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March 12, 2017

Pastor Fowler’s Sermon for March 12, 2017

“A Fresh Perspective” John 3:1-17

 

Today’s gospel lesson is the surprising tale about Jesus meeting with a leader of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, under the cover of night. Why did he come, and just who was he? He was a man of great standing in Jerusalem. He is described in today’s passage as a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he was one of 6,000 men chosen to live holy lives in obedience to the laws of God as found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. The name, Pharisee means “Separated ones” in Hebrew. When a Pharisee began his calling, he pledged before at least 3 witnesses to follow every part of God’s law, for they believed that the law was the most sacred and perfect thing in the world, a way of following and honoring God.

Now at first, Pharisees followed the laws of God as they interpreted them to be. In time however, these laws became refined, and were broadly expanded upon. For example, take the law to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, and not to work on such a day –not you or you with any of your livestock or servants. (Exodus 20:8)- Initially, this statement was enough. However, by the 4th Century A.D. according to theologian Jim Wallis, “But not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what "work" is, listing the things that may or may not be done on the Sabbath day. I discovered that in the Mishnah, the first section of the Talmud, the section on the Sabbath extends for no fewer than 24 chapters.” This was an attempt to cover every conceivable situation in life with God’s law, and it must have been incredibly taxing to follow. Pharisees like Nicodeums in the first century had no fewer than 632 laws to remember and follow.

Not only was he a Pharisee. This passage also tells us that Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, a ten member council who had jurisdiction over every Jewish person in Israel. The powers of the Sanhedrin were extensive. Now that we know his background, it is somewhat astonishing that he would want to speak with Jesus, a homeless itinerant prophet from the small town of Nazareth, who challenged the Pharisees and their power.

Why would a man like Nicodeums come to see Jesus? Perhaps he felt as if something was lacking in his spiritual life. Despite following all the laws God and interpreters of God’s word had given him to follow, something was missing. Nicodemus needed to see God and faith from a fresh perspective. Perhaps Jesus could help him see things in a new way?

And so Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says “We know that you are of God.” He then mentions that they know of the signs he has done- In John’s gospel there are but 2 signs Jesus has done before this encounter- He changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and drove out money changers from the temple with a whip of chords. Based upon those and possibly some unnamed miracles, Nicodemus sees Jesus is more than just a wise rabbi. Jesus says he can’t quite truly see without being “born from above.”-This is the focus for today’s sermon, along with perhaps what is considered by many to be the most well-known piece of scripture, John 3:16, which we will come back to. At this point, Nicodemus doesn’t understand, and he literally wants to know how it could be that an old man like himself could be born from above, or in his understanding, born again.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be "born of water and the Spirit" in order to enter the kingdom of God, in order to see clearly. Water is the symbol of cleansing and of baptism. Our past, the sins we want to forget, are not just forgotten but forgiven.

The Spirit, the other symbol used by Jesus is always the symbol of power. Not only is our past forgiven, but the Spirit enters our lives as we are baptized to enable us to do and be what we ourselves, by ourselves, could never be. The Spirit of God in us gives us fresh perspective, helps us to see ourselves, others and the world in which we live in a new way. So being born of water and the Spirit includes both cleansing and strengthening.

Then Jesus clarifies a bit more of what he means- That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of spirit is spirit. By ourselves we are just flesh, and we see from a limited perspective. If, however, we are born of Spirit- That is if the spirit of God is within us, then we can see this world and all of its struggles from a faith perspective.

Next Jesus Admonishes Nicodemus for not being able to see some of the signs of faith in front of him- the winds of the spirit and being born from above. After wondering aloud how he could believe in heavenly things if he doesn’t understand the present earthly realities before him, Jesus begins to speak of his mission.

