Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
From the time of the earliest church councils to present-day theological debates, the question “Why did God come to earth incarnate in Jesus?” has been front and center. The various answers discerned over the ages by preachers, theologians, Biblical scholars and lay people have filled many books and created many divisions as well.
Think of all the answers we have heard:
1. Jesus came to separate the chaff from the grain, goats from sheep, and to send the former into eternal damnation.
2. Jesus came to save all people, even those who don’t believe he is divine, and to reconcile all people to God in heaven.
3. Jesus came to forgive those who repent and offer them eternal life.
4. Jesus came to bear witness (vs. 11) to God, to teach us God’s way to live. If we follow that way, we will have a world that is whole and peaceful as well as being right with God.
5. Jesus came to die for our sins and satisfy God’s need for a blood sacrifice to cover them. That sacrifice is seen as applying only to those who believe in some cases, or to all in others.
6. Jesus came to defeat evil in all its forms and show the power of God to gain victory over the powers and principalities of the world. His coming affects not only personal salvation but brings political justice to the world.
Without question, all of those responses have Biblical roots and can be justified as truth by citing Scripture. Without question also all of those responses have roots in the deep traditions of the Christian churches. Some of them fit well together but others are contradictory. We have seen some of these contradictions come out in popular culture recently with the popularity of the “Left Behind” series of books and resurgence in conversation about the “rapture.” Is it true that only those who say they believe Jesus, or maybe only those who actually follow both the 10 Commandments and some interpretation of New Testament ethics are going to be reconciled with God and saved from eternal damnation? If so, then what was the point of the blood sacrifice in Jesus’ crucifixion? Will God stay mad at us forever and are we condemned to suffer from human sin until the end times when it will all be wiped out by wiping out the sinners? What about God’s promise after the Flood? These questions tax even the most theologically astute preacher, unless we descend to simple answers. As one member of my church said, “Don’t you have to tell people they will go to hell if they don’t behave? If you don’t scare them, what reason do they have to live good lives?”
Despite the fact that you can certainly read this chapter of John with the emphasis on verse 18 (those who believe in Jesus are saved but those who do not are condemned), the preceding verse seems to give a slightly different emphasis, and therefore, an opportunity to think about all this more deeply. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Jesus’ role, according to this verse, was not meant to be that of condemner. That doesn’t mean he was not to bring to our attention those places where we stray from God’s will; he did that consistently. It does mean that the purpose of God coming to us in flesh was positive, not negative. God came to bring light to those in darkness. God came to show us the way. God came bearing the deep hope that somehow this time enough people might listen so as to bring about the critical mass needed to change the world.
Many of the critics of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” lamented his focus solely on the suffering of the human body of Jesus. Is the blood sacrifice and its efficacy really the sum total of God’s word to us in Jesus? The lack of any real reference to Jesus’ life and teachings (and therefore the lack of any real indication as to why anyone would want to punish him) left out in some viewer’s minds the real reason we lift up Christ as our savior and Lord.
Jesus did not come to scare us into compliance with the divine will. Jesus came to present the joy, the wonder, the hope of the kind of world in which God wants the beloved Creation to dwell. Jesus came to say that God does not desire that we should continue to hurt each other and the rest of creation, but that if we turn from our ways, abundant life will overflow for us. Everyone is invited into the opportunity to see God more clearly in Jesus and therefore love God more by the way we live. It does not seem that the question of believing a set creed about who Jesus was is as important to this goal as examining one’s life and seeking to live as Jesus lived, heeding his words and example. If the point of God coming into the world was to give the world a chance to become a place of joy and hope and love as so much of Jesus’ life and words seem to indicate, then we would do well to attend to those words and example. The goal of God coming in Jesus was not to have to do a repeat of the Flood, something God promised never to repeat. The goal of God coming in Jesus has to do with God loving the world. In all our imperfections and sin, even among the best of us, John still speaks of God as loving the world, not hating it or seeking to destroy it.
This reading of John has an invitational character to it rather than a “scare them into compliance” character. For the many people in American society who have checked out of church in any form, that invitational message of God’s deep desire to be one with them offers hope rather than despair. The message that God did not and will not abandon us to our worst instincts means much in a world where so many people, and the earth itself, feel abandoned and alone. The call to responsibility is also critical, but that needs to follow the assurance of love.
Finally, this is an affirmation of the incarnation of God as a baby. If God had intended to come primarily to call us to account as a condemning judge, surely God would have come in some other form. God came, however, in the human form that personifies hope for a joyous future. The ultimate and eternal hope of God is that all humanity, indeed all creation, might know abundant life.
