By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
April 4, 2021
John 20:1–18 (ESV)
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes. 11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Today is the greatest day we as Christians remember. It is the greatest day that all humanity, if they knew, would remember. Today we celebrate the restoration of hope!
If you have followed the Daily Meeting on YouTube, you with me have walked through the final week of Jesus’ ministry before his trial and execution. On Monday, like Palm Sunday, we remember Jesus coming into the Holy City triumphantly on his barrowed donkey. Often, we think of this image as being lowly. We almost consider Jesus as being the popper’s king because he is on a donkey instead of a great war horse. This is a cultural phenomenon, we regard the donkey as something lesser and lowly, but in other cultures that beast of burden has a different significance. This donkey symbolizes peace. Jesus came into David’s city as a king of peace. But as he approached the city, as his eyes first spotted the sun’s reflection on the alabaster faced temple. He came not in victorious pride, but in tears. He was grieved over the city that would fail to recognize their day of visitation. He was paraded to the very courts of the temple, where he became incensed at the corrupt business between the religious leaders along with the bankers and merchants. After destroying the market, he attracted a crowd with his teaching. And that evening he joined Simon the Leper for a meal where tradition tells us Mary anointed his feet with oil and tears.
Tuesday, Jesus returns to the temple and challenges the teachings of the religious elites, and praises the offering given by an impoverished widow. It is on Tuesday that we memorialize the God-fearing Gentiles that came to Philip with the hopes of speaking with Jesus, and Jesus accepted them joyfully into the crowd as he gave his last major sermon.
Things begin to change on Wednesday. The religious leaders have had enough. They have been challenged in public, in the very place that they should be honored and revered. And they convince one of the disciples that maybe Jesus is not what he seems to be. We do not know what went through the mind of Judas that day. For two thousand years Judas has been held in disdain because he became the one to betray Christ. But have we spent time considering it? He was a disciple, he too said with the others that Jesus had the words of life, but somewhere along the way Jesus just was not what he expected. And on Spy Wednesday we are reminded at how easy it can be to get distracted and betray even the ones we love the most.
Thursday, Maundy Thursday, I always wondered why the liturgical churches gave it that name. On Thursday, the disciples met together in the upper room and ate the holy feast. They began to gather and Jesus steps away, removes his clothes and wraps a towel around him, and begins to wash their feet. The disciples are sitting in shock, their rabbi, the one they believe to be the king they have been waiting for took on the role of the lowest servant. And at first, they reject his offer. Peter says, “You will never wash my feet!” only to have Jesus yet again scold him saying, “If you do not allow me to wash your feet, you will have no part of me.” Peter then, like usual, goes to the extreme, asking not only for his feet to be washed but also his head and his hand. You really must appreciate the humanity of Peter. Jesus finishes this task and he challenges the disciples to understand why he did that, honestly, disgusting, task. Then he says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” This is the Maundy of Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin for commandment. We are commanded to live the love of Christ with others. And after this meal Jesus goes to the garden to pray and Judas proceeds to betray the one that just washed his feet.
This takes us to Friday, Good Friday. Imagine the fear and the confusion of the disciples. Just a few days ago, Jesus was being lauded as a king, and now he was arrested. Peter tried to fight, and Jesus told him to put the sword away. They stand around listening to the conversations around a fire, Peter even denies knowing Jesus, even when one man admits that he had seen him in the garden when Jesus was arrested. And we are told that that man was a relative of the man who had his ear removed by Peter’s sword. The disciples quickly realize that they have failed. Everything they thought they knew, everything they thought they had vanished before their eyes.
Why do we walk though this week? Why do we remember these things every year? We remember because it is so easy to forget. It is so easy to get distracted by things going on around us to the point we miss the most important things. This week as I prayed, I realized just how easy it is to be Judas. Some scholars have concluded that Judas was not as bad of a man as we often depict him to be. They have studied what is known about him, even the origin of his name, and some believe that Judas may have betrayed Jesus out of passionate devotion to Jesus. They think that maybe his betrayal was an attempt to push Jesus into the role of the victorious king many believed the Messiah would be. They theorize that Judas was colluding with the religious elites not because he despised Jesus, but because he wanted them to see Jesus for who Judas believed him to be. This scares me, because it shows that in my attempts to do what I think is right, I might be betraying the one I love the most. And I need to remember. I need to remember that even when I believe I am right, I can be completely wrong.
And on Friday, as I contemplated the crucifixion. As I looked on paintings depicting that cruel and inhumane manner of execution. I was faced with the injustices that I have not spoken out against. The death of Jesus is filled with injustice of the worst sort. People justifying the taking of a life because they do not agree. Priests saying it is better to get rid of this outspoken teacher that is drawing people away from them, than to have the attention of the Romans be turned to an entire nation. To listen again to the words spoken by the Pilate, I find no guilt in him, yet to keep a riot from breaking out he sentenced an innocent man to death.
