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Do You See the Kingdom? (Sermon May 27, 2018)

John 3:1–17 (NRSV)

Nicodemus Visits Jesus [1]

henry-ossawa-tanner-xx-study-for-nicodemus-visiting-jesus-xx-private-collection

3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “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. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “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.

17 “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.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that seems to have made a permanent location in your memory? I have had a few of them. Some are seemingly pointless, and others are quite profound. There was this one conversation I had with a three-year-old like maybe sixteen years ago, it was the first and as far as I remember the only time I spanked my son James. He said that the food I cooked was gross. I did not like too to cook, in fact I hated it. I had just spent all of ten minutes cooking and the kid said it was gross. In my amazing parenting skills, spanked the child, he then profoundly encouraged me to try my own cooking. I did, and I promptly apologize to my son for spanking him and asked if he would prefer Burger King or McDonalds. We concluded that Burger King was best because they had green ketchup in honor of Shrek. Why has this conversation etched itself in into my memory? Probably because it was the first time I recognized how easily a parent can act without listening to their children. That moment scared me. It scared me to the point that I tried my hardest to find an alternate way. If I was going to encourage this child to become a man of integrity, I would need to find a way, a better way, a way to promote strength and love.

I think back at conversations like that one. I think back at a conversation a dad and a three-year-old son. It baffles and yet in a moment that conversation changed the course of history. That conversation, the one where a sassy little boy told his dad the food was gross had changed me in ways I cannot even explain. It started me down a path of seeking, of listening, of trying something different. That conversation heightened my awareness of the fine line between people. And how that fragile little line can move parallel through time with my line, or it can be broken by good intentions spoken or presented improperly.

I think about those conversations I have had with people as I thought about this passage of scripture. I imagine that this conversation was one of those type of conversations. It was a conversation that caused an individual to reevaluate everything they thought they knew. A leader of one of the most influential religious orders in history, came to Jesus and said to him, “Rabbi.”

I want to stop right here for a moment. We do not really know what might be going through the mind of Nicodemus but imagine if you were one of the greatest thinkers of an age. You are a leader among one of the most ancient of civilizations, and you find yourself standing in front of a small-town preacher in a state of total and complete confusion. You feel the weight of history and a nation resting on your shoulders, you love and hate this teacher before you. Everything he says both attracts and repulses you. Yet here you are one night talking to this man.

Rabbi, you say to him. Are you being sarcastic or honest? The term rabbi is not something used lightly. One does not just claim to be a rabbi, it is a title bestowed on those that have earned the right. But you are one of those honored few, yet the man sitting there with you is a mystery. You know he does not have the proper credentials, yet his teaching staggers you. You know in your mind and heart that he is not wrong, yet there is something that causes you to pause, if you were to believe then everything about your life would have to change.

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher that has come from God; for no one do these signs that you do apart from the prescience of God.” Interesting statement to make when you think about it. Because when you look at the timeline according to John there is only one sign prior to this conversation, the turning of water to wine at a wedding in Cana. Cana was in Galilee not in Judea, it was way off to the north. What else could there be that Nicodemus might be referring to?

Prior to the wedding there was yet another country preacher, a man named John. And Jesus walked through the crowds when John was teaching. And one day this man that would not stop talking, stopped for a moment. He looked out at the crowds and they noticed he was following one man, and John said almost to himself, “Look, here is the lamb of God.” John spoke these words and we are told that two of his disciples heard him and they chased after Jesus and began to follow him. What we are not told is how many others might have heard. Two days prior to this announcement by John something else was happening, there was a group of priests and Levites interviewing John. They though that maybe John might have been the one they were waiting for. And John basically laughed in their face. He said I am not the messiah, I am not the prophet. I am simply a voice calling from the wilderness. “Why are you baptizing if you are not the one we are waiting for?” they pressed. He answers, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”[2]

John the Baptist, we think of being someone of little significance but often we forget who he was. They knew John. He was the son of a priest. Not just any priest, he was the son of Zachariah. His father went into the temple to perform duties assigned to him according to their customs, and when he came out he could not speak. He remained silent through the announcement of his wife being with child, he remained silent up until the point nine months later when the child was born. He remained silent eight more days until the day of circumcision and naming. His wife yelled out during the ceremony that the baby will be named John. She spoke because the father would not, it caused a small scandal because women were not allowed to speak, so they brought something for Zachariah to write and he wrote, his name is John and instantly he could speak.