They are then easily tempted—and there are movements of thought within Western culture which make this temptation all the more powerful—to think that this moment itself is the center of what it means to be a Christian, as though what God wanted was simply to give people a single wonderful spiritual experience, to be remembered ever afterwards with a warm glow.
But that’s a bit like someone framing their birth certificate, hanging it on the wall, and insisting on showing it to everyone who comes into the house. What matters for most purposes is not that once upon a time you were born—though of course sometimes it matters that you can prove when and where you were born. What matters is that you are alive now, and that your present life, day by day and moment by moment, is showing evidence of health and strength and purpose. Physical birth is often painful and difficult, for the baby as well as for the mother. But you don’t spend your life talking about what a difficult birth you had, unless for some tragic reason it has left you with medical problems. You get on with being the person you now are.
So when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the new birth, and when John highlights this conversation by making it the first of several in-depth discussions Jesus has in this gospel, we shouldn’t suppose that this means that we should spend all our time thinking about the moment of our own spiritual birth. It matters that it happened, of course. Sadly, there are many, inside the church as well as outside, whose present state suggests that one ought to go back to examine whether in fact a real spiritual birth took place at all. But where there are signs of life it’s more important to feed and nurture it than to spend much time going over and over what happened at the moment of birth.
In fact, what Jesus says here to Nicodemus is more sharply focused than we sometimes imagine. The Judaism that Nicodemus and Jesus both knew had a good deal to do with being born into the right family. What mattered was being a child of Abraham. Of course, other things mattered too, but this was basic. Now, Jesus is saying, God is starting a new family in which this ordinary birth isn’t enough. You need to be born all over again, born ‘from above’. (The same word, here, can mean ‘a second time’ and ‘from above’. We should probably understand both, with the emphasis on ‘from above’; the point, as with 1:12–13, is that the initiative remains God’s.)
The new birth Jesus is talking about is the same thing that has been spoken of in 1:33. ‘Water and spirit’ here must mean the double baptism: baptism in water, which brings people into the kingdom-movement begun by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus’ disciples (3:22; 4:1–2), and baptism in the spirit, the new life, bubbling up from within, that Jesus offers, which is the main thing that this whole book is about.
The two are closely joined. Nobody in the early church supposed that spirit-baptism mattered so much that you could do without water-baptism. From time to time the problem arose of people assuming that as long as you had water-baptism you didn’t need to worry about the new spiritual life (see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 10:1–13). But the point in this passage is that this double-sided new birth, which brings you into the visible community of Jesus’ followers (water-baptism) and gives you the new life of the spirit welling up like a spring of water inside you (spirit-baptism), was now required for membership in God’s kingdom. Indeed (as Jesus says in verse 3), without it you can’t even see God’s kingdom. You can’t glimpse it, let alone get into it.
As with 1:12–13, the point of this is that God’s kingdom is now thrown open to anyone and everyone. The spirit is on the move, like a fresh spring breeze (verse 8; part of the point here is that the word for ‘wind’, in both Hebrew and Greek, is the same word as you’d use for ‘spirit’), and no human family, tribe, organization or system can keep up with it. Opening the window and letting the breeze in can be very inconvenient, especially for the Nikodemus’s of this world who suppose they have got things tidied up, labelled and sorted into neat piles.
But unless we are prepared to listen to this dangerous message we aren’t ready to listen to the gospel at all. In verses 10–13 we have the first of many passages in which Jesus speaks about a new knowledge—indeed, a new sort of knowing. It’s a way of knowing that comes from God, from heaven.
It’s humbling for Nicodemus to have to be told this. He is, after all, a respected and senior teacher. But this way of knowing, and the new knowledge we get through it, is given by the mysterious ‘son of man’. As we were told in 1:51, he is now the ladder which joins the two dimensions of God’s world, the heavenly and the earthly. If we want to understand not only the heavenly world, but the way in which God is now joining heaven and earth together, we must listen to him, and walk with him on the road he is now to take.
(Wright, T. (John for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-10 [2004, London] pp. 28–31)
For the most part, we see Jesus surrounded by the ordinary people; but here we see him in contact with one of the aristocracies of Jerusalem. There are certain things that we know about Nicodemus.
(1) Nicodemus must have been wealthy. When Jesus died, Nicodemus brought for his body ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ (John 19:39)—and only a wealthy man could have brought that.
(2) Nicodemus was a Pharisee. In many ways, the Pharisees were the best people in the whole country. There were never more than 6,000 of them; they were what was known as a chaburah, or brotherhood. They entered into this brotherhood by taking a pledge in front of three witnesses that they would spend all their lives observing every detail of the scribal law.