We crucified Christ. We crucified him when we did not speak up for the kid being bullied. We crucified him when we like the religious leaders at the trial of Jesus cry out “We have no king but Caesar!” We crucify Jesus when we put our nation above the person sitting next to us, or living down the street, or across town. We crucify Jesus every day, when we fail to see that of God in the people around us, and do not promote true holy justice.
Then there comes Black Saturday. This day is the hardest day. We do not like remembering Saturday. Jesus is dead and he is sealed in a tomb. But even this dark day Jesus is with us in every aspect of our humanity. From the world’s perspective everything that Jesus stood for, everything that Jesus did was a failure. He was a failure because he did not conquer, his disciples ran away, his movement was not strong enough to resist even his own countrymen let alone the might of Rome. Jesus was a complete failure in the eyes of the world that Saturday.
We have been there. We have seen ourselves as complete failures. When I was in school, I had trouble in one subject. I was regarded as one of the best students in my class in everything but this one subject. I could get A’s on every test in science, and math. I could understand the deeper meanings in literature when we read books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Great Gatsby.” But no matter how hard I tried I could not spell.
Every Friday we would have a spelling test and every Friday I would go home knowing I was dumb, and I had enough of it. One Friday I decided I would cheat so that I could finally get a good grade. Unfortunately, well probably fortunately, I am a terrible cheater. I was caught. And I went home again with an F in spelling. That was the lowest I had ever felt to that point. I thought life was going to be over. I thought that teacher would cause every other teacher to question my grades and I would be put into some sort of academic purgatory. That is Black Saturday. When we feel as if life cannot go on. When we feel we had given all we could and received nothing in return. We took a chance and the world beats us back. That is Black Saturday, we are failures, without hope.
The disciple sat in the upper room in a depressed state like I hope we never know. They had given everything they had to follow Jesus. They walked away from careers, they abandoned their reputations, they had invested in what they thought was the best future they could imagine, and that future was crucified and sealed in a tomb. Then Mary comes running to the door out of breath saying the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
You run out to the tomb and when you get there not only is the stone moved but there is no body. The linen coverings are laying where the body should be and there is something odd. The face cloth, the hood that goes over the head and is held in place with the wrappings is not with the other wrappings but is folded off by itself.
The scene is bizarre if you think about it. As I read this to prepare for today my mind was focused on that folded face cloth. It was folded. Who would take the time to show that much care to a cloth, if they were going to steal the body? And I realized that they took the time to mention that it was folded for that purpose. It showed care and kindness. It showed that there was respect. It is recorded that when “the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first,” saw this he believed. When I sat with this passage this week, my mind went to a word I had heard my grandpa utter thousands of times. Welp. It is a nonsense word basically has no meaning except well now what, or well I guess we should just get going. I read this passage and I saw that they saw the folded cloth and all I could hear was my grandpa saying welp. And it is pretty much what I think went through their heads, because in verse nine it says, “for as yet they did not understand,” but they went back to the house.
Welp. That is the beginning of hope. You realize that there just might be something else to do and you might as well get moving. They did not understand what was going on, but they could sense profundity in a simple folded cloth. But Mary stayed at the tomb.
There is something interesting about the Gospel according to John. When we look at the major stories included in John there are ten primary characters named. Five of them are men and five are women. There are debates around why there is equality in this, but I think it shows that God can use anyone even if culture would dictate otherwise. Mary is one of those women that John focuses on. And she is regarded with the same care by Jesus as the other disciples, because she is allowed to sit in with the men while he teaches.
Mary stays at the tomb and she looks inside. She knows what the Peter and John saw when they went in, but now as she gazes in, she sees two angels in white sitting where the body should have been. And these angels speak to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” The word woman in this sense is the same that Jesus used when he spoke to his mother. It is not derogatory but endearing. They are there assisting her in this moment. Attempting to help her through this state of confusion. She is there weeping knowing that Peter and John sensed that God was at work, and here she is looking at two angels and she is weeping. She cannot get her mind around what is right before her eyes. Her mind is stuck, like so often ours get stuck. The body is gone someone must have taken it, but the face cloth is folded who would do that?
She turns around, and a man is standing there. She is standing out there weeping and this man asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Again, this is a term of endearment not derogatory. But Mary begins to take offense, she assumes he is a gardener so she lashes out, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She is anxious, confused, and terrified. Her emotions are waging a war within her. And like us when we sense all hope is gone, we cannot see a path forward. We lash out at those that try to help. But Jesus does not take offense, he simply calls out to her by name. “Mary.”
With a word, one word the desperation is gone. The hopelessness has vanished. There is restoration.
This past week basically takes us symbolically through life in general. We have highs and lows. We hit rock bottom and can be hopeless. But with one word everything can change. That one word is your name. The name your mother breathed on your forehead as she held you in her arms as a baby. The name your spouse cherishes. The name your friends scream at you when you step off a plane. Your name. It is the word God whispers in your ear when all hope seems to be lost. This is not the end, Mary, it has just the begun.