These priests knew John, they might have been annoyed by John, but they knew him. The next day the crowds were again around him and John suddenly stops what he is saying while he looks out at the crowd and says to the priests, “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” At that moment Jesus was walking toward John. They were looking around, they saw Jesus and probably laughed, but John continued to make a big deal about him. Testifying that while he baptized Jesus he saw the spirit of God descend upon Jesus like a dove and he knew from that moment that Jesus was the one they should follow. These men looked at Jesus and probably laughed, Jesus the carpenter’s illegitimate son. Yet the next day, Jesus walked by and John stopped what he was doing and said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God.”

Nicodemus knew this story. He heard about the wedding. But what really struck him was when Jesus entered the temple that Passover and began to drive out the vendors and the money changers. He looked at their religious system and he called them a den of robbers. Every priest and teacher came to defend the cause from this seemingly crazy man. A man consumed with zeal for the house of God. The leaders cried out to him, what sign can you give that gives you this authority? Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.”

Jesus left that scene, and we are told that many believed because of the signs he did before them, but the gospel writer does not speak of what those signs were. Yet this night, Nicodemus comes in the night and speaks to Jesus. All these things are playing in his mind. He hates this man because of the mockery he made of the temple, yet he is attracted to him. He knows that John the Baptist respects this crazy teacher and claims that he is the one, yet Nicodemus just can not grasp what that means.

“We know you have come from God, because no one can do the signs you do apart from the prescience of God.” Nicodemus says. Jesus answers him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

It is one of those conversations. At that moment Nicodemus knew that he would remember this conversation for the rest of his life. He knew it would haunt him. At random times throughout the day he would hear that statement in his ears and he would be baffled yet again. No on can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.

I have heard this my entire life. It is basically the motto of Evangelicals. But have we stopped to truly think about what it means. No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.

You cannot see the kingdom without being born from above. You cannot see. Jesus is speaking to a child of Israel, a pharisee, if anyone would be in the kingdom it would be him. Yet Jesus is saying you cannot even see it. Moses was denied entry into the land of promise because of his lack of obedience, yet even Moses was able to see the land before his end. But Jesus is saying that you cannot even see it.

That baffles me. It caused me to stop and consider things. As far as I am concerned I am a born-again Christian, at least by traditional understanding. I am religious. I am educated. I know what I believe, and I have reference books and writing on parchment to prove it. Yet what if I am like Nicodemus, what if I cannot see what Jesus is talking about?

What got Jesus so upset that day in the temple? What caused him to turn into the incredible hulk, turning over tables and whipping animal and mankind as he chased people out of the temple? It was a religion that was so focused on one thing that they could not see anything else. People are entering the courts of praise daily, purchasing converting their money so they can purchase a sacrifice, these sacrifices are then given to the priests who perform the necessary rites and announce that God has provided their request. From the rising to the setting of the sun these activities go on. Going through the motions, filling the treasury with riches enough to eventually fund iconic building projects in Rome. Yet Jesus says they cannot see the kingdom.

According to John the Gospel writer, Jesus would eventually go on to spend the next three years teaching, healing, feeding and enjoying the company of people. He would boldly announce that the kingdom of God is at hand, yet on that evening with Nicodemus, he says you cannot even see the kingdom unless you are born from above. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is at hand its right here all around you, and you are so disconnected and blind you cannot see it.

Can you get a feeling to just how perplexed Nicodemus might have felt? He knew everything there was to know about the Kingdom of God. He had studied it, he had taught about it, he had lived the lifestyle that would bring the kingdom, yet Jesus is saying you cannot even see it unless you are born again. Nicodemus is dead. He is a practitioner of a dead man’s religion.

Jesus goes on to tell him what this means. He teaches the teacher about Moses, their hero. He tells them that the people of Israel, because of their rejection of God were dead. They were bodies filled with the venom of a serpent, yet they were spared because of one thing. They looked up to the image of the serpent that caused their pain, and believed that God could deliver them, and he did. They entrusted every aspect of their life to that belief because if they did not they knew that they would perish, the only hope that they had was to look up to the bronze statue Moses lifted above them and believe fully that they would live because God promised them they would. They left their life in God’s hands and the venom did not take them.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that venom still courses through our veins, we are dead because of it. That venom is sin and condemnation. But God so loved the world that He sent his son not to condemn the world but to save it. And whoever believes in Him will not perish but will have eternal life. But those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed.