What exactly did that mean? To the Jews, the law was the most sacred thing in all the world. The law was the ﬁrst ﬁve books of the Old Testament. They believed it to be the perfect word of God. To add one word to it or to take one word away from it was a deadly sin. Now if the law is the perfect and complete word of God, that must mean that it contained everything that anyone needed to know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was not there in so many words, it must be possible to deduce it. The law as it stood consisted of great, wide, noble principles which people had to work out for themselves. But, for the later Jews, that was not enough. They said: ‘The law is complete; it contains everything necessary for the living of a good life; therefore in the law there must be a regulation to govern every possible incident in every possible moment for every possible individual.’ So they set out to extract from the great principles of the law an inﬁnite number of rules and regulations to govern every conceivable situation in life. In other words, they changed the law of the great principles into the legalism of by-laws and regulations.
The best example of what they did is to be seen in the Sabbath law. In the Bible itself, we are simply told that we must remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy and that on that day no work must be done, either by a man or by his servants or his animals. Not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation deﬁning what work is and listing the things that may and may not be done on the Sabbath day. The Mishnah is the codiﬁed scribal law. The scribes spent their lives working out these rules and regulations. In the Mishnah, the section on the Sabbath extends to no fewer than twenty-four chapters. The Talmud is the explanatory commentary on the Mishnah, and in the Jerusalem Talmud the section explaining the Sabbath law runs to sixty-four and a half columns; and in the Babylonian Talmud it runs to 156 double folio pages. And we are told about a Rabbi who spent two and a half years in studying one of the twenty-four chapters of the Mishnah.
The kind of thing they did was this. To tie a knot on the Sabbath was to work; but a knot had to be deﬁned. ‘The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty; the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.’ On the other hand, knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal. Further, ‘a woman may tie up a slit in her shift and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, of skins of wine and oil’. Now see what happened. Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day. He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman’s girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal. That was the kind of thing which to the scribes and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion; that to them was pleasing and serving God.
Take the case of making a journey on the Sabbath. Exodus 16:29 says: ‘Each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.’ A Sabbath day’s journey was therefore limited to 2,000 cubits, that is, 1,000 yards. But, if a rope was tied across the end of a street, the whole street became one house and a man could go 1,000 yards beyond the end of the street. Or, if a man deposited enough food for one meal on Friday evening at any given place, that place technically became his house and he could go 1,000 yards beyond it on the Sabbath day. The rules and regulations and the evasions piled up by the hundred and the thousand.
Take the case of carrying a burden. Jeremiah 17:21–4 said: ‘For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day.’ So a burden had to be deﬁned. It was deﬁned as ‘food equal in weight to a dried ﬁg, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve’, and so on and on. It had then to be settled whether or not on the Sabbath a woman could wear a brooch, a man could wear an artiﬁcial leg or dentures; or would it be carrying a burden to do so? Could a chair or even a child be lifted? And so on and on the discussions and the regulations went.
It was the scribes who worked out these regulations; it was the Pharisees who dedicated their lives to keeping them. Obviously, however misguided a man might be, he must be desperately in earnest if he proposed to undertake obedience to every one of the thousands of rules. That is precisely what the Pharisees did. The name Pharisee means the separated one; and the Pharisees were those who had separated themselves from all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and it is astonishing that a man who regarded goodness in that light and who had given himself to that kind of life in the conviction that he was pleasing God should wish to talk to Jesus at all.
(3) Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. The word is archōn. This is to say that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a court of seventy members and was the supreme court of the Jews. Of course, under the Romans its powers were more limited than once they had been; but they were still extensive. In particular the Sanhedrin had religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world; and one of its duties was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet. Again it is amazing that Nicodemus should come to Jesus at all.
(4) It may well be that Nicodemus belonged to a distinguished Jewish family. Way back in 63 BC when the Romans and the Jews had been at war, Aristobulus, the Jewish leader, sent a certain Nicodemus as his ambassador to Pompey, the Roman emperor. Much later in the terrible last days of Jerusalem, the man who negotiated the surrender of the garrison was a certain Gorion, who was the son of either Nicomedes or Nicodemus. It may well be that both these men belonged to the same family as our Nicodemus, and that it was one of the most distinguished families in Jerusalem. If that is true, it is amazing that this Jewish aristocrat should come to this homeless prophet who had been the carpenter of Nazareth, that he might talk to him about his soul.
It was by night that Nicodemus came to Jesus. There were probably two reasons for that.
