Of all the verses in our Gospel text today the one that jumps out at me is: 17 “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.” I am fully aware that there are perfectly nice people who interpret the “saved through him” part of this verse to confirm a view of being Christian that is “born again” as a one time experience of transformation that some Christian have and some do not, and that’s fine.
The one time born again experience is not a view I share, but I am not here to judge anyone for how they come to understand God, as long as they do not proselytize or guilt me. Did that sound like a judgement right there? Well, “do as I say not as I do!” Did you know that’s an old phrase that sources back to Matthew 23:3 instructing us like this; “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” That’s darn good advice but not what we are going to focus on today!
We are going to look at both Psalm 121 and the Gospel from John to discern what in the heck they are talking about. I say what in the heck because there are some inconsistencies in the meaning of both that may cause puzzlement in the minds of some. That is how it is in religion, because a life of faith is a state of mind and soul, not a science. I am a proponent of science, but there are some things that cannot be understood through the scientific, empirical lens.
Consider Psalm 121 which is my absolute favorite Psalm – I call it my “go to” Psalm, recalling it whenever I am in a rough patch, like we had this week with the passing of a beloved Church member. Verse 1 is beautiful, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” For some reason that simple phrase makes me cry. It is pretty much all I need actually, though it isn’t really like a logical thing to assume that the Lord is standing there while we’re gazing into the hills somewhere. It is enough to start me off in a place where I feel comforted and assured that God is indeed there for me, however. There is something in the simple language that works magic. I think I suggested something to you last week and remind you again this week. Some time when you have a minute, crack open your Bible to the middle, either here at church or at home and find yourself a Psalm that really moves you like 121 does me. Find something you take to heart like that and carry it through the ups and downs we all inevitably experience in life. It’s good stuff.
Moving on though, our Gospel starts off with “now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.” At first blush, it may not seem so but that is a power-packed sentence! First of all, Pharisees in Jesus’ time were by far not the most popular kids on the playground. Pharisees were religious law abiders and enforcers to an extent not always appreciated by the average person. In my opinion, this sentiment was not lost on Jesus who used their unpopularity to make a point about things. In this passage, he deals directly with a big shot Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is mentioned only in John’s Gospel and represents a group among the Jewish leaders who hesitantly came to believe in Jesus. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, literally a ruler, the highest governing body of the Jewish people consisting of the Sadducees, who were priests and the Pharisees, who were scribes. Now scribes of this period were not solely people who took notes at Committee meetings, but were also intellectuals who sought to preserve and protect the culture and religious practices of the day.
So, it is not unusual that it took them awhile to come around to Jesus’ radical message of change. Interestingly, Nicodemus comes to have a discourse with Jesus in the dark of night, perhaps so that no one with whom he is associated in the Sanhedrin would know. He calls Jesus “Rabbi” and confesses that he believes Jesus has come directly from God to teach. Jesus, being the kind of person who doesn’t let a good discussion go without acknowledging it, jumps right into a teachable moment with Nicodemus. He knows if he gives Nicodemus a message, it will eventually emanate out to everyone in the area. Which is pretty much how it always works at churches, right? One person knows and pretty soon everyone knows. Jesus is fully aware of this human trait and uses it to his (and therefore to God’s) advantage.
The two men have a rather lively back and forth, if you read between the lines. In the dark of the night, when it is quiet and private, Nicodemus challenges Jesus and Jesus challenges him right back! They talk about matters of faith which most people still do not understand fully, though we try to here at Church when discussing scripture. One of my favorite verses is when Jesus says, “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 born of the Spirit.” To which Nicodemus, a very learned person in his own right remarks, what? How can that be possible? Is that really a thing? So then Jesus pokes back rather critically saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Which surely must have been a bit of a wake up call for Nicodemus, at least it should have been. Then Jesus goes on to say that he and his disciples keep trying to teach the Pharisees and others new things about God, but they are just not getting it. That’s a pity because he is giving them wisdom and a new way of looking at things that will eternally transform them and the society in which they operate in a manner they could never dream of!
So, here it is. Here’s that message coming right at you - and I expect there are people who will read this text differently but here it is: it is by God’s GRACE that you are saved. Got that? Through the teachings of Jesus we can open the doors to wisdom, allowing grace to seep into our pores so that we experience that love which God is already beaming out at us. WAKE UP! That’s the message! We got it! It’s here and now and you have the opportunity to absorb that concept whenever we talk about it or whenever you read your Bible or when you do something that is incontrovertibly positive and compassionate in Jesus’ name. Faith and the acceptance of God’s grace is not really as complicated as we make it out to be.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” There you go! That’s the simple truth, my help comes from the Lord and of course that is the Lord who made heaven and earth. What other lord could there be? Well, turns out there are a lot of lords competing for your time and attention. There is the very powerful lord of money, the lord of vanity and there is even the lord of fear who just loves to keep us from realizing how amazing we truly are or can be.
That’s a big lord
, that fear one. I don’t like that one. That fear is thick like that rubber dam they put in your mouth when you are having dental work done and the dentist doesn’t want to have to deal with all that saliva or wants to be sure his or her instruments don’t go tumbling down into your gut. Those dams are non-porous but, if you look very closely at the lord of fear, you will see some little tiny holes which let microscopic amounts of grace seep in. Do you know that feeling when the day is going surprisingly well in spite of all the distractions and pitfalls that may be there? That little ray of warmth makes itself known even in the bad times. Or as Paul put in in Philippians, “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding shall guard your hearts and thoughts in Christ Jesus.” How marvelous is God? How benevolent and loving is the Creator? When seeking out answers in the darkness, as Nicodemus did, God seeps through the tiniest pores and into your life. No one ever said life was going to be easy, I know you’ve heard that many times before. It is full of change and doubt, fear and yes, even death and yet, God is present. You just need to avail yourself of God’s love. That is grace.