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Lent 2A Sermon
John 3:1-17
March
8, 2020

 

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John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘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.

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

I once heard a story about a six-year old boy named Benjamin who constantly protested his bedtime. Frustrated by his father's refusal to budge, Benjamin finally became so frustrated that he said, "Daddy, I hate you!" His dad replied, "I'm sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you." To which Benjamin replied, "Don't say that!" Surprised, dad continued, "Ben, but it's true -- I love you." "Don't say that, Daddy." "But I love you, Ben." "Stop saying that, Daddy! Stop saying it right now!" And then it came: "Benjamin, now listen to me: I love you...like it or not!"

Even at six years old, Benjamin realized that in the face of unconditional love, he was powerless. If dad had been willing to negotiate -- "I'll love you if you go to bed nicely" -- then Benjamin would be a player: "Okay, I’ll go to bed this time, Daddy, but I'm not eating my vegetables at dinner tomorrow." But once dad refused to negotiate, refused to make his love for his son conditional on something Benjamin did, then Ben couldn't do anything but accept or flee that love.

The same is true with us. If God makes his great love for the world and us conditional, then we, suddenly, have tremendous power. We can negotiate. We can threaten to reject God's love. We can even tell God to take a hike if we don't care for God's terms. But when God just loves us -- completely and unconditionally -- and when God just goes and dies for us, well then, the jig is up, there's just nothing we can do to influence God.

God in Jesus has made the only decision there is to make...and it is for us. Sure, we can run; but we can't change the fact that God loves us, that God in fact loves the whole world more than we can imagine. This is good news, the very definition of gospel … and the reason why Martin Luther called verse 16 from John 3, “the gospel in a nutshell.” It is the best news, but first it's hard: hard because we're not in control; hard because it's not up to us. It’s hard because every time we hear how much God loves us we also know that we had nothing to do with it, cannot influence it, and therefore are out of control.
On the other hand, since this relationship is established wholly by God and we are not in control of it, we realize it is the one relationship we can't blow. God has taken responsibility for this one. God will never divorce us or disown us, like we have seen happen so many times in relationships between human beings in the world today.

This is the theological foundation for why we Lutherans join other Christian churches who practice infant baptism. The scandal of God sending his own Son without consent or consultation with humanity in order to die for us can be compared to a set of parents and godparents bringing a child to the font. Before they can offer their consent, we immerse the child in God’s love, making them part of this particular family of faith. Some in our world find that totally offensive – that we do not wait until they are “of age” so that they can decide for themselves if they believe in God and want to be baptized. But that is the heart of infant baptism: that God just plain adopts us, makes us God’s own, and pledges to be both with us and for us forever. In the same way God just sends Jesus to us, pledging to love us so much that we shall not perish, but have eternal life. Someone once suggested that maybe in order to highlight the offensive, scandalous nature of the sacrament, we should add four words to the end of the phrase that we pastors say when we baptize babies: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…like it or not!”

In the same way, God sent his only beloved son into the world so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…like it or not! Does that mean we have nothing to do, nothing to contribute to this most important relationship? Certainly not! Once we have been loved this fully, this completely, we can respond in love, honoring God and sharing the news of God's love for the world with all we meet. There's plenty to do. But instead of competing for God’s love and attention, we are now messengers of that same love. We are witnesses to what God has done for us, not managers of an account that we must constantly keep in balance.
We are currently sitting right between the memorial services for two gentlemen who have certainly left their marks on this congregation over the years. Matt Davies and David McKean were born one year and eleven days apart, both in the month of November – Matt in 1941 and Dave, 1942. Both had positions of leadership in this congregation and shared a love for the folks at Clinton Heights, especially the older folks. Both had a deep and profound faith in the faithfulness of Jesus and a trust that God’s love for them was unconditional. They were passionate about sharing that unconditional love with others inside and outside of these walls.

I sometimes feel a little uneasy when I share the commendation at the end of a funeral service – asking God to receive a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming. We don’t always want to hear about the fact that our beloved departed needed God’s love to forgive them wherever they fell short. My sense is, these two would probably be the first to admit that this same forgiving love offered freely and without cost or negotiations, was what motivated them to serve God in the many ways that they did. When people like Matt and Dave grow and mature in the promise of God’s love, they tend to respond by loving and serving God and others in more humble and passionate ways! I hope that it doesn’t take me too long to come to fully accept God’s love for me so that I can be like these folks. And I hope I can be as solid a witness as they were to how powerful God’s loving presence is to claim, guide and forgive all of us for whom he sent his son to die.

Nicodemus was a religious leader who came to Jesus under cover of the night because he was curious about these mysteries that Jesus was spinning. Jesus tells him that he must be born anew, again, from above – there are many ways to translate that Greek phrase into our English language. Regardless of how we think of it, the wonderful, good news of this encounter is that God loves us and all of the world enough to die for us, forgive us, and restore us for an eternity….whether we like it or not! Thanks be to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; Amen.