(1) It may have been a sign of caution. Nicodemus quite frankly may not have wished to commit himself by coming to Jesus by day. We must not condemn him. The wonder is that with his background, he came to Jesus at all. It was inﬁnitely better to come at night than not at all. It is a miracle of grace that Nicodemus overcame his prejudices and his upbringing and his whole view of life enough to come to Jesus.
(2) But there may be another reason. The Rabbis declared that the best time to study the law was at night when it could be done undisturbed. Throughout the day, Jesus was surrounded by crowds of people all the time. It may well be that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he wanted an absolutely private and completely undisturbed time with Jesus.
Nicodemus was a puzzled man, a man with many honors and yet with something lacking in his life. He came to Jesus for a talk so that somehow in the darkness of the night he might ﬁnd light. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of John [2001, Edinburgh] Rev. and updated., Vol. 1, pp. 140–145)
John’s third chapter gets under way, a man named Nicodemus arrives at an undisclosed place in Jerusalem. He has come to check out the new rabbi in town—a maverick teacher who literally whipped this year’s Passover festivities into a frenzy by driving the money changers from the temple (2:13–22). Nicodemus sports an impressive pedigree. He is a Pharisee—a person of rigorous piety. He is a leader of the Jews, perhaps occupying a seat on the council of elders—the Sanhedrin. Despite these credentials, however, Nicodemus arrives at night, under the cover of darkness, to conduct his investigation after the public eye has shut. Why is Nicodemus interested in secrecy? Has he come out of personal curiosity and is afraid to let other Pharisees know of his interest? Perhaps. But Nicodemus’s words to Jesus suggest otherwise. “We,” he says, as in “we” the folks who run the show around here. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” It sounds like a compliment, or at least a recognition of the legitimacy of Jesus’ ministry. After all, chapter 2 does conclude with testimony to signs and miracles, things that cannot be done without the presence of God (2:23–25). Maybe Nicodemus is a representative of those who have come to believe during the Passover celebration? Yet it is only while the masses lie fast asleep that the Pharisee risks his off-the-record remark, “We know you have come from God.” Having said that, Nicodemus waits, carefully watching to see how Jesus will respond. Will the new rabbi fit in with the rest of the teachers, elders, and priests—the religious establishment in Jerusalem? Or was that stunt at the temple evidence of a lone ranger intent on bucking the system?
Jesus’ response is one of the most familiar in all of Scripture: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:3). The possibility of rebirth provided by Jesus has a captivating allure—hinting at the possibility of new life. It is not surprising that Christian movements like American revivalism have latched onto this compelling image as a central expression of a person’s commitment to a fresh start in faith. But to Nicodemus it sounds like a bad riddle. How can anyone be born after growing old? Reentering the womb is a physical impossibility. But even as the Pharisee protests, Jesus persists, “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 crucial Greek word here is anōthen. You must be born anōthen. It means either “from above” or “again.” The ambiguity seems deliberate. For when Nicodemus obsesses over the physical impossibility of this event, Jesus is provided an opportunity to push the envelope even further. “Listen closely,” says Jesus. “Yes, born again.” But this is not a physical rebirth, not a second trip through life. I am talking about being born from above born of the Spirit. Faced with a concept so scandalous, Nicodemus sputters, “How can these things be?” (3:9). What began as a clandestine attempt to check out the new guy in town has evolved into a challenging theological lesson that shakes the spiritual world of the Pharisee.
In preaching on this passage, we should attend to the fact that being “born again/from above” is an image that suggests that we have little choice in the matter. It is ironic that many Christians treat the question, “Are you born again?” as if it involves making a decision for God. Yet babies do not decide to be born. Indeed, the central feature of this textual image seems to preclude our active role in the process. Instead, God is the primary player in this passage. With this in mind, more than a few interpreters have argued that this chapter provides readers with John’s equivalent to a birth narrative. Unlike the stories found in Matthew and Luke that focus on the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, John focuses on the spiritual birth of the Christian. What does that look like? How can we detect the presence of the Spirit in someone’s life? That seems to be a difficult question to answer. It is an elusive thing, Jesus tells Nicodemus, for like the wind in the treetops, you cannot see the gusts of air themselves but only hear the results of their passing presence (v. 8). Perhaps then, being born from above is something that can only be discerned over time. One trajectory for a sermon along these lines could trace the life of Nicodemus as it plays out in John. The next time he appears in John’s Gospel (7:50–52) the chief priests and Pharisees are trying to get Jesus arrested. As the temple authorities chastise the police, first for not nabbing Jesus and second for not knowing the law, Nicodemus speaks up to defend Jesus with his knowledge of the law. The final time Nicodemus shows up in John’s Gospel, we watch as the Pharisee assists Joseph of Arimathea in embalming the body of Jesus after it is removed from the cross (19:39–42). Clearly, something has happened in the life of this Pharisee, and heeding Jesus’ comments about the Spirit, we might conclude that the skeptical Nicodemus provides us with an example of new birth.
