Sermon Seeds: Bold Blessing/Life-Giving Wind

Second Sunday in Lent Year A

Lectionary citations

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
John 3:1-17
Sample sermon on John 3:1-17 (KMH)
Additional reflection on Genesis 12:1-4a by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla
Additional reflection material and conversation on our Facebook page.

Weekly Theme:
Bold Blessing/Life-Giving Wind

by Kathryn Matthews Huey

Anyone who has watched a football game on television has seen a reference to one of the verses in this passage, perhaps the most-quoted verse in the New Testament, John 3:16. Unfortunately, for many, the words, “For God so loved the world…,” rather than reassuring us of the depth of God’s love for the world, impose instead what seems to be a requirement of intellectual assent (“belief”) in order to “have eternal life,” or, as we might say, to “be saved,” which is also generally understood as “going to heaven after we die.” That requirement, in effect, draws a line between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” as if “salvation” could be so simple.

We sense that Nicodemus knows that things aren’t so simple. He himself appears to be coming from a place of strength: after all, he’s one of “the power elite” among his own people, at least, an educated man in an age when most folks can’t even read. A respected leader, he probably lives a relatively comfortable life in material terms. We’re used to Jesus being approached by people in urgent need of healing, or food, or forgiveness, and their need makes them vulnerable and open. Nicodemus, for all of his power and prestige, comes to Jesus in another kind of need: a need for answers, and for help in understanding the answers he gets. It isn’t until the end of his conversation that his vulnerability shows, just a bit, perhaps, in his bewildered question, “How can these things be?” We can feel the change in his tone from his first, self-confident words about what “we know.”

Nicodemus may not know physical hunger, but his spiritual hunger drives him to Jesus in the dark of night, when many of us wrestle with questions and doubts, and face our deepest needs. Of course, it also helps that his other respected colleagues won’t see him if he talks to Jesus under cover of night; they might wonder if his “faith” needs a little fine-tuning, and they might judge him for it.

None of us knows exactly how to read this text, and which tone of voice to use. Is Nicodemus argumentative or sincerely questioning? Is he in awe of Jesus and drawn to him, or just flattering him in order to find a weakness, somewhere, anywhere, in his teachings? Do the answers from Jesus anger him, or perplex him, or lead him to new life? If we check in with Nicodemus later in the Gospel of John, we find him identified by this encounter (“Nicodemus, who had first come to Jesus at night” 19:39), and, more importantly, changed by it: he steps in to temper the judgment of his colleagues in chapter seven, and later, after the crucifixion, he helps Joseph of Arimathea with putting Jesus’ body in the tomb. Is it possible that the later words and actions of Nicodemus indicate a kind of conversion experience, one that leads him to greater humility and compassion, and a more open heart and mind? Or was he there, in the first place, that night, because he struggled with his own limitations and the limits of what we humans, no matter how learned or holy, can understand or accomplish? Do you sense that grace was at work in bringing him to Jesus?

Speaking of being brought to Jesus: this text, again, has been interpreted at times as meaning that we ourselves must “come to Jesus,” to simply accept him as our Lord and Savior, in order to be saved. So the question of what it means to be “saved” is an important one. Marcus Borg is especially helpful as we try to hear this text (that has, admittedly, troubled some folks over the years) in a new way, especially the term, “born again.” In his beautiful book, The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes extensively about the “notion” of being “born again,” which “is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. ‘Dying and rising’ and ‘to be born again’ are the same ‘root image’ for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.” It makes sense, then, that “born again” can also be translated “born from above.”

Borg also writes in The God We Never Knew about what it means to “believe.” Rather than strict intellectual assent to propositions and claims, he speaks of belief as trust, as faithfulness, and, “in a very general sense…the belief that there’s something to all of this.” Borg says that faith that “believes God” is not something we can simply will, on our own: “we are led into it. It grows….It is not a requirement that we are to meet but a quality that grows as our relationship with God deepens.” But we do have to “take the first step,” he says, “and then another (though sometimes we are virtually pushed into this by desperation or lured into it by example or experience).” So there it is, the mystery of grace and our response, however limited, however sincere.

This way of expressing what John’s Gospel is saying brings the text home, to our hearts and our experience, more effectively and more meaningfully, perhaps, than some of the more rigid interpretations we’ve heard. Borg titles his chapter, “Born Again: A New Heart” (in The Heart of Christianity), and who among us doesn’t long at times for a new heart within us? Who among us doesn’t question God in the darkest night of fear and doubt, and hope for answers and reassurance? Most of all, who among us hasn’t yearned to know that “all of this” – our lives, our world, with both our struggles and our hopes – springs from love? The same verse that has been used by some to judge us is actually reassuring us about where “all of this” comes from: a God who loves the world (not the church, as one person has reminded us, but the world) so much that only God’s own Beloved Son was a good enough gift for us.

