Sunday’s sermon: Spirit-Molded, Spirit-Beckoned

work in progress

Texts used: Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17

  • I love the story of Nicodemus. I think that this might actually be one of the most approachable stories in the Bible.
    • Today’s passage = 1st appearance in John à What do we learn about Nicodemus?
      • Pharisee and “prominent leader among the Jews”[1] → This means he was part of the Sanhedrin – the council of leaders that eventually conspired to have Jesus arrested, convicted, and crucified. Members of this inner circle had power and status and prestige. They had an incredible amount of control in ancient Jewish society.
        • This is why Nicodemus came to Jesus in secret → snuck in to see Jesus “late one night” because he didn’t want other Jewish leaders to see him with this radical, subversive, teacher who was stirring everything up
      • First few sentences of gospel story also reveal that Nicodemus is more than just a curious onlooker – Nicodemus is a believer: “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”[2] → Because of his position, this is an extremely crucial pronouncement of faith. In truth, they didn’t “all know” that Jesus came from God. At this point in the overall story of John’s gospel, not much has actually happened yet.
        • Jesus’ baptism
        • Called a few disciples
        • Wedding in Cana à water to wine
        • Jesus driving the merchants and money changers out of the temple
        • Surely, there were whispers about Jesus going around at this point – whispers about what he was doing and about who he might be – but I have no doubt that they were a far cry from everyone knowing that Jesus came straight from God as Nicodemus proclaimed. That’s why his introduction in this story is so powerful and so important. It lays a baseline for just how truly dedicated and faithful Nicodemus is.
  • After this introduction, we encounter my favorite part about this story and about Nicodemus’ faith: his questions.
    • Questions born out of uncertainty – Nicodemus has just said, “No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it,” and Jesus’ response to this declaration of faith: “Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to – to God’s kingdom.”[3] → …… Does anyone else feel like Jesus is answering a question that no one asked?
      • Obviously not the response Nicodemus was expecting because Nicodemus’ own response was all questions and logical objections: You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?[4] → Suddenly and unexpectedly, Nicodemus encountered a part of his faith that wasn’t so certain. Wasn’t so easy to understand. Wasn’t so cut-and-dried. And when it came to faith, this was not what Nicodemus was used to. Remember, he was a Pharisee – one of the scholars, the educated ones, the ones who knew the Jewish law so thoroughly that they interpreted the law for everyone else. Not knowing and understanding something about faith was not in his wheelhouse. But when Jesus started talking about “being born again,” Nicodemus was baffled.
        • Jesus:
          • Unless a person submits to this original creation – the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life – it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.[5]
          • You hear [the wind] whistling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.[6]
    • You know, I think we can sympathize with Nicodemus’ confusion – concept of “being born again/born from above” = a challenging concept even after more than a millennia of theological scholarship and debate
      • Doctrines and treatises
      • Textbooks and “armchair theologian” books (break it down as plainly as possible)
      • Christian self-help books and conferences across the country
      • More than 2000 years later, we’re still struggling with what it means to be “born of the Spirit” and how that can and does and might and should affect our lives as Christians today. And we have the benefit of being informed by some of the greatest theological minds ever born. It’s no wonder Nicodemus was a little confounded when he heard Jesus say it for the first time.
    • Even after Jesus tries to explain, Nicodemus still doesn’t understand and asks Jesus again: “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”[7]
  • Gets to the heart of what I love so much about this story: All these questions make it clear that Nicodemus is still a work-in-progress … just like the rest of us! Nicodemus was still learning, and so are we. Nicodemus was still growing, and so are we. Nicodemus’s faith was still being formed and informed by his relationship with Christ, and so is our faith. → always being created and recreated by God through the work of the Holy Spirit
    • Made me think about the process of creating a work of art – talked to my cousin who’s an artist about her creative process: how she chooses a subject, how she knows where a particular piece is going, etc.
      • Sadie: Once I get going, I’ll realize the way I wanted something doesn’t fit, or something I didn’t originally think of fits perfectly. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I end up scraping and restarting. A LOT.
    • You see, sometimes that process of creating and being created is a fuzzy one. It can be unclear – vexingly, bafflingly, and sometimes even disappointingly unclear. But that’s why it’s called a “work-in-progress,” not a “work completed.”
