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Lent 2A Sermon
John 3: 1-17

March 12, 2017

 

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In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; Amen.

I have to admit, this is one of those weeks where my sermon took a bit of a turn from where I thought it was going to go about a page in. After my usual examination of the scripture with a process we preachers call, “exegesis” - digging into the background and context of the passage, the author, the intended audience, the culture and the language of the Gospel reading from John - I decided to focus on the Greek word, “kosmos.” In that very famous verse 16 from our Gospel reading this morning, kosmos is the word translated, “world.” God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but, have eternal life. I will admit, the first time I had ever heard of the word, “cosmos” was not in the context of anything from the Bible.

In 1980, scientist Carl Sagan wrote a book called, “Cosmos,” which was released in conjunction with his PBS miniseries of the same name, having thirteen chapters corresponding to the 13 episodes of the television show. The book and the show were both hugely impactful for the sciences in our country as Sagan expressed complex scientific concepts in every day, conversational language that most people could understand. The book and series were heralded as very influential, and many scientists credit them with sparking their own interests as young men and women to go into the study of the sciences. Modern astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson even resurrected the idea and produced an updated Cosmos series called, “A Space-Time Odyssey” a few years ago.

My intention in talking about Sagan’s Cosmos alongside the Greek word kosmos was to compare how Sagan was able to boil down complex, hard to understand concepts into something most people could understand about the world, the universe, and life with how in our Gospel lesson, Jesus boils down the complex theological concepts of The Kingdom of God, salvation and justification for Nicodemus into a simple, easily remembered phrase that Martin Luther called, “The Gospel in a Nutshell.” In addition, the scope of cosmos in both the scientific community and religious community has been expanded as we consider not only what Sagan would call, “the billions and billions of life forms,” but also the good news that Jesus came so that the whole world might be saved through him. Not just descendants of Abram and Sarai, but everyone. It is a wonderful message if you think about – especially as we keep rolling in Lent and consider our own mortality and need for Jesus.
So, after typing in the beginnings of a sermon focusing on “cosmos” Thursday morning, I went home for a bite of lunch. While there I learned that a man named John Ylvisaker had died in his sleep early that morning after battling cancer and heart disease. John Ylvisaker was a Norwegian Lutheran who embodied the persona of Scandinavian Lutheran Piety. He enjoyed life immensely, but he never got too excited or caught up in it. He was the son of a Lutheran Pastor and yet he himself was never ordained. He was a musician who is probably best remembered for writing the song, “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” which has brought tears to many eyes in Lutheran churches at baptisms, confirmations and funerals. I am sure you have sung it many times in your life if you have been a Lutheran for any stretch of time.

Ylvisaker was known as the Lutheran Troubadour. In addition to writing hymns – you can also check out the two others in our book, numbers 451 and 593 – John spent many years in the 1960s and 70s as the main musician at National Youth Gatherings for the American Lutheran Church. He also put on church music clinics all over the country at colleges and seminaries. He made himself available for churches to have him come to speak about music and to lead hymn-sings along the way. We had him come up to Oak Harbor once to spend a day with us there, and we found him to be very gracious and inspirational. My ministry partner, Bill, even golfed with him while he was with us, and got a real chuckle. Ylvisaker played golf by his own set of rules – he called it, “Norski Golf.” He made up many excuses to take mulligans – a sort of a “do-over” in golf – and never took more than a bogey on a hole.
Most of all, John Ylvisaker shared his faith by singing and leading other in singing. You might say that like Carl Sagan in his book, “cosmos,” and Jesus in John 3:16, Ylvisaker was able to boil down the complex message of grace and love into songs which everyone was and still is able to sing. You can understand how I could not write a sermon on this passage today without lifting up Ylvisaker as a witness to me personally of the power of God’s promises to us in Baptism.

In this familiar song, John Ylvisaker’s witness to us is that God speaks to us at our baptisms, and he proclaims promises which can never be revoked. When Jesus promises the Kingdom of God to everyone who is born anew of water and the Spirit, it is the same exact message. Ylvisaker reminds us of these promises which are lived out in every stage of our lives – when we cry after first emerging from our mother’s womb to when we go out to find where demons dwell; when we are first hearing God’s word, to cheer us on to when we find someone to share our time; even during those middle ages between being young and old. And finally, when the evening gently closes in and we shut our weary eyes. All who are born anew of water and the spirit can sing the words that John Ylvisaker put to music and hear the words of God that his son was sent into the world so that all of us might be saved through him. So, it is most appropriate that on this day with this scripture on our minds, as we remember the life and witness of John Ylvisaker, that I conclude my message by leading us all in singing his wonderful song. I invite you to turn to hymn number 732 as we give thanks for God’s love given freely to this world in and through his son Jesus Christ. (Sing “Borning Cry”) Amen.