How Can These Things Be?

How Can These things be?  That’s the question Nicodemus asked after Jesus told him about being born from above in water and the Spirit.

I wonder if in the early months of 1529, Martin Luther might have been reading the Gospel of John when he asked a similar question in his Small Catechism, “How can water do such things?” How can this be?  He was writing about the water and the Spirit in baptism, “But with the word of God it is…a life-giving water…a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”  Then he quotes Paul, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior…we become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”  That is what Jesus was talking about to Nicodemus.  A life-giving water…a new birth…rebirth…renewal, generously poured out on us.  We’re kind of stingy when it comes to the amount of water we use in baptism, but God is extravagant in dumping a whole bucket full of the Holy Spirit on us.

 

Advertisements

Nicodemus meets Jesus

Trinity Sunday, 2018, New Melle, Mo. John 3:1-8

Has it ever happened that you laid out plans for talking with someone, imagined how the conversation would proceed and what the outcome would be, the outcome you wanted?   Then the whole meeting veered off onto some gravel road leading who knows where?  You left thinking, “Well that sure didn’t go like I planned.” This morning, in our Gospel, John lets us eaves drop on Nicodemus’ after sunset meeting with Jesus.  Things did not go as he planned. He discovered the truth of a couple familiar sayings: One is, man proposes, and God disposes.  And, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.   When it comes to an encounter with God, we do well to remember the Lord’s word through Isaiah, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

Nicodemus was financially secure, an influential member of the ruling council of Judah, a teacher.  He was a person of integrity.  A pharisee who took seriously the words of Psalm 119, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” He was someone who we would value as a member of our congregation.

Now, Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  He immediately went to the temple and chased out all the people doing business there.  He declared it his Father’s house, not a market place. He spoke of destroying this temple and rebuilding it in three days.  A person could get into a whole lot trouble doing and saying things like that, and Jesus did get in trouble.  He lost his life over it.  Yet, Nicodemus saw that Jesus’ actions fit the expected signs of the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Malachi had said, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”  Furthermore, people were believing in him.  Nicodemus was edging that way too.

He had some questions.  So, he carefully planned his meeting with Jesus.  He would begin addressing Jesus as Rabbi, respected teacher.  He would acknowledge that no one could do the things Jesus did unless God was with him.  But we never discover what else he had on his agenda, because Jesus cut him off.

“You need to be born again, born from above, if you want to live under God’s rule.  If you want to see the kingdom of God.” This threw Nicodemus for a loop.  “What? You want me to go back into my mother’s womb and be born again?  I don’t think she’ll be too keen on that idea.”  Jesus clarifies what he means, well sort of. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  Now put yourself in the place of Nicodemus.  He had never heard anything like this before.  You and I would also join him in asking, “How can these things be?”  Sounds like a question straight out of the catechism.

I wonder if in the early months of 1529, Martin Luther might have been reading our Gospel lesson when he asked in his Small Catechism, “How can water do such things?” How can this be?  He was writing about the water and the Spirit in baptism, “But with the word of God it is…a life-giving water…a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”  Then he quotes Paul, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior…we become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”  That is what Jesus was talking about to Nicodemus.  A life-giving water…a new birth…rebirth…renewal, generously poured out on us.  We’re kind of stingy when it comes to the amount of water we use in baptism, but God is extravagant in dumping a whole bucket full of the Holy Spirit on us.

We need that extravagant gift of the Holy Spirit because as Jesus said, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh.”  Back in Genesis, Adam “called his wife, Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”  Every second Sunday in May we honor that birth which we received through our mothers.  But Eve also became the mother of all dying. So, it has been ever since.  By being born we are assured of dying.  Our parents gave us life and gave us death.  Even if we went back and were born two or three times, death would still lay claim to us. We are born mortal.  However, we were created immortal.  When we lost our immortality, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit held a council in the realms of eternity and put a plan into action.  God’s plans do work out, because they are God’s plans.  Thus, we also have a Mother’s Day in December.  Through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived and gave birth to a son, Jesus was his name.  As we confessed a bit ago, “(Jesus is) at the same time God and man, begotten of the substance of the Father in eternity and born from the substance of His mother in this age.”  On December 25th we celebrate that Mary became the New Mother of Life.  And in baptism we are reborn into that new life and becomes brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, children of the heavenly Father, gifted by the Holy Spirit with faith in everlasting salvation through Christ.