      • [Z: Church/denomination with a foot in the reformed tradition – ringing phrases for the reformed tradition = the church reformed, always reforming] → speaks to importance of submitting and continuing to submit to that creation/recreation
      • [O: Church/denomination born out of the reformed tradition – ringing phrases for the reformed tradition = the church reformed, always reforming] → speaks to importance of submitting and continuing to submit to that creation/recreation
        • Paul speaks to this in Rom: Don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. … This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, “What’s next, Papa?”[8] → Now, I don’t know about you, but I actually hear Paul encouraging us to be continually created and recreated in this text.
          • Can’t be adventurous without uncertainty
          • Can’t be expectant without an element of the unknown
          • Can’t ask God “What’s next?” if we already know the answer
          • “Get on with your new life!”
        • Scholar: To be in tune with God’s presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being. We need a transformation of our whole way of knowing and experiencing the world. When this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again.[9]
  • But friends, the often-discouraging reality is that somewhere along the line, society’s expectation of having everything all figured out somehow seeped into the church. We seem to have adopted the notion that we’re supposed to be totally secure in every aspect of our faith 100% of the time. If we’re not, that means we’re a bad Christian or that our faith is somehow insufficient and inferior. But what I’m telling you this morning is that that is just not true!
    • Greatest faith leaders throughout the centuries haven’t had things “all figured out”
      • Martin Luther King, Jr. – constantly struggled with self-doubts
      • Mother Theresa’s letters with her own spiritual mentors/directors – voice her own doubts, struggles, questions, uncertainties in her faith
      • Pope Francis – expressed belief that the places where we find and meet God must include areas of uncertainty[10]
    • Our faith was not mean to be easy and finite. It wasn’t meant to have neat edges and fit perfectly in a box. Faith is supposed to have growing edges, to have places of discomfort where we brush up against the unknown. Think of the parable of the mustard seed.
      • Mt: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”[11] Faith may start out with smooth, easily-definable edges, but once God begins to nurture that faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, it begins to grow and branch out, always stretching further up and further out into the world.
        • Growth that Paul encourages: God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go![12]
        • Creative process that Jesus hints at in conversation with Nicodemus: When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch – the Spirit – and becomes a living spirit.[13]
  • Yes, my friends, we are touched by the Holy Spirit of God. We are molded by that Holy Spirit. We are called and confirmed by that Holy Spirit. And we are constantly beckoned by that Holy Spirit.
    • Beckoned into God’s presence – continue to grow and strengthen our faith → This is us not just recognizing but embracing our “work-in-progress” identity with all its imperfections and hiccups and foibles because it means that we are constantly being created and recreated by the firm yet tender touch of God’s hand and God’s heart.
    • Also beckoned out into the world – continue to grow and strengthen our faith → again embracing our “work-in-progress-ness” as God working not just in us but through us, constantly creating and recreating us to be God’s hands and heart in the world
      • Scholar ties inner and outer together: The self-giving love of God in Christ cannot be accepted without illuminating our lives from the inside out.[14] → again, similar to an artist with their works of art
        • Every piece of artwork begins with an inner spark – a thought, a dream, a hope, an emotion – and flows outward to become the artist’s beautiful creation
      • Sadie’s words about finishing a piece: I always see parts I should have done differently or should change, but we are our own worst critics. It’s important that I make myself take a step back a separate myself from my work. Even if it didn’t turn out exactly the way I wanted, I can still find things I like about it; whether it’s something visual or just the lessons I learned during the process, I know that I’m walking away from it a better artist. → Even what can seem like the end – the completion of a piece – spurs other thoughts, other ideas, other growth. And the work begins again … Amen.

[1] Jn 3:1.

[2] Jn 3:2.

[3] Jn 3:3.

[4] Jn 3:4.

[5] Jn 3:5.

[6] Jn 3:8.

[7] Jn 3:9.

[8] Rom 8:12-13, 15 (emphasis added).

[9] Emmanuel Y. Lartey. “Trinity Sunday – John 3:1-17: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 46.

[10] Kyle Cupp. “Pope Francis wants Catholics to doubt the Church. He’s right” in The Week, http://theweek.com/articles/446850/pope-francis-wants-catholics-doubt-church-hes-right. Written 26 May 2014, accessed 30 May 2015.

[11] Mt 13:31-32 (NRSV).

[12] Rom 8:14.

[13] Jn 3:6.

[14] Randall C. Zachman. “Trinity Sunday – John 3:1-17: Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 46.

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