Lent II (A) – A Sermon

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Chatsworth, ON. An audio recording of the sermon is available here.

Texts: Numbers 21:4-8; John 3:1-20

Cloister Cross

The picture above is the Cloister Cross, an altar cross from the 12th century. It is made of walrus ivory. The image at the cross beams is of Moses raising up the bronze serpent.

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14)

I.

While John 3.16 is probably the most well-known and often-quoted Bible verse – think of that one guy in every football game holding up a John 3:16 sign – today we are going to focus on verse 14, the verse I just re-read. In last week’s sermon, we unpacked what St. Paul meant when he said that Adam was a ‘figure’ or ‘type’ of “the one to come”, which is to say Jesus (Rom. 5.14). You will recall that I described the figures or types of the Bible using the image of a typewriter – a type writer writes type. To recap, a type is a symbol that points to and represents the antitype in the same way that the type left on a sheet of paper made by a typewriter points to and represents the type bar, the metal bar that makes the type on the page. The Bible is full of types, most of which point to and represent Jesus Christ. This is an ancient way of reading the Bible called a typological or figural interpretation.

Now, perhaps some of you aren’t convinced; this way of reading the Bible seems too convenient, takes too many creative liberties, and perhaps reads too much into things. Well, if you aren’t convinced, I submit John 3:14 as evidence for my case: Jesus himself read the Hebrew Scriptures, that is to say the Old Testament, typologically. Jesus interprets the story of Moses raising the serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a type that prefigured his own crucifixion. So, if Jesus reads the Bible typologically, I think it is safe to say that we should follow his reading. As St. Augustine once remarked: “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed”. If the entirety of Holy Scripture finds its meaning and fulfilment is Jesus Christ, then we are best served if we expect Christ to meet us on every page of the Bible, revealing Himself through types and figures.

II.

In his nighttime meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus makes some remarks that would have doubtlessly struck the Pharisee as rather odd. Indeed, the text indicates as much; Nicodemus wonders at how a grown man can be reborn in the same way that he came into the world the first time (cf. Jn 3.4). Jesus seems a bit frustrated at Nicodemus’ lack of understanding: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (Jn. 3.10). So, Jesus appeals to a story that Nicodemus would certainly know: that of the wilderness wanderings of their ancestors, making a specific reference to the story of Moses making a bronze serpent to heal the people from poisonous snake bites. However, Jesus does not merely reference this story; he interprets it as a reference to his own being lifted up. Of course, as those who read this text after Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Ascension Day, we have the benefit of knowing exactly what Jesus is talking about: his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. However, during their conversation, Nicodemus certainly has no clue what Jesus is talking about. This is likewise true for those who would be reading this text of Scripture for the first time without knowing how the story ends, much less the reference to the Old Testament.

Jesus is talking about God’s judgment against a people who “loved darkness rather than light” and his redemption to eternal life for those who believe in Him (Jn. 3.19). This is heavy stuff – a matter of life and death. Although God’s judgment is real and should be taken with uttermost seriousness, Jesus also makes it clear that God the Father did not send God the Son “into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3.17). And how does Jesus save the world? Through his enactment of God’s loving judgment on the Cross. This is truly good news.

Furthermore, it was good news to Nicodemus as well, who although he did not initially understand Jesus, we have every reason to believe he did following Jesus’ crucifixion. John 19.39 tells us that Nicodemus helped to prepare Jesus’ body for burial by “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighting about a hundred pounds”. This is no small gift –as one commentator notes, the amount of spices indicates that Nicodemus sees Jesus’ burial as a “royal burial”.[1] This brings to mind the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with lavish perfume. Christian tradition venerates Nicodemus for his loving care of Jesus’ body. It is Christ’s own body lifted up on the cross, lifted up from the grave, and lifted up to be seated at the right hand of God the Father that opens the way of salvation, of re-birth through water, which is to say baptism – a baptism into Christ’s own death and resurrection – and the Spirit.

III.

To further unpack the meaning and depth of Jesus’ death on the cross, we need to read backwards, we need to turn back to the Old Testament and read it through the ‘Jesus-lens’.

Snakes are never a positive symbol in Scripture (Matt. 10.16 could be read as an exception) Already in the beginning, we see a serpent tempting humanity to doubt God’s provision and ordering of creation. In scripture, serpents are symbolic of sin and fallen powers. Just as a serpent plays an antagonistic role in the Garden in the beginning, so too a serpent is one of the primary antagonists in the end, which is to say in book of Revelation. Likewise, in today’s Old Testament reading, snakes are “a judgment upon Israel that reveals and symbolizes their sin”.[2]

But why does God send snakes? Is God merely trying to punish the perpetually complaining Israelites in creative fashion? No. God’s judgment is giving people exactly what they want. And when things get difficult, what do the Israelites want, time and again? They want to return to Egypt. God has liberated them from the bondage to Pharaoh, and yet they would much rather return to a life they knew, regardless of how awful it was, then to trust in God’s promises and provision and follow Moses’ leadership. Better to be enslaved yet rooted in one place than to be free and wandering in the wilderness. Verse 4 tells us that the people were “impatient”. The word used could also be translated as ‘discouraged’ or ‘fainthearted’. Indeed, as one commentator notes, “the souls of the people were shortened”; they lacked “the soul for enduring their long and difficult journey” (Stubbs, 167). Life with God in the wilderness was simply too hard for them; they wanted relative comfort, even if it meant living in slavery. The difficulty and risk of following God were simply too much to ask. The people’s lack of faith leads them to assume that God wants them to die. The people’s focus on the immediate gratification of their desires leads them to forget God’s provision for them. How fickle God’s people can be, over and over again.

So, God gives the people exactly what they want: snakes. Wait a minute, you’re thinking, how did the people want snakes? Egyptian religion at the time considered the god Apep as the antithesis to Ra. Apep was depicted as a snake and symbolized darkness and evil to the Egyptians. In God’s sending snakes to torment Israel, God is essentially saying: you want to go back to life in Egypt? Well, let me remind you what like is like in Egypt…

In instructing Moses to fashion a snake, God is reminding His people of his victory over Egypt. God’s people did not liberate themselves; how could they? They were powerless slaves. Rather, God alone liberated His people. The people could not feed themselves in the wilderness; they had to rely on God’s provision. Similarly, it is not the bronze snake itself that saves the people; it is the God who delivers His people, the God who does not want His people to die, but desires abundant and flourishing life for them if they would but turn to Him. Looking at the bronze snake was an act of faith because it required trusting in God’s promise that “everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live” (Num. 21:8). [3]

IV.

The snake on the pole and the cross of Jesus Christ are both about liberation and healing. Beginning with the temptation by a serpent, all of humanity is enslaved to sin. Rebelling against God’s ways and grumbling about God’s provision seems to be our default setting. In response to our rebelling and grumbling, God gives us exactly what we want, leaving us to wander in the wilderness, a place where abundant and flourish life seem to be nothing but a mirage. And yet, God does not leave us in the wilderness to die. Rather, God shows and provides us with the way to new life. However, this pathway to new life requires that we, like the Israelites in the wilderness looking at the bronze snake, look at our sin directly, that we face it head-on in repentance in order to receive rebirth. God enacted His judgment against Israel in the wilderness by exposing the sin of the Israelites through the symbol of the serpent; God enacted His judgment against humanity on the cross of Jesus Christ by exposing the lengths at which we will go to rid ourselves of God.

