What's Tony Thinking

Coming to the Light


Here’s my sermon of yesterday, March 10. Link here to You Tube recording of the service. Sermon probably begins at 12 – 15 minutes in. Or the written text is below.

Coming to the Light
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, John 3: 14 – 21
March 10, 2024

I want to begin by paying you a compliment. After last Sunday’s service I found myself thinking about you. In particular, about the way that you welcome a new minister every two months. I imagine that can be challenging. In most churches, you become accustomed to a preacher, to a particular voice. If it’s a good one or good for you, you come to count on it. In a constantly changing and often overwhelming world, a consistent voice in the pulpit is one way we make sense of life.

But here you adjust to a new voice every couple months. That’s kind of remarkable. So hats off to you. Oh, I understand that there is an upside. Namely, if you don’t much care for one of us, you know this too shall pass. And I’m sure there is a richness in the variety. But still the turnover must be a bit of a challenge.

Despite that I also sense — and for this I compliment, or appreciate you, even more — I sense that you come, at least most of you, actually hungry for a word, hungry for a word from the Lord. And that is a wonderful thing.

So . . . on to today’s gospel reading and how we interpret it. It is beloved, well-known, and yet it is hardly self-evident in its meaning and implications.

And honestly, these beautiful verses from the Gospel of John, make me, a little nervous. Why? Well, because they have so often been reduced to a sound-bite or a slogan, or to the familiar placard in the stands at a football game.
Moreover, they seem to get twisted a bit, made into something unbeautiful by that part of us all that loves certainty, that wishes to be right or on the right side. That part of us that turns religion into the great sorting machine. You’re either right or wrong, you’ve either made the team or you’ve been cut, you’re either going to heaven or to hell. The mood of our times is more punitive, than gracious . . . and that comes out here.

I am speaking of the way that John 3: 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life” has been turned by some, no doubt well-intended folks, from a promise into a threat. “Accept Jesus or you’re going to hell.”

I understand that absolute certainty, all black or all white, you’re in or you’re out, you’re for us or you’re against us, can be very attractive in a world with a lot of shades of grey, and especially when we are feeling overwhelmed, frightened or betrayed. I for one believe that many in the so-called mainline churches have not been sufficently clear and focused upon the core, what we used to call “the saving truths,” of our faith. But really, does “accept Jesus or go to hell” sound like good news? Even more to the point, does it sound like Jesus?

Besides, listen to the often overlooked next verse, 3: 17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Not to condemn, but to save. So far as I can tell, we’ve got the condemning part pretty well under control all on our own without dragging God into it.

One of the things you get drummed into you in seminary is that you don’t just pluck a verse out here and there. You read and pay attention to what comes before a particular verse and to what comes after it. When you do that with this famous verse, you see that it is part of a larger conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was a big deal at the time, a highly respected religious teacher, a sort of a combination of a distinguished college professor or president and a powerful, long-tenured U.S. Senator. Nicodemus was a leading member of that prominent sub-set within first century Judaism, “the Pharisees.” Very devout, extremely earnest. The original “we try harder,” folks. In the church we are often hard on the Pharisees, but I suspect they were more like us or we like them than we might think. Maybe we’re hard on them because we are so much like them?

The other evening, for no particular reason, I happened to stream a series on Netflix called “The Chosen.” Have you seen any of that? I’ve never been all that big on movie or TV versions of Jesus, but I’d heard from people I trust say that “The Chosen” was good. So I clicked on episode one, and who should I find? No, not Jesus. He makes his appearance later and kind of at the edges. Who I find, center-stage, is Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is presented as a an distinguished, elderly, well-dressed man traveling with his equally well-dressed and refined wife. They sit in a nice, enclosed carriage pulled by servants. In other words, an attractive, successful older couple in their chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

Suddenly a brace of Roman soliders gallop up and pull Nicodemus over. He’s not about to be intimidated by these brash bullies, but he also knows what’s what. He feels the pressure the way I imagine a more or less decent Mexican politician might feel the pressure from the thugs of a drug lord.

In other words, the picture you get here in Episode One of “The Chosen” is of Nicodemus as a serious, important and decent man, but one who is also caught, caught and compromised in a world where might makes right, where he is trying to protect a space in which his people can survive. I felt for the guy. I could see myself in him. Trying to get it right in a world where so much is wrong, but as I say, compromised and, really, caught.

So, when we read around John 3: 16 we hear the story of Nicodemus who, despite being a very big deal rabbi who is supposed to have all the answers, experiences some, what’s the right word? — curiosity, interest, maybe discomfort, anxiety — about this guy Jesus, who has recently appeared on the scene. Nicodemus is wondering what to make of him, maybe a little bit the way you wonder every two months about a new MIR. Okay, what’s this one about? What’s their thing?

But because of his social standing and religious eminence, and because he is supposed to have all the answers already, Nicodemus doesn’t want to risk being seen with Jesus in the bright light of day. He seeks out Jesus at night, under cover of darkness. Call this episode, “Nic at Night.” Nicodemus wants to have a little serious theological discussion with the new guy in town, this intriguing rabbi from nowhere Nazareth.

So Nicodemus, under cover of darkness, seeking a confidential tete-a-tete says to Jesus, “I’ve seen the signs you do. Tell me, who are you?”

Jesus doesn’t do (to paraphase a friend of mine) what United Church of Christ pastors, like me, are trained to do. Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some bland assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to God.”

