a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year A]
John 3:1-17 and Genesis 12:1-4a
Cleansing is all we’re doing these days. We’re washing our hands and singing “Happy Birthday,” we’re refilling Purell stations right and left, and we’re buying out all the Lysol wipes at Wal-Mart, but the cross of Jesus Christ is the only cleansing we ever really need. “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.” Jesus is lifted up as he dies, and all who come to see that God is fully at work in him are rescued from the powers of death and sin.
It is right and good to follow the guidelines of our public health officials to keep people safe from illness, especially the vulnerable, but those who have been purified by water and the Spirit have the hope that no matter what happens, in this crisis or the next, we are born from above and the kingdom of God is where we reside.
It is right and good to put drastic measures in place, to sequester people or use social distancing to stem the outbreak of a disease, but also to remember that God so loved the world—which means God loves everyone, no matter where they live or where they’ve been, or what country they come from or what age they are or what gender they are or how often they go to church or what religion they are. God so loved the whole broken, quarantined, worn out, perhaps overly panicked world that God gave his only Son so that people can believe in and know that kind of love that has embraced the world and can live forever in that embrace.
That is the message that Nicodemus learns from Jesus when he comes to Jesus under the cover of night. That’s the answer Nicodemus gets when he sneaks off to ask some questions of Jesus, this new teacher in Galilee who performs amazing signs of God. Where do you go to ask your questions about life and about God, especially ones you might be a little embarrassed to ask? Nicodemus, as a leader among the Jews and probably a Pharisee, probably has lots of answers, himself, but something about the way Jesus is makes him curious, makes him think Jesus knows more. He can’t go openly, of course, because the others in his community might ostracize him. That’s why the night makes good cover. People need a place to escape, an atmosphere where it’s OK just to talk and start to open up.
The church got an email this week from Chaplain Nate Huffman, a son of this congregation who is married to our former Director of Faith Formation Christy and who was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 2016. Nate is now serving as a chaplain in the armed forces and is deployed somewhere in the world, working closely with service-men and -women on a tour. He was writing to thank us for the care packages—twenty-three of them—our congregation assembled last month. We sent all kinds of snacks and goodies and puzzles to work on while they are away. He said that he’s been able to use the things we sent him to stock up a workspace he has built where people can escape. Maybe somewhat like Nicodemus. He’s built shelves, video game stations, and libraries there. He says that many people don’t see his ministry at explicitly religious and that the gathering space isn’t explicitly religious, but that the men and women he serves gather there often and it’s always interesting to see where Christ enters the conversation. Nate also said that his tour will end soon, but the next chaplain will be set up nicely with what we’ve sent. Christ will continue to show up in conversations in that space with other people long after Nate comes home.
So much of Jesus’ ministry, especially in John’s gospel is about Jesus developing a deeper relationship with people through dialogue and understanding, not having people sit and receive and regurgitate what he says. And in Jesus Nicodemus finds someone who is very receptive to his questions and helps Nicodemus understand how God’s Spirit works. Turns out, it is like wind. It moves on its own and you can’t predict how strong it will be or what direction it will take or where it will show up. It cannot be bottled up in a church building or contained in a handy pamphlet you pass out to people or reduced to some succinct “Sinner’s prayer” but the Spirit is loose in the world and to some degree all you can do is try to harness it and be refreshed by it.
Through conversations, through his suffering, God works in the world because wants new life in the world. God wants people to be born again, or born from above. God wants people to be born of this Spirit, to be cleansed and renewed, to have new beginnings. We see that with Abram, who God calls even in his advanced age and to whom promises him new life, a new perspective on the world and a new perspective on himself as a father of nation through whom the whole world will be blessed. Like Abram, we learn to trust God and this new life and move forward into where faith leads us. It is not always easy, but God is always there.
For us, that new life and that new call begins at our baptism. The Spirit of God may have working in us before that moment, but at the waters of baptism we say we can be sure God’s conversation with us has begun. That is where the winds of grace begin to blow and be named as such. And for the rest of our lives we can look back to that moment and remember God is always open to conversation, available even in the dark, inviting us into his love.
This new life involves seeing things a different way. That’s what both Nicodemus and Abraham and any person of faith comes to learn. It involves, for example, seeing one’s self a different way: with God’s grace, you see yourself as a person who is not going to be defined by your faults or shortcomings, your’re not going to be defined by worldly labels and limitations like “too old” or “not the right race” or “not gifted.” Baptism allows us to see ourselves as people whose brokenness is always overcome by God’s love. We can always start over.
This new life also involves seeing the world a different way: as a place that is full of hope, a place where God is active and healing and opening us up to ever-unfolding opportunities to serve and create. The world is described these days as such a scary place, a place to wipe with Clorox and segment with walls and fences and separate with facemasks. To be sure, some of that may OK, for a time, but that is not all the world is. Abram goes forth into the unknown with faith and promise, not fear and hatred, because God has called him there. He ventures out not with a desire to conquer and exploit, but with the hope of experiencing blessing.
We see ourselves differently, we see the world differently, and over and over again we see God in a different way. This is how God changes us the most. It’s wonderful. We come to see that love is at the core of what God is always doing. God so loved the world. If it is not about love, it is not about God. Love is at the core of the room Chaplain Nate Huffman outfitted with the supplies we sent him. Love is at the core of the cross, the rescue effort God undertakes to unite us to him.
Speaking of baptism and rebirth and limitless second chances…we have a three year old at our house who is constantly playing in the water. He has done this since he could stand on two feet. He takes his toys and drops them in his water cup, or other people’s cups of water. He puts things in the dish water at the sink. He drops things in the toilet. I don’t know if he’s trying to see if things sink or float or what, but it is something we are constantly dealing with.
Well, he went missing this week. We were at the front door together and I turned back to get a jacket for him and a hat for me and by the time I returned, which was all of ten seconds…he was gone. He is a speedy little guy and I had no idea what had happened to him. For about thirty indescribably frightening thirty minutes he was gone. I thought I’d lost him forever. The police were at my house and a search had commenced.
And then as suddenly as it started, it was over. From the woods behind our house emerged a neighbor I’ve never met holding my son in his arms. He is shivering even though he was covered with the man’s fleece jacket. Soaking wet from his neck down, and still clutching a Matchbox car in one hand, our boy had clearly gone straight for the water in the creek behind our house, gotten lost, gotten wet, and wandered about 100 yards or more away. They said when they found him, he was standing at the edge of the water where it spills out of a culvert, holding the Matchbox car in the air, like he was getting ready to “baptize” it. We are now pricing out electric fencing.
We can run fast and we can run far in this life. We can thrill ourselves with all kinds of risky behavior, push too many boundaries, get in trouble, lose our way. And yes, there is peril. But if we’ve ever wandered at some point in our adventure of life to these waters of cleansing, these particular waters where we know God has met us, then we’re rescued. We’ve been rescued from the farthest we could ever go. Jesus has gone the distance, been there in the dark, died on the cross, and we rest in his grace. Even when we die.
God so loved the world, and no matter what happens Jesus will bring us home to God safely.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.