 

Being born of the Spirit is a little bit like what I do, as I go to fill in at various churches, this week here, a couple of weeks ago at New Athens, Ill. Next week at Ruma, Il.  I’ve discovered that not everyone does things the same way.  I need to hang loose and be ready to adjust.  And ask questions like, which end of the communion rail do we begin serving communion. Well, if one is born of the Spirit, and we all are in baptism, Jesus says its like being carried along by the wind. The wind keeps switching directions, and speed.  Way back in the second verse of the bible we read, “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”  When the Spirit is present you can expect something to happen, and it did, light, day, night, sky, land, plants, stars, swarming creatures, land creatures and humans.  If we’re willing to let go and let God use us as his servants, then we’re like Abraham whom God told to pick up everything and go where God would show him and in faith He did just that.

There is something in this text I never noticed before.  When we are reborn in the Spirit we become like the wind.  Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  What lies ahead in the future?   As baptized servants of Christ  “What does the Holy Spirit have in mind for us?  Both as individuals and as St. Paul’s congregation.  And if we are willing to be like the wind and be carried along under the guidance of the Spirit, then we can realize that God has plans for us, “plans for wholeness and not for evil to give you a future and a hope.”   But hang on. God’s plans maybe like the cartoon showing a young boy, hair streaming back, in wide-eyed terror grasping the grab bar with white knuckled fingers.  Beside him sits a young lady labeled “Holy Spirit.”  God is saying, “I have plans for you.”  Hang on those plans may feel like an out of control  plunge down a roller coaster ride or a gentle breeze nudging us along.

 

Vulture Nightmares

 

We were studying Genesis 15 in Bible Class Friday. God had promised that Abram will have as many children as the stars.  He would also receive the land he is occupying.  Abram has no children and doesn’t own an acre of land.  To prove his promise, God tells Abram (the “ham” hasn’t been added yet) to take a female goat, a heifer, a ram cut them in half and lay them out in two rows.  He is to add a turtledove and young pigeon, but not to cut them in half.  Abram had everything laid out, only to discover that he had created a banquet for vultures. V. 11, “And when the vultures came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.” “Birds of prey” is not a correct translation.  So here you an octogenarian running back and forth chasing vultures.  Have you ever seen a vulture up close? They are huge.

Then Abram fell into a “deep sleep” a “dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.”  Was he having nightmares about vultures?

After the sun went down a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces of carcasses. Apparently, God is saying, “If I don’t do these things then may it happen to me as it did to those animals you slaughtered, vultures and all.”

It’s all a bit strange; especially in the light of Sarai (not Sarah yet) giving her slave, Hagar to Abram as a wife to have a son for her.  What could possibly go wrong?

 

Spirit Born are like the Wind

 

At the end of John 3:8, Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

For the first time I recognized that Jesus is not speaking about the Holy Spirit, but about those  born from above through water and the Spirit. The commentaries aren’t much help in explaining how we are like the wind.  That seems to be the point.  It’s part of the mystery of  some believing the Gospel  and others reject it.  It’s like trying to find the origin of the wind or where it goes.

When someone is baptized you don’t see anything happening, just the parents, sponsors and someone dressed in a robe talking and applying water.  Yet, we believe that that person has passed from death to life eternal. Where is the evidence?  When we go to communion and take the bread and wine from the hand of a human being, we are also receiving Jesus body and blood, for the forgiveness of sins.  But where is the evidence?  We don’t see sins being zapped.  The person doesn’t look any different. Yet we trust that forgiveness, life and salvation comes with communion.

The only evidence of a change is in our life.  Nicodemus indicates he has stepped out of the darkness into the light of Christ when he later defends him in the Sanhedrin and along with Joseph of Arimathea, see to the burial of Jesus.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

 

 

Man Proposes and God Disposes

 

I’m using that adage in the introduction to my sermon on John 3:1-8.  I imagine Nicodemus preparing for his after sunset meeting with Jesus.  He will call him rabbi, teacher.  He will acknowledge that the signs Jesus is doing indicate that God is with him.  He never gets to what he had planned to say.  Jesus cuts him off.  Nick discovered that man proposes, and God disposes.

I wondered, where did that adage originate.  While at the library yesterday, seeing what I could see, I came across a new edition of U.S. Grant’s memoirs.  I had recently read his new biography.  The first sentence of Grant’s preface is “Man proposes, and God disposes.”  The footnote at the bottom of the page noted that the phrase comes from Thomas a Kempis, early 1400’s work “The imitation of Christ.” That’s another book I haven’t read.  I sure hope there is a huge library in heaven.  It’ll take an eternity to get it all read.

