Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon on John 3:16: "Love is the lesson that breaks all the rules"

Scripture

There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”

Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”

“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.

“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”

Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?

“No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again."


Sermon

Nicodemus, and the rest of the Pharisees and the Jewish religious leaders, had a good thing going.  They were the top of the heap, spiritually speaking.  They were the leaders of a people in fear -- people whose ancestors had been hauled off to Babylon in slavery, who had come home and rebuilt their beautiful Temple, who had seen their land taken over by Assyrians and Persians and Greeks and Romans.  The Jewish people lived in fear, and they wanted desperately to know:  how, in the face of our oppression by the Romans, do we please God?  How are we to be righteous when the culture around us is not?  When will the Messiah come and free us from our bondage?  And they turned to the Pharisees for answers.

And a very easy answer was to focus on action.  What they could look at, what they could hear and smell and touch; this was the way to know where you were in God’s standing.  If you could afford the expensive temple sacrifices.  If you prayed a certain way, in a certain place.  If you kept the purity laws perfectly, or close to.  If you didn’t interact with pagans and lepers and sinners.  Then God would bless you, and remember Israel, and send the Messiah to free -- well, at least you and the rest of the righteous.

There is no question that being held accountable for our actions is an essential part of faith.  But when Jesus looked at the way the Jewish leaders cared for the people, he saw that accountability was the only part.  There was no space, no “wiggle room,” no grace for people who could not meet the strict requirements.  And so Jesus shakes his head at Nicodemus and says, “Unless you are born from above, you cannot see the kingdom.”

He says to Nicodemus, The way you lead the people is so narrow, so focused, it’s like you walk with blinders on.  And the kingdom of God is so much bigger.  The kingdom isn’t just how we move and act, it’s what moves in us, what transforms and shapes our very self.  Unless we totally submit, totally give in to this invisible and life-changing power of God, then we’ll never see the wideness of God’s world.

Nicodemus is not sure he buys this.  “What are you saying?  What do you mean?”

And Jesus starts to lose his patience and says “I’m telling you what’s right in front of your face, and you’re procrastinating with questions.”  He says, You are a leader of Israel.  You study the holy books of Scripture day and night.  You read the stories of how God made the whole world, how God led us out of slavery in Egypt, how we crossed the Red Sea on dry land, how we survived forty years in the wilderness, how this invisible God kept loving us and leading us even though we made mistakes at every turn, and I say “there might be something more than meets the eye to God’s kingdom” and you don’t listen.  You are supposed to be a leader of the people, to be their spiritual guide, but when I tell you the truth you already know, that God is a mighty force we cannot see and faith is about more than action, you won’t believe it.

Jesus is impatient because Nicodemus has his feet firmly planted in an old way of thinking, and he is not really willing to budge.  He wants to ask questions.  From Jesus’ response I think we can guess these aren’t scientific questions, practical analysis, drawing up a strategic plan for how to get this “born from above” thing done.  These are more like the questions that drag out bedtime at home and push deadlines at work -- the But Whys and Are You Sures, the kinds of questions our kids and our coworkers and we ask, not because we’re unsure of the answers but because we don’t like them.

Nicodemus is asking questions because he and the rest of the Pharisees have a good thing going -- and this “born from above” business doesn’t quite fit into that plan.

And Jesus looks at him and says, You came to me because you know I’m a teacher straight from God.  I know you wanted clean and easy answers, but that’s not why I came.  I came to make things messy.  I came to be God among you, and you will kill me.  

The Son of Man will have to be lifted up, he says -- meaning on the cross.  The Son of Man will be lifted up so that you see and believe that faith is messier than proper practice and correct rituals, that God is bigger than your blinders -- that love is the lesson that breaks all the rules.

Love has the power to look beyond actions and see the spirit inside.  Love can look beyond ritual and purity and religion and see faith.  Love can take off the blinders and see the other person.

Love is always breaking the rules.  Not holy rules like the commandments, not necessary rules like good meals and bedtimes.  Rules made out of fear.  Rules that separate us from each other.  Rules about who’s in and who’s out, about who’s rich and who’s poor, about how long we can hold a grudge, about what we need to do and say to be considered valuable.

Love can look different at different times.  Sometimes love looks like selflessness -- like helping when we’re exhausted, like sharing when no one is making us.  Sometimes love looks like boundaries -- saying to someone who has hurt us, “I won’t let you do that again, because it doesn’t help you and it doesn’t help me.”

This is the lesson that Jesus will teach, in Luke’s gospel, of a man beaten and robbed and left for dead on the side of the road, and how a priest and a scribe will walk by on the other side -- following, perfectly, the rules about not touching blood or a dead body.  And Jesus will say “But there was a Samaritan, who saw him and was moved with compassion.”  This is the lesson where love comes up against all the rules -- and love, in God’s kingdom, always wins.

This is the lesson that Jesus will teach, at the end of John’s gospel and at the end of our journey through Lent, when he kneels at the feet of each disciple -- even Judas Iscariot, about to betray him -- and washes their feet.  Jesus will overturn rules about propriety and servanthood and say instead, This is the lesson:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

This is the lesson: we can love, because God first loved us.  We can dare to live as people born from above, from out of this world, not living by rules that divide and break down but by the lesson of love that draws us into one God.

Nicodemus doesn’t understand, but Jesus didn’t come to straighten our blinders.  He came to take them off.  He came to help, to put the world right again, and to offer us a whole and lasting life.

Amen.

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