We each could probably summarize this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus to anyone we meet. We could probably even quote it word for word. But do we see? Who does God love in this passage? Who did God send his son to save in this passage? God sent his son to save the world. He loved the world. He loved the people of the world, and he died for them. Why, because God can see what we are often too distracted to see. Those people in the world are loved by God, because those people, each and every one of them, bear the image of their creator. And that bearer of God’s image was pronounced very good by the artist who created it. But do we see? Are we able to look at the person who is causing a scene in the store because their coupons are not working as a person loved by God and a bearer of God’s image? Are we able to look at the rebellious child sitting in the police car as a person loved by God and created in the image of God? Are we able to see the faces of the people of Syria, North Korea, Russia, Palestine on the news as people loved by God and bearers of the image of God? Do we see them? Those people are the very people loved by God so much that he sent his son not to condemn but to save. He loved them so much that he left everything, to come live among them in their neighborhoods. While he walked through their neighborhoods with them, he taught them what life with God was, He showed them what life with God looked like, and he proved it to them through his actions. The greatest example was that he carried the cross that should have been theirs up a hill and died for them and for us. He through his life, death, and resurrection provided a way for us to see the Kingdom if we only believe. But do we see?

The gospel message that Jesus taught is that the kingdom is all around us. When he taught his disciples to pray he said, “My Father in Heaven Holy is your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Those words mean something. God’s kingdom is here on earth as it is in heaven, and his will is to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Do we see it or are we too busy focusing on our will on Earth and his will in heaven?

You must be born from above on earth or we will not see the kingdom in heaven. You must be born from above in heaven or we will not see the kingdom on earth. If we do not fully reside with God, fully saturated with his spirit here right now, we are blind and will miss out on the very thing we hope for, because our hope is right here. It is experienced now and for eternity through our lives with God through Jesus. It is experienced as we allow the comforter of God, our Paraclete show us how to represent God on Earth as Jesus works on our behalf before the throne of the Father. Do we see?

As we enter this time of Open worship and communion as friends. I pray that God will open our eyes, that we will be reborn from above, and willing to live the lifestyle of Jesus. The lifestyle of prayer, service to others, and worship. The lifestyle that is available to each of us if we only believe.

[1] The-athenaeum.org. (2018). Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus – Henry Ossawa Tanner – The Athenaeum. [online] Available at: http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=48767 [Accessed 27 May 2018].

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 1:26–27). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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Help Us We Pray! (Sermon May 20, 2018)

John 15:26–27 (NRSV) [1]Singapore-medium

26 “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

 

John 16:4b–15 (NRSV)

The Work of the Spirit

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

 

For the past few years I have thought a lot about what it means to be a Christian. I know that might sound strange for a pastor to say, but it is a question I feel is very important. If we get this one question’s answer incorrect, everything else we do falls apart. What does it mean to be a Christian?

Do we ever stop and think about that question? I am fairly sure if we are sitting in this building we at least think about it some. Is being a follower of Christ following rules? Is it performing the proper rites at the proper times? What is it?

Today we celebrate Pentecost. This day, in my opinion, does not get enough recognition. Pentecost has a history that goes to the very beginning of the church, actually to the very beginning of the Hebrew religion. The history of this day goes to Mt. Sinai. When the children of Israel left Egypt and wondered in the desert. This desert was formative for these tribes of people. They left all they knew and they wondered. Sure, all they knew was that they were slaves, but now they are free. What and who are they now?

It was on Pentecost they began to learn who they were. God directed them to the base of a mountain, and he called their leader, Moses, up to the summit. Imagine if you were there. Imagine if you were walking out of the land of bondage toward the place the God of your ancestors promised. The place you had only heard about in stories. They were going to be the people of God, living in the land of God. No rulers, not masters holding a whip to force them to do the will of the one holding the power, just them free people and God. Just let us go back to Egypt, we know what to expect there they would whine, but God did not lead them to Egypt. He leads them to a mountain. And on that mountain, He gave Moses the law. It was on that mountain God made a covenant with the tribes of Israel. It was on that mountain they became his people and He became their God. Pentecost is the anniversary of faith, it is the marriage of the people of promise and God. This day has a rich history, but does it apply to us?

