Along Comes Jesus

Sermon for March 11, 2018 “Along Comes Jesus”
     Based on John 3:1-17 RSV

Over the last couple of years, this church has been implementing the decisions made at the end of the long, intense conversation called the Crossroads Project.  Most of you will remember that we decided a) to stay open and b) to focus on two specific ministries – local hunger-related actions and turning our ONA commitment into a driving force in the life of the church.  The thought was that we would identify ministries that might benefit kids who were struggling with their sexual identities by getting word out that this is in fact a safe place to figure out who you are – whether you are gay, straight, trans, lesbian, whatever and however you are, the point was to be clear that you are welcome here and accepted here just the way God made you.  It struck me, as I thought about the Scripture readings for last week and today that being at a crossroads was a particularly apt metaphor for, not only our life as a congregation, but for Israel as it moved on without Moses and for the budding Christian movement as it prepared to move on without the physical presence of Jesus.

So – by way of a quick review, and a catch up for those who missed last Sunday,  last week we saw how things went when Moses reached the border of the Promised Land.  His work was done – getting his people from slavery to the point at which they would establish their own nation – that was his life’s work, and when it was completed, God saw it was a new time that called for new leadership, so God, as we put it, called Moses home, strong and healthy though he was in spite of his advanced age.  Even his grave was unmarked.  When God calls for a transition, apparently there is to be no more looking back.  What’s past is past and the focus must move to establishing the setting for a future.  The Moses story is not to be read literally.  It’s a story to explain how to handle the situation when your life as a spiritual community comes to a crossroads.  It makes good sense for our own personal issues as well, but I think it’s addressed first to our life as a community of faith.  Why WAS the grave of Moses left unmarked and unknown?  The message is that when you come to a crossroads, it’s time to move forward.  If you stand in the middle of the intersection looking back, a) you’re NOT going forward, and b) the traffic will flatten you in short order.  Take your memories with you if they are so important, but don’t put your energy into what really needs to be left behind.  Leadership is about leading the people forward.  We’re not running a museum here.  Church is not a mausoleum for leaders past.  It’s a movement toward God’s future.  You can’t have your leaders sitting on the fence about this, and leadership can’t put too much time into mollifying those who really don’t want to move forward into God’s future.  That’s why we have this story about the death of Moses when Israel came to the border of the Promised Land.  Moses was the greatest ever for his time, but his time was past.  I guess you could say that God really believes in term limits.
A couple of other things from today’s Scripture need to be highlighted.  Two things tend to be emphasized here – that “born again” phrase and the part you see referenced at football games – John 3:16.  Ever see that at a hockey game, by the way?  So what else is here that usually goes right by us?
God’s Spirit – this was news to Nicodemus.  We’ll come back to that.
The Son of Man.  Where did that title come from?  What’s it mean?  Did Jesus just make it up or could Nicodemus follow what Jesus was getting at by using it?  
Moses and the metal snake?  Ring any bells?

    So – 3 points to get up to speed on.  Here we go.

Jesus knew all about Moses.  He knew the tradition, he knew the Scriptures, and, as he would say in Luke’s Gospel, not one jot or tittle of the law would change until all was fulfilled.  That “fulfilled” part is key; when he stood in the synagogue and read from the prophet at the beginning of his ministry, what did Luke tell us he said to the congregation?  Luke 4:21 RSV – “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Or as our Pew Bibles translate it, it came true today.   

    You may remember how THAT went over.  Jesus dealt with his share of fence sitters.  Later, in Luke 8, he would deal with a similar problem.  A man wished to follow him, but first he wanted to bury his father.  Jesus advised this follower to let the dead bury the dead.  Does that sound harsh?  It should be understood that what Jesus was saying was that if we wish to follow him, we need to make up our minds and move forward without trying to straddle the fence with our previous priorities and commitments.  It can get awfully uncomfortable trying to stand on both sides of a picket fence.  The wannabe disciple in Luke’s Gospel told Jesus he’d follow him after he buried his father.  This does not mean his father was dead.  This DOES mean he wanted to avoid conflict with his father, who would not approve of anyone who followed Jesus.  So just wait, Jesus.  Let me put following you on hold until no one else is bothered by what I do.  That was his plan.  Jesus was not impressed.  I see this a lot.  People like our church, but their mom is Catholic and they can’t cross their moms.  Clearly, mom has more sway and pull on their lives than Jesus.  So they want to wait to bury their dead before they come to us.  Jesus had his take on that kind of commitment.  Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.   If you want a spiritual life, follow me now.  If you see what is right, but you let the past call you back, that’s your choice, but God’s plans are in motion and no one is going to wait around while you dawdle and wait for others to die before you start to really live.  Jesus’ message to this disciple in Luke’s story is you can’t have it both ways.  Not much has changed

    So we come to today’s lesson in John.  The exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus has an element of playfulness in it.  I picture Nicodemus with that “do tell me more” approach to the ultra-earnest Jesus, maybe looking at him with amusement, like Gene Wilder in so many memes.  Most of the peers of Nicodemus would have and did dismiss Jesus outright.  Who was he, after all?  He was not trained in understanding and interpreting the Scriptures as they had been.  He was some carpenter’s son, or so it’s said, although no one had heard of the carpenter himself in years.  He came from a large, backwater family, whom he barely acknowledged when he was surrounded by his followers.  His own mother waited outside to speak with him.  How did Jesus respond?  Did he step out to see what she wanted?  No.  He announced, those who follow God are my mother and my brothers.  So meanwhile, Mother Mary cools her heels.  Yet the followers were undeniable.  Jesus was drawing crowds and their fervor for him sure beat what Nicodemus saw around the Temple.  Maybe there was something more to this Jesus than one might expect.