Later I’ll write what I discovered about the wind in John 3:8. It never gets old, even though I do.

 

A New Mother of Life

 

I’m preaching on John 3:1-8 at New Melle, Mo. On Sunday.  In the text Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Back in Genesis 3, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.”  However, once mortality entered the human equation, Eve became the mother of all the dying. (I’m not forgetting about the man of red clay.)  To be born is to be set on the path to dying.

Though we have a Mother’s Day in May paying respects to the one who gave us birth here below, there is a second Mother’s Day in December.  The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and the power of the Most High overshadowed her and she gave birth to Jesus and became the New Mother of Life.  Armenian Orthodox priest, Vigen Guroian writes, that in baptism we become sons and daughters of Mary, the Mother of New Life.  To be reborn in baptism is to be born into new life, a life which comes from above.

When You’ve Said Jesus, You’ve said it All

 

Damasus wrote in the fourth century.

Hope, Life, Way, Salvation, Understanding,

Wisdom, Light,

Judge, Door, Most High, King, Precious Stone,

Prophet, Priest,

Messiah, Sabaoth, Teacher, Spouse, Mediator,

Scepter, Dove, Hand, Stone, Son, and Emmanuel,

Vineyard, Shepherd, Sheep, Peace, Root, Vine-stock,

Olive Tree, Source, Wall, Lamb, Victim, Lion, Intercessor,

Word, Man, Net, Rock, House:

Christ is everything.

I would add, Truth, Water, Resurrection, Friend.

Psalm for the Prune Days

 

Ever feel like a shriveled prune?  Well, Psalm 119: 81-84 may resonate for you on those days.

My soul is weak from waiting for you to save me.
My hope is based on your word.
82 My eyes have become strained from looking for your promise.
I ask, “When will you comfort me?”
83 Although I have become like a shriveled and dried out wineskin,
I have not forgotten your laws.
84 What is left of my life?

The Psalmists Nephesh -soul is his whole being. “My whole self is worn out waiting for you God to rescue me.  I’m hoping to hear some word from you.  Though I put my hope in your word, so far there is no evidence that you are doing anything to save me from my current situation.  My eyes ache from looking for some fulfilment of your promise.  I keep asking myself, ‘when will you console me?’

Even though my life is like a shriveled, juiceless prune I have not forgotten your statutes, I have not forgotten your word.  I’ve been faithful, how many days will you allow me to suffer before you do something?  I’m nearly at the end of my rope and I don’t know how long I will be able to hang on, if I don’t perceive that you are going make your promises more than hot air.  I’ve been faithful, now it’s your turn.”

 

Praying with Open Hands

 

One Sunday I tried praying with open, outstretched hands.  I started to have shortness of breath.  My heart was telling me, “What do you think you’re doing? Knock it off.” So, at least in this instance, I listened to my heart. However, I do like Balthasar Fischer’s insight.

“I gained a new insight into this ancient gesture, when I read that the Assyrian word for prayer meant, ‘to open the fist.’  The fist, especially a fist raised threateningly, is the sign of a high handed, even violent person.  People grasp things in closed hands; they use clenched fists to assault…to beat others down so that they cannot get up.

Those who pray, however, are saying before God that they are renouncing all highhandedness, all pride in their own sufficiency, even violence.  They hold up their empty hands to God: ‘I have nothing that I have not received from you, nothing that you have not placed in my empty hands.  Therefore, I do not keep a frantic hold on anything you have given me; therefore, I too, desire not to strike and hurt, but only to give and to spread happiness and joy.  For I am dependent on him who fills my empty hands with his gifts.’”

Peace, I Leave with You

 

I just read about a brawl that broke out on Mother’s Day at a water park in Wisconsin Dells.  It started when one group took a chair from the table of another group.  Apparently not everyone has heard about “The peace that passes understanding” with which people are blessed at the end of a sermon.  Which means we have a lot of work to do in the world to get the word out about the peace which is present for everyone.

Martin Luther comments on Jesus words, in John 14, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you…Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

He does not leave them (the disciples) cities and castles, or silver and gold, but his peace as the greatest treasure in heaven and on earth. Jesus says, “I love you with all My heart and desire only your good, and My Father looks upon you most graciously.  This is the best gift I can leave to you.  For this is the highest peace, when the heart is content; as its is said ‘the joy of heart is the greatest of joys’; and again, ‘the sorrow of the heart is the greatest sorrow.’