Sunday, March 20, 2011

2nd Sunday of Lent - March 20, 2011

I’d like to tell you the tale of Nicodemus this morning, or the first part of it anyways.  It’s a sad account, though you might not guess it.  It’s sad, not so much because of what was said, for these words are among the most beloved in all the world, but because of the words that weren’t said.  Like so many conversations that matter in our lives, it only takes a few words to make all the difference.

Let’s start by taking a look at the end of John chapter two, the verses right before our gospel lesson.  Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover festival.  This is near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and he is making quite a splash.  He has been teaching and preaching and performing “signs.”  It doesn’t tell us exactly what those signs were, but likely they were healings and exorcisms.  And he is butting up against the religious authorities, not least because he threw all the moneychangers out of the temple and caused a ruckus, but also because some people are seeing these signs and are starting to believe in him on the basis of the signs.  People are beginning to believe in him based on some signs that he has performed.  They see with their eyes some miracles and they make the judgment with their heads, “Wow, this guy can heal the sick; he must be somebody special.” 

Now Jesus isn’t a big fan of this kind of belief.  It seems that “belief” that is based on signs does not meet with his approval.  This is what it says, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover festival, many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”  Belief of the eyes, belief that comes from people making judgments based on evidence, belief that is produced by the self does not meet the approval of Jesus.

Now Nicodemus enters the story.  Actually, he’s already been in it.  He’s one of those folks we’ve just been talking about.  So let’s hear that last passage again.  “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.  But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.  Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus......”

The gospel writer is telling us something about who Nicodemus is.  He is a “man.”  He is a man like the ones we’ve just spoken about.  He is a man who sees things in terms of signs and then thinks that he can understand, thinks that he can make proper judgments.  But no, we have been told that Jesus sees what is in the heart of such men.  And it doesn’t sound good.  This conclusion is reinforced by another bit of information that we are given.  Nicodemus arrives in the dark.  Does this mean that he comes at nighttime?  Yes, but it’s a double meaning.  Nicodemus arrives without understanding.  Nicodemus has seen the signs that Jesus has performed and he thinks he understands and can make judgments, but he cannot; he is in the dark. 

And that is what makes his first words almost humorous if they weren’t so sad.  This blind man among blind men comes to Jesus and says as confident as you like, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  Wrong.  Nicodemus knows no such thing.

Jesus interrupts him and changes the subject immediately.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  What?  Nicodemus has come to Jesus to talk about what Jesus is doing and by whose authority he is doing it.  Jesus ignores that and starts talking about Nicodemus, and what he must do.  “You must be born from above.” he says.  Other translations put it, “You must be born again.”  Either way, Jesus is getting at the same thing.  Instead of being put on the spot by Nicodemus, he is putting Nicodemus on the spot.  Nicodemus and the others who “believed” in Jesus thought that they were capable of judging the situation, “We see the signs, therefore, according to our judgment, you must be......”  They don’t have a clue and Jesus know this very well.  And so he begins to attack this presumption. 

He attacks the presumption by demanding the impossible.  “You must be born again.”  He may as well have asked Nicodemus to fly like a chickadee or grow a horn on his head.  It is an impossible demand.  Nicodemus is absolutely befuddled by it.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  We can laugh at this ridiculous question if we like, but Nicodemus has it mostly right.  “How is the impossible supposed to be possible?”  Good question.

Jesus answers by adding another measure of the impossible, “You must be born of water and Spirit.”  This is more of the same.  Jesus is pointing to what must happen; But how?  How in the world is Nicodemus supposed to be born of water and Spirit?  He doesn’t even get the chance to ask another question or think it over, because Jesus just plows ahead, attacking poor Nicodemus.  “The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus says, “and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The wind, the Spirit is totally out of Nicodemus’ control.  It blows where it chooses to blow, it doesn’t ask his permission or even consult him.  The Spirit has free will.  Nicodemus does not.