Yet in both stories, God’s judgment is not the end of the story; indeed, God’s judgment is simultaneously the means by which God brings healing and salvation. Just as the Israelites looked to the bronze snake to receive physical healing, we look to the cross to see the lengths at which God would go to reconcile Himself to humanity. Furthermore, it is because of the Cross that we have the assurance that despite the suffering and difficulties we experience in this life, we too will be lifted up with Christ.

Lent is a season in which we prepare for life in the wilderness by fixing our eyes on the Cross. By doing so, we are opening ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit within who will open our eyes to see signs of resurrected life, of new and abundant life, even in the wilderness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to make peace “through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.20).

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week

[2] David L. Stubbs, Numbers, 168.

[3] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people kept the bronze serpent and worshipping it as an idol until King Hezekiah destroyed it (cf. 2 Kings 18.4).

Advertisements

Faith in God’s Future

A sermon preached on Sunday August 11, 2013 at Trinity Anglican Church, Aurora.

Lectionary Texts: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40

In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard Jesus speak to a large crowd that, according to Luke, numbered in the thousands (cf. 12:1).

Jesus told the crowd the parable of the rich fool who selfishly hoarded treasure for himself, but failed to be “rich toward God” (12:21). The fool was too focused on his own prosperity and failed to acknowledge God as the provider of all things.

Following the telling of this parable, Jesus turns to his disciples and unpacks the meaning of the parable. Listen to Jesus’ words: “do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying…Instead, strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (12:31).

I’m sure the disciples’ reaction to these words is the same as ours is: “Sure, Jesus. Easier said than done!”

Listen to Jesus’ next words:

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

It’s almost as though Jesus knows exactly what is going through the hearts and minds of his disciples…through our hearts and minds.

But then Jesus follows these words of comfort with a harsh command: “Sell your possessions, and give alms”.

Jesus’ disciples have already given up their careers and left their families to follow him and now he is asking them to sell their possessions and give the profit to the poor?

This is an extreme demand.

This is an impossible demand.

Hearing the difficult words of Jesus makes us uncomfortable because we fear that Jesus might actually mean what he says.

However, the harshness of Jesus’ words should not distract us from discerning what Jesus is getting at.

Jesus knows how easily his disciples can be distracted by possessions.

Jesus knows how easily we can be distracted by possessions.

But, the question remains: what are possessions?

Possessions are not things that we own; possessions are things that own us.

Possessions are those things that shape our desire, form our imaginations, and demand our allegiance. Possessions are those things that we think we cannot live without.

In other words, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (12:34).

Jesus is concerned that his disciples do not become distracted from the mission he will send them on once he returns to the Father. To be clear, Jesus is not saying that things like food, clothing, and shelter are unimportant or that we shouldn’t enjoy the gifts we have.

Rather, Jesus is saying that the excess accumulation of things can too easily become a distraction, especially when we selfishly hoard these things rather than use them to bless others.

After all, the mission of the disciples, of the Church, is the same mission given to Abraham: to be a blessing to the nations (cf. Gen. 12:2-3), to be a blessing to all people.

Listen once again to Jesus’ words of comfort to his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).

In these words we hear Jesus comfort his disciples who are undoubtedly troubled with and confused about Jesus’ difficult words about material possessions.

In these words we hear Jesus comfort his disciples to prepare them for life without him, to prepare them for their mission.

However, in the context of the verses that follow, an additional meaning to Jesus’ comforting words is evident.

Jesus tells a parable about watchful slaves, slaves who are ready for their master when he returns.

Jesus is telling a parable about his second coming.

Jesus knows he will be leaving the earth, but, in the parable of the watchful slaves, Jesus indicates that he will be coming again.

Following Jesus’ ascension, his disciples expected his imminent return. They assumed it would be merely a matter of weeks or months, or possibly a few years before Jesus returned. This expectation was also held by St. Paul in his early writings.

Once we remember that Luke was the last of the four Gospels to be written, about 50-65 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection, we hear Luke using Jesus’ words of comfort not only to address his disciples then, but also to address the second generation of Christ followers, to give them comfort amidst their anxiety and uncertainty so that they may continue to fulfill Christ’s final earthly command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19).

Indeed, Luke uses Jesus’ words of comfort to address every generation of Christ followers since.

So, why should these words matter to us today, 2000 years later?

The matter because they address with our discomfort with Jesus’ command to sell our possessions and give the money to the poor.

They matter because they challenge our anxiety about the future.

They matter because they confront our doubts about whether or not Jesus will really return like he promised.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we avoid talking about Christ’s second coming and all that goes with it.

It’s not considered a topic for polite conversation and we certainly don’t want to sound like those who, time and again, claim to have the exact date and time of Christ’s return figured out.

Furthermore, we aren’t sure if we even want Christ to return, especially when things are going well in our lives.

And yet, Christ’s words, “do not be afraid, little flock” remind us that amidst the turmoil of life where suffering, death, and evil seem to have the last word, that we have a promise from Christ that he will give us the kingdom.

Christ’s words of comfort remind us that we know the ending of our story – that Christ will come again to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth and will restore all things such that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.

These words remind us that the future second coming of Christ is anticipated and, in many ways, is embodied in the present life of the Church.

Christ’s second coming is embodied in the Church that follows Christ’s command to “be dressed for action” (12:35). The King James Version translates this phrase as “let your loins be girded”. It is a funny phrase. In the context in which Luke was writing, it meant to prepare oneself for battle. Although the imagery of getting ready for battle may be unsettling to some, the phrase underlines the urgency of Christ’s words.

The Church must be prepared for Christ’s return “in the middle of the night, or near dawn” (12:38), times at which it is most difficult to stay awake, especially when you’ve already been waiting for some time.

As disciples, as those slaves who are to be ready for the master’s return, we are baptized into the life of expectant waiting. However, our waiting is never idle. Our waiting is not idle for we are called to cultivate God’s Kingdom here and now. In so doing, the future of God’s kingdom becomes a present reality.

The life of discipleship requires patience and perseverance in the midst of anxiety and fear.

The life of discipleship requires vigilance that we do not become possessed by possessions or distracted by calculating the time of Christ’s return.

The life of discipleship requires faith, the same faith of Abraham who left his homeland because he trusted in God’s promise.

Of course this is all easier said than done. But once again, recall Jesus words to his disciples: “do not be afraid, little flock”. Jesus is not addressing his disciples individually; rather, he is speaking to them as a group. While Jesus’ words can and do offer personal comfort, we must remember that he is speaking to his disciples, then and now, collectively. This means that as Christ followers, we do not face our struggles and fears alone, but in the company of our fellow sheep, those who trust him, those who are entrusted with the task of cultivating the Kingdom.

In the Nicene Creed, we confess that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Likewise in the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that “Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead”.