Borg helps us to reclaim the text by reframing the idea of being “born again” in an understanding of spiritual growth that emphasizes relationship and experience rather than doctrine and dogma (The Heart of Christianity). As always, he speaks of a new life marked by “freedom, joy, peace, and love,” just as Paul does. This sounds a lot more like grace than judgment and requirements do. We can’t save ourselves, in fact, Fred Craddock reminds us that this new life, this free gift is one we cannot earn, even with our most earnest Lenten sacrifices (Preaching through the Christian Year A).

This text is so exceedingly rich that we can hardly begin to do justice to the work of scholars to illuminate it: Charles Cousar observes that Nicodemus’ “canons of knowledge, religious though they are, cannot grasp the strange ways of God, who persists in making all things new” (Texts for Preaching Year A). Richard Eslinger reminds us that Jesus is not impressed or pleased with Nicodemus’ opening line: “That many were believing because of the signs he was doing was not regarded by Jesus as a glorious movement of faith.” Like many other commentators, Eslinger notes that Nicodemus is into literal interpretation of religious truth (mystery), and he also points out that the private conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus transitions into a sermon to John’s later community and ours as well today (New Proclamation Year A 2008). Scott Black Johnston offers an interesting perspective on how we can be required to make the decision to be born again: “It is ironic that many Christians treat the question, ‘Are you born again?’ as if it involves making a decision for God. Yet babies do not decide to be born….Instead, God is the primary player in this passage.” And, he says, “The impetus behind God’s desire to see us born of the Spirit is love” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). This text, so “bottom-line” for many, has love as the true bottom line.

Nicodemus puts stock in what he has seen and heard about – the miracles of Jesus – as reason to believe. What do you rely on in order to believe? In our technological world, have you ever felt that you knew too much, in a way that kept you from hearing truth with your heart instead of your brain? In a recent essay, the Rev. Dr. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, director of the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data, describes where a young child’s “why?” questions go, as “younger individuals yearn to understand cause and effect; as we age, that desire dissipates. Oftentimes, we assume that we already understand the cause and effect of a situation, and therefore brush past this ‘simple’ question in order to pursue higher-order inquiries involving ‘how’ and ‘which'” (Stillspeaking Weekly: Questioning the Questions). An interesting lens through which to read this story about Nicodemus, who was stuck on “how,” while Jesus seemed to focus on the “why”: God’s love. Simpler? Perhaps, but more to the heart of the matter.

Have you ever felt that you were “born again”? Was this a graceful experience, or a difficult struggle – or both?

For further reflection:

Margaret Ebner, 14th century mystic
“On Friday after St. James’ Day I went into choir and began my Pater Noster. Then the greatest grace overcame me and I knew not how it would end, except that I perceived the grace was so great that I could not finish the Pater Noster. My heart was surrounded by such sweet grace and felt so light that I was no longer able to pray. I held the Name Jesus Christus within me with sweet loving power and from it I perceived wonderful, sweet fragrances rising up within me” (See The Feminine Mystic from our own Pilgrim Press for more readings from ancient Christian tradition).

Leighton Ford, 20th century
“I am advocating that we see the gospel as story, and that we understand evangelism as living and telling the Story of the One who has entered and changed our story and will do so with theirs who also encounter his story.”

Paul Gauguin, 19th century
“I shut my eyes in order to see.”

C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“The salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.”

Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
“Courage is a kind of salvation.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

 Sample sermon on John 3:1-21
by Kathryn Matthews Huey

The email came into our UCC website, unsigned but with a return address. It was forwarded to me so I could answer the one-line message, a simple question: What do I have to do to be saved?  “What do I have to do to be saved?” I didn’t hesitate for a moment, and jumped at the chance to respond. After all, I am a religious leader, right? I should have all the answers. Right here, in my head. That’s why we religious leaders go to seminary and study and write papers and pass tests: so we’ll have all the answers right up here, in our heads.

Nicodemus was a religious leader, too, a Pharisee, learned and respected in his community, definitely an insider. It’s probably safe to assume that he could go anywhere he wanted any time he wanted (as long as he didn’t make the Romans mad, of course). Today, we might call him “privileged” or “elite” or even “platinum elite.” If he went to the airport (if they had airports then), they would have automatically upgraded him to first class just because he was so important. He had “status.”