At this point, you might say that Nicodemus is blown away.  He asks weakly, “How can these things be?”  Jesus responds, “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”  Jesus knows very well that Nicodemus cannot, CANNOT, understand these things.  Not by himself.  Not by his own wisdom.  Not because he saw some signs.  ........  The problem is that Nicodemus thinks that he can understand.  The problem is that Nicodemus thinks that he can believe for himself.  But he cannot.  He cannot conjure up belief within himself.

Jesus continues with just six words more.  “No one has ascended into heaven......” he says.  And this is the bad news cherry on top of the bad news Sundae.  There is no hope.  No one has ascended into heaven.  All your best efforts, Nicodemus, fall short.  You cannot know by yourself.  You cannot believe by yourself.  All of your attempts are worth exactly squat.  Zero.  Zilch........   Nicodemus doesn’t say a word.

Jesus finishes his sentence and dawn breaks.  “No one has ascended into heaven EXCEPT THE ONE WHO DESCENDED FROM HEAVEN, the Son of Man.”  There is, in fact, ONE.  There is ONE who is able.  And so here is the beginning of hope.  Here is the beginning of the gospel.  Because God has sent Jesus to be among us.  None have ascended, but God has descended.  He has become a man.  And still Nicodemus is silent.

Jesus continues, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up........”  The good news starts with God becoming a man, a mere servant.  Now the good news continues with that man being nailed to a cross.  Jesus continues, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  We’re almost there.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life!” 

But wait.  Wait a second.  There is something wrong here.  “Whosoever believes?”  Jesus has been putting Nicodemus through the wringer, telling him, in effect, that he cannot do what is necessary, that he cannot understand, that he cannot create his own faith.  And at the end of all of that, at just the moment we would expect for Jesus to speak words of comfort directly to Nicodemus, instead he makes a beautiful, poetic generalization.  And what’s more, there is a condition.  The very thing that Nicodemus cannot produce, faith,  is the thing that is required. What is a man like Nicodemus to do? 

And there again, as always, is the problem.  There is nothing to be done.  Nicodemus isn’t capable of doing what is required.  He is entirely at the mercy of  Jesus. 

And here is why I find this story to be sad.  And here is where I want just a few more words.  I want to hear Jesus say, “Nicodemus, God loves you.  Your sins are forgiven.  You cannot produce your own faith, but I give you mine.”  But we don’t hear it.  We don’t know what was said. 

And so I want to make absolutely sure that you hear those words. 
Not just the words that condemn,
nor words that leave you wondering,
but words from outside of you that create faith within you. 
"For God so loved you, that he gave his only son, so that you should not perish, but have eternal life.”

Sunday, March 13, 2011

1st Sunday of Lent - March 13, 2011

It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.  It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness.  It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity.  It was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness.  It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.  We had everything before us; we had nothing before us.  We were all going direct to heaven; we were all going direct the other way." 

Today, we plunge not into the world of Charles Dickens and his Tale of Two Cities, but into Adam and Eve’s world, the world of darkness and sin, selfishness and self-reliance,  on the one hand.  And on the other, the world in which some glimmers of redemption are beginning to shine, the world of Jesus Christ.  We plunge into both worlds, which are linked by a common experience, temptation.  We plunge into these worlds which are our own.  For these are both worlds in which we reside.

First, in the garden, we hear about Adam and Eve, living in a paradise where God has provided everything for them.  They do not know any of the cares of our life.  They do not know hunger, biting cold nor sweltering heat, hatred nor uncertainty.  They do not know sickness.  They do not know death.  And yet into this paradise comes temptation.  The serpent comes and tempts them with the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  He entices them.  "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'"  Eve replies, "We may eat of the fruits of the trees in the garden, but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, neither shall you touch it lest you die."  The serpent continues his temptation, “ You shall not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Well then, there are Adam and Eve, facing a choice, right?  "What do we do?"  The prospect of being like God and knowing good and evil wins the day.  They eat the fruit.  Then they realize that they are naked.  They try to cover up their sin, but it is too late.  They chose the evil over the good.  So there is the temptation of the first lesson.  Adam and Eve fail the test and sin and death enters the world.  It was the worst of times indeed.