The confession of Christ’s second coming remains central to our Christian faith. And, it remains central to the good news that we are called to proclaim – that through Christ, God will reconcile to himself all things (cf. Col. 1:19).

The challenge we face as Christ’s disciples is this: do we believe our fears about the future or do we trust in Christ’s promise that he will come again to set the world aright?

Do we trust that Christ is the master who will return and serve his faithful slaves, those who were waiting, watching, and ready?

Are we waiting?

Are we watching?

Are we ready?

Do not be afraid, little flock. May you find comfort in Christ’s words, trusting in his promise. And may you go from this place to patiently prepare for Christ’s return by loving God and your neighbor as yourself, as you pursue justice and invite others to participate in God’s kingdom of shalom here and now.

Amen.

Feasting with Christ

A sermon I gave at Bethel CRC (Newmarket) on January 8, 2011.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “you are what you eat”.  It means that the food you eat affects your health and state of mind.  When I was a kid, my mom always had the same solution for my after school crankiness – “eat something!”  She knew that an empty belly usually leads to a less than positive attitude, which, for a guy my size, meant that she had to have a well stocked fridge.

We can also see the truth of “you are what you eat” in the frightening statistics about rising obesity and the overwhelming availability of junk food both at drive-thrus and in grocery stores.  In moderation there is nothing wrong junk food, but as a whole it seems that our culture is addicted to it.  Constantly eating bad food will lead to bad health, which, in turn, can lead to an early death.  Good food choices, along with an active lifestyle, will lead to good health.  You are what you eat.

Not only is eating important for giving our body fuel, it is also an important part of our social lives.  Growing up, my family’s kitchen table was the centre of our life together.  Eating dinner was one of the most important ways that we grew our relationships with each other – we told stories and jokes, shared how our day went, and helped each other with and problems we might be facing.

Sharing meals together is also part of romantic relationships.  When a couple begins to date, typically the first place they go is to a restaurant.  When Natalie and I started dating, we got to know each other in the many diners and cafes surrounding our university.  Our relationship grew, and continues to grow, as we eat together.

Because eating is an important part of what it means to be human, it is not surprising that the Bible is full of stories about food.  One of my favorite stories about food in the Bible is the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  One of the reasons this story is fascinating to me is that I grew up in a small town of 4,500 people, so whenever I heard this story in Sunday School, I always tried to imagine what it would be like for Jesus to have fed everyone in my town – I couldn’t wrap my head around it then and I can’t wrap my head around it now.  It is pretty amazing when you think about it.  It was pretty amazing to the Gospel writers too – did you know it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles that is recorded in all four of the gospels?

The Gospel writers each tell the story differently.  They do so because they are not interesting in simply recounting history.  They are each trying to make a point in the way they tell and structure the story.  In other words, the Gospels are sermons, each with its own emphases and points of view that paint a larger picture of Christ’s life and ministry.  Today we will be reading the version of the story as told by Mark.  Please read along with me from Mark 6:30-44.

In order to get a sense of just how amazing this story is, I brought some food along with me – 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread to be exact.  Now, I should note that the fish is Tilapia, the most commonly caught fish in the Sea of Galilee and the loaves are as close as I could find to what people in Jesus’ day would have eaten.  This isn’t much food.  It would take at least one fish and most of a loaf of bread to fill me up.  If I were to host a dinner party with this amount of food, how many people do you think I could reasonably feed to the point that they were full?  4-5 people.  There are about 200-250 people here today.  If I broke all this bread and fish into small enough pieces, there might be enough for everyone to get either a piece of bread or a piece of fish.  Is that enough to feed everyone?  Obviously not.  If you multiply 250 by 20, what do you get?  5,000.  Now imagine 20x more people than are in this building being fed by this small amount of food that is enough to feed maybe 5 people.  Add to that 12 baskets of leftovers.  This is the reality of the miracle performed by Jesus.  If we are amazed by it, can you imagine what it was like for those who witnessed it and ate this miraculous food?

But is that all there is to this story – Jesus’ ability to do the impossible?  Is that what is really important?  Don’t get me wrong – Jesus’ miracles are all amazing.  Yet at the same time, if you hung around him long enough, you would begin to realize that you could expect miracles all the time.  So, the miracle, although important, is not the main point.

The menu is not important either – fish and bread were common staples of the day.  They were the typical items that common folk would eat on a daily basis.

Neither is the number of people being fed, especially when 5,000 isn’t really the correct number.  If you read the other gospel accounts of this story, 5,000 is the number of men who were present.  This means that the women and children weren’t counted.  So, in reality, Jesus fed far more than 5,000 people.

The most important part of the story is the feeding.

Earlier in chapter 6, Jesus sent out his disciples, two-by-two, with the task of preaching and healing.  At the beginning of our story for today, the disciples have just returned from this mission and are giving Jesus their report.  They are tired and hungry from their journey.  But while they were sharing their stories with Jesus, a crowd started gather.  So, Jesus instructed his disciples to join him to find a quiet space to get some rest.  They got in a boat and headed out.  But when they arrived at their destination, the crowds were there waiting.

When Jesus sees the crowds, he has great compassion on them.  The Greek word used to explain Jesus’ feelings about the situation is “splagchnizomai” – let me hear you say “splagchnizomai”.  It literally means to have one’s guts be torn apart.  Jesus is deeply moved by the needs of the crowd.  It’s like the feeling a parent has when they hold their newborn child – the emotional connection and heave of love and care is overwhelming.  This is what Jesus felt toward the crowd.

They were sheep without a shepherd – lost and wandering in the wilderness.  There are a flock that needs care.  So, Jesus foregoes his rest and begins to teach them.

The disciples come to Jesus asking him to send the crowds away so that the people may get some food.  This is the disciples’ way of saying to Jesus “we were promised food and rest and now these people are preventing us from taking a well-deserved break.  Get rid of them so that we can relax”.  Although Jesus’ care for the crowds is evident, the disciples seem ignorant of this, preoccupied with their own needs.

Jesus turns to them and says “You give them something to eat”.

This is not an instruction.  This is an accusation.

Earlier in chapter 6 when Jesus sends the disciples out, he tells them “take nothing for the journey except a staff – no bread, no bag, and no money in your belts”.

Now, when Jesus says “You give them something to eat”, the disciples are incredulous and immediately begin giving excuses – “It would take almost 8 months wages to feed everyone here!  We don’t have that kind of cash with us”.  The implication is that the disciples have money with them and Jesus is calling them out on this.

This leads to Jesus’ next question – “how many loaves do you have?”  To which the disciples reply “We have five loaves of bread and two fish”.

The disciples have just returned from a mission on which they were to bring no food and no money.  And yet, here they are, having just come back and what do they have?  Food and money.

Jesus is being sharp with his disciples.  He is saying – “why are you asking me to do something about this when you have food and you have money?  You do something about it!”  In other words, he is saying “You didn’t trust me to provide for you before, and now you’re running to me to fix your problems?  Why don’t you trust that God will provide?”

And yet, the disciples, like so many other times, seem incapable of even the smallest amount of trust.  Their responses are pragmatic – we don’t have enough money and we don’t have enough food.  This attitude leaves them unable to see the possibility that God is always able to provide.