So Nicodemus decided to find out.  He sought out Jesus and engaged with him.  Apparently to his own surprise, Nicodemus came away impressed.  Jesus knew his stuff, despite his outlandish claims.  How else would he have so eloquently woven in the reference to Moses and his staff?  What was THAT about?  That was an episode in Exodus in which the people were grumbling and complaining and God had had enough.  In the form of fiery snakes, God let their complaints come back to bite them.  But, for those who would see when they were wrong, God had Moses raise a bronze serpent on top of his staff.  For those who looked upon it, there was healing and forgiveness and there was acceptance.  As Jesus alluded to this story, he was telling Nicodemus that he, too, was the instrument of God’s healing and forgiveness and acceptance.  And, like the bronze serpent, he, too, would be raised up – on a cross.  Nicodemus must have wondered at this.  Jesus understood, as Nicodemus should have, that when people are afraid and losing hope, words are not enough.  You are a teacher of Israel, Jesus chided Nicodemus, and you don’t get this?  People need some visible sign, something tangible they can touch and see for them to rally around.  Moses raised the serpent as a tangible sign of God’s continuing presence with the people.  Jesus knew that it would be his own body on a cross that would become that symbol for his own followers, and that’s what he was telling Nicodemus, who, by now, must have been no longer so amused.  He saw exactly how serious Jesus was and where this was going, just as Jesus saw himself what waited for him at the end of the road in Jerusalem.  So now you know about Moses and the snake.
 Next up – the Spirit.
 Some of what Jesus told Nicodemus was new to him.  As John’s Gospel tells the story, Jesus spoke of God’s Spirit as though it were a person, the same way he talks about himself.  The trouble is that, first, there is no concept within Judaism of God’s Spirit personified.  And second, where did Jesus get off talking about himself in the same breath as God?  Yet what Jesus said did make sense.  We are all born of the flesh, but certainly, many people never get in touch with their spirituality.  Faith that is more than lip service to a tradition really does have to be the driving force in your life if it’s going to have any meaning at aIl.  How often have we seen this?  Bring kid to be baptized.  Agree that yes, this means being part of the community of faith.  Make all the promises and commitments in front of everybody.  Then what?  They’re gone.  Maybe we’re not perfect.  But commitments really do require some effort to work it out when human weakness does see tings break down.  To have God’s Spirit born within you?  That would have been a new way to understand faithfulness for Nicodemus, but there was plenty in the tradition to show that people can and have turned their lives around.  If Jesus calls that being born again, sure, there’s continuity with the tradition.  If that’s the Spirit of God at work, that’s makes sense.  

So – the snake and Moses?  Check.
The Spirit and being born again?  Check.

   But then, Jesus pushes forward into new territory.  As with Moses, who saw his people about to claim their new identity, so the followers of Jesus appear to be claiming a new identity.  By the time John’s version of the Gospel was written, Christianity was emerging from Judaism, separating from Judaism.  That’s the reason we see all those references to “the Jews,” as though, in John, Jesus and his followers did not see themselves as Jews.  In Mark and Luke and Matthew, the hope was to work through the synagogues, to reform Judaism by bringing acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.  By the time John was written, that possibility had been set aside.  The break had already come.  But Nicodemus is there to show John’s readers that not all is lost.  There are still some within Judaism who are listening.  So the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus comes to the final point.

That old term “the Son of Man,” which Jesus uses to identify himself also comes from the tradition.  In Daniel 7, the Ancient of Days gives dominion over the earth to “one like a son of man,” who stands for the people of Israel.  Through the son of man, God will take power away from the beast-like nations who offer only oppression, and give it to Israel.  Just as Jesus claimed it was the Jubilee Year, the Year of God’s Favor as he announced the beginning of his public ministry, so it follows that he sees the end of Israel’s oppression being initiated by his living out of God’s call.  Why, he asks Nicodemus, is this so hard for you, a teacher of Israel, to understand?  To accept?  Why indeed?  Jesus knows he is being uniformly rejected by the likes of Nicodemus.  Nicodemus has no answer, as the writer of John tells the story.  So – the son of man as the instrument of God’s power.  And Nicodemus had no answer.  

    Which brings us to us.  What is our answer?  What is our response?  Or, better than words, how does this claim change our behavior?  How does Jesus impact our lives?  The things we act upon?  The things we turn away from?  Our priorities?  If our faith in God is not what drives us, what is it that does drive us?  Because that, my friends, is what you really worship.  That is who you really believe in.  That’s how this works in real life.

 The past is done.  Standing in the middle of the crossroads, straddling a picket fence – whatever your image, it doesn’t work.  God is moving forward.  Like the Promised Land in the time of Moses, like the fulfillment of Scripture in the time of Jesus, we, too, stand at a crossroads today.  The good news is our leadership is not stuck in the past, trying to hold us back from moving forward where God leads.  
    There’s continuity even to our own time.  That’s why the stories of the Bible still matter.  When violence, like at Parkland, could be meaningless, along comes Jesus to redeem it and turn even our tragedies into a better future.  There’s hope and we can rally and stand and struggle to move forward as God’s people have moved forward before us.  While others dawdle and look to the past, our leadership is embracing God’s future, which means that when we say everybody is welcome – we mean everybody, everybody, everybody.  Listen to Moses.  Listen to Jesus.  Listen to the kids from Parkland.  If this is still a struggle for you, at least, like Nicodemus, be open enough to listen.  And from our fear and grumbling and clinging to the past, we may yet be saved.  God did it in the time of Moses.  God did it through Jesus.  God is not done with us yet, either.  We’re standing at the crossroads, but I don’t believe we’re sinking down.  We’re gonna keep on moving forward, never turning back.  Praise be to God.  Amen.