God’s Great Gift

18 03 2012

This sermon was preached at St Peters in Key West on on the occasion of the installation of a new chapter of the Daughters of the King. The date was Sunday, March 18, 2012

Text: John 3: 16

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”

Today’s Gospel lesson contains one of the Bible’s most cited verses. It is one of the first that we memorize during our years at Sunday School, it is a staple of themes that occur during Vacation Bible School, and often times it is used as a shorthand version of the Christian faith. We see it everywhere, and in recent years we have come to know it as one of the references a certain football player will put under his eyes as part of his uniform.

Like with many of the familiar stories and passages of the Bible, it is our challenge each and every time to hear them with fresh ears and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be trying to tell us at this particular moment and time. We are just over half-way through Lent, a time when we reflect on our own mortality, a time of repentance and decision making. Nicodemus has decided to approach Jesus in the middle of the night, wanting to know what to make of the different signs and wonders Jesus performed in his ministry. He comes to Jesus and is almost afraid that his curiosity has led him here because he is one of the religious leaders of the day. For Nicodemus to be seen talking with Jesus was quite dangerous because Jesus has by this time been identified as a threat to the establishment. Part of the way through the conversation, Jesus interrupts Nicodemus and says, “Hold on! you’re missing the point” and so he starts into a message that gets to the heart of why Jesus has come.

He starts by comparing his mission to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that the Israelites would not die when they were bitten by poisonous snakes. The serpents that assault us today are no less deadly for they come in the forms of our own vices and shortcomings. Part of the purpose of the season of Lent is to look inward and reflect on those things which keep us from trusting God and experiencing the wholeness that comes from being in relationship with God. These serpents may not only be the internal things we struggle with, but plenty of outside forces which seem to hem us in on every turn from which there may be no escape. But, as Moses fashioned the bronze serpent to show to the Israelites in the wilderness, God sends his Son to be lifted up for the salvation of the entire human race and all of Creation. This particular Sunday in Lent is different than the others. It is Rose Sunday, when the burdens and disciplines of Lent get a little lighter. We are able to look past the heaviness of being in bondage to the powers of sin and death and look forward to the freedom that comes on Easter morning. Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Son of Man must also be lifted up just like that bronze serpent. We know that Jesus is speaking of his crucifixion where he is lifted high on the cross. However, he is also speaking of the resurrection where Jesus is lifted from the grave by the power and love of God, a love that is stronger than death itself. Because of our faith in what God has done in his Son, because we trust that God loves us, we inherit the promise, the gift of eternal life.

As we try to grapple with the nature of the gift of eternal life, many questions come up which have been asked and which the church has tried to answer through the centuries. Does the love and grace of God really extend to everyone, or does it just extend to the group of people who happen to be clued in? Does that love and grace extend only to the people God specifically calls to be his children? And what about those who for one reason or other say that they follow Jesus, and can recite the Bible chapter and verse, but they act like some of the biggest jerks ever to walk the face of the earth? What about those who are simply rotten to the core? We may also ask ourselves, “What about me? Is my own faith enough? What else do I have to do? Am I missing something?”

We could look at our dilemma like this: Let’s say that someone with whom you had a falling out sends you a gift out of the blue. Unasked for, unexpected, even unwanted. What do you do with that gift? Do you accept it with gratitude and seek to make amends? Or do you turn away from it and reject it? Regardless of what you do with it, nothing changes the fact that it is a gift that is meant for you. In the mind and heart of the giver, there is nothing to talk about! No scores to settle! Whatever caused the falling out is done away with, forgotten. The issue only comes when the gift recipient cannot take it upon themselves to receive the gift! But what a happy and joyous day that will be when the giver and the receiver are finally reunited and the friendship is restored.

We simply cannot reduce questions about salvation or eternal life to a multiple choice options because the relationship of God’s love and grace to that of human response is one of mutual interaction. Our faith is placed not in a book, a collection of sayings or even of a doctrine but our faith is in the person of Jesus Christ. Salvation is not to be found in simple watchwords or clichés. If we dwell on it too much, we begin to miss the point, just like Nicodemus did. He got caught up in the details of what it means to be born again or born from above and failed to realize that eternal life is an unconditional gift from God, much like God’s love.

Every time I get bogged down in trying to answer these questions, I recall a Charlie Brown comic strip where Peppermint Patty and Marcy are discussion about how a faucet works. Marci goes into the basics of plumbing and water pressure. Peppermint Patty looks thoughtfully at the faucet with the running water and says to her friend, “I don’t care how it works. I’m just glad it works.” And it works because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. It’s like that old Southern Gospel Song with the Chorus that says “I cannot tell you how, and I cannot tell you why, but He’ll tell us all about it in the by and by.”