So, out of his deep compassion for the flock, Jesus tells everyone to sit down on the green grass.  In that time, people would recline when eating a special meal.  The irony is inescapable – although they are in the middle of the wilderness, Jesus is getting ready to give a feast.  This immediately brings to mind the words of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures…He prepares a table for me.”  The sheep now have a shepherd.

Even though the provisions are meager, Jesus gives thanks, breaks the bread and the fish and instructs the disciples to give it to the crowd.

They all ate and were satisfied.

This crowd that followed Jesus, once spiritually and physically hungry, is now full.

Everyone ate her fill and there are leftovers.

Most people don’t like leftovers.  But in this story the leftovers signify God’s abundance and generosity.  God gives and when we receive in faith, there is always enough for everyone with more to spare.  Not to mention that perhaps the 12 baskets of leftovers were Jesus’ way of saying to the disciples – when you trust me, I will always provide for you.

Not only is the feeding important, but so too is the history and symbolism in Mark’s telling of this story.  We need to be aware of this to get the fuller picture of what this story is all about.  Mark frequently uses symbolism in his gospels to add layers of meaning to the stories.

Twelve was a very important number for the Israelites.  Not only are there 12 tribes, there are also 12 disciples.  The number of loves and fish also bear symbolic importance – the five loaves of bread correspond to the five books of Moses, and the two fish represent the law and the prophets.  These details underline the deep connection between food and scripture.  “Food and scripture are rightly tied together because there can be no strict separation between body and soul.  The words of scripture are the words of life, every bit as essential for our ability to live as bread and fish”.[1]  God is the provider of everything we need – physically and spiritually – and precisely because these needs overlap, there is no clear separation between them.

This story echoes that of Elisha in 2 Kings 4:38-44.  There is a famine in the land.  A man brings Elisha 20 loaves of bread.  Elisha tells his servant to feed the 100 men who are with them.  The servant scoffs saying “How can I feed one hundred men with this?”  To which Elisha responds: “Give it to the people so they can eat!  This is what the Lord says: ‘Eat and there will be leftovers’”.  The servant gave the men the bread, they ate it, and there were leftovers.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Mark is also alluding to God’s provision to the Israelites in the desert following their exodus from Egypt.  The feeding of the 5,000 is essentially a re-enactment of God’s feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness.  In Exodus 16, the Israelites begin complaining to Moses “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt.  There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread.  Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve us to death” (v.4).  To which God replied: “At twilight you will eat meat.  And in the morning you will have your fill of bread.  Then you will know that I am the Lord your God” (v.12b).

Not only does the feeding of the 5,000 recapitulate God’s feeding of the Israelites in the desert, it also anticipates God’s feeding of the church through the Lord’s Supper.  In these meals, God is providing spiritual and physical sustenance.  He is displaying his compassion and care for humans through simple yet lavish means.  But he is also reminding us that we do not live by bread alone, but also by the words of God.  Like the manna and quail in the desert and the food for the 5,000, God provides a feast for his people, the church, a feast that we call the Lord’s Supper.

The question for us today is how do we eat this feast?

There is a wonderful movie called Babette’s Feast that is an apt description of both how we often approach the Lord’s Supper and the effect that Lord’s Supper should have on us.  The movie tells the story of a very strict Christian sect that avoids all the sensual delights of this world.  Fleeing from the revolution in France, a woman named Babette comes to live with them as their housekeeper and cook.  After she wins 10,000 francs in the French lottery, rather than return home, Babette decides to spend it all on preparing a marvelous and extravagant feast for the aging members of the sect.

Although the congregation shuns all sensual luxury, they agree to eat the meal.  However, before eating, they decide amongst themselves that they will not take any pleasure in the food and will not talk about the food during dinner.  I think that this is often how we approach the Lord’s Supper – as a somber and solemn affair despite the richness and abundance of food being offered.  Like the sect members, we often equate reverence and piety with a detached austerity.  Rather than celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and his triumph over sin and death, we act as though we are at his funeral.

However, in the film, as the feast progresses, the guests cannot help but be overcome by the meal.  As they eat, their hearts begin to melt and they begin to understand that, despite their resistance, that God’s grace cannot be contained by our piety precisely because his grace is lavish and infinite.  They slowly begin to realize that creation is a gift given to us by God to be enjoyed and celebrated.  The meal is a reminder to them of the richness of God’s creation and redemption.

Someone once said “the Church has nothing to say to the world unless it throws better parties”.  In other words, the Church has the best news offered to the world – that Christ is risen, that sin is forgiven, that death and hell are defeated, that Christ is returning to establish his heavenly kingdom on earth and that when he returns we will be feasting with him for eternity.  This news should be cause for the type of celebration that causes us to want to get up and dance, to shout from the rooftops, to celebrate with a sense of reckless abandon because we know that Christ is Lord!

So the question is – do we allow the meal to become truly transformative of our lives in such a way that it is a celebration of the new lives we have because of Christ?  In other words, in our consumption of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, do we allow Christ to completely consume us?

When we feast with Christ at his table, we are participating in his kingdom and we are anticipating when that kingdom will be fully established on earth.  But, our waiting is never passive.  Like he did to his disciples, Jesus also turns to us and asks us to feed the hungry sheep – to be their shepherds on his behalf, to show the kind of gut-ripping compassion he shows to us.

This also means that we when pray “Give us our daily bread” that we use this as an opportunity to open ourselves to the reality of our spiritual and physical hunger.  Every day I require food.  When I do not get the food I need, I become hungry. The stuff of my life is hunger, need, and lack, which opens me to the reality of my complete and utter dependence on God.   However, technology and affluence blind me to this truth; I live in a country where food is readily available and in a culture where food is an idol.  I seek to sate my hunger with all the wrong things and, as a result, I am always left hungry and empty.  And yet, a single day without food is enough to remind me of the truth of what I am – a creature who depends on the good gifts of his Creator.  A sheep who needs a shepherd.

God is our provider – he provides us with physical food and spiritual food.  It is in the Lord’s Supper and the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in which we are reminded that when we feast with Christ, we will always be satisfied.  We taste and see that the Lord is good.  We learn that God is not a miser – he spared no expense in the meal he gives us.  Indeed, it cost him everything to ensure that his sheep are feed.  This is provision.  This is abundance.  This is grace.  This is something worth celebrating.

When we feast with Christ, our faith is established, our hope is nourished, and our love becomes extravagant.


[1] Stanely Hauerwas, Matthew.  Brazos Publishing: Grand Rapids, 2006, p.139.

Jesus: Age 12

This is a sermon I gave on July 3, 2011 at Bethel Christian Reformed Church as a kick-off to our VBS Progam – this year’s theme is “Hometown Nazareth: Where Jesus Was a Kid”.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:39-52

Today’s story is the only story in the Bible about Jesus as a young boy.

Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that even record Jesus’ birth – Mark and John exclude it entirely.  Even then, Matthew devotes only 23 verses to Jesus’ birth and Luke uses 52 verses, including the story we just heard.