So what about the temptation in our gospel lesson?  Here we've got a much different situation.  Instead of taking place in a beautiful garden, where there is plentiful food and companionship, where there is no sin and no death, it takes place in the wilderness, in a wasteland, where there is no food and very little water.  It is a wasteland where no one goes at all because it is so inhospitable to life.  And Jesus is led there by the Spirit.  After forty days of fasting and being baked by the heat, the Devil appears to him with a temptation.  "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loves of bread."  Unlike Adam and Eve, who had a garden full of food to eat when they were tempted, Jesus has nothing.  He is starving.  It would be understandable if he were to use his power to provide for himself.  But he doesn't.  The Devil tries again two times, taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and to a very high mountain.  The Devil even quotes scripture to Jesus to try to convince him to give in to temptation.  But Jesus stands firm.  Choices are set before him, just like they were set before Adam and Eve and he makes the right choices.

So then, we can see clearly enough the moral of the lessons this morning.  Adam and Eve were tempted and made a lousy choice.  Jesus Christ was tempted and made good choices.   Yes, the moral is clear enough for us: Make good choices!  Well, if you buy that, I've got a Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl ring that I can sell to you cheap.  

That is not the point!!!

Let's take a quick look at those stories again.  First, Adam and Eve.  They didn't trust God and so because they did not trust him they were faced with a decision.  ... The problem with Adam and Eve isn't that they made a lousy choice.  The problem came before that.  The problem is that they didn't trust God.  Imagine, for a moment, that Adam and Eve actually trusted God.  Some snake comes up to them and starts badmouthing their creator, their father.  If they trusted God, what would they have done?  “Push off you stupid snake!  Our God wants good things for us and we trust him.  We don’t even know you!”  But no, that isn’t what happens.  They do not trust God and so the words of the serpent find willing ears.  This lack of trust in God has a name.  It is called sin.

Jesus too is faced with temptations.  But unlike Adam and Eve, he isn't led astray because he trusts his father.  He trusts that his Father will do what is best, no matter what anyone else may say.  Because he trusts, he isn't relying on himself.  He doesn't have to worry about doing something miraculous to feed himself, because he knows God will provide.  He doesn't have to worry about proving himself with some fancy miracle, because God's plan for him will work just fine without unnecessary bells and whistles that some other yahoo comes up with.  This trust has a name.  It is called faith.  Faith in his father will  lead Jesus all the way to the cross.  

I have something to tell you today.  You have got a foot in both of these worlds.  You are Adam.  And you are Christ.  Here is how.  You were born into the sin of Adam, the sin of unbelief.  But in baptism God chose you for his own.  There was no decision there for you to make.  God drowned your old Adam in the waters of baptism and made you like Jesus Christ, a new creation who lives by faith.  But, as Martin Luther once wrote, the old Adam is a good swimmer.  And so we die daily to sin by repenting, by confessing our sin to God. 

Confusing?  Well, the long and the short of it is that we go through life, living as both an old sinful creature like Adam, incapable of choosing or doing the right thing, incapable of living by faith.  And we also go through life living as a faithful child of God like Jesus Christ, incapable of doing anything but trusting our Father. The good news that I have for you this morning is that when God looks at you, he does not see the old sinner.  He doesn’t see the old Adam or Eve that just can’t trust.  No, God doesn't see a sinner; he sees his Son.  He looks at you and he sees his son.  To return to our opening quotation from Dickens: God is pleased with you.  Amen
"It was the best of times.  It was the age of wisdom.  It was the epoch of belief.  It was the season of Light.  It was the spring of hope.  We had everything before us.  We were all going direct to heaven."  It is the best of times, indeed, for

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Because there are a few people (or at least Mom) who might like to read the sermons of the pastor in question.  And also because electronic record keeping makes a lot of sense.  I'll even be able to do word searches, "Have I ever mentioned Hezekiah in a sermon?"