One could actually read the entire Bible as the ultimate love story that God has for his creation. The love of God is even embedded into the very fabric of the law that he gave his people on the slopes of Mount Sinai. It was love that moved God to send Moses to deliver his people from bondage and slavery. It was love that moved God to raise up prophets declaring and proclaiming God’s desire for compassion on the broken, the downtrodden, the foreigners, the widows, and the orphans. And it is the love of God that moves the steadfast women in the Daughters of the King to pray for people they may not even know and stand in the gap “For His Sake” and for those when the world comes beating down at their door. Their gift of intercession is an inspiration to us all, and we say a special thank-you to them for their ministry.

In Lent we are challenged more so than any other season to live into the life-giving love of God. The love of God and saving grace of God that is to be found in Jesus is a gift. Like all gifts, eternal life is a gift that that freely given … but it ain’t cheap. It costs Jesus everything. In life, Jesus could not overcome the powers of sin and death which occupy this fallen world … it was only done through his own self-giving death on a cross. The love of God proved to be stronger than death itself, and the way of life was opened for us all.

The great gift of eternal life is nothing less than knowing Jesus. It is not something that we have to wait to experience when we die but he begins to share it with us when we start walking with him. Eternal life is not simply an unending human existence. It is not us sitting up in heaven strumming a harp with the angels on a puffy cloud, but it is life lived here and now in the presence of God. It is the trust that you have when you realize that no matter how horrible things might be, that you are not alone for God is with you. When we know Jesus, our life is changed in the here and now. The poisonous snakes that make be slithering on the ground all around you may frighten you, they may bite you, they may hurt you, they may even try to devour you from the inside out, but they will not destroy you. Everything has been taken care of.

The gift of eternal life has been given for all to receive, and with this gift giver, there is no taking it back. God may accept us “just as we are,” but he loves us not simply as who we are now, but as the people that he has promised that we will one day be.

“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but that through Him the world might be saved.” It’s almost as if we are the defendants in a trial that is rigged, a trial where the judge is determined to find us not guilty in spite of ourselves.

It is because of the life changing power of the love of God that we can say that we no longer live just for ourselves, but for him, in him and through him who died and rose again.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone … everyone … might come within the reach of your saving embrace.


A Call to Discipleship

18 03 2012

This sermon was preached Sunday, January 15, 2012 at St Peters in Key West, FL

Text: I Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

(pronounce first word very distinctly) DISCIPLESHIP — What does it mean when we say that we are disciples of Jesus? Is it enough to say that we believe in Him? That we are in church most if not every Sunday? That we tithe? That we adhere to a certain set of rules or codes?

Well, it can be argued that many of those things are part of it, but they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. To be a disciple, of course, means that we must demonstrate a willingness to follow Christ and to learn more about him. But first, we must respond to the call of Christ to “Come and see.”

Sometimes it is difficult to hear that call. Many times in the middle of all of our busy lives, when we are confronted with something bigger than ourselves, we can be oblivious God’s call and even God’s presence. Sometimes it takes another to say, “go back and look again.” We have an example of this in our Old Testament reading today, the story of the call of Samuel. The reading is during the period where the time of the judges of Israel is passing. There are no miracles, no pillars of fire, no water from the rocks in the desert, no manna from heaven, and no walls tumbling down at the sounds of trumpets at Jericho. Indeed, much of the future of Israel’s history has more to do with military campaigns and palace intrigue than it does with God’s intervention. The situation in Israel is not unlike the state of some of our churches today. Gone are the Sundays when we could count on the pews being at least half-full. Gone are the children lining up for Sunday School or Confirmation Class. Sometimes things seem rather bleak and we wander, “what on earth are we going to do?” But if you look right there in the middle of the passage you will find something rather amazing. It says “The lamp of God has not yet gone out.” God only seems to be distant, or even asleep, but the reality is God is awake. It takes the voice, the call of God to open our ears and eyes to the wonder of the divine that is all around us. Indeed, when we hear that voice, when we accept that invitation to follow Christ, it turns out that we are the ones that were asleep after all. Our curiosity is aroused, and we want to find out more about who he is.

Now, much ink has been spilt and resources have been spent to somehow prove who Jesus is. Two books that come to mind are Josh McDowell’s “Evidence that Demands a Verdict,” and CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.” In these books the authors attempt to logically deduce that Jesus is nothing less than who he and the Bible claims for him to be. But all of the head knowledge and book learning in the world is nothing compared to an encounter with Jesus Himself, a relationship with the Living God, and that is where we enter the Gospel reading for today. Our focus is on how Jesus met Nathanael through Phillip. Phillip approaches his friend and tells him that he has met “Him who the Moses and the Prophets spoke about … the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael responds by saying “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and shows him making the mistake that many of Jesus’ contemporaries did, assuming that Jesus’ origins actually explain everything about him. Quite a few Southerners still do this, or at least they did when I was growing up in North Carolina. Every time I met a new friend or someone had attracted my interest, my mother would ask, “Who are their parents? Where are they from?” as if that mattered just as much, if not more, than who my new friend was or what they were claiming to be. This told my parents all they needed to know and whether or not I was hanging out with the right people. Now, Nazareth was for all intents and purposes a backwater when it comes to where it might be expected that the Messiah would appear, so when Phillip says “This is the One!” Nathanael can only conclude that Phillip is mistaken. And all Phillip can do is to tell his friend, “Come … and see.”