This text is suggested as one of the lessons for Trinity Sunday. Often Trinity Sunday is referred to as an “idea feast” in recognition of the fact that instead of a concrete event in the life of Christ (e.g., Good Friday), this particular day has its roots in a complex set of doctrinal formulations. Often sermons on this day fail because they set as their admirable, but unreachable, goal the exposition of the “idea” of the Trinity in twenty minutes. This text frees preachers from that approach to Trinity Sunday, for instead of an idea we encounter the Trinity in this text through a series of divine actions. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are at work here. The Holy Spirit birthing God’s children; the Father begetting and sending the Son; and the Son testifying to the Father and the Spirit. In this text the actions of the triune God are focused on God’s desire to be near to us, engaging us and shaping us to be a holy people. This brings us to verse 16 and what Martin Luther called “The Gospel in Brief.” The impetus behind God’s desire to see us born of the Spirit is love. God’s love is portrayed by Jesus in a sweeping manner—God loves (agapē) all of creation, the cosmos. Out of this expansive love, God sent the Son into the world to bring eternal life (v. 16) and salvation for all. This reflects one of the most interesting aspects of trinitarian study. The bond which unites the persons of the triune God is also the bond extended to us—love. (Johnston, S. B. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Volume three pp. 495–498)
The Christian Basics are well illustrated in these verses. Concentrate upon the one that might be the most help to your congregation.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Adolescent psychologist and social workers lament an all-too-common practice among teenage girls over the past 10 years or so. Girls are cutting themselves with razor blades in order to relieve stress. This practice seems to be similar to anorexia and bulimia as ways girls seek to deal with unhappiness over their bodies and their lives as a whole. If they understood that God came in Jesus because God loves the world and all the bodies in it, would they continue this practice?
God came in the flesh not to save us by taking us out of our flesh, but by teaching us to live in our flesh. God came not to make us other than human, but to teach us how to be human in God’s image.
Those raised on the image of God as the condemner often feel about God as some children do about Santa Claus. “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”
Parents understand the difference between eternal condemnation and salvation through accountability and grace. If a child misbehaves, even in a big way, loving parents do not say “Leave this house and never return for you are no longer my child.” Rather they hold the child accountable for the consequences of the act and then love them into reconciliation.
One of the delicate balancing acts in talking about just how Jesus “saves” us concerns the issue of works righteousness. Is it a pure act of Jesus who saves or do we need to do something in order to earn that salvation? It gets tricky because there are those who would say we don’t need to “do” something, although we do have to “say” something, namely that Jesus is our Lord. Thus those who say a good person (the example is usually someone like Gandhi) who was not a Christian cannot be saved because he did not profess belief in Jesus. But a person who professes this belief but does not live a life consistent with that belief may also not be saved. Hence, works righteousness.
As Jesus words to Nicodemus speak of rebirth by water and Spirit, the celebration of the sacrament of Baptism is a wonderful time to talk about issues of salvation. If we baptize an adult, we do so because they have made a choice to profess belief in Jesus. If we baptize a child, however, the issue of grace becomes ever more prominent. Neither the child, nor the parents or sponsors for that matter, have “done” anything to merit the promise of forgiveness. The parents are entrusting the child to God, and to the church, believing that the child is saved and therefore will be given guidance, education and encouragement in how to live a godly life.
The sacrament of Baptism in the early Christian churches and in the Orthodox churches to this day include a rite of exorcism. This is meant to ritually indicate that the one baptized is indeed saved from evil and dedicated to God for the rest of their lives. In some traditions, the one baptized is stripped and anointed top to bottom with oil so that Satan’s hands will slip off if he tries to grab them as they go into the waters! That protection is understood to continue throughout the life of the one baptized.
Because of God’s great love for us that was shown in Jesus Christ, we clearly see that we are all someone in God’s eyes. Therefore, as far as God is concerned, no one is a nobody. According to Reuters (7/9/04), a wealthy man drove his luxury car into a parking lot. As he did, a parking lot attendant motioned to the spot where the man was supposed to pull in. But the rich man ignored the attendant and pulled in another space instead. Soon the two of them got into an argument, with the attendant trying to explain to the rich man why he was not allowed to park where he did. Eventually the wealthy man ended the conversation by sneering at the parking lot attendant and saying, “You are nobody!” Fortunately the attendant did not take that insult lying down. He took the rich man to court, where a judge ruled that telling someone that they are nobody is not only impolite, but it’s illegal. The judge found the rich man guilty of slander and fined him 300 euros plus 500 euros in court costs. The incident took place in Trieste, in the northeastern section of Italy. Under Italian law, slander is punishable by a maximum fine of 516 euros.