No, Jesus kind of sticks his thumb in whatever existential wound Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”

No letting Nicodemus — or us — off the hook.

And Nicodemus, he being super-religious responds— like we religious types always respond— by asking what it is he is supposed to do?

“You must be born anew from above,” says Jesus. “How,” stammers Nicodemus, “how can these things be?” “How do I do that, Jesus? Crawl back up into my mother’s womb?” He takes it very literally. My wife is tells me, I’m like that. I take things too literally. That’s a polite way of saying, “For a smart guy you are sometimes remarkably clueless.”

Nicodemus, God love him, wants to turn this into something he can do. He wants to know the technique. How it works. “Give me the skinny here, brother.”

Which to me sounds like, well, us. Or at least like me. Is there a book I can read on this? What’s the secret? Give me the method, the secret knowledge. The answers. The how-to. Where’s the instruction manual? It’s sort of what I called “going up the down staircase” last week. What’s the program here? How do I do this, how do I climb up to God, ascend the ladder to the Almighty?

Good Americans that we are (except you Canadians, who have a pretty good dose of this doing on as well, sorry), we want to turn this into something we do, into a self-improvement program. We want the 10 steps to success in the spiritual life. The 12 keys to an effective church. We want the one simple secret that eliminates belly-fat, or insures a full night’s blissful sleep, or turns a surly teenager solicitous and obedient. We may need a little help, but not a complete overhaul. But as C. S. Lewis put it, Jesus didn’t come to make us better. He came to make us new.

We say to Jesus, as Nicodemus does, “show me the way.” Jesus answers, “I am the way.” In writing to the Ephesians Paul does not say, “you are basically on the right track, just needing a little adjustment, a few tweaks.” No, he says, you were dead. You needed to be made alive.

When I teach preaching I ask students to look at their sermons and ask themselves this question: who is the subject the verbs? Is it all about us? Are we the subject of the verbs? As in, okay church, here’s the message. You need to be more inclusive. Or let us all just work harder at being kind and compassionate. Or, if only we had a stronger faith. The subject of the verbs? Us. You. Me. What we do.

The resulting sermon may, or may not be, good advice. But it isn’t good news.

It’s not the gospel. It’s law. Now the law is not bad stuff in itself. Sure be more inclusive, be more compassionate, have greater faith, be more concerned about human suffering and need. Only thing is the law, these injunctions to do better, to try harder, doesn’t ever change hearts. They don’t, they can’t, heal the sin-sick soul. They don’t raise the dead or give sight to the bind.

Only grace does that. Only Jesus does that.

So, say I to my preaching students, is God or Jesus ever the subject of the verbs in your sermon? Instead of “you must” how about “God has?” Instead, of “let us,” “God forgives”? The good news is not what you and I must do, but what God has done and Jesus is doing. God loves you. So much that he sent his only Son to us, for us, the Light in the darkness. So much that Jesus became sin for us so that we might be made alive in him.

When the gospel is spoken, when good news is preached, God is the subject of the verb. It’s not about you. It’s not good advice, it’s good news.

So here’s my thing: I don’t want you to come out of church all fired up to do better, to work harder, or realize your full potential, saying with determination, “Well, God helps those who help themselves” (which by the way is not in the Bible). If you want that get a motivational speaker. I want you to come out of here singing “Help of the helpless, O abide with me,” astonished by God’s grace, washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, knowing yourself as a forgiven sinner and enjoying your forgiveness for “by grace you have been saved through, this is not our doing, it is the gift of God.”

At one point in “The Chosen” Nicodemus confesses to his wife that he has some doubts, some questions. She doesn’t like it. She, who quite likes her social prominence, doesn’t want to hear it. He says, “I’ve just been wondering . . . what if the Law isn’t the complete answer? What if there is something more, something different?”

She looks at him as he’s gone off his rocker. “Stop that foolishness.” “You are a great man, a great teacher. You are supposed to have the answers. People look to you for the answers.” She senses that his doubts — which are, ironically, a sign that he is coming to the light — might jeopardize everything they have, everything they’ve built, everything they are. And, you know what, she’s right.

Nicodemus shrugs, acquieses, finishes getting dressed for the celebrity Sabbath meal at which he is to preside. They go out, to play their part. The show must go on.

I was moved by Nicodemus’ longing, his willingness to question his answers and the certainties around which he had built his life and the lives of others. What was it Leonard Cohen sang? “It’s the cracks that let the line shine through.”

I found Nicodemus, man of disturbed certainties, caught in a world ruled by Sin and Death, seeking help but not quite able to ask for it, familiar. He too is is hungry for a word, a word from the Lord and yet unable to quite throw himself completely on the mercies of God.

Not too many years ago I hosted James Forbes as a guest preacher at the church I served in Seattle. “Jim,” once a professor of mine at Union Seminary, went on to his own prominence as the Senior Minister of The Riverside Church in New York. At about the time Jim visited, I was myself preaching occasionally at a large African-American church in Seattle. Doing so, I found myself puzzling about the differences between the black church experience and my own mostly white church.

So I asked Jim, “Can you help me understand the difference between the white and black churches?” He thought for a moment and then said slowly, deliberately, “In the predominantly white churches, people believe God needs them; in the predominently black churches, people understand that they need God.”

Perhaps we in the predominantly white churches are also coming to know our need for God? Perhaps you come here today feeling the deepest of human hungers, the hunger for God? Note the subject of the verbs:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

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