However, when Nathanael finally meets Jesus, he is forever changed. The two have never met, but Jesus can see straight to the man’s heart and he knows Nathanael to be a person of integrity. Jesus greets Nathanael by saying that “Here a man in whom there is no guile or deceit.” Nathanael’s eyes are then opened and he realizes he is face to face with someone who might be more than what he seems. As Nathaniel is beginning to grasp who he has just met, Jesus almost seems to lean in and says with a twinkle in his eye, “Oh, is that all it took? My friend, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

None of the disciples know exactly what to make of this man who has simply shown up in their neighborhood. They fall over themselves with these lofty words and big names, like “Son of God,” “Son of Man,” King of Israel.” They become his disciples by meeting him and wanting to know more about him, what is he up to and where is he going. Jesus is given a lot of titles here in this passage and while their words are all true, they fall short. You see, they have just started down the path of following Jesus. Having just heard the first part of John’s Gospel a few weeks ago, we know that these newly minted disciples aren’t sitting and talking with just Joseph’s son from Nazareth, but the one through whom Nazareth and everything else came into being. As it says in John 1, “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … through Him all things were made.”

We are in the season of Epiphany, and Epiphany is the season of light. In the Gospels we find that Jesus calls Himself the Light of the World and that He brings this light to everyone. But, not only that, he sees everyone in their TRUE LIGHT, how they really are, just like he did with Nathanael. As we follow Jesus, as we learn more about him, what makes him tick, how he wants us to conduct ourselves, he pours this light and he also pours new life into us and we become more and more every day the person God sees when he looks at us.

Being a disciple of Jesus is a two-way street. It is a relationship, not a set of rules. It is us talking, walking and listening to God as well as God talking, walking and listening to us. It’s kind of like that last bit in the Gospel lesson today which talks about how Nathanael will see the angels ascending and descending, which reminds us of the story of Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament.

This year, we are celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Flagler Railroad which connected the Florida Keys to the mainland. It was a long trip, and sometimes it very difficult, just like our walk with Jesus can be. We can then say that our journey of discipleship is like being on a train, which goes in two directions … up there and back again. Now, there will be many times when our journey is hard and difficult and there will be times when we just want to give up. We just simply won’t get it right or say the wrong thing, or act foolish, but the Good News of following Christ is that Jesus doesn’t require us to be right all the time, just to be faithful. To keep at it, even when we want to give up.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” We might even ask ourselves, “Can anything good come out of Key West?” God acts and meets people in the most unlikely of places. Sometimes, we might look around and think, “well, we’re not much here at Saint Peter’s. Our numbers are small, there aren’t too many children anymore…who knows what might happen in the future? I can tell you this much, this parish has within it great examples of what discipleship is all about. In this parish, we have people who KNOW Jesus, and whether you realize it or not, Jesus will encounter people using you to point to him, just as Phillip was used to call Nathanael. In my short time here, I have seen and participated in discipleship happening on someone’s front porch and during the hospitality we offer at coffee hour and our monthly repasts. We have a music director who has a knack for drawing gifts out of people they didn’t even know they had and getting people involved.

So, when we get anxious about our small number, or we start to worry about any number of things going on in our lives and we wonder, “I can’t pay my mortgage, I can’t pay my rent, I haven’t been able to find a job, I’ve lost contact with my family and friends, and I feel so lonely and depressed and discouraged, and sometimes I even feel as dead as a corpse.” The Good News I have for you today is that if you read your Bible, you will find that every time Jesus meets someone who is dead, that dead person gets up and walks.

We need to remember just to keep walking with Jesus, because we can rest assured that as his disciples, because we walk with and want to learn more about Jesus, he is most assuredly walking with us.

Being a disciple of Jesus, as I said earlier, is like being on a train. The train of discipleship goes in two directions … to God and then back again. It almost reminds you of the verse in the song, “There ain’t but one train on this track; it runs to heaven and it’s running right back.”

Dear People of God, the Good News I have for you today is that as long as we are faithful in our walk with Jesus, this Great Gospel Train is bound for nothing short of glory. And all we have to do is accept the call to “Come … and see.”