For three years Jesus ministered among the people of Israel. His ministry was built on the history of centuries of faith. From the times of Moses until Christ, Israel was still trying to figure out one question, who are we and how what does it mean to be the People of God? It is not exactly an easy question to answer. They had this law that gave them some good advice, and for the most part they did their best to keep those laws. Well they kept them in the manner they saw fit. But it was not long after the covenant was given that they began to pull and push away. It was not long before people began interpreting and twisting the words to best fit their ideas. They entered the land with no king, and each person lived how they pleased. They became envious of other nations, with rigorous governmental systems. They liked the idea of living under a king, because the king was in charge, the king had to make the decisions, and they would not longer have to answer the questions weighing on their minds. Then prophets came declaring the word of the Lord. They shared with the people the areas they had failed to keep the covenant. Mercy is what God wants not sacrifice they proclaimed, yet the law if filled with sacrifice. Suddenly the question they pushed off onto a king is again dropped into their minds. What do they do now?

Easy we kill the prophets. We get rid of the ones that make us question our actions. They are weird anyway and they make us uncomfortable. A long history of struggle, a long history of asking the very same question we ask today. A long history of cycling from one extreme to the other and not totally getting it right. Today we celebrate Pentecost, the anniversary and birthday of faith.

Today’s scripture is the closing remarks of Jesus’s farewell discourse. The final teachings Jesus would make as he approaches the hour of his glorification. At the beginning of this message, He said do not let your hearts be troubled believe in God, believe also in me. He told them that he was about to go to a place where they could not go, but he was going to prepare a place for them and that they would know the way to meet him. And the disciples said we don’t know where you are going so how will we know the way. His answer was and still is, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He then continued to teach, and as he taught the disciples became quieter to the point they no longer made a sound. Jesus closes out this teaching by going back to the beginning. “I am going away,” he says, “and no one is asking me where I go.”

They no longer ask, because they are filled with emotions they do not quite know how to express. For years they had followed Jesus and watched how he interacted with the people. For years they joined him while he worshiped in the various synagogues in Judea and they watched as he withdrew to the isolated places to pray. They were even asked to go out in his name to do the very same things that they had observed him do. These past few years were the greatest years of their lives. And not they know that things are about to change.

These past few weeks have been filled with many events that mark important transitions. Marco graduated from High school, Ember graduated from JUCO, and Bridget graduated from university. These graduations mark the closing of one chapter of life and the opening of another. But there is a mix of dread and excitement as we turn the pages of life at this point. It is like in a book where the printers purposely leave a blank page between the closing of one part and the beginning of the next. What will happen? What will we become? We are filled with the excitement of spreading our wings and pursuing our dreams, yet there is that anxiety we feel what if my dreams are too big and I am not up for the challenge. We have all been there, we know those feelings. We felt them at our own graduations, we felt them on our wedding days, we felt them when children were born, and when we started a new job. We feel those same feelings just prior to a race, or game. We feel them when we take on a new client in our business, and prior to opening night of a play.

The disciples are just beginning to understand what the past three years were. And now Jesus is saying I’m leaving and it’s a good thing too. It will be great when I’m gone you will see. It will be amazing and you guys are going to love it. Dread and excitement. Jesus is overjoyed yet they do not quite know what to expect. How will we live without Jesus showing us the way?

“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.[2]” This  advocate, this Paraclete, of which Jesus speaks is what we know as the Holy Spirit. And it is this personality of God, the third member of the Trinity that makes the transitions between chapters of life more bearable. It is often said that the term paraclete is a term representing a legal advisor, although it is not wrong it is not exactly the full extent of what it means. The paraclete is a representative, a counselor, an advisor, one that stands with you. It is not exactly a lawyer, although it does have the credentials to serve in that manner if need be. John, the writer of this gospel, uses this term for both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but it is used in different ways. For Jesus it takes on the role of representative before God, the one who stands for us. But for the Holy Spirit that role is different, the Spirit advises us to the world.

