March 12, 2017
Austin Mennonite Church
Conversations in the night
Psalm 121; John 3:1-17
Pastor Lee Lever
We know the story of this nighttime encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus from the third chapter of the Gospel of John. The phrases and images from this story are firmly embedded in Christian tradition. This is where the “born-again” language comes from. The emphasis on being “born again” is an important concept in American evangelical culture. “Are you born again? Have you been born again? I am a born-again Christian.” are ways of referring to one’s experience of spiritual rebirth or regeneration. Born-again Christians often will talk about their personal relationship with Jesus. Nicodemus gets hung up on the concept of being “born again” as he talks with Jesus by night. He takes it too literally.
The most famous verse in the Christian New Testament is in this story.
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.
Martin Luther called this verse “the gospel in a nutshell” because it so well summarized the good news of the Christian message. It is such a well-known verse that evangelists sit behind the goal posts at football games with signs that read “John 3:16.” When the camera focuses on the goal posts, the person will lift up the John 3:16 sign and hope someone will see the message and take it to heart. That is assuming that everyone knows the verse!
Our Lent theme this year is “Restore us, O God.” It is an invitation to spiritual renewal. The Lenten season is the 40 day period leading up to Easter, a season often given to self-examination and reflection on our relationship with God.
We live in a world filled with many voices and distractions that call us away from God. Things like violence and fear, consumerism and materialism, hectic schedules and constant busyness, to name just a few, occupy our minds and spirits. We are invited to make space for God during this season. Giving up something for Lent is one way to help make space for God. It could be something like no coffee, no sugar, no Facebook, no TV, no news! The 40 days of Lent usually begin with the story of Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness being hungry and thirsty as he wrestled with the priorities of his life.
Last week, we heard about a different dominion, the rejection of the usual ways of being in control, and an invitation to consider the way of Jesus as the reality and the relationship we hunger for, a reality that often eludes us as we internalize other messages. Our prayer this season is, “Restore, O God, as we hunger to reign with you through Christ!”
Today we wonder, with Nicodemus, what it means to enter into the realm of Spirit, to be born again, to begin the journey of faith following the Way of Jesus.
Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night for a conversation. We have to give Nicodemus credit for making the effort to speak directly with Jesus. Nicodemus was impressed with some of things Jesus was doing and wanted to interview him. Maybe the night interview was a convenient time. Maybe Nicodemus did not want to be seen talking with Jesus for fear of political backlash because Nicodemus was part of the ruling council of Jews.
The gospel of John uses the contrast of light and darkness to make the significance of Jesus very clear. The gospel begins with declaring Jesus to be the true light which enlightens everyone. Perhaps the darkness of night says something about Nicodemus and his lack of understanding. He certainly comes across in the story as someone who does not understand the moving of the spirit.
Jesus uses the images of light and darkness, water, wind, and spirit to describe the mystery of the boundaries of the kingdom of God. This is a different sense of kingdom and dominion than real estate divided and partitioned by walls and borders and fences and guards and watchtowers and soldiers and missiles. Light, water, wind and spirit speak to realities that are difficult to put into containers. These images stir our imagination and are evocative.
Being born again is not about regressing to the womb of one’s mother and then going through the birth process again. It is about the movement from a confined understanding of life to a more expansive understanding of what it means to be alive and to exist as a human being. It is about discovering purpose and meaning and faith and belief. It is about knowing how to live one’s life in response to coming into the light of God in Jesus Christ. It is about knowing how to sustain one’s response and spiritual life with discipline and practices that are restorative and encouraging, practices of prayer, study, community, service and love. It is about leaving behind the old way of life and being able to overcome difficulty and adversity. It is about knowing that we live forever within the love of God no matter what happens in this life.
In this life we still have to live in a world of walls, borders, watchtowers, employment, taxes, and rules of the road, but we can figure out how to be Jesus followers in the world with the help of the Spirit and friends along the way.
With regard to John 3:16, it helps to know that God loves the world. The love of God is more than a declaration of affection, it is a consistent commitment of love and loyalty and action throughout the biblical story. The goodness of creation declares God’s love. The regularity of the seasons, the orbits of the planets and stars, the complex biological systems we interact with, the ability of our bodies to adapt and heal, the beautiful variety of creatures, all declare the steadfast love of the reign of God. This God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures demonstrates that love with acts of deliverance and a passion for justice and peace. This God of love cares for all people no matter their social status or their place of origin or their gender identity. This God of love sent the person of Jesus to save humankind and teach us how to live in love. The Lord is indeed our keeper, the shade at our right hand, the one who keeps our going out and our coming in through the ages.
The giving of Jesus to humankind was the ultimate act of love. Jesus is God’s Word and God’s act of love to us. Such love calls for our response. We respond with gratitude and wonder. We respond by turning away from despair to embrace the light of Christ. We respond by joining the work of God’s Spirit in the world. We respond by loving the world as God loves the world, even if that love is not understood and is rejected, we persist in love. We have faith in the God of the ages to keep our lives forever. Please turn to the reading on the back of the bulletin.
Leader: God of mystery, you call us into the unknown.We do not always follow willingly.
Reader 1: We confess that we do not want to leave behind what is familiar. We prefer looking like those around us.
Reader 2: We do not want to change our well-refined beliefs. We prefer to think and believe in the same ways we always have.
Reader 3: We do not want to give up the comfort of our own self-sufficiency. We prefer to stay in control.
Leader: Forgive us, O Lord, when we fail to move with your Spirit. Restore deep within us a sense of your holy wonder and the mystery of your Spirit.
(Pause for silent confession)
Leader: God of mystery,
All: Restore us.
Leader: The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.