So, my first question is, how come Nicodemus had to come to see Jesus under dark cover of night? Well, I suspect that, being a religious official there in Jerusalem, he had heard about what Jesus did back in Chapter Two, when he drove the moneychangers (the loan sharks of their day) out of the Temple. Maybe he sensed trouble brewing, and was afraid to take his questions to Jesus out in the open, or even to be seen talking to him. His peers might have judged him, and the Romans might have associated him with this trouble-maker.

It was a brief exchange there, deep in the night. Imagine Nicodemus in his religious leader outfit, maybe a black robe, impressive looking, and his voice kind of, well, full of himself (but nervous, too): “Rabbi, WE (after all, I represent the religious establishment that knows things) – we know that you are a teacher who has come from God because you are working some really awesome miracles”…but Jesus pretty much cuts him off with a perplexing comment about what it takes to see beyond the miracles and wonders: you have to be born from above to see the kingdom of God (which, as we know, is what Jesus was all about). 

This leads to my second question. I wonder why Nicodemus let the “seeing the kingdom of God” idea go right past him and instead zeroed in on the idea of being born from above and the technical difficulties he imagined in trying to return to the womb for a second birth. He missed the big picture because he got lost in the details. Jesus answered him with one of those speeches in the Gospel of John that’s very colorful if you have a Bible that prints Jesus’ words in red ink. He talked about the big picture, or, as one translation (The Message, by Eugene Peterson) puts it, “this original creation – the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life….being a person formed by something you can’t see and touch – the Spirit – and becoming a living spirit.”

But Nicodemus the scholar just couldn’t get his mind wrapped around the unpleasant idea that he had to go back to being born again: “How can these things be?” “How can this work?” He took the words and images of Jesus, soaring with beauty and yet earthy and human as they describe the spiritual mystery of the new and transformed life God offers us….Nicodemus took the many layers of meaning and the play on words, and tried to make them concrete, defined, measurable and reasonable. He took the words of Jesus literally, and that’s how he got stuck. “What?” Jesus said, “You’re a teacher of Israel, and you don’t understand these things?”

I’d like to say a word in defense of Nicodemus. Throughout the Gospels, we read about people who came to Jesus in great need. Sometimes they needed to be healed, sometimes they needed to be fed (remember those loaves and fishes on the hillside?), and sometimes they needed to be forgiven, or even just accepted. Their defenses were down, and most but not all of them were outsiders, powerless and uneducated, with nothing to lose if they admit how hungry they were for God. I believe that Nicodemus was hungry, too. His hunger may not show so easily; he may have been afraid to admit that he was spiritually hungry, but his questions reveal the deep longing he had for the truth that is life, his hunger for new life.

I was recently part of a conversation with some church folks in which one person brought the conversation to hushed quiet when she said, thoughtfully, “Do you think we’re afraid to say that we’re spiritually hungry?” Nicodemus, like us, relatively comfortable in his world, allowed his spiritual hunger to drive him to do something odd – to go in the middle of the night, when most of us wrestle with questions and doubts, and face our deepest needs, to go to this backwoods, uneducated, traveling preacher and admit that he can’t understand something so profound as God’s new life in the reign of God, something so powerful that it can only be described with images, and word play, and layers of meaning. No wonder that Jesus kept using all sorts of images for the reign of God – a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great value, a net cast into the sea.  

We’re still very early in the Gospel of John, only beginning the third of twenty-one chapters. Jesus had just gathered some followers, turned water into wine at Cana, and then headed here to Jerusalem, where, as I mentioned, he caused an uproar by throwing out those loan sharks, followed by one verse (2:23) that mentions the “signs that he was doing,” and the many who were “believing” in him because of them. 

If we really want to understand better what John is doing here in his Gospel, it helps to read what comes before and after this passage. It’s hard to read today’s story about the spiritual blindness of Nicodemus without recalling the words from the first chapter of John, about Jesus being the light that shines in the darkness. Then there’s the contrast between this insider who approached Jesus in the middle of the night but couldn’t grasp what he was offering, and the next person Jesus met, the Samaritan woman at the well, the outsider at bright mid-day who immediately recognized the meaning of Jesus’ words about living water. John uses darkness and light as metaphors, not just literally. Layers of meaning, a play on words. Nicodemus, bless his heart, was “in the dark,” at least for the moment. The good news comes later when he’s heard saying a word on Jesus’ behalf to the other Pharisees, and finally, when he helps to bury Jesus after the crucifixion, an act of faith full of risk. Perhaps Nicodemus had his own, delayed conversion experience.

