Monday, February 27, 2012

God Speaking: Like a New Life

Preached on Sunday, February 26, 2012
Scripture readings: Ezekiel 36:24-28; John 3:1-21

Nicodemus had some kind of business he wanted to do with Jesus, but we have no way of knowing what that was. Jesus interrupted him before he could get that far. Nicodemus seems to say that there were people on the Jewish high council who recognized that God was working through Jesus. Nicodemus and those other interested parties probably wanted Jesus to “clue them in” and let them know what God was up to.

Long before this, God had done signs and wonders through Moses, to get his people out of slavery in Egypt. That was the story of the exodus. (Exodus 7:3; Deuteronomy 6:22) Now they wondered when God would do this again, because they felt they were slaves again.

It was a low-grade form of slavery in the form of centuries of conquest and occupation by foreign powers. They wanted something wonderful like the exodus to happen again. They wanted a prophet like Moses or a king like David to lead them to freedom.

It wasn’t just the common people who hoped that God was doing something wonderful with Jesus. There were people of power and influence, like Nicodemus, who realized that the “miraculous signs” of Jesus could be the “signs and wonders” of God’s intervention like those so long ago. They wanted to know what God might be up to, and what part Jesus might play in it.

If Jesus passed the test, they were prepared to do business with him. They would make a deal with him. They would use their power and influence on Jesus’ behalf.

Jesus had no resources of his own; not like they did. He had no real organization behind him; only a few disciples, or students, who followed him and didn’t understand him very well. Friends on the high council could help Jesus succeed in his plans. The people who could attempt great things for God needed to work together.

Nicodemus was a great man. He was a respected scholar and teacher among people who rated those qualities high.

Nicodemus came to Jesus after dark, when things would be quiet. His first words to Jesus were respectful, gracious, complimentary, and even flattering. Jesus sounds rude in comparison. Nicodemus came to deal, and Jesus refused to deal.

Here is Jesus’ refusal to deal with Nicodemus and his friends. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3) In a sense, Jesus is saying, “Wait a minute Nicodemus. As soon as you opened your mouth you showed that you were completely misguided. You need to start all over again.”

In another sense Jesus is saying this. “I need nothing from you; you have nothing of value to offer me; and you don’t even realize this.” It is like saying, “Are you offering to support me when you can’t even see what I am doing?”

Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Nicodemus immediately responds to Jesus’ interruption by completely misunderstanding what Jesus is talking about. He does not see what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God. Being born again is at the heart of the kingdom of God, and Nicodemus cannot understand how this works.

Kingdom, here, is not about a thing with geography, and borders, and a capital, and a form of government. Kingdom, here, means the authority and power of the king. How does the king exercise his power? How does God, the king, make things work and get things done?

Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about being born again in the sense of being given a “do over”.  Maybe a teacher will let a student take a test over again, if the student was sick and had to miss too much time in class before he or she took the test; sometimes school teachers give “do overs” to their students.

It happens in other ways. You move to a different place. You get a second chance at love. You go back to school. You get a “do over”.

Before I came here to Washtucna and Kahlotus, I served a church in central California was there was a minimum security prison. It was the prisoner’s last stage before they were released back into the world. I did chapel there quite a few times, and the prisoners who came to chapel always asked for prayer before they got out.

They wanted to stay “clean” on the outside. They didn’t like it in prison. They didn’t want to come back. They knew how easy it could be to fall back into their old patterns. They wanted to succeed with their new chance at life. They wanted to make good on their “do over”.

Sometimes the power of regret plays tricks with us, so that we are tempted to daydream about what it would be like to go back in time and change one thing about our life, or change one bad choice we made. This is nothing more than a game, and it never makes us feel any better.

This is a kind of “do over” that God, in his wisdom, does not allow. Just imagine what kind of a world this would be; if everyone lived by going back in time to second guess and to replay themselves; replay their lives?

Our birth was something over which we had no control. Being born again is just the same. It has nothing to do with ourselves.

A “do over” is the chance to do something for ourselves. Our ambition to be able to do something for ourselves was the thing that got the human race in trouble, in the first place. Adam and Eve were tempted to do something for themselves to make themselves like God. It was an ambition that put human nature outside the life of God. It put human nature in the dark.

Being born again means coming to the end of your self and letting God be God. Being born again means letting God do with us what we, ourselves, cannot do. Only God can make us new.

Jesus quotes an event in the Old Testament, when Moses was leading God’s people through the desert; leading them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. God’s people complained, and complained, and complained. They were stewing themselves in the poison of their frustration and fear in the face of the adventure of faith that God was giving them.

So God gave them something really poisonous to think about. The desert was full of snakes. The snakes didn’t give them trouble before. Their lives had been as free from snakes as their sandals had been free from wear and tear. God had blessed them with a charmed life beyond their imagining. So God let the snakes loose. God’s snake-hearted people got bit.

The healing for their snake bites was to look at the bronze snake that God told Moses to make and put on a pole. Those who looked at the snake were healed.  (Numbers 21:8-9)

Jesus said that the kingdom of God was like the snake on the pole that gave healing to all who set their eyes on it. I see the snake as the image of the sins of the people God loved. If those people could look at the snake, they would see their own sin. They would see their very selves. And they would see the healing of God in the same image.

When God speaks himself in Jesus on the Cross, we see the image of our sins. The cross is an ugly and painful thing. Sin is ugly and painful. The cross was an ugly thing to do to Jesus. It was unjust, and hateful, and angry. It was a crime committed by the proud and the hypocritical. But that is the way sin works, and we see that in the cross, as well.

Jesus is the Word of God; God speaking himself and revealing himself. When we look at Jesus on the cross we see God on the receiving end of our sin. We see human pain and ugliness. We see the evil of injustice, and hatred, and anger, and pride, and hypocrisy. We see our very selves. We see God carrying the weight of our sins, and the weight of who we are without him, on the cross.

On the cross we see ourselves as we are. On the cross we see who God is. We see his kingdom. This is how God rules. This is how God works and gets things done.

Believing means trusting what we see on the cross. What we see about God on the cross is such good news. We see perfect and unrelenting redemptive love.

The news is so good that believing it is nothing to be proud of. Believing in Jesus is not an achievement. It is not how we do business with him. How can we help ourselves? How can we not believe, when we are able to see this good news?

This is how he rules us as king. This is how he gets his work done. What we see on the cross brings us to the end of ourselves. It brings us to the place where God can do with our lives what only God can do. He makes us new.

Being born again doesn’t work by being a thing of the past. Being born again is a way of life. Every day we need to be washed clean. Every day we need a new breath of the Holy Spirit to make our hearts fresh and new. There is nothing we can do or give God to make a deal with him or bargain with him. There is only our surrender to the saving love of God.

The kingdom of God rules by the power of a redemptive, saving love. That is how the people of the kingdom live. That love, living in our hearts, is what we give to others; so that God’s rule will extend to them.

Then we live the truth. We live in the light of God. Then others can see the light of the kingdom, and come to it, and be born again to a life that only God can give.

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