This is not to suggest that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were lazy about details while writing their gospels.  As any writer will tell you, editing is very important – if your introduction is too long, the audience will quickly lose interest.  So they made the choice to omit stories of Jesus’ early life.

But, does this mean that Jesus’ childhood and young adult years are unimportant to the gospel story?  The gospels describe 3 years of Jesus’ life, but what about the other 30 years?  Don’t they matter?  As someone who is 30, I am a bit sensitive to this – did my life story only really begin last year, even though who I am today is directly shaped by my experiences in the past 30 years?

Certainly the omission of Jesus’ childhood and young adult life were not for lack of information.  Stories about Jesus would have been very easy to learn about – his mother was alive and available to share them.  After all, we know that Mary “stored up all these things in her heart”; surely she would have been willing to share stories about Jesus’ life.  However, the gospel writers decided that in order to best convey their message, it was necessary to focus on Jesus’ adult life – his ministry, death and resurrection.

This means that when we read the gospels, we get a fairly clear picture of what Jesus was like as an adult.  But what about Jesus as a young man, a teenager, a boy?  Does the lack of stories mean that Jesus’ early life is unimportant?

Absolutely not.

The lack of stories about Jesus’ early life is an invitation to wonder about what Jesus was like.  Perhaps Matthew, Mark, Luke and John felt they could say more about who Jesus is – the one who is 100% God and 100% human – by leaving some stuff out. Perhaps the intent of the gospel writers in omitting stories about Jesus’ childhood was to create space for us to ponder the paradox of the incarnation.  In other words, we are being called to use our God-given imaginations to ask questions about Jesus’ identity.  In doing so, we become wrapped in the mystery of who Jesus is.  Rather than being provided with mere facts about Jesus, we are invited into the story of Jesus’ life.  Our questions give us the opportunity not simply to mine for information but to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

I’d like to invite any 12 year olds to the stage, or those who will be turning 12 this year to ask them some questions.  [At this point, I invited the 12-year-olds form our congregation up to the front and asked them the following questions.  As you can imagine, the answers were very apropos of that age group].

What is your favorite pastime?

Do you like school?  What grade are you going into?

Who is your favorite teacher?

Do you like going to church?

What is your favorite thing about church?

What is your favorite food?

What is something that you are really good at doing?

Do you ever disagree with your parents?

What is a chore that you can’t stand doing?

 

This is what it is like to be 12 years old.  Most of us here were 12 at one point in our lives, whether recently or long ago.  Jesus was a twelve-year-old too.  This raises some questions about Jesus’ childhood:

Did he suck his thumb?  Did he ever cry?

What was his favorite game?

Was he ever bored or even fall asleep when he went to the synagogue?

What his least favorite food?

What was he afraid of?

Did he ever break a bone or chip a tooth?  And if he did, did he heal himself?

Was he part of the “in-crowd”?  Was he ever bullied?

Was he athletic, always picked first for games?

Was he know-it-all?

Did he ever struggle with learning?

Did Mary of Joseph ever have to ask him to do something more than once?

Did he ever have a crush on someone or have his heart broken?

Did he know the future?  Did he know who he really was and what his life’s purpose was?

Was he a momma’s boy?

Was he good at carpentry?  Did he ever hammer his thumb?

These questions make us squirm because they seem irreverent.  But are they?  As Christ-followers, we believe that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human.  However, whenever we talk about Jesus the human, we become squeamish.  Why?  Do we have difficulty accepting that Jesus was a twelve year old boy since we all know what 12 year old boys can be like?  Do we not fully accept Jesus’ humanity?  Would we rather focus on his divinity as if this somehow maintains his holiness?  And does this focus on Jesus’ divinity keep him at a safe and comfortable distance from the messiness of our own lives?  I mean, how could Jesus possibly be human like us, when our lives seem so imperfect?

Furthermore, when we do ask questions about the humanity of Jesus, we typically default to the “God” answer – of course Jesus knew everything, he is God; of course he was a perfect kid, he is God; of course he was better at carpentry than Joseph; he is God, and so on.

However, in answering this way, we forget that Jesus is also 100% human.  Jesus the second person of the Trinity does not trump Jesus the little boy.  Jesus is equally human and equally divine; one does not override the other.  The Bible is clear that Jesus is God and that Jesus knows what it means to be human precisely because he was human himself.  This means we are allowed to ask questions about Jesus’ early life, but it also means that the question mark must always remain.  In this way, the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of what it means that Jesus is 100% God and 100% human, is always something that we can ponder as we strive to become more like him.

Moreover, in remembering that Jesus is totally human, we can take comfort knowing that Jesus understands what it is like to be human.  He knows what it is like to be twelve years old.  He knows what it is like to have fun playing, to have favorite and not-so-favorite food, to have an imagination, to wonder about the future, to have scraped knees and elbows, stomach aches, nightmares, to be frustrated with your parents, to wrestle with your identity, and to struggle with the things of life because he understands our weaknesses and was tempted in every way that we are.  If anyone knows what it’s like to be human, it is Jesus.

And in the Bible’s one story of Jesus’ early life, we do get a picture of what Jesus the boy was like.

We know that he was a child of his time and place – a small-town Aramaic speaking boy who was brought up to learn his father’s trade, making farm equipment, such as plows and yokes.

We also know that Jesus was Jewish.  This may sound strange, but we have to remember that Jesus was not a Christian – he was a devout Jew his entire life.  He was circumcised according to custom and he and his parents observed the Jewish festivals.  In fact, we know that Mary was very strong in her faith, not only because she was chosen to be Jesus’ mother, but also because in our story for today, she accompanied Joseph to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations.  During that time, only men were required to make the journey, so for Mary to join him on a trip that would take three days travel one way underlines her devotion.

We also know that according to first-century Jewish practice, young boys would begin religious instruction and at age twelve the instruction would become more intensive.  In our story today, we see Jesus, already at age twelve, before beginning his intensive study, is already very knowledgeable about the Torah – he asks probing questions and provides insightful answers.  We can try to easily account for this appealing to the “God” answer, but this doesn’t fully explain things.  Indeed, like the religious teachers, we should be amazed, not because Jesus is God, but because a young boy was so passionate and knowledgeable about his faith.  Jesus remained in the temple because he wanted to learn more and to grow in his relationship with God.  Because he took his beliefs seriously, he asked questions and he explored the boundaries of tradition.  It is this devotion that began to prepare him for his adult ministry.

We also know that Jesus could be a source of stress for his parents.  Anyone who is a parent knows what it is like when you think your child is missing – 5 minutes of uncertainty can feel like an eternity.  Can you image having your child missing for three days?  May and Joseph were probably riding a rollercoaster of emotion – fear, anger, anxiety.  And when they finally do find their son, he talks back to them.  A bit of a disclaimer here – kids, I’m not suggesting that it is OK to talk back to your parents just because Jesus did.  You can try that argument, but I don’t think it will work for you.  I know that if my mom and dad were Jesus’ parents, he wouldn’t be able to sit down for the whole walk home (all three days of it) if he talked like that, son of God or not.  And as devout Jews, I’m sure Mary and Joseph probably were well aware of the advice in Proverbs 13:24, and, like all human parents, I’m sure Mary and Joseph made mistakes in their parenting.