Transfiguration - March 6, 2011

Up at the top of a tall mountain, you see the world a little differently. Roads and rivers are mere ribbons in the valley below; speeding cars crawl and churning boats make no progress at all. Vast lakes seem to be mere puddles. The horizon bends so that you can actually see with your eyes the curve of the earth. One can look in any direction and see for miles upon miles upon miles. In a word, it is glorious.

God our creator, the maker of heaven and earth, of the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small, of the lush and vibrant, of the hard and unyielding, of the long ago and the yet to come, God the Lord of life and ruler of death, God the judge over all creation including ourselves, especially ourselves, God is glorious.

Our lessons this morning point to glory. The first lesson testifies, “Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai ; and the cloud covered it for six days.” There is glory here. The second lesson testifies, “For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is glory here, majestic glory even. And our gospel lesson testifies, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” There is glory here, is there not? Yes there is.

And so one would be forgiven if she were to think that our gospel lesson today was all about glory. Everything points to glory. The glory shines. But our gospel is not about glory. Glory is only the frame in which a masterpiece is displayed. So what is this masterpiece? What is it that steals all the glory from glory? We shall see in due time.

One of the attributes of glory is that it attracts attention. We want to look at it. Even when it isn't the point, we want to look at it. Even when we are told that it isn't important, we still want to look at it. That certainly is the case with the people around Jesus. Take the disciples, for example. Just prior to coming up the mountain, Jesus was giving them a little blunt talk about what was important. Let me read it, "From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed..." A few verses later Jesus continues, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." These are not words about glory. They are words about dying and suffering. This, Jesus says, is the point.

So then, after getting this blunt and sobering lesson about what is really important, Jesus takes three disciples up on the mountaintop with him where they see him transfigured, bathed in the glory of God. Immediately all that talk about death and suffering, that we just read, goes down the memory hole. It vanishes from their minds altogether and Peter says, "Lord it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah." Peter sees the glory and he wants to hold onto it. He wants to make it permanent. He's willing to make some buildings if only the glory will stay. You see, the glory is something that he understands and desires. He earnestly desires for God to be at work in his time and place. And since God is glorious, God must work with glory to accomplish his purposes. This experience on the mountaintop is exactly what Peter has been waiting for. All that talk about dying and suffering didn't quite make sense, but seeing a powerful, glorious Jesus? That makes all the sense in the world. So this is a dream come true.

And then the very voice of God comes, booming and impressive, glorious. And God says, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him." This is all brilliant. It's just perfect. It's glorious. Peter and the disciples fall to the ground and hide their faces. They are in awe. It couldn't get any more perfect.

And then Jesus begins to speak. "Get up," he says. And so they do. And the glory is gone. Elijah and Moses are gone. The cloud is gone. The light is gone. The booming voice of God is gone. The glory is gone. And they are left to climb down the mountain to the valley below. And as they walk down, Jesus tells them again what is really important. He tells them that he must die. He tells them that he must suffer and die. There is no glory here. What is important does not have a trace of glory in it.

I think that most of us are a bit like Peter. We prefer that God do his work in our lives with glory as opposed to the cross. We don't want people to die while they are still young. We don't want families that tear apart and leave scars. We don't want to fall on hard times. We don’t want bad things to happen. Surely if God is at work in our lives these things won't happen, right? Isn't that how God works? No, it really isn't. God works by the cross not by glory. God does not spare us from hardship, he saves us from it. God leaves his glory behind, and walks down the mountain to be among sinners, to die for them and to save them. God leaves his glory behind be with you. God leaves his glory behind to forgive your sins. God leaves his glory behind to save you. It isn't how we would choose to do things. But it isn't us who has chosen. It is God who has chosen.