This is profound. This is actually a game changer so to speak. Jesus is telling us that we will have and do have access to the very mind of God for the express purpose of translating the life we have with God to those who do not know Him. I want you to just consider that for a moment. The entire purpose of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, is to help us minister to the world.

Jesus explains it like this, “He will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.” I want to take a moment and say that in this instance Jesus’s explanation is not very clear. This is about the least clear explanation he has ever given. But it is important. The spirit will prove the world wrong about sin. We in the church love to talk about sin. Especially the sins of others, but this actually draws us back to that question I first asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” If we were to examine the definition of what sin is according to John, we would find that sin is simply unbelief, and more accurately the lack of belief in Jesus.

According to John, Jesus did not come to the world to condemn us but to save us. And to be saved we must believe in Jesus, if we do not believe we condemn ourselves. Or as CS Lewis says, “the doors of Hell are locked on the inside.[3]” The condemnation we face is not from God, but is our lack of belief, it is our unwillingness to follow Jesus in every aspect of our lives. When Jesus says that the Paraclete will prove the world wrong about sin, he is saying that the world sees sin as being an error in action, but what sin is in truth is an error of relationship. It is us closing ourselves in locking the door and hiding away in ourselves, instead of opening the door to the one standing there knocking. Jesus explains this even more when he said, “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was naked and you clothed me…For what you did for the least of these you did for me.”

The Paraclete does not only prove the world wrong about sin, but also about righteousness. When the prophets of old said that it was mercy that God wanted and not sacrifice, they were speaking about righteousness. The people of ancient days were very pious people. They offered sacrifices according to the law, they tithed according to the law, they did everything according to the law, but what they often failed to understand was the intent behind the law. The intent was not sacrifice for sacrifice sake, it was all about the giving of oneself for the benefit of others. One of the most profound and inspiring statements made by a president was given by John Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It does not matter who the person was or even if we like their policies, that statement is profound. It speaks of righteousness in a way that many of us neglect to see. Righteousness is not about you or me it is about what you or I can do for others. We give tithes and offerings not so we can gain power in a religious community but so we can help those in need. And we do that not because we have a religious obligation to do so, but because those people we are helping are people loved by God and carry within them the very image of God just as we do. What we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus.

The paraclete will also prove the world wrong about judgement. If we know that Jesus came to the world to save it, not to condemn it, what is judgement about? If Jesus stands before the father in our place who then is God casting judgment on? If the only sin is lack of belief in Jesus, then judgement is not about how good we are morally. It is instead based on Jesus. When I was a senior in college, I spent the summer between my last two semesters in Ukraine. I went to that country to teach conversational English to university students, and to share the gospel of Jesus. Why I went is actually a mystery because at the time neither of those things were activities I participated in. I did not talk so why would I teach, and as far as I was concerned I was a man of science and religion was just something I did not something I talked about (again I didn’t talk). My faith was just my faith and it was not much of a faith it was more of a culture to me. But I found myself on a plane going to Ukraine. While there we presented the 4 spiritual laws. And I had to memorize how to present this in a way that seemed natural. We even practiced drawing diagrams on napkins. Something that struck me later was that question we constantly asked our students, “If you were to die today would you be in heaven or hell?” It is a great question, but only if the person you are speaking to acknowledges a heaven or hell. We present things about judgement that may not be the clearest picture, Jesus did not come to condemn but to save, and we condemn ourselves.

I continue to ask the same question; the question people of faith have asked from the beginning. “What does it mean to be a Christian?” I like everyone answer this in my own way, and I like everyone else have redefined it as I have matured in my faith. I once believed it was just a culture. Then I realized that it was more than that. I then thought it was about living a good life, following the rules God set up, because he set them up and he wants me to. Although it is good to do that and you might benefit from that type of lifestyle, following Christ is more than rules. I then focused on grace, and that set me free I could live free from shame because God loves me and that is all that matters. That also is true, but the Christian life is more than grace. James the brother of Jesus even said that grace without works is empty. What then does it mean to be a Christian? It is belief. It is the belief that Jesus did exactly what he said he would do. It is belief that if we follow him and take on his lifestyle we will have an abundantly full life. It is grace and it is sharing grace. It is works and it is sacrifice. It is living every day loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. To be a Christian is to show God’s love to those God loves, showing God’s love to those that carry the image of God. It is encouraging those around us to open a door that they have tightly shut, and let friendship grow. It is becoming vulnerable ourselves and letting people know why we have hope even when life seems tough and sharing Jesus with them. It is nurturing friendship and walking with others as they become seedlings of faith, assisting them as they identify the weeds of their lives that are potentially choking out their faith and helping them see how to eradicate them. The Christian life is letting the Paraclete advise us in our daily lives, directing us as we represent the Kingdom of God to the kingdoms of Mankind. What does it mean to be a Christian? It is loving the one that loves us, and it is loving the ones who hate us. It is giving all we have for the benefit of others, because that is what our God did for us.

