Sunday, February 17, 2008

New Life!

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

John 3:1-17
Today, as we start, I want to tell you that there are three points to my sermon.

Point one:
We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single Christian is a sinner given a new life by God.

Point two:
We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. It is pure gift.

Point three:
We need to keep being born from above.

Let's pray. Lord God: I pray that this morning you would help us to submit our wills to your will so that we can learn to trust You completely. In Jesus' Name we pray. Amen.

It was a Friday afternoon in the middle of the summer some twenty years ago. I was then the pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona, Ohio. I was looking forward to going home, getting a bite to eat, and then doing some hospital visits before returning home to finish getting ready for Sunday morning.

The church telephone rang. “Hello,” the voice at the other end of the line said. “Is this the pastor?” After I assured the enthusiastic-sounding man that I was, he began, “You don’t know me. But, my name is Joe Gerken. I used to go to that church when I was a little boy and my ancestors were among the founding members there.”

“I see,” I said, trying to sound interested, wondering what this guy had up his sleeve. “Well,” he said, “my fiancĂ© and I want to get married….” Pause. “And we’ve decided that you should be the one to perform the ceremony right there at Bethlehem!”

Joe Gerken spoke these words to me as though he was announcing that Bethlehem and I had won the lottery! Just imagine it, he seemed to be saying, of all the churches and pastors in the world, you are the ones privileged to have our wedding.

I tried to contain my enthusiasm and asked Joe Gerken, “When would you and your fiancĂ© like to be married?” “Tomorrow!” he said, now taking on the tone of one of those infomercial announcers who say, “Act now!”

When I explained to Joe that that wouldn’t be possible and that I didn’t know of any responsible pastor who would perform their wedding on such short notice, he was shocked. He, after all, was Joe Gerken, descendant of a founding family of the parish! He seemed to think that I should feel privileged that he had picked us for his wedding day.

In today’s Gospel lesson, a man named Nicodemus visits Jesus. I think that Nicodemus felt that he was conferring a privilege on Jesus by visiting Him. After all, Nicodemus was a respected teacher of the Jews, a renowned ruler of his faith. Nicodemus truly did enjoy the sort of high status among religious folks that Joe Gerken thought he could expect from the pastor and people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church at Okolona, Ohio.

But, when Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus, his mouth full of syrupy words of flattery, amazingly treating Jesus as his equal, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth delivers essentially the same message that He’s been delivering to the unwashed masses who hang on His every word. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” Jesus says.

“There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God,” Jesus was saying. So, first point: We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single Christian is a sinner given a new life by God.

This message from Jesus had to have been jarring for Nicodemus. Jesus seemed to be telling him that he wasn’t such a privileged character, after all. Even he needed to exchange his old life of prestige and privilege, had to trade in all the status and perks he enjoyed, along with his sins and selfishness and presumption, for one simple title, the one that Chip Patterson will receive in the waters of Holy Baptism in just a few minutes: Child of God.

Nicodemus, this teacher and ruler of the Jews, probably wasn’t sure that he wanted to become a child of God. He was probably content with being a grown-up who got to do whatever he wanted to do. And he couldn’t have been too keen on the notion that he, just like all the other sinners Jesus interacted with each day, needed to get a new life.

More than anything, probably, he didn’t want to accept God’s new life as a free gift. The truth is, it goes against the grain for all of us. We’d like to think that we deserve the riches of heaven, as well as the accolades of others. Back in our Bethlehem days, Ann and I, along with another member of the congregation, ran a five-week Bible and Catechism school for the eighty-five young people in the third through eighth grades. It was part of their Catechism training, which including weekly school-year Catechism classes for the sixth through eighth graders. We had the kids for chunks of whole days. So, we would have break period when we played kickball.

Once, I divided the kids into teams. I set up brackets. But they were different from brackets as ordinarily organized. In this tournament, the losers advanced to the next games and the two losingest teams were the last ones playing. One of the kids, who later went on to play college football was frustrated by this system. "How will we know who the winner is?" he asked. "We won't," I told him. "Oh."

Under this topsy turvy bracketology, the losers wore the crown, the unworthy ones were the champions, and the kids who couldn’t run, jump, throw, or keep up with others were the winners, the ones who don't earn the laurels get them. Just like the kingdom of God that belongs to all with faith in Jesus!

Steve Taylor, a Christian rock singer, with a satirical wit, says, “Jesus is for losers.” And he’s right. If you’re like Joe Gerken or Nicodemus, certain that God is privileged to have you on His team, certain that you’ve got a handle on righteousness, there’s no place for you in the kingdom of God. And if you are part of Christ’s Church, you know that you can’t take credit for it. It really is a gift!

“Very truly,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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 who is born of the Spirit.” Water and the Spirit of God will come together again this morning in the baptism of Chip Patterson. The result: Chip will become a child of God.

It will be tempting for Chip to brag about this event. It may be tempting for parents to boast of their decision to have their children baptized or to go through Sunday School and Confirmation. I’m happy when people make choices like these. But the fact of the matter is that the Holy Spirit is the One Who impels us toward God. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit,” the New Testament tells us. Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. We can’t take credit for our faith. It’s pure gift.

Martin Luther used to say of the people who made up the born again Christian movement of his day, “The problem with you people is that you aren’t born again enough!” He was right. This is part of what Jesus is getting at in the Bible’s most famous verse, “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.” That word that we translate as believes can be more literally rendered as, is believing.

The idea is that the believer is trusting God, not just because she or he was baptized or confirmed back in the day, but because they’re actively trusting Jesus Christ today, in this moment. Jesus is their Lord now and they are trusting Jesus moment to moment.

For the Christian, being born from above, receiving new life from God, is something that happens every day.

Of course, because new and renewing life from God is a gift over which we have no control, we can’t decide to be born again. But we can, like a child about to be born who has no control over the contractions that will happen in labor, respond to the promptings that position us to be born anew.

We do that when we let the Holy Spirit convict us of a sin for which we need to repent, convince us of our need of God’s help, prompt us to turn to Christ and let Him love us, worship when we’d rather sleep, serve when we’d rather sit. Martin Luther called this “living in daily repentance and renewal.” Point three: We need to keep being born from above.

Some days, in times of Scripture reading and prayer, I come close to God and see the blazing light of God’s purity and I see my darkness.

I see my sin and His grace.

I see His power and my weakness.

I can hardly believe that God, the maker of the universe, bothers with me, loves me, and gives me new life.

And often, in light of all this, I say, “Thank You, God, for not striking me dead as I deserve. It’s the judgment my sin has earned me. Thank You for the gift of life with You forever!”

The God we know in Jesus Christ is truly awesome!

Three points.

Point one: There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God. We all need the new life God gives through Jesus.

Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. It is pure gift.

Point three: We need to keep being born above, letting the Savior Who put religious teachers in their places and Who accepted even prostitutes and extortionists, put us in our places in His kingdom. We need to let Him accept us and make us His forever.

Keep believing in Jesus. You'll never go wrong doing that! Amen!

[I frankly don't remember the name of the guy who telephoned me twenty-some years ago. But Gerken was a common name in those parts. Even had I remembered the fellow's real name, I wouldn't have used it in a sermon.]

1 comment:

Ontario Emperor said...

Just a thanks for posting your sermons online. I was visiting family in the Las Vegas area last weekend, and we were unable to make it to our second church in Henderson. While reading a sermon on a mobile phone is certainly not a true substitute for attending a service in person, it was still valuable and very much appreciated.