Condemnation, particularly of those who are different from us in some way, is a common occurrence in our world. In particular, in India, where the caste system persists, much of the population there views the “Untouchables”—or as they are now known, the “Dalits”—with condemnation. Martin Macwan is the founder of a human rights organization in the city of Ahmadabad which provides legal and social services primarily to the poor Dalits in the surrounding state of Gujurat. One day a higher-caste woman appeared at the door of the agency. Some of her family members had been imprisoned, and she was visibly shaken by what had happened. She immediately needed bail money and an attorney. But she did not have the money or the right contacts to get anything done. Because of the way that many upper-caste Indians treat the Dalits—subjecting them to all kinds of indignities and sometimes even murdering them—some of Macwan’s colleagues thought it would be right if he threw the woman out of their office. Instead, Macwan offered the troubled woman a glass of water. At first the woman took the glass and stared at it, realizing that custom forbid her from drinking it, since it had been provided by an “Untouchable.” Yet as she sat there holding the glass in her hand, she could tell that what Macwan was saying was, “If you drink the water, I’ll help you. But if you’re not willing to risk your privileged status, if you are not willing to treat a Dalit as an equal, you walk out empty-handed.” Finally she took a sip from the glass. From that day on, Macwan decided that anytime a higher-caste person comes into his office, he would use that water glass test. (Ellis Cose, Bone to Pick: Of Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Reparation, and Revenge [New York: Atria, 2004], p 96)
The work of salvation continues to go on in the world. Many missionaries speak of the “10/40 window.” The term was coined by Luis Bush when he spoke at a major Protestant global evangelism conference in Manila in July of 1989. The numerals 10/40 refer to the latitudinal band of the globe ranging from 10 degrees north of the equator to 40 degrees south of it. That region of the earth contains the overwhelming majority of the major ethnic and religious communities and nations that have not yet converted to Christianity. (David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power [Washington: Regnery, 2003], p 194)
Some of the first American settlers evidenced their belief that God desires all people’s salvation by translating the Bible into the languages of the Native Americans. In fact, the first Bible ever printed in any language in North America was John Eliot’s translation of the Scriptures into the Massachusett language in 1663. (Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004], p 74)
This familiar passage in the Gospel of John drives home the point that God is concerned not only with our own personal salvation, but that God is interested in saving the world. Despite our tendency to think in individualistic terms, the passage invites us to see our salvation as being related to the salvation of all other people. In an old movie called The Defiant Ones, two escaped convicts are shown chained together. The one man is black, the other is white. Eventually the two of them fall into a ditch that has steep, slippery sides. The one convict proceeds to claw his way almost to the top of the ditch. But just as he is about to get out of the hole, he realizes that he can’t make it because he’s still chained to the other convict, who is still down in the ditch. So the convict slides back down toward him, realizing that the only way one of them can make it out of the ditch is if both of them do. (Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time [New York: Doubleday, 2004], p 27)
In previous centuries in England, it was common for people to affirm their belief in the salvation that God offers by beginning their wills to a reference to it. Prior to the Reformation era, it was common to find wills starting by bequeathing the person’s soul to “God, Our Lady, and the holy company of heaven.” After the Reformation impacted England, Protestants wanted to emphasize that salvation was a gift from God alone, and so their wills began with a plea hoping to be saved only by the merits of Jesus Christ. Historians have frequently examined old wills to see which wording was used as a way of determining where and when the Reformation took hold in various parts of England. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History [New York: Viking, 2004], p 557)
Professor Belden C. Lane often tells about the unusual way his son would play hide-and-seek. Whenever his son would hide, when he found a spot he liked, he would bellow, “Ready!” Of course, by yelling that, he gave away his location. So his father kept reminding him that the point of the game was to hide and to not give away where you were. But the child kept doing what he always did, yelling “Ready!” whenever he found his spot. Finally it dawned on the father what his son was thinking. His son was finding joy in being found each time. After all, what fun is it if you never get discovered? These memorable words in John remind us that no matter how much we might try to hide ourselves from God, God won’t give up until we are found. (Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God: what can we expect to find? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], p 116)
God’s love comes to us regardless of our worthiness or unworthiness: “Grace teaches us that God loves us because of who God is, not because of who we are.” (Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997], p 280)
I knew I needed to be among God’s people when I returned from combat and only God’s mercy allowed me to find a satisfying place of healing on my second attempt. I had to drive 30 miles to find nourishing spiritual relief. But I was a hurting, hungry man and would have gone anywhere, for my soul realized instinctively that the source of help had to come from somewhere - and from somebody - besides my own dark imagination.
