“Our Journey with Nicodmus” 03.11.2018 Sermon

 

John 3:14-20 • March 11, 2018 • 4th Sunday in Lent

Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.

One of the things that our confirmation students are asked to do each year as they prepare for the Rite of Confirmation is to select a scripture verse that is meaningful to them or has spoken to them during their time in confirmation. Without a doubt, the three most popular verses of scripture that I have heard over the years are Jeremiah 29:11 – “For surely I know the plans I have for you…”, Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”, and one verse from the gospel of John that we just heard.

If I give you just two numbers, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. What’s the first thing that you think of when I say the numbers 3:16.

Theologian Len Sweet believes that followers of Jesus are often plagued with an awful disease. He calls this disease “versitis.” Let me show you what he means. John 3:16 – “For God so loved……” Good. Who can tell me what John 3:15 is? Or how about 3:17? Or the context in which this text appears?

You and I, and really anyone who has ever heard or read Holy Scripture, will have “versitis” from time to time. No child of God today with a bible in their hands is immune to it.

Len Sweet says that, “knowing individual Bible verses, as helpful, hopeful, and healing as they might be, does not mean that you know the Bible, the story of the scriptures. The whole story. The big story. The back story. Both the huge moments and the hidden aside. All of the components of God’s story are necessary in order to comprehend the whole, unfolding drama of the divine words and work that are found in scripture.”

Image result for john 3:16 athleteSo, what might be the bigger story behind one of the world’s most famous verses of scripture – John 3:16? Because there’s a lot more to it than simply seeing it painted on an athlete’s faces or posted on a billboard advertisement.

John 3:16 comes during a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee known as Nicodemus. A prominent leader of the Jewish community and a character who only appears in John’s gospel. And his appearances are significant to how John reveals who Jesus is – especially who Jesus is for an outsider like Nicodemus. Or like you. Or me.
Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus begins in this late night conversation early in John’s gospel. I don’t think Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night has a lot to do with the time of day. As if Nicodemus couldn’t get an appointment with Jesus until he got off work in the evening. Although I know many will argue with me about that. Image result for nicodemus

Throughout John’s gospel, their relationship develops. In chapter 7 Nicodemus defends Jesus at a time when the chief priests are trying to arrest this Jesus who is starting to become quite a pest and beginning to get in the way of their power and control on society and the Temple.
At the end of John’s gospel, a story that we’ll hear in a few weeks, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea – two people not connected to Jesus’ inner circle of disciples – ask Pontius Pilate for Jesus’ dead body. They want to prepare the body with spices and linen cloth in order to give it a proper burial. After a lengthy journey that we see unfold throughout John’s gospel, Nicodemus finally embraces discipleship.

In so many ways, I’m a lot like Nicodemus. Nicodemus and I like darkness more than light. Darkness that involves control and authority, right sacrifice according to the chief priests and religious leaders. Life that is built on certainty that I’ve created according to my own plans and ideas, not God’s.

For me, that darkness often looks like an endless need to work harder and more. Another common disease – being a workaholic. If I just put a few more hours in at work today, then I’ll be more successful. Then God will pay attention to me for being the amazing child of God that I am and I’ll finally be the pastor that God wants me to be.

Or the darkness involves beating myself up thinking that I’m not praying enough or in the right way, so I add new spiritual practices to my life that promise to make me a better pastor to the people I serve or father to my daughters or husband to my wife.

In Nicodemus’ first encounter with Jesus, he thinks that Jesus will give him a simple, magic answer to becoming his disciple. What he discovers is that following Jesus will take him to the cross on a day that we now call good.

Image result for tv evangelist collageYou and I are bombarded by Christian teachers telling us that if we just say a simple, magic prayer to invite Jesus into our hearts, then we will become Jesus’ disciple and our lives will be whole.

As Nicodemus’ relationship with Jesus grows, it doesn’t result in riches and fame or happen because of anything Nicodemus does. And it takes him to the deepest pits of death and despair, where he finally discovers that Jesus has been with him all along.

What darkness are you holding on to today that is getting in the way of your relationship with Jesus? That’s getting in the way of you being able to see that Jesus is right there with you already?

For the writers of the bible, faithfulness and belief didn’t refer to “intellectual surrender to a factual truth. They were writing about fidelity, trust, and confidence. As they saw it,” Christian author Debie Thomas writes, “to believe in God was to place their full confidence in him. To throw their whole hearts, minds, and bodies into God’s hands.” [blog post http://www.journeywithjesus.et/essays/1687-in-a-nutshell, but Debie Thomas]

Or as I read from another author this week “The light of God’s love shining down from the cross demonstrates the totality of God’s love and proclaims God’s desire to transform the dark places in this world into places of light, healing, and salvation.”
[www.sundaysandseasons.com reflection]

The Apostle Paul reminded us of what this might look like today in his letter to the church in Ephesus, which is also a letter to the church in Bismarck by the way, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” [Eph. 2:9-10] By the time Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus’ dead body for burial, I think he understands what God has made him to be.

