Lent 2A Sermon (2014)

2nd Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 3:1-17;
Gen 12:1-4a; Rom 4:1-5, 13-17


Shalom. I’m Nicodemus, a Pharisee of Judea. And I love my country. I love my people, the Jews, God’s chosen people. I hate the fact that we have been under the control of other empires for centuries. The most recent — and in some ways the worst, since they are the most powerful yet — are the Romans. I hate that God’s chosen people are slaves to pagans.

The problem in my country, always first and foremost in our consciousness, is what to do about it. How do we get control of our own destiny back from the Romans? There’s always hope for the Messiah to come, God’s anointed one to lead the way. But we don’t agree about under what conditions the Messiah might come or what he will do when does come. The Zealots think we should fight, that God would be on our side, so they see the Messiah as a great military leader, a new King David. The Sadducees think that would be suicide. The Romans are too powerful. They think we need to make the best of it and cooperate. Us Pharisees? We have no doubt that the Romans have to go. They’re pagans worshiping idols, graven images, and their own emperor, who they deem the Son of God. Pathetic. But we Pharisees also agree that Rome is too powerful for us right now. We as a nation are weakened by our unfaithfulness to the Torah. We have to get our own house in order first. All of us have to become better law-abiding children of Abraham. Our goodness has to put the Romans to shame first. Then, maybe we will be ready for God’s Messiah.

Doesn’t that sound like a reasonable strategy to you? To be the best person you can be according to God’s Law, and to demand that from others, too? Don’t you love your nation, your family, your people enough to make sure that you are as good as you can be?

Well, like I said, I do love my country, my people. And I was pretty convinced my way was the right way. That’s the way I read the Torah, the Law of God. But then this Jesus of Nazareth came along, and I began to have my doubts. There were rumors flying around that he might be the Messiah. He was doing amazing things, especially healing people, setting them right. Now, there are rumors all the time about the Messiah. But I checked out these signs which Jesus was performing myself, and they seemed to be legit. But there was another rumor that confused me. Jesus didn’t seem to hang around with the right folks, folks like me who are serious about following God’s law. He seemed to keep company with anyone who was interested.

Well, I was interested, but I also have a reputation to maintain, so I made the decision to go see Jesus … but at midnight, when no one else was around. It was just about this time of the year, Passover time just ahead. So it was exactly a couple of years before he died on Passover. What he said to me that night, most of it I had no idea what he meant. It went over my head. Stuff about being born again, of born from above. Stuff about the Spirit blowing where it will like the wind, but being born of Spirit. Strange stuff. But he also said something about God loving the whole world and sending the Son to save it, not judge it. Love the whole world? That was a new idea to me, too, but one I could begin to latch onto. “Love the whole world?” I said. “Doesn’t love begin with home? With our own people first? Loving the whole world would mean loving the Romans, too.”

Jesus’ answer blew me away, but it also made some sense. “God’s love does begin at home,” Jesus said. “This world is God’s home. Tell me, Nicodemus, as Jews we believe that Yahweh God is the ruler and maker of the whole universe. So who made the Romans?” I took that to be a rhetorical question. Jesus knew what my answer had to be. I didn’t say anything. He went on: “In a few weeks we’ll be celebrating Passover. Our liberation as slaves in Egypt. That final plague on Passover night which struck the Egyptian children dead. The defeat of Pharaoh’s army in the sea. Miriam’s song of triumph. Tell me, did Yahweh God celebrate that night, too, celebrate the new freedom of his children? Or did Yahweh God weep with the Egyptian mothers that night, at the death of his children?” Again, I didn’t answer. But this time it was because I was stunned. Jesus was pointing to a new way of thinking about God. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that God has a completely different way to think and feel about things than me. What would it mean to trust that God loves the whole world, wanting to save it from sin, not condemn it?

And if God sees the whole world in love, then I began to see what Jesus meant by saying I needed to be born from above. That I needed to be born into God’s Spirit of love. Jesus came to help us into not only a different way to know God as love but to ourselves be renewed to live in that love. To be born again from above, from God’s Spirit. Now, that made a lot of things in Scripture kind of confusing, like seeing God as killing the Egyptian children to free the Jews. What if, as Jesus asked me, God wept for the children who died?

While it was confusing, it also made some sense of things: the blessing to Abraham and Sarah. The promise is ultimately to all the families of the earth. If we believe that Yahweh our God is the Creator of the whole world, then all the families of the earth are God’s family.

Even more so, what Jesus was saying made sense of the story of sin in Gen 2-3. Jesus came to help us into the way of God’s Spirit, to see everything from the oneness of love. What if our human knowledge of good and evil is actually at the heart of sin?? We human beings have come to think we know the difference and then we set out to punish or get rid of the evil. What if that’s the problem?

I started hanging on the fringes with Jesus and was around when he incredibly healed a man born blind [John 9, the Gospel reading in two weeks, with a monologue planned]. That’s when my colleagues got involved and, instead of celebrating this amazing grace, they ended up persecuting the poor man for following someone who would break the Sabbath laws by healing on the Sabbath. What? Why would they be so legalistic in the face of such goodness as healing a man born blind? They were the ones being blind!! And Jesus said as much. So I went away from that day beginning to have my own blindness healed. I began to see the deadliness of my own sure views about good and evil. When we human beings think we see evil, people usually begin to die … because the righteous begin to kill.

Jesus was offering us a totally different way to see evil, not in terms of something to eradicated but something ultimately to be healed. In fact, the thing that ends up being truly evil is exactly our human way of identifying that which can be healed as something to be eradicated, expelled, killed. That’s the real evil! It begins with us being convinced that we know evil. God, in the oneness of love, sees what we most often consider as evil as something to be healed. It’s our response to evil that truly becomes an evil that God can only heal through our repentance, through our being born again from above, born into a Love that is saving the whole world.

I ended up following Jesus all the way to the cross. I helped my colleague, Joseph of Arimathea, bury Jesus. My heart broke. Jesus appeared to be on a path of something truly revolutionary. Why would God let this happen? But then the rumors started that Jesus had risen on the third day and begun to appear to his disciples. The healing of my blindness was still underway, so I was still slow to see. But things began to fall into place. Of course Jesus would have to die, precisely killed by us and our evil of trying to expel and kill-off evil! The only way we were going to be cured of our sickness of trying to violently stamp out evil was by Jesus nonviolently and lovingly stand against that evil. God so loved the world that he let his Son come into the world to be lifted up on the cross in the same way that Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole. We need to be cured of our evil of trying to stamp out evil precisely by having it lifted up in our full view. And it’s God’s power to give life on Easter that helps us to finally see. We are forgiven for being wrong about evil. And in that forgiveness is the beginning of healing. God so loved the world. God so loved the world that he sent his Son not to condemn us but to heal us. I pray that your lenten journey is one of forgiveness and healing. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, March 16, 2014

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