But we also know that, in spite of this incident, and presumably others like it growing up, Jesus was a good kid – our text specifically mentions that he was obedient and that he was well-liked.  Does this mean that he never caused or got into trouble?  Anyone who knows or has a twelve year old boy would agree that this is highly doubtful.  Yes, as the book of Hebrews tells us, Jesus never sinned.  But this doesn’t mean that he was the perfect child, always well-behaved with a halo around his head.

Moreover, our text for today says that Jesus grew in wisdom.  Growth implies process and development.  Growing up is a physical process – and yes, this means that Jesus went through puberty – but it also entails developing emotional, social, psychological, and spiritual maturity.  In our story, it is clear that Jesus knows the Torah very well.  But knowing the Torah would not be enough for his mission on earth.  He would require wisdom.  In the Bible, wisdom is not about “book smarts” or intelligence.  Rather, wisdom is about how close you are to God and how well you follow God’s law.  Wisdom is a skill to be learned and developed over time.  It is a gift from God that requires nurturing and the willingness to put it into practice.  Wisdom is one of the most important skills Jesus learned throughout the first 30 years of his life in preparation for his public ministry, which is probably why Luke mentions wisdom twice in our text.

We believe that Jesus is 100% human and 100% God.  In order for him to understand what it means to be human, Jesus had to become human himself.  Coming to earth as an adult wouldn’t have allowed him to do this.  He needed to experience what we experience.  He needed to grow up just like we grow up.    By remembering that Jesus was once a boy, we see his humanity, and in seeing his humanity, we see his love for all people, a love so great that he became just like us in order to restore our relationship with God that we may become truly human and enjoy life with him the way it was meant to be.  Amen.

Vicarious Christianity?

Rooted in Hope, Called to Justice

I’m a big fan of the band Tool.

However, they are not what you would call a “Christian band”.

So, why do I listen to them?

I listen to them because they are proficient musicians who write songs with complex rhythm structures, haunting melodies and emotionally raw lyrics.

Through their music, they ask tough questions, express deep lament, and wrestle with issues of faith.

These things resonate with my Christian imagination because these are themes that are explored throughout the book of Psalms (for more on the Psalms, be sure to read Walter Bruggemann’s “Psalms and the Life of Faith“)

In their song, “Vicarious”, Tool raises an important question about our culture’s fixation with violence.

Listen to some of the lyrics:

“Eye on the T.V., ‘cause tragedy thrills me”

“It’s no fun ‘til someone dies”

“We won’t give pause until the blood is flowing”

“We all feed on tragedy; it’s like blood to a vampire”

“I need to watch things die – from a good safe distance”

“Vicariously I live, while the whole world dies”

These are tough lyrics that force us to open our eyes to the ways that we have been blinded by our culture’s addiction to violence.  On television and computers screens, violence and suffering easily become spectacles for our entertainment.

Although Tool raises the prophetic question about our complacency in the face of violence and suffering, unfortunately, they retreat into despair and cynicism, unable to imagine an alternative to our fallen world:

“Credulous your desire to believe in angels in the heart of men/The universe is hostile/so impersonal/devour to survive/so it is/so it’s always been.”

As Christians, we echo the question raised by Tool and we lament the brokenness of our world where suffering and death seem to have the last word.

However, unlike Tool, we do not pull away in despair, resigned to the assumption that this is simply the way things are, unable to imagine that the impossible is indeed possible.

As Christians, we are rooted in the promise of God – that he will never leave or forsake us, assured that our love of him is never in vain.  We are rooted in the hope that God is doing a new thing, a new thing that started with Jesus’ resurrection, a new thing that will liberate us from evil and will restore the fullness of life.  This hope prompts us to participate in God’s mission to redeem and renew the world.

We are called to continue to work of Christ – to be his hands and feet – to bring justice and shalom to our broken world.  We do this in and through the gifts given to us by God – through our relationships, through our studies, and through our vocation.

We cannot live vicariously, resigned to despair as we watch the world die, because we are rooted in hope – the hope of the resurrection that death does not have the last word and that suffering will end; the hope that God is faithful to his promise to bring healing and wholeness for the cosmos.

We are called, here and now, to bring God’s future into the present so that all may share in our hope that “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

The Two Slides of Sloth

A sermon I delivered on January 30, 2011 at Bethel Christian Reformed Church.

I opened the sermon with two vignettes:

The first, someone on a couch, refusing to get up to go to church because they had been out partying the previous evening.  He justifies to himself that God really isn’t worried about all that “religious stuff” – he and God are cool, just as long as they stay out of each other’s way.

The second, someone frantically pacing around the couch, listing off the many things they have to do at home, work, church, too busy to sit down and rest.

This morning we are talking about sloth.

But what is sloth?  It’s not a word that we use very often.

The Genesis Club kids are right – sloth is an animal that is known for being very slow moving and for sleeping 18 hour per day.

But this is not the sloth we are talking about today.

This morning we are talking about sloth in terms of what Eric correctly pointed out– sloth is one of the seven deadly sins.

The list of the “Seven Deadly Sins” was not created to rank sins or to create an exhaustive list of all sins.  The point of the “Seven Deadly Sins” is like when a doctor makes a diagnosis.

The doctor makes a diagnosis not to tell you that you are sick – you already know that, otherwise you wouldn’t be at the doctor in the first place.  A diagnosis names your sickness so that the doctor can determine the best treatment.  In other words, the purpose of a diagnosis is to help you get better.  Once the doctor knows what your sickness is, she is able to create a plan to help begin the healing process.

However, if you are like me, it is very difficult to admit when you are sick.  I mean, how many of us actually enjoying going to the doctor, hearing that we are sick, and being told the potentially uncomfortable things we must do to get better – like when a bone is broken, and the doctor tells you she must break it again in order to fix it.  The remedy is like taking a spoonful of Buckley’s – it tastes awful…but what is the rest of the slogan…it works (or so they say).

This is exactly why the list of “Seven Deadly Sins” was created in the Middle Ages.  It is to help us name our spiritual sickness and gives the necessary remedy to help us get better.

Sloth is probably the most overlooked deadly sin, because it is usually defined as laziness.  And laziness, to our minds, isn’t necessarily a bad thing – except for when you want the house painted and your husband would rather watch football.  Even then, laziness is more annoying that deadly (or so we husbands hope).

However, the definition of sloth as laziness is only partly correct.  The “Seven Deadly Sins” are dealing with spiritual sickness – so sloth has less to do with being a couch potato and watching football all day (although, as we will see, this can and does play a role in sloth) and more to do with spiritual laziness.

In our discussion about sloth in youth group, someone had a great definition of sloth – sloth is taking advantage of God’s love.  In other words, sloth is being lazy about love.

So, if the diagnosis of our spiritual sickness is sloth, what are the symptoms?

There are two main symptoms of sloth – apathy and busyness.  And although it may not seem like it, these two symptoms are two sides of the same coin.

Let’s look at the first symptom – apathy.