By any measure we are a culture awash in religious information and spiritual curiosity. By any scale we are a nation infested with belief about God and prayer. By any survey we are a people free to pursue any cult we so desire. This speaks of America’s great spiritual hunger and of our deep awareness that without religious truth all other social values are bankrupt.
Nicodemus embodies primary cultural view of Jesus—he’s a teacher whose words and life generally looks ‘religious.’ Unfortunately every ‘-ist’ from womanist, liberationist, evangelist, militarist, finds their truth in his words. Ultimately people who follow these “-ist’s” discover they cannot divorce Jesus words about living life in God from his words about himself. We cannot separate Jesus’ actions done by God’s Spirit from the continuing activity of his people’s best activity, also done by following his teachings.
Nicodemus illustrates primary seeker view of Jesus—his heart is still capable of wonder and his mind is still able to be informed by new information rather than old prejudices. Unfortunately most contemporary seekers resist exposing themselves to Jesus’ own words and seeking his own face. We prefer the learned words of theorists rather than the simple words of the Gospel accounts. We prefer the sophisticated double-talk of contemporary apologists rather than the simple discipline of being reformed by Jesus. Jesus’ words trouble us because they lead, ultimately, to the Cross.
St. Augustine wrote that our hearts would remain restless until they found their rest in God. Our culture and this world certainly illustrates the breadth and depth of human restlessness. Our hunger for spiritual vitality is growing and our interest in religion reawakening as people discover their own dark imaginings have led them to dead ends. This can be a moment of opportunity for Christ’s people because we know the source of true life, we know the root of hope and the headwater of genuine faith - Jesus Christ!
The very Creator who started off looking for us in the Garden, who sought out Abraham with a promise and liberated slaves in Egypt is still looking for faithful people. Jesus embodies the searching power of God who comes among us with healing, life-transforming power. Jesus is the one with authority to forgive because he’s the one who created us. He’s the one with liberty to set us free because he’s the one who remembers we’re dust and incapable of freeing ourselves.
Philosophers have trouble with the notion that God lacks anything. But ‘love’ isn’t logical and God is Love. So God’s heart hungers for us, searches us out, wants us back, buys us back before we’re able to admit that we’re still in the chains of slavery. Neither those who knew Jesus the best (Peter et.al) or those who sought him out from among the learned (Nicodemus) understood Jesus. But those who had a heart hungry for the words of life, whether rich or poor, recognized him at once.
I really didn’t want to admit that I’d gotten confused in my directions at night on a Boy Scout camp that I’d been attending for years. Whether it was the conversation with another Scoutmaster, lack of stars overhead, a wrong turn doesn’t matter; I suddenly realized I was disoriented. It hurt so good to finally see the building where we were supposed to be twenty minutes ago and walk in on a meeting already in progress. Feeling embarrassed was preferable to being disoriented. Retracing my steps with a flashlight was instructive and humbling. I felt fortunate only in that my penchant for preparation had equipped me with proper equipment to help me walk toward genuine light. Walking toward the light is how we describe moral conversion and spiritual discipleship. This is a task made more difficult in today’s world because we now have lighthouses set upon shoals and bonfires fueled by our vanities. But the Light who is Jesus Christ remains undimmed and present to all those with courage to acknowledge disorienting darkness and ask for guidance.
Jesus tells us the truth and it hurts in the good way that truth always hurts - “men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” These words are not politically correct; they are just ‘true.’ These words are not comfortable news, they are just good information. Truth and goodness, experienced as light, make a difference in our eternal destiny and our temporal safety. As the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church says, ‘no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a person’s opinions are.” It hurts to be reminded that our constitution as well as the Bible remind us of this Light; but it is a good hurt, a hurt that can save us if we do insist that saving truth never require uncomfortable self-examination.
As anyone who has been inside of a cave can tell you, it takes just a little bit of light banishes darkness. So Jesus comes with enough to be reassuring rather than frightening. Light is acceptance of our location, but not approval of our position. By the time Christ reaches us, we’ve managed to frighten ourselves pretty well, so that we often view Christ as one more threat. He is a threat but only to our sin; he is light to our soul. Christ’s light helps us recognize him rather than gazing at ourselves. Christ’s light allows us to see enough of where we ought to be so we can take the next right step on our own.
