Sunday, February 17, 2008

Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, February 17, 2008

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."


It is a classic sci fi novel made into a major motion picture: a man lives an ordinary life, doing an ordinary job, but feels there is something missing, some sense of adventure. He seeks for what is missing and ends up going to an agency that will allow him to experience adventure from the comfort of a chair in an office. But once he submits to the machinery that will induce his imaginary adventure, he finds himself recalling his true self, the real self that was there all along underneath the cloud of false memories that covered it.

He has been reborn. And that is the process that Christ is asking us to undergo in today’s gospel: we are to be born again of water and of spirit.

When we go back in the Bible to the book of Genesis, we see the spirit of God hovering over the face of the water. The entire material world was created in this way, of spirit and water.

But with the rebirth referred to by Jesus in today’s gospel, the rebirth that each of us must experience is a spiritual, rather than material, rebirth. Nicodemus was puzzled: as a member of the Jewish religious establishment, he probably thought, as he had been taught, that Messiah would complete the material kingdom of Israel, establishing himself on the throne and rewarding all those people who had been trying to “do it right” for so long. The Jews of the day believed that the Messiah would return when all of Israel followed all of the law for only one day. Just one day! But they had found, to their sorrow, that it was very hard, if not impossible, to do this. But surely one day they would manage and their efforts would be rewarded.

Jesus’ mission had nothing to do with “getting it right”. One of my favorite authors is Jan Karon. In her novel “These High Green Hills” Father Tim, the loveable Episcopal priest, and his wife, Cynthia, are lost in a cave. Unable to find their way out, Father Tim admits that he just “can’t get it right.” And his wife reminds him that “getting it right” is God’s job and that He doesn’t like it when we try to do it for him.

“Getting it right” is not going to provide us with a one-way ticket to heaven. All our efforts to perfect ourselves by the way we talk, walk, dress, worship and etc. are not going to get us to heaven. It would be impossible for us to get ourselves “good enough” or to “get it right” enough to get there. So we must be reborn by water and by spirit. But what does that mean?

It clearly does not mean that we will “get it right” here on earth. We can strive for justice and mercy, “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” but that does not save us from our well-deserved fate.

I have heard it said that “the gospel was not given to save civilization from wreckage, but to save man from the wreckage of civilization”. Christ’s life and death were for a purpose: not to create a new material kingdom on earth or to fix all the holes in the world we already have, but to prepare all of us who accept his sacrifice for the new spiritual life in the kingdom to come. So how can we accept this gift and be reborn?

We must:

1) Cast off our previous lives by repenting of our sins.

2) Believe that God loves us so much that he would send his only son to die for our sins

3) Accept the forgiveness of God through the gift of salvation given by Jesus’ death on the cross.

4) Receive our new lives through the gift of the Holy Spirit, by turning our lives over to God.

We have a religious ceremony that marks the acceptance of our rebirth in Christ in the sacrament of baptism. But sprinkling water on the outside no more makes us Christians than walking through a car wash would make us cars. The work of the spirit must be done first or baptism means nothing.

Only by accepting the gift of spiritual rebirth that is God’s gift to every person on earth can we be saved, a gift that we can only receive if we open our arms and take it. If you haven’t yet opened your arms to this gift, I invite give you this prayer, which is the Believer’s Prayer from Jan Karon’s book, “At Home in Mitford”:

"Thank you, God, for loving me, and for sending your Son to die for my sins. I sincerely repent of my sins and receive Christ as my personal Savior. Now as your child, I turn my entire life over to you."


Sunday, February 3, 2008

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, February 3, 2008

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."


It’s a story we see played out on television very often these days: the owners of a new home go up into the attic and find an old painting, covered with grime. Or a suburban housewife comes across an old vase at a garage sale. Or a young man is given a trunk of treasures at the death of his grandmother with an old brooch inside it. All these items are unremarkable, even ugly, when they are found. But once these items are cleaned and toted off to Antiques Roadshow or the half dozen other television programs that are like it, the owners find that the object, previously thought to be worthless, is actually a beautiful antique, worth thousands of dollars.

So too, is the kingdom of heaven. It often lies under years of grime, not allowing the light within show through. Because the light is really the key, it shows that something good is going on under the dirt. But where do we find the light?

In our gospel reading, we find the disciples having a “mountain-top” experience. Jesus is transfigured before them and the light is so bright that it hurts to look at it. It’s clear where the light is. It is inside of Jesus. The disciples couldn’t see it clearly until Jesus let it shine through so they could see it. The light was the manifestation of the Shekhinah glory, which means “settle, inhabit or dwell” in relation to the spirit of God.

When the Israelites traveled through the wilderness with the Ark of the Covenant, the Shekhinah traveled before them as a pillar of cloud. After Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai to talk with God, he comes away with his face shining so brightly that he has to wear a veil over it. Unlike the glory that shines around Christ, Moses’ shining face was a reflection of the glory, not the actual glory itself.

Instead of showing reflected glory as Moses did, Jesus is the source of the light shining from his face on the mountain top. In the light the three apostles see Moses and Elijah, the two great prophets of the Hebrew people. Peter suggests to Jesus that they build booths to shelter them, something that was traditionally done to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles, which was a commemoration of the time the Jews spent wandering in the wilderness. We don’t know whether Peter thought it was time to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, but possibly he thought that this moment was IT, that the kingdom was starting here and now, and since Zechariah had prophesied the Feast of Tabernacles would be celebrated at the beginning of the kingdom, it was a great idea to build some booths. But the kingdom was not yet to come, Jesus would have to pass through death first.

This glorious light around Jesus lasted for just a little while. Where did it go once they came down from the mountain? Where is it now?

The answer is: it is within you. As a believer in Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is also part of the Shekinah glory, the dwelling of the spirit of God, therefore we are all filled with the light of God, the very same light that shone around Jesus on the mountain top. It is an awesome responsibility.

A Hindu trader in India once asked a missionary, "What do you put on your face to make it shine?" With surprise the man of God answered, "I don't put anything on it!" His questioner began to lose patience and said emphatically, "Yes, you do!" All of you who believe in Jesus seem to have it. I've seen it in the towns of Agra and Surat, and even in the city of Bombay." Suddenly the Christian understood, and his face glowed even more as he said, "Now I know what you mean, and I will tell you the secret. It's not something we put on from the outside but something that comes from within. It's the reflection of the light of God in our hearts.”

Most of us don’t let our light shine. We close the curtains, pull the shades, let the dirt and grime of the world build up over our priceless treasure. Instead we are meant to let it shine forth, the light of God in a dark world.

Don’t let the Holy Spirit be the hidden treasure in the attic. In Matthew 5: 14 – 16, Jesus said,

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

Open the curtains, pull up the shades, get out your spiritual Windex and let the light of Christ shine out in you today.