Spiritual apathy is like being a couch potato with your faith.  I want all the blessings that come with being Jesus’ follower without the hard work it requires.  I don’t really want a relationship with God, I would rather just have the bare minimum of belief.  I mean, I’m willing to call myself a Christian and go to church on Sunday and go through the motions, but as far as I’m concerned, outward appearance is enough – no inner transformation is necessary – it is messy and difficult.  As long as I talk, look, and act like a Christian, that is good enough as far as I or anyone else is concerned.  I’m fine just the way I am – I don’t need to grow or be challenged in my faith.  I am comfortable with where I am, so don’t expect me to get off the faith-couch.

In other words, sloth is a lack of passion.  More specifically, it is the failure to be passionate about the things that God is passionate about.  And what God is passionate about – Jesus summarized it best – God is passionate about our relationship with him and with others.  What happens when you are apathetic about a relationship with a friend, neighbour, family member or spouse?  The relationship will suffer and will continue to do so to the point that the relationship becomes nearly non-existent.  The same is true of our relationship with God – if we do not carefully tend it, it will not grow.  Our faith becomes like an atrophied muscle – weak and withered.  However, when it comes to following Jesus, we cannot be couch-potatoes.  As Peter notes in second letter, God will give us everything we need to follow him, but it is still up to us to get up off of the couch and follow.  But with sloth our apathy causes our muscles to atrophy – we’ve become so weak that we are unable to get off the couch and follow him.

The second side of sloth is busyness.   It is the inability to rest and the failure to “be still and know that I am God”.  It is about being perpetually on the move and always on the go.  The busyness of sloth can take many forms – being too busy with work, family, hobbies, and even church stuff.  Indeed, it is often the church stuff that keeps us too busy to connect with God.  In the words of one pastor – “we become so busy with the things of God that we forget the God of the things”.  We become so restless that we unable to find rest in God.  It is as though our wheels are spinning so fast, that we are going nowhere.  We become caught up in a cycle of doing things simply because we are used to doing them.  As a result, we become like a fibrillating heart – beating so fast that no blood is pumping.  And we all know what happens when the heart stops pumping.

Rob Bell explains this well.  But rather than quoting him, I’ll let him speak for himself.

(You can watch the video, Shells, here)

Like all the “Seven Deadly Sins”, sloth is all about love.

In this case, it is being lazy about love.  Sloth turns us into spiritual coach-potatoes; but it can also tempt us to become so busy that we cannot take pleasure in doing nothing for God.  Whether in terms of apathy or in terms of busyness, in sloth we are avoiding the work of relationships, with each other and with God.  We remove God from the center of our life and replace him with other things – our personal comfort and our busy schedules.  We end up taking our relationship with God for granted – either with the false confidence that I don’t need to change or with the malicious despair that I am not doing enough for God, as if God’s kingdom entirely relied on my activities.  I distract myself with God’s work in order to convince myself that I am being faithful, when in reality I am attempting to avoid the hard work of discipleship.

But God calls us to be still and know that he is God.

When I give into apathy, I have no problem being still.  However, by failing to connect with God in the stillness, the stillness quickly becomes complacency.

When I give into busyness, I have no problem knowing God because to my mind he is the reason for why I do what I do.  However, in my busyness, I fail to be still, to rest and to fully trust God.

So what is the remedy for sloth?

The remedy for sloth is not easy or painless.  It requires doing the difficult work of being brutally honest with myself, of looking at my life and seeing where apathy and busyness prevent me from truly and deeply connecting with God.  On the journey of faith, it means turning off the cruise control, getting off the smooth highway, getting out of the driver’s seat, and, in the words of one song, letting Jesus take the wheel, even if it means going off-road into the wilderness.

The slothful person is always looking for the easy way – the way that avoids pain, discomfort, and conflict.  The way that is about easy belief, complacency and outward appearances.

And yet, Jesus assures us that following him is a difficult path, indeed, he always takes the road less travelled.  It is only when we are willing to follow him into the unknown, unsafe, unpredictable, uncomfortable wilderness that we learn what it means to trust God and to be in full relationship with him.

Faith is a journey that requires us to give our entire lives, body, mind, soul, spirit, to him.  It is a journey that demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ.

And yet, in spite of the hardships and difficulties, we learn to rest in the promises of our loving and gracious guide.  We learn to enjoy simplicity and rest.  We learn how to fully trust.  We become the people God has made and called us to be by turning our lives completely over to him.

Anne Lammot once wrote that God loves us just the way we are…and that he loves us too much to let us stay that way.  Christian discipleship begins and ends with grace, but we have to be careful that we don’t take grace for granted – this is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.  This is a counterfeit grace, a false grace that far too many Christians are willing to slothfully accept, whether in apathy or busyness.  In accepting this false grace, we overlook true grace, the grace that cost Jesus his life and asks us to give ours as well.  Bonhoeffer wrote, “Grace is costly because it compels a person to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him…but it is grace because Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”.

As you go from this place to be the church, the people of God, in the world, may you be woken up from your spiritual slumber, getting of the couch, willing to take the difficult path of discipleship, following Jesus and finding perfect rest in him.  Amen.

Following Rabbi Jesus

One of my favorite responsibilities of my job is preparing young people for “Profession of Faith”, a practice similar to confirmation in other churches.  On June 13, Bethel CRC was blessed to witness the Profession of Faith of seven young people from our congregation.  Below is the sermon I delivered at this service.  Let me know what you think.

So you’ve done Profession of Faith.  Now what?  Is that is all there is to it?  Now you are a “Professing Member of the Christian Reformed Church of North America”, is that really what this whole process is about, joining a religious institution?  What difference does it make?  What does what you’ve done and said here today mean?

The story of the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 paints a clear picture of what it means to follow Jesus, to profess our faith in him.

Listen to the story from John 3:1-8.

In order to understand the dynamics of this story and what it has to do with your Profession of Faith, we need to understand a bit about the people involved.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the religious elite.  Not only were the Pharisees the religious leaders, they also had strong political connections with the Roman Empire.  The Pharisees were a very powerful and influential group.

We also know that the Pharisees were very sincere in their beliefs; they were very zealous and passionate about what they believed.  They were meticulous tithers, often giving beyond what the laws of Moses required.  They upheld a strong moral code and were thought to be very decent people in the eyes of others.  They were missionary minded, sending followers across the known world to make converts.  They had an active prayer life, with prayers for all possible situations in life.  Unlike the Sadducees, the theological liberals of their day, they believed in miracles and they held to the full authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament.  In other words, they were the keepers of religious tradition and the custodians of Jewish identity.  They were the ones who obeyed the letter of the law, the Torah, and who practiced all the required religious rituals (worship, prayer, fasting, tithing, etc.)  They were the perfect model for anyone who wondered what it meant to be Jewish.

And what about Jesus?  How was he perceived by the Pharisees?  One thing we need to remember was that Jesus was Jewish.  As a child, like all other Jewish children, he went to Jewish school to memorize the Torah.  Education in the faith was very important for Jewish parents.  During that time, it was the desire of every Jewish parent for their son to become a Rabbi.  Rabbis were teachers of the Jewish faith and they were given special authority to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures.  Throughout the New Testament, we frequently see Jesus identified as a Rabbi.  In our text for today, Nicodemus addresses Jesus as “Rabbi”, a title that wasn’t loosely given or easily achieved.