Sometimes it is supremely unloving to let someone ‘make their own mistakes.’ By the time Jesus finds us, we’ve made enough mistakes to demonstrate that our way only leads farther down the wrong highway. Jesus loves us enough to instruct us in a more excellent way. Jesus loves us enough to offer us a severe mercy – we have to give up our darkness and whatever it is that still confuses darkness with light. Jesus has a patience that can outlast our rebellion and fear, but our destination will remain unchanged until we truly turn toward him.
In our pride we think we’ve walked toward the light and that we deserve to be forgiven. The reality is that for each step we take, Jesus comes miles. Jesus comes to us where we are so that we can get to where he’s created us to be. Jesus tells us what to avoid so we don’t keep injuring ourselves. Jesus guides us toward the mansion he’s already prepared, and our arrival at the mansion’s door depends on his truth not our correctness. The foundation of the mansion is his love not our goodness. It sometimes takes an entire lifetime for us to begin to be grasped by this truth.
Aligning our belief and conduct according to Scripture requires courage and a willingness to admit we are disoriented. Accepting Jesus’ Lordship in our heart calls for faith and a desire to have Jesus at the center of our life more than anything (or anyone) else. Personal Bible study is the mag light on our belt we can turn to when we’re confused about the truth, disoriented by temptation and distressed by illness. It would be more palatable to our sophisticated self if there was a more fancy way that would help us get reoriented – but then we’d be back on the road that got us lost in the first place: our own pride rather than the wisdom of Christ.
The gentle but firm humanoid alien in the classic 1950’s sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still, like Jesus, came to earth to save, and not to condemn. His race has become concerned that warlike earthlings are on the threshold of space travel and might spread their madness. While they remained bound to earth, they were of little threat to the civilized planets, but now they have both atomic power, which they have used in warfare, and the beginnings of space travel, so the alien has been sent as an emissary to warn the governments of earth to shape up—or else. That the civilized planets have good reason for their fear is evidenced by the way in which the alien and his robot companion Gort are received upon landing on the Mall in Washington, DC. Perceiving the strange vehicle as a threat, soldiers and tanks immediately surround it, guns leveled at the flying saucer- like space vessel. The soldiers are taken aback when the door of the craft opens and the alien, accompanied by the tall robot, emerge. One of the nervous soldiers fires a shot that kills the alien. After destroying some of the tanks and artillery, Gort picks up his companion and takes him back into the ship, where he is able to revive him, although for but a short period of time. The alien slips into Washington in order to learn more about the war-like race he has come to warn. Finding a room at a boarding house, he befriends a mother and her boy, thus learning that not all humans are hostile. After a series of encounters, he returns to his ship, leaving after a short speech in which he warns that others will be back to find out whether earthlings have learned their lesson and abandoned their ancient hostilities to come together in peace. To show the parallel with the life and teaching of a famous founder of a religion, the scriptwriter reported in an interview that he had the alien assume the name “Mr. Carpenter” when he went undercover.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
O God, You are help and redeemer, to whom we look for life and meaning. We come at your call to honor and adore You, and to pledge our hearts anew to You and your service. Amen.
Dear God, we know that You sent your Son to save, not to condemn, but still, here in your presence, we feel condemned for the small and mean thoughts, unkind acts, and failure to help others we have experienced this past week. We thank You that You have given us this means of making things right, and so we do wholeheartedly beg your forgiveness once again. Make us new, that we might serve You better this coming week, and that when and if we sin, we will at least not repeat the same ones again. This we ask in the name of the One who died on the cross for us, Amen.
May this act of giving, O God, Maker of heaven and earth, be but one of many ways in which we serve You this week, Amen.
Loving God, in your word we read that we must “be born again.” We pray that this experience will always be uppermost in our minds, that we will not fall back into old ways. The words mean different things to different people: for some a powerful event at a specific time, accompanied by strong emotions. For others, “born again” comes over a long period of time, as slow and gentle as the opening of a rose bud. However, we thank You that at some point in our lives we realize that we belong completely to You, thanks to the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, and that to return to the old ways of the world is to cross a line and betray You.
May You continue to fill our hearts and minds with your Spirit that we will grow in our service and knowledge, becoming each day a better disciple, that through our lives the fruits of your Spirit will spring forth. We pray now in comfortable pews, knowing that many of your children are hungry, burdened by poverty, racism and other forms of oppression, and so we pray for them and ask that You use us in some way to lighten their burdens. Be with our President (Prime Minister etc) and members of Congress (Parliament etc), that they will know your way and seek to govern in justice and peace. This, and more, we pray in the name of Him who is Lord of nations, even Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.