As you and I continue our journey through Lent, which will takes us to the cross of Good Friday, may our walk be reflective of what God has already made us to be. God has made us to be his children, called to bring healing and hope and light into a world too often filled with darkness.

May the words from Jesus that rang true in the ear of our brother Nicodemus, also ring true in our ear today…“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

Brothers and sisters in Christ, Nicodemus’ long conversion throughout the gospel of John invites us to trust in the slow, steady, eternal work that has already begun. Work that we are called to do with our whole hearts, minds and bodies. Work made possible because God sent Jesus into the world to save the world and not to condemn the world. What are we waiting for? Let’s get to work. Amen.

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“Take Up Your Cross” Sermon 02.25.18

 

Mark 8:31-38 • February 25, 2018

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

One of the greatest books – my opinion of course – on Christian discipleship over the last century is called The Cost of Discipleship. It’s a book that I’ll pick up periodically as I’m wrestling with my own call as a disciple or when events in the world happen that make me think about discipleship more than usual.

One chapter in this book speaks directly to our gospel reading today from Saint Mark. The chapter’s title Discipleship and the Cross. In this chapter, the books’ author, Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”

Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was a leading figure opposed to the Nazi regime during World War II. He was arrested in 1943 for his opposition to Hitler. He had been linked to a group of conspirators who made a failed assassination attempt on Hitler. In April 1945, he was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp just as the regime was beginning to collapse and the war was coming to an end. Bonhoeffer not only wrote about discipleship and taking up our cross, he lived it to his death.

Our gospel reading today from Mark is the first of 3 predictions Jesus makes about the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of Man. In this first prediction, Jesus says that “If you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

That seems simple enough.

If you want to follow Jesus, you need to take up your cross.

Bonhoeffer referred to this as denying oneself and becoming only aware of Christ and not of anything self-serving. You see, taking up our cross, denying oneself is not simply about putting up with suffering or bad things in life. Taking up our cross is to only focus on Christ and no more on self – in all parts of our life, not just on the parts of our lives that involve suffering.

That seems simple enough.

Focus on Jesus always, nothing else.

At the beginning of our gospel reading today, Peter – one of Jesus closest friends and first disciples – misses this point entirely. Which is the reason why Jesus reminds Peter that he is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. You see, Peter thinks Jesus needs to be the messiah that is all powerful, all controlling. A king, a president, a warrior who has come to destroy anything that stands in the way of what Peter thinks a messiah should be. A messiah who is the wealthiest, most powerful man to ever live in all of the ways that were important to Peter’s first-century mind. All powerful in human things – Peter’s understanding. Completely oblivious to divine things.

But that’s just a first-century simple-minded man – this Peter – we don’t think like that anymore in 2018, right?

I mean, we don’t set rich people on powerful pedestals in order to bring further oppression upon poor people, right?  We don’t look to politicians or government leaders or military power as the all-knowing, all powerful, all controlling and domineering rulers of societies today, right?  We don’t live in societies where only the strongest survive and everyone else can just get lost and get out of our way. Right? I mean, our societies are more civilized today than they were in the first-century world under the rule of the oppressive Roman Empire – the world’s first super-power. It’s no longer US vs. THEM like it was in Jesus day.

We have no problem bearing one another’s burdens today, we take up our cross willingly and follow, we deny ourselves always and look only to Christ Jesus. Wealth and power and fame and prestige…those things no longer matter in our society or in communities of Jesus followers.

Well…if you’ve turned on a television or looked online or read a magazine or newspaper lately, you might be joining me and thinking…wow…we haven’t made it very far from the first century, have we? Jesus shouting, “Get behind me, Satan!” still rings in the ears of God’s 21st Century children, just like it did when Jesus first said it to Peter nearly 2,000 years ago.

The cross that Jesus takes up is one of rejection and shame and suffering. We know today that it takes him to the cross of Good Friday. It’s actually a journey that we take every year in the season of Lent. Peter and Jesus’ first disciples weren’t walking through a season called Lent. Peter didn’t know that Easter was coming or what that meant for his life.

We do.  Or at least you and I say that we do.

Back to the book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which everyone must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul.”

Through the cross of Christ Jesus – a cross that you and I are called to take up each and every day – we discover that there is no place God will refuse to go in order to love us and redeem us and shows us daily that we do not take up our cross alone. Ever.

Crosses“We are called to take up our cross,” Pastor David Lose shared in a reflection on today’s gospel reading this week, “expecting that God is most clearly and fully present in the suffering and brokenness of the world. We are called to take up our cross by being honest about our brokenness and thereby demonstrate our willingness to enter into the brokenness of others. We are called to take up our cross because we follow the One who not only took up his cross but also revealed that nothing in this world, not even the hate and darkness and death that seemed so omnipresent on that Friday we dare call good, can defeat the love and light and life of God.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, in this holy season of Lent, and in every other day of the year, set your hearts and minds on divine things, not human things. Take up your cross and follow! In times of suffering and pain. And in times when you are overwhelmed with joy and completely satisfied with life. You’ll find Jesus there. Amen.