Becoming a Rabbi required years of memorizing not only the Torah, but the entire Hebrew Scriptures, by studying at the local synagogue starting at about age 6 and continuing until age 14.  Following this period of study, the students were examined by their local Rabbi for their knowledge of the Torah.  Only the best and brightest students, a very small minority, were invited to become disciples of that Rabbi; the rest of the students were told to go home and find a trade.  Jesus, apparently, was one of the few who made the cut; he knew the Scriptures inside and out (we can see this in the story Jesus at the temple debating with the scribes at age 12) and he was recognized for his teaching and authority.

However, Jesus wasn’t a typical Rabbi.  Rather than follow the normal requirement of years of rigorous study, training, and examination before allowing someone to become his disciple, Jesus sought out those who had been rejected from “Sabbath School” to be his disciples – think of Matthew 4 when Jesus approaches Peter and Andrew and invites them to “Come, follow me”.  Why were Peter and Andrew fishing – because their local Rabbi had told them to go home and find a trade.  They didn’t have enough knowledge of the Torah and Hebrew Scriptures to become disciples of that Rabbi.  And yet, here is a Rabbi, coming up to them, asking them to follow him!  This isn’t how people were supposed to become disciples!  They need to prove their knowledge of and obedience to the Torah.  Apparently Jesus didn’t see it that way.  The first people he asked to be his disciples were Rabbi-rejects.

Every Rabbi had his own particular way of interpreting and understanding the Scriptures.  What Jesus was offering in his interpretation of the Torah was a radical departure from the received traditions of the time.  He claimed that the law was not about religious observances or rituals, but that it was all about love – loving God and loving others.  Moreover, Jesus claimed that he was the fulfillment and embodiment of the law.  In other words, he was saying you don’t need to follow the Pharisees to observe and understand the Torah; you need to do what I do in order to observe and understand the Torah.  If the law is all about love, than love is what really matters.  For example, remember that the Pharisees were great at tithing, even giving more than what was required.  Listen to Jesus’ response in Luke 11: “Woe to you Pharisees!  For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds (these were the “extras” that the Pharisees gave), and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”  In other words, in their strict observance of the law, the Pharisees were missing the whole point of the law!  The law is about loving God and others.  When it is about observance and ritual, it is meaningless and it cannot fulfil its purpose.

Immediately prior to the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, John tells the story about Jesus angrily clearing out the temple courts of the money changers.  Rather than a place of worship, the temple became a place of economic transaction, a place where the Pharisees and others could make a profit.  The Pharisees were incensed at Jesus’ actions in the temple – they were the ones with the power, the ones who best obeyed the law, how dare anyone contest their way of doing things.  They challenged Jesus – “what sign (miracle) can you show us to prove your authority to do all this!”  In other words, we are in charge here – we are the ones with the power and money, how dare you suggest we do things otherwise!  Jesus’ response – “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”.  In this statement, Jesus is directly challenging the authority of the Pharisees.  Although no one understood it at the time, Jesus is referring to his death and resurrection – that his body will be the new temple, that his followers will not require a building to worship him.  However, the Pharisees understood his comments as a threat to the temple – that Jesus was planning some kind of terrorist plot to destroy it and claiming the impossible, that he would be able to rebuild it in only three days!  This was pure blasphemy.

This is what was ruffling the feathers of the Pharisees – Jesus was calling into question hundreds of years of received wisdom and tradition and teaching heresy.  “This is the way things have always been done!  Who are who, a Rabbi from a small backwater town, to challenge us and our interpretations?”  In challenging the interpretation of the law by the religious elite, in asking untrained trades people to be his disciples, and in threatening to destroy and re-build the centre of Jewish religious practice, this upstart Rabbi threatened their power and control.  This explains why Nicodemus wanted to meet Jesus.  Although we aren’t sure whether Nicodemus was sent as a spy or if he was genuinely interested in Jesus’ teaching, in going to Jesus at night, it is clear that Nicodemus wanted their meeting to remain a secret.

What we see in the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus is the difference between religion and faith, between the way of rules and rituals and discipleship as a way of life.

For Nicodemus and the Pharisees, worshipping God was all about following a huge list of rules and regulations.  You showed your allegiance to God by how well you obeyed the Torah.  By obeying the Torah, you were staying pure by avoiding the pollution of the world.  Moreover, by staying pure, you were strongly connected to God.  When you kept the rules and practiced all the proper rituals, you were able to move closer to God.  It isn’t difficult to see parallels between the Pharisees and today’s “church-going, Bible believing Christian”.  The Law, rituals, doctrines, specific worship styles, proper reverence, and particular ways of dress are what it means to be a good, moral, religious person.

Jesus directly challenges this way of thinking.  According to Jesus, legalism completely misses the point of what a relationship with God should look like because it is unwilling and unable to follow the nurturing and direction of the Holy Spirit.  In order to enter the kingdom of God (to be clear this does not mean heaven), Jesus says that we must be born of water and the Spirit; these are the marks of what it means to be a person of God, not our ability to follow the Torah.  Contrary to the Pharisees, our knowledge and observance of the Scriptures is not a prerequisite for a relationship with God.  Rather our relationship with God is based on the promises we receive from him in our baptism and from our openness to his Spirit to transform our lives.

In being “born again”, we move away from sterile religiosity that tries to access God through rules and rituals, into the presence of God who comes into our lives.  This is the good news that Jesus was proclaiming – follow me and I will show you what it means to love God and others because I am the fulfilment of the Torah.  We rely not on our ability to be pure, but on the grace of God who changes us from the inside out by the working of his Spirit.

However, to become a disciple of Rabbi Jesus does not mean that “anything goes”.  Being Jesus’ disciple requires a particular and peculiar way of life.  Jesus is very clear in the expectations he has of his disciples – he requires that they love and pray for enemies, that they give up material possessions for the sake of the poor, that they intentionally seek out the lost, the lonely and the losers, and that they put him first before any tradition or ritual.  In other words, it requires converting from religion to a way of life with Jesus at the center.

In doing Profession of Faith you are answering Jesus’ call “Come, Follow Me”.  You are joining a worldwide community of people who have dedicated their lives to him.  You have joined a revolutionary movement whose main purpose is to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a broken world.  You have made a commitment to a way of life that is beyond religion.  In fact, because Jesus is the fulfilment of the Torah, you are free from its rules and rituals in order to love more truly and deeply, and free from the requirements of its purity enabling you to get dirty embracing and serving others.  This is something that “religious” people will never understand simply because they are rooted not in the living presence of God but in the deadness of the law and in the comfort of their rituals.  The life of faith in Christ is unsettling and difficult, but it is the way of life, hope and love.

So, what does this mean for you today as you profess your faith?

It means:

You are free from deadness of religion and given new life in Christ

You are one of God’s people, called to be a blessing.

You are equipped with the Holy Spirit to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Today is only the beginning.

Go and follow him with your whole lives.

Amen.