As we enter this time of open worship and communion as Friends, let us sit with this question, “What is a Christian?” Let us ask the very spirit of God to explain it to us, and with Holy Expectancy listen to what our Paraclete has to say. And let us love God, embrace the Holy Spirit, and live the love of Jesus with others.

[1] Diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu. (2018). Art in the Christian Tradition:. [online] Available at: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/diglib-fulldisplay.pl?SID=20180520503440603&code=ACT&RC=54350&Row=4 [Accessed 20 May 2018].

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 16:7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[3] Google Books. (2018). The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. [online] Available at: https://books.google.com/books?id=JaC0_Yvffr0C&pg=PA626&lpg=PA626&dq=lewis+%22doors+of+hell+are+locked+on+the+inside%22&source=bl&ots=wE7oUR-7SW&sig=yUiKO25xVTNKsqtFo9k9GutTBk0&hl=en&sa=X&ei=d2OaULiDD8ffqAGTi4DABg#v=onepage&q=lewis%20%22doors%20of%20hell%20are%20locked%20on%20the%20inside%22&f=false [Accessed 20 May 2018].

 

Sermon by: Jared Warner

Willow Creek Friends Church (May 20, 2018)

He Prays for Us (Sermon May 13, 2018)

John 17:6–19 (NRSV) [1]JesusPrayingGardenGethsemane_Cs_500

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

 

Over the course of my life I have learned a few things. The first is that if you do your job well in retail, they will allow you to do someone else’s job as well. And the second is life is just hard. I knew that when I was going to be an adult I would have to work, pay bills, take care of household chores and many more things. What I did not expect was that I would be doing all of that with the same amount of money as I was making as a high school senior. I look back at those years and I laugh because I always thought I was so poor, but then I had kids and was married and I realized that I had so much disposable income back then.

Life is hard. I am sure you might have noticed that. Its filled with joys and stresses, pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrows. Those emotional ups and downs are annoying at times, and yet they are filled with things we would not change if you asked us too. Maybe some things but overall it is hard but good.

This week we meet Jesus as he is on the mount of olives. He is there praying in that isolated place in the cool evening. Jesus and his disciples had just finished their Passover meal and now Jesus is preparing for the hardest journey his ministry will take, the journey to the cross. It is on this mount that we learn of the extraordinary stress Jesus’s body is enduring and we get a glimpse into the conflicting wills within him. Yes, I said conflicting wills, because there is a very human desire to avoid pain which is expressed by Jesus, coupled with a desire to fulfill the will of His Father. There is conflict within Jesus and through the communion of prayer Jesus works through the emotions and gains the strength to move forward.

We often take for granted the quantity of stress that Jesus’s human body was enduring at this point. This is an actual medical condition that has been diagnosed in others, it is a condition where the capillaries feeding sweat glands rupture in a person experiencing severe physical or emotional stress. Doctors have observed this in people who are facing executions, soldiers we are about to go into battle, in sailors facing storms of unprecedented ferocity, and there were cases reported in London during the Blitz of World War II. These cases are rare but they have been reported and are most common among those with epilepsy.[2]

What we can gather from this is life is hard, even for Jesus. There are things that go on in our lives that can cause great stress, stress so bad that our bodies literally break down under it. Why on earth would I want us to consider this as we engage and meditate on scripture? I mention this because during the most stressful moments of Jesus’s life, he shows us something profound. He prays.

