the Spirit? How is one born again? How can this be?

If we’re all honest, there is much about God in our lives that we don’t understand, much about the work of the Holy Spirit that mystifies, perplexes and unravels us no matter how much we read, learn and study. As human beings we have a deep need for assurance, security, planning, knowing and information. We have constructed a whole culture in information databases, Google, Wikipedia, etc to feed these needs. Nicodemus thought that he had all that he needed to know about God contained in the Torah, his education and his daily life as a Pharisee. Then he encountered Jesus, God incarnate, who offered him something that all of his knowledge and security could not, a true encounter and relationship with the living God.  Jesus didn’t just write Nicodemus off when Nicodemus didn’t quite “get it” the first time, no, Jesus accepted Nicodemus right where he was with his questions, wondering, and misunderstandings. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus revealed that what he knew and experienced in this world is fleeting and uncertain, but God promises that in the midst of all of uncertainty is the promise of being woven into unconditional love, grace and mercy.  So too, Jesus’ encounter with us proclaims that God takes the unraveling of all that we don’t understand about what God is doing in the world, ourselves and our future and promises being woven into restoration and wholeness-what we often translate as salvation.

We think that we can create wholeness ourselves through what we can know, control and understand. We plan, accumulate and prognosticate, but wholeness, our salvation, only comes through God, in whose image we are all created, in Jesus, whom God sent to be with us and to gather us to God and the Holy Spirit who sustains and blows us out into the world with this good news that wholeness is available not just for some but for all. We like Nicodemus will ask over and over: What does this mean? How do we know? We know because God so loved the world that God withholds nothing from us, not even Godself in Jesus Christ. This love of God is what we know and experience each and every day. Each day we are given the gift of new life by the power of the Holy Spirit , born new, with each breath that is from God. This love is what Jesus says we know and are called to tell, to testify, to others about. We tell others of this love of God in simple ways in our daily lives: a smile to someone who seems disgruntled at the grocery store, unconditional love and patience to our children or spouse, offering a kind word to a co-worker or friend, helping a neighbor in need with yard work, or offering a meal to someone ill. Offering this love of God first given to us is as simple as those actions and yet, as complex as revealing that every action and interaction is an opportunity to testify to the love of Christ from our own experiences. We don’t have to “get it” fully to share it. We simply rest and trust in God’s promise.

Nicodemus didn’t fully understand everything that Jesus said to him here in chapter 3. No, Nicodemus didn’t have to have all of the answers first to be offered wholeness by Jesus, Nicodemus was a work in progress, as we all are. Nicodemus had been unraveled, undone by his encounter with Jesus Christ, but the gift and the promise is that through this same encounter he was woven into wholeness in a relationship with Christ, an experience of the love of God incarnate and so woven into the community that Jesus creates.

Our unraveling through our encounter with Jesus in our lives weaves us into the wholeness of unconditional love of God in Christ, fills us with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, and relationship in the very life of God no matter what we know or don’t know. We are woven into a tight relationship with each other, the people of God, for the purpose of being the love and breathe of God in the world so that ALL people know and experience the wholeness that is available to all through God. In our encounters with Christ, we are unraveled to be made whole. Thanks be to God, Amen.

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

Filed under: sermon — bweier001 @ 1:27 am
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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!