In verse 14, Jesus speaks of Moses. This refers to when God sent poisonous snakes to judge rebellious Israel in numbers 21:4-9. God condemned the people for their lack of faith, yet provided an instrument of salvation for them when Moses interceded for his people. God provided a way of salvation in the form of a raised bronze serpent. Anyone who looked upon the snake and had been bitten would live. Just as this passage in Numbers was a message of God’s salvation, so it is in John; we see a new instrument of salvation. The bronze serpent is replaced with the Son of Man, Jesus.  Then Jesus utters the main reason for his ministry, John 3:16. "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."   God SO loves us. And if we understand that God SO loves us, with an incredible, never ending love, we can show that same love for others, an intense love of commitment and of sacrifice, an unselfish love, love in the highest degree. God loves us SO much- enough to sacrifice the Son on the cross for us, that we might find salvation. And we are called to the way of agape love, that others might know that God so loves them also. Clement of Alexandria. 2nd century bishop, wrote “For the sake of each of us, he laid down his life-worth no less than the universe. He demands of us in return, our lives for the sake of each other.”

 

This then brings us to the lesson for today’s sermon, of being born from above in connection with God so loving the world. When I fly, I absolutely love to have a window seat. When I am up above, I love the perspective- to see the clouds and the earth below. Humanity seems so small, insignificant. Gazing out the window in a plane up above always gives me a fresh perspective on life and on the state of things. A heavenly perspective can do the same thing for us when we are born from above. When we are given birth from above, we see things through the love of God, not the dark lenses of hopelessness of the world around us; and the needs, sufferings and joys of others are felt as our own. We understand that applying John 3:16 to our lives means that we in turn lay down our lives for the sake of each other. It begins as we see creation in God’s love- love for us and love for the entire world. 1 John 4:7 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is BORN(Reborn) of God and knows God.”

Now my wife Paula is a nurse who works in labor and delivery at Asante hospital in Ashland. She can attest to the fact, as can any of the women who have given birth in this sanctuary that birth is NOT easy. Labor can go on for hours, even days. Births are often complicated, difficult struggles, as infants lay hold of new life. I believe that the birth Jesus speaks of in John’s gospel- our second birth-being born from above, being reborn by water and Spirit is also a continuous struggle. Sometimes we can see from above, and sometimes, when we forget our baptisms of water and spirit we are drawn down and see things from a flesh perspective. Sisters and brothers, our goal is to always seek to be reborn by the power of the Spirit, so that we can be bearers of the great love God showed us in the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross.

There is so much suffering around us right here, which we can see through the homeless people who are in Ashland. There are so many homeless people whom we try to help as best we can, all the while struggling with frustrations on keeping the facility clean, dealing with messes after the Monday night shelter, trying to help those who are often difficult to help, feeling tired as we come to the end of running the shelter for the season. Those frustrations can cloud our vision, can keep us from seeing from above, and remembering we are born from above. Then we see only from a flesh perspective, and forget who we are and who we are called to be. How many times do we look at the struggles of this world and see hopelessness?  How many times do we look with eyes of judgment at our sisters and brothers, at those who are the least of these, whom Jesus called us to see as the Lord himself? In Matthew 25:35-37, Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.” Our tendency towards judgment, and our sinfulness seek to bring us down from our birth above, to bring us down from that heavenly perspective, and we must fight and claw our way back up, so that we can see the world as God sees, so that we can claim and lay holy of our second birth. Birth, and rebirth are not easy!

What about for Nicodemus?  Is he ever born from above?  He is mentioned again in 2 sections of John- 7:50-51; He spoke out in defense of Jesus at the temple before the chief priests and Pharisees. Then after Jesus’ death, in 19:39-he is mentioned along with Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial- The passage says he brought an excessive amount of spices, almost 100 pounds to anoint Jesus’ body. These two passages suggest that Nicodemus did indeed find birth from above- he spoke out for Jesus against a hostile crowd, and buried his master. Clearly it must’ve been a struggle for him to see things from above- a man of great standing within Jewish society, who turned away from all of that to follow the Messiah.  He likely struggled with rejection from his friends and family. But then, rebirth is not easy.  So we give thanks for Nicodemus, for his struggle and for his birth from above- he who is venerated as St. Nicodemus in Eastern Christian and Roman Catholic churches, who was reborn by water and spirit.  May God be with us, as we continually struggle to be born anew, to be born from above, so that we can share God’s great love with those in need right in our own backyard, and with the rest of the world. Amen.

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