Today is Mother’s Day. A day that is filled with nostalgia as we remember our childhood and our time spent with our mothers. A day fill with joy when we remember the time we spend with our children. It is also a day that can be filled with grief for those days we cannot spend with the mothers that have passed from this life to the next, or for those children we never got to hold. Just like life today is filled with those tough things, mixed emotions, and goodness. Now I am going to brag a bit. My mother was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. If there is some unforeseen event happening which requires someone to keep a cool head and direct a group through, that person I would want is my mom. Life has through her many challenges yet she will still crack jokes at the dinner table and for the most part everyone would think she had the perfect life.

One of the earliest things I remember my mom telling me about was a time where a friend of the family had a heart attach while driving, with my sister, mom, and I in the car. The friend passed away, but my mom was able to get the car stopped safely without any additional injury or damage. She has a gift of keeping her cool. I remember the day I told my mom that my oldest son was on the way. I expected some dramatic scene like on TV or in the movies. What did I actually see? A very calm mother, talking a very emotional son through a great trial. She could keep her cool like no one I have known.

I have often considered my mom, especially around holidays and Mother’s Day. I have wondered what gave her this ability that I so admire. The answer if actually simple. If you ask her what she thinks about a situation, the first thing she will ask is if you had prayed about it. In every situation and throughout the day I know my mom prays. And it is her prayers that keep her strong when most would fall apart.

Some may laugh at the simplicity of that. Some may say that wishful thinking that many consider prayer to be is void of power, but they do not know my mom. And they probably do not understand what prayer actually is.

Jesus prays the evening before his greatest trial. Not only does he pray, but he prays for others. Yes, Jesus prays for himself. He expresses his desires to his father, but he accepts that there is no other alternative so he prays for those around him. He says essentially, “I have made your name known, and for those you have given me they know your words and they know you have sent me.” He goes on to say one of the most profound things, “I am not going to be here with them anymore, protect them.”

The word translated as protect or guard, is interesting. It is a word whose sense is to maintain, to watch over, or to keep. But it has more to it. In some of the ancient writings this same word is used in the sense of maintaining a marriage. With that in mind there is an intimacy to this type of protection. It is one that encourages as well as observes, it stands against danger and cautiously allow risk that will promote growth. What I feel that Jesus is saying in this prayer is that those who know him, are aware that all Jesus said and did was from God, that he himself was God in the flesh among them. And now that this relationship is about to change, Jesus wants to make sure that there is a continued sense that God is with them and that they are with God.

Many times, we can approach prayer as presenting God with a list of our desires, but prayer is so much more than that. Prayer is a deeply intimate conversation with the one that loves us most. Jesus tells us that all he said was the words from God, everything he taught were divine messages from God. So, when we pray, those words should be right there with us.

On Wednesday evening, while we were discussing the video we watched together, I was reminded of the various perspectives we each have when we read scripture. Over the course of this discussion I mentioned that the message I get out of the parable of the Sower and the seeds[3], or the soils is different than what others may see because I have a different background. My education and lifestyle prior to becoming a pastor was based on agriculture. When I read the story Jesus told, I am drawn not to the seeds, but the soils. I know that seeds will take root in good soil, and what most people perceive to be bad soil I know can be changed. For some they read that story and come away thinking that there are some people that will never change, but for me I read hope.

So, when I pray I am drawn to those words of truth, I reflect on them and the situation I am facing or am about to face and I am reminded, “This soil might be hard right now, but with proper attention and God, we can change this.” Occasionally when I have trouble sleeping I will scroll through interesting images on the internet. Occasionally there will be a series of photos showing what happens to land and buildings once people move away. It will show ruins of great buildings, fascinating structures in decay. But in the decay and ruin we see various plants reclaiming the hard paths and the stone facades. I have also seen images of mighty trees that have taken root on a steep mountain slope or cliff face. A tiny seed fell in a crack, and within that crack was just enough soil for that seed to take root, and over the courses of time it grew. Always finding just enough soil to grow a bit more. I have seen dandelions growing in the middle of a street, I have seen entire ocean ecosystems developed within the wreckage of sunken ship. A soil might be hard right now, but with proper attention and God, we can change this.

Jesus is conversing with his Father, he says they know what I have taught and they know that those words come from you, and they keep those words. Protect them Father. Protect them as I have protected them. These disciples listened to the words of Jesus for around three years. They had watched Jesus’s actions, listened to his speeches, the coveted the evening discussions with a righteous passion. Jesus maintained and encouraged them. He watched them morph from fishermen and governmental officials into proclaimers and practitioners of truth. And Jesus pleads with His Father, to protect them. He urges his Father to keep this going, to provide just enough soil that they can continue to grow even in those rocky crevasses.