Throughout his Gospel, this is how John will tell the story of Jesus’ followers, one by one, as they come to believe in him. In Chapter Six, when some people leave Jesus after hearing him say that he is “the living bread,” Jesus asks his disciples if they wish to leave, too, and Peter says, movingly, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter isn’t ashamed to acknowledge his spiritual hunger, and he knows where it can be fed.

But speaking of eternal life: how do you respond to an email from a nameless, faceless person who asks, “What do I need to do to be saved?” Most of us have heard the most quoted verse in the New Testament, from today’s reading, John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Unfortunately, for many, the words, “For God so loved the world…”, rather than reassuring us of the depth of God’s love for the world (notice that it doesn’t say that “God so loved the church” but “God so loved the world”) – rather than reassuring us, they’ve been interpreted as imposing a requirement that we use our heads and accept certain intellectual propositions (“belief”) in order to “have eternal life,” or, as we might say, to “be saved.” That requirement, in effect, draws a line between the “saved” and the “unsaved,” as if “salvation” could be so simple, as if God were in the business of drawing lines between people. (Isn’t it just a little bit ironic that a text in which Jesus tries to get a religiously righteous person not to take things literally is often interpreted so rigidly?)

Much of today’s reading, after the short conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, is a sermon that expresses the passionate conviction of John’s early Christian community, responding to those who are struggling with their own questions and doubts a generation or more after Jesus has ascended to heaven. But we all know where the heart of the message is: it’s that line about what is underneath everything, what is under “all of this,” what is, in the beginning and the end, the meaning of life. And John says that that is love. God’s love, for all the world, not just for us church folks, not just for those who get all the doctrines and dogmas right – all of the world. The why of what God is doing, the gift of Jesus, the gift of new life, it all comes from love.

But love only works in relationship. Which, interestingly, brings us back to belief. Marcus Borg says that we’ve lost the original meaning of belief – remember “credo” – “I believe”? According to Borg, “credo” doesn’t mean, “I agree with these intellectual statements,” because its root words really mean, “I give my heart to.” And the word belief, before our modern, scientific age, wasn’t about statements or propositions – it was directed toward a person: to hold dear, to prize, to commit oneself to that person, to be in a relationship with that person whom we trust. Borg says, “Most simply, to believe meant to love. Indeed the English words believe and belove are related. What we believe is what we belove. Faith is about beloving God” (The God We Never Knew).

What do I need to do to be saved? Perhaps an anonymous email is a safe way to admit to someone, even a stranger, that we’re spiritually hungry, a safe way to ask the questions that keep us awake in the dark of night. Wouldn’t it be nice if the answers were simple and all up here, in our heads? We could write an email full of words and give those nice, clear answers with instructions to follow, as if it were all up to us and what we can do, not what God is doing in this world, not what God is doing for this world that God loves so much. If belief, if faith is really a matter of the heart, the answers aren’t up here, in our heads. And what really matters, more than our words or claims or creeds or arguments or even our theology books and seminary degrees, is a love that can’t be measured or restricted, contained or boxed in, a love that can’t be held back or kept away by us from any of God’s children – God’s own love for the world that was so great that only God’s beloved, beloved child was a good enough gift for such a beloved world.

The answer was right there, that night, right there in front of Nicodemus. In every loving, grace-filled moment of our lives, in the life of this church striving to be the Body of Christ in a world that is hungry both physically and spiritually, the answer is right there, in front of us. May we have eyes to see and hearts to love, and to understand. Amen.

For further reflection:

N.T. Wright, 21st century
“The work of salvation, in its full sense, is (1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.”

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, 20th century
“People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”

William Nicholson, Shadowlands: A Play
“Self-sufficiency is the enemy of salvation. If you are self-sufficient, you have no need of God. If you have no need of God, you do not seek [God]. If you do not seek [God], you will not find [God].”

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, 21st century
“One of the the loveliest lines I have ever read comes from Brother Roger, the Prior of the Protestant monks of Taize, France: ‘Assured of your salvation by the unique grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ It is still difficult for me to read these words without tears filling my eyes. It is wonderful.”

Don DeLillo, 20th century
“What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.”

Anna White, Mended: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leaps of Faith, 21st century
“I grew up believing Christians didn’t just believe in Jesus. To be saved, people had to look and speak a certain way. They followed a long list of nots to ensure their holiness. They fit the mold. They followed the rules.”

Christine de Pizan, Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc
“[A] person whose head is bowed and whose eyes are heavy cannot look at the light.” 

