Sermon delivered at St Andrew’s Chapel, Centre for Ministry, Uniting Church in Australia
March 11, 2015
“If you don’t stop whingeing or I will give you something to whinge about” – the words of my mother – and the first of many lessons in perspective.
There were other variations of the same lesson – if I complained of a headache or stomach ache – and I’m guessing my mother considered it a ploy to get out of something – she would respond, not with sympathy but with the suggestion that I go and hit my hand with a hammer – and my headache would go away. Teaching her children perspective was high on her agenda.
When the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness on their way to the promised land, complained about the food and living conditions, God gives them a lesson on perspective. Apparently there are worse things than having to eat manna and quails – poisonous snakes, deadly snakes that take away life.
This lesson on perspective is the one that John chooses as he guides his readers in a theological reflection on the question that Nicodemus posed to Jesus – “how can this be?”
John’s gospel is my favourite and I particularly like the way in which he develops his characters and story lines – in ways that the reader can recognise themselves.
When I look at Nicodemus I recognise a few things.not all of which I am prepared to share. ….but one thing about Nicodemus that catches my attention is that he is attending to the gap between what he believes through his study and devotion and what is happening around him. He is a practical theologian…but John tells us he is in the dark. He is not sure, by engaging with Jesus he is risking looking foolish or worse ….dense but he can’t let it go. … if he were braver perhaps he would have put his questions out there with his mates … but he’s not that much of a risk-taker. But that’s ok….Something is not holding together for him so he goes to investigate and in his investigation he is confronted with the generosity of God. We get the impression this is not what he was expecting. New birth, new life, which Nicodemus has noticed as the results of the actions of Jesus are not the result of “right living” but rather are a result of God’s love inviting all to life with God.
In John’s Gospel God comes to us in Jesus, that we might know what life with God looks like, that it is made possible by grace and is in fact what God desires for us. – It’s eternal life.
Eternal life is not endless human existence, nor something that we look forward to at the end of our breathing existence. Eternal life is life lived in the never-ending presence of God. Later on in John’s Gospel we will hear Jesus say that he has come that we might have life in all its fullness.
This is the generosity of God.
So Nicodemus is being given a lesson in perspective.
This is how God loves the world, this is how God has always loved the world…and you know this Nicodemus. Remember your tradition.
That same love raised up the snake on the pole in the wilderness to give life. That same love has come to you with the same invitation – to choose life.
Reminding Nicodemus of the story from his tradition is to remind him of the need for a change in his perspective in seeing the world, others and his life issues that reflects God’s generosity – a love for all of creation. And that love is demonstrated in Jesus who lives out that perspective. Loving the unlovable, including the excluded, challenging those who believed they mediated God’s generosity. In this theological reflection Nicodemus is confronted with the realisation that he has lost perspective….
And just as the Israelites were to look to the snake on the pole to remind them of what is important … so Nicodemus is invited to look to Jesus – to all of Jesus…his life, his death and his resurrection. If he does he will find the eternal life that God desires for him … if he doesn’t he is condemned to no life at all – just existence.
As the Nicodemus story goes we don’t know what he does with this invitation ….. John leaves us hanging … and on purpose I suspect. This is what John does – he constructs the story in such a way that we the readers are challenged, as we recognise ourselves in the stories to consider our own response.
To hear Jesus challenging us to a new lesson on perspective.
Just like Nicodemus we struggle with the light and dark in our selves. And we struggle with Jesus’ message of God’s love….. Oh the words can roll of our tongues quite easily, most of us can recite John 3:16 and God Loves you is quite cliché …but the transformation of our perspective is not in the words but in our willingness to let God love us.
Martin Luther was right to call this text the mini Gospel because it’s not just about God’s love for us but about what happens when we dare to own that which is dark in us and bring it to the light, not that it will go away but that we will know that nothing can stop Gods love for us.
Did Nicodemus get this? We don’t know. But Julianne of Norwich did. She wrote:
“The love of God most high for our soul is so wonderful that it surpasses all knowledge. No created being can fully know the greatness, the sweetness, the tenderness, of the love that our maker has for us. By God’s grace and help therefore let us in spirit stand in awe and gaze, eternally marvelling at the supreme, surpassing, single-minded, incalculable love that God, who is all goodness has for us.”
God’s love is our way through the darkness to life with God, and this changes everything. It changes our perspective. This mini gospel is not about making us feel good because at least God loves us. This mini gospel is the lens through which we are to see the world. This is what changes everything.
Being in awe and marvelling at the supreme, incalculable love of God enables us to see the world around us from a new perspective.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake that healed people by simply looking at it, so today we only have to look to the love of God revealed to us in Jesus. There’s nothing else we can or should do.
Think about it for a moment.
Because we all are loved…we can love all.
Because we all are forgiven, we can forgive all.
Because all are valued, we can value all.
This is the transformation of the world in Jesus’ vision of Gods realm.
Shifting our perspective.
Now there’s another characteristic of Nicodemus which we may or may not recognize. This is that he approaches Jesus telling him what he knows. There’s an implied question, “How can you do what you do?, but it is not asked. Instead Nicodemus comes with what he knows and Jesus cuts across him. Nicodemus’ preconceived ideas, his lack of engagement with the ambiguities in Jesus words, are getting in the way of his experiencing the life that Jesus offers. His curiosity has got him so far but now he needs to let go and allow a shift in his perspective.
As John writes for his community and ultimately for us we are challenged again and again to choose the life that God desires for us.
As we encounter the text, over and over, we are challenged to be willing to be transformed, to welcome the generosity of God and all that it costs. To welcome the new life in God’s spirit.
Should we choose to accept we will be changed – born again, and again and again.
To believe in Jesus is to believe that God is with us. Loving the world and offering us eternal life. Which is life reshaped and redefined by the perspective of God’s love … just as Nicodemus was invited to choose life. So are we, but to do so is to recognise and let go of arrogance, ignorance and fear of being thought a fool and the many ways in which these rob the world of life.
So when we need perspective we only need to look to Jesus and the love of God that he proclaimed.
Because that love makes a way.