That is prayer. Prayer is the mindful discipline where we with God’s protection and encouragement search within ourselves and within scripture for direction and guidance. It is a discipline where we slow down, breath, and in communion with God look at our life and our situations from a different perspective, and through that perspective we find a place to grab hold. At times God will direct us to words of scripture to enlighten us. Other times he will remind us of that ridiculous equation in geometry that our teacher said we will need to know and will use in life, you know that formula that we have never used, until that one day where we actually had to figure out the hypotenuse of a right triangle. That day we spent hours trying to make it work until we fell down in a chair in frustration and for some reason all at once, just after we caught our breath, we remembered the theorem and quickly obtained a calculator where we could figure out the square root of a number. Yes, I have actually used Pythagoras’ theorem in real life.

Prayer is where everything that makes us who we are is placed right there with God and we discuss life. We express our anxieties and our frustrations, and God responds, “Remember that one time you read this.” Or he might say, “Remember when you saw your uncle do that one things. Or your pastor when you were eight years old gave a sermon once and that one thing they said that was odd at the time, it works right here.” God takes everything we have available to us and he guides us through, and when we do not have the knowledge or are so anxious we cannot think straight he intervenes for us. He intervenes because 2000 years ago, Jesus said a prayer on the Mount of Olives, where he asked his Father to protect us.

My mom taught me to pray. She did not teach me the words to say, she didn’t even really pray that often with us. But she taught me through her life and her actions. I know that she prayed when I saw a hint of excitement in her eyes followed by a deep breath, and in an instant, there was calm application. My mom was able to teach me to pray because she was connected and protected by God through Christ.

But my mom faced trials, trials no parent should ever face. I know that in her prayers there were times where the words she received were not the ones she wanted to hear. There were pleas to God that seemed to fall on deaf ears. And I saw my mom’s heart break. But what I heard was this,

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well, with my soul.

 

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come.

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed his own blood for my soul.

 

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it not more,

Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, o my soul.

 

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,

The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;

The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,

Even so, it is well with my soul.[4]

 

There are times where our prayers seem to be empty, that there are barriers keeping us from the Lord. This does not mean that God has neglected protection, but that maybe at that moment God is preparing you to participate with him in something greater. The pain I have experienced in my life, the struggles I had to endure, and struggles I continue to endure have all been the places where God has redirected my path. And if I am honest I would say he could have done it differently. Through the struggles I have experienced I have an empathy that I did not have before. I have a testimony that God can work all things out for the good for those who love him, even though they are not comfortable. I have hope. I have hope that even though the soil is hard right now that it can change, rocks can be removed and birds will fly away. I have hope because Jesus prayed for me 2000 years ago.

Life is hard. But a life with prayer is different. With prayer we can step back and reengage, we can come back to things from a different direction or even let things go and move on. In prayer we can offer forgiveness, and we can receive strength for reconciliation. It is when we take on the life and lifestyle of Jesus we can have joy in all situations. It is in that life we can find contentment wherever we might find ourselves. It is in that life where we can become the people God needs us to be for his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It is through a lifestyle of prayer, worship, and service we will find the joy of Christ. It is in that life we will live joy even in the most stressful situations as well as the most blest.

As we enter into this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us sit with this prayer that Jesus said on our behalf. Let us consider what prayer means and let us be drawn deeper into the truth of God as we seek his presence together in Holy Expectancy.

[1] Jesus in Gethsemane. (2018). [image] Available at: http://tcmhome.blogspot.com/2016/06/prayer-person-who-prays-part-6.html [Accessed 13 May 2018].

[2] En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Hematidrosis. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hematidrosis [Accessed 13 May 2018].

[3] Matthew 13:1-23 (NRSV)

[4] Spafford, H. (2018). It Is Well with My Soul – HymnSite.com – United Methodist Hymnal #377. [online] Hymnsite.com. Available at: https://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh377.sht [Accessed 13 May 2018].

 

 

Jared Warner, Willow Creek Friends Church

Jared A. Warner

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