 Additional reflection on Genesis 12:1-4a
by Lizette Merchán-Pinilla

Bold Blessing – go figure. This Sunday’s focus scripture reading brings about the 40-day pilgrimage ahead of us which is shared by all, through a common thread: God with us, God with others, and God’s wisdom with us, as partners of faith, by challenging our journey with the task of leaving behind what is known and comfortable. It calls us to challenge ourselves and the status quo and to plow our way out of passiveness by commissioning ourselves into God’s life-giving realm.

As stated in Genesis 12:1-3, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” These are the initial words spoken to Abram when God called him into action, calling him into the context of becoming, along with his family, a blessing in the world.

Little did Abram know that this was to be his call in life — a call that would start a whole new beginning from the previous beginnings with Adam and Eve, and Noah. It must be noted that Abram was at the mature age of 75 years old when he actually set out, for better or worse, to find the Promised Land. Terence E. Fretheim states that “verses 1-3 link chapters 1-11 with Israel’s ancestral story. This is most evident in the relationship Abram is to have to ‘all the families of the earth.’ This family does not come onto the world scene out of the blue; it has deep familial connections to all the nations of the world” (The Book of Genesis, The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Genesis 12:1-4a presents us with a journey in itself for Genesis — where the story begins to present the ways in which God was going to start crafting a master plan in such a way that would reflect the ways of the world, at that time and in times to come. All of this crafting of a master plan sparks new hope and life in order to address the despair, messiness, distress, and violence of human selfishness. The basic premise of God’s master plan in working with human messiness unfolds in verse 2 (número 2): “I will make you become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great and you will be a blessing.” So here God is working with the people through this one identified family to bring forth blessing to the entire human race/human family, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3).

James L. Mays says it plainly: “Genesis 12 begins the narrative of humanity blessed, in the family of Abraham” (HarperCollins Bible Commentary). Now that’s a strong statement — no pressure, right? As Michael E. Williams questions, “What sort of judgment had God shown in choosing Abram? What could God have been thinking when Abram’s number came up?” (The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible). Abraham is not only called into action per se, he is called into action as a “forever pilgrim on the journey,” as a stranger in the midst of humanity’s journey, in a foreign land, no matter where he went. In reviewing the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we see that all of humanity was not found but rather was lost.

From bad to worse. Check it out briefly. As my Hebrew Bible professor Dr. Richard Lowery observes, “it is also worth noting that Abraham, with God’s guidance, is migrating away from the center of economic, political, and military power in the ancient world to settle in the hinterland. Ironically, the blessing of the whole earth will begin not from the center of power and influence, but at the distant margins” (2011 Disciples of Christ Lenten Bible Studies).

As the story goes, Adam and Eve got a rocky start. They met in a heavenly forest, not wearing much of anything. This does not last for too long as they both fall from grace and are “voted off the island.” After these events, their children have trouble getting along with each other, and one ends up killing the other. To make matters worse, all of their contemporaries back in the day seem to follow the same pattern — from wrong to bad, as a human race.

After such mayhem, God is not a happy camper. God decides that it is time for spring cleaning, and floods the earth so that a brand new beginning could serve as the renewal of Earth’s people through Noah. And there they go again: Noah’s people are less than what they could be — good: here they go, building the Tower of Babel, which is only a sample of their defiance of…guess who…you guessed it right, God again. God then realizes that there are better plans in the making, tears down the building, and disperses the people all over the globe to complicate their existence. As we are approaching Genesis 12, we encounter dear Abram in Genesis 11. Bless his heart…the poor guy learns his wife Sara is barren.

In a nut shell, the way God saw humanity’s track record, all of it had to come to a standstill. All of humanity was in an amazing race, seemingly with no return. The silly humans had just gotten themselves locked into ways that were not necessarily life-giving and only brought out the worst in humanity. So how then does God help humanity find its way back? God saw Abram and his family and called them into action.

All of this struggling, failing through error, making mistakes, straddling the mud puddles of life, and still missing the mark are where faith — and more specifically faith journey(s) — means danger of the unknown, threatening to most. Many times the choice is awarded to what is known rather than to what is too new, too risky, or too foreign. As God’s people, the journey ahead of us is one of too many unfamiliar paths, too many challenges to go through, and too many steps to climb…scary steps that are way out of our league.

Those of us who chose to remain “en la lucha,” in the struggle, as Mujerista Theologian Ada María Isasí Díaz says in her book, In the Struggle, Elaborating a Mujerista Theology, try to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with the faith and hope to fight for what is just and life-giving to most. E. A. Speiser says it best: “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was thus no routine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history” (Genesis, The Anchor Bible).

What does this journey tell us about the human struggle? This journey tells us of redemption, resurrection, for those labeled as barren one(s), from alienation to action, to witness. The way to reach God comes fro