With a simple folded cloth, we can begin to see change, and with a whisper of a name the spirit can be quickened. The world thought that they could stop him, and seal him in a grave, but God will not be tamed. He lives! And because he lives, we can look at the injustice of the world and we can speak out. Because he lives, we can look at our lives that the world may see as failure, and we can stand up again. Because he lives, we know that the story is not over, the adventure has just begun. He lives!
And Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” Let us now enter this time of open worship. And let us remember, the hope that He has restored to each of us. And let us testify to the things he has shown us so that the world can know He lives!
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 21, 2021
John 12:20–33 (ESV)
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. 27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
The past few weeks we have considered weighty topics. I use the word weighty meaning they are deep, have significancy, and their consideration should be listened too. There is a difference between loud and weighty. When a person is weighty in the Quakerly sense, it means that they exhibit deep spiritual clarity and wisdom. This weight can come from a lifetime of experience or it can be a gift granted by the spirit. But then there are people that are just loud. They have an opinion about everything, but it is unclear if that opinion is derived from listening to the spirit of God or from the wisdom on the kingdoms of mankind. I hope that we can be weighty people. People who know the will of the Father because we seek that relationship above everything else.
I bring up these ideas of weightiness because the past few weeks we have considered the anger of God, and the reevaluation of what it means to be born again. When discussing the anger of God, we watched in our mind’s eye as Jesus was furiously whipping merchants and bankers that were working within the temple courts. And when we spoke of this I asked if there were things within our lifestyle that would cause Jesus to become that angry with us.
We often hear that story from various political perspectives, but that is not what it is about. God is angered over injustice and the exploitation of others. Jesus was angry because the temple had used religion to exploit people for personal gain. They were in a sense selling salvation. And if you did not participate in their schemes you did not have access to God. In our actions, are excluding people from fellowship with God?
Then last week we discussed the ideas of being born again and that this is more than just making a verbal confession but it is turning to God. Every aspect of life can carry the venous properties of sin, and unless we turn toward God that venom can take hold and cause harm within our spiritual lives. This is something that we really should think about, because even good things can still cause spiritual death if it is not turned toward God.
Let us consider some benevolent service like a food pantry or rent assistance. How can these possibly be laced with the venom of sin? Are we really helping or are we enabling? Are we restoring dignity to the image of God they bear, or are we shaming them as being something less? In our assistance we should make every effort to helping those around us find their true need. This requires greater investment than a simple can of soup. This does not mean that we should not give out food when we are able, it simply means that we should not stop there. We need to get involved and encourage them toward a life of repentance. And every one of us has areas that we need to turn toward God, especially regarding the ministries of our Meeting. It is not about what we want but we are here at this place currently to bring glory to God and expand the influence of His Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. We need to repent as a church, we need to turn and allow the Spirit of God to provide the antidote to the toxicity of our sinful natures.
These are weighty concepts. We do not like to hear these things. We like to think of ourselves as being good people. And we are good people, but even good people have the capacity to cause great harm.
In today’s passage we see that the message that Jesus brings, the gospel, is transcending ethnic and racial barriers. This shows us that the gospel is and always has been for all people. In last week’s passage we read that famous verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This verse does not name one nation, or ethnic group. It includes everyone, we are all part of the world. It also does not only regard humanity in general but all the world. God is concerned with every aspect of creation because all of creation was made and is loved by God.
Today’s passage begins with some Greeks wishing to come to Jesus, and these Greeks were participating in the feast. I find this interesting. The teachings and the traditions of the Hebrew people were even transcending ethnic barriers, this was one reason why Jesus was so upset at the market in the temple. The market was set up in what was known as the court of the Gentiles. It was the area where all the nations of the world could participate in the worship of the one true God. Yet they were putting up barriers for entry even to this place. When Jesus heard that these Greek individuals were wishing to speak with him, he accepted them. And he began to teach them.
Where do we begin discipleship? This is a question that theologians have discussed since the beginning of the church. Along with this question is when is someone really a Christian? For most Christian faith traditions this revolves around baptism. For those that baptize infants they begin discipleship from the very beginning of an individual’s life, for those that participate in “believers” baptism they participate in apologetics until the individual is convinced that they believe and are baptized and then they encourage discipleship after that. But what about Friends? We do not universally utilize the symbolism of baptism; how and where do we begin to teach?
If an individual is participating or even asking you a question they are like these Greek individuals in today’s passage. If we have any interaction with an individual it is at that moment we should begin teaching. And we are to use whatever is at hand to inspire understanding. Jesus began teaching in a manner that all could understand. It does not matter if you are from Hebrew or Gentile heritage, all people around the world understand food.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This of course has ancient Hebrew understanding, but Jesus is of course referring to himself, so even those that do not have religious training can understand that he is speaking of how he is going to gain his greatest honor. Then he goes on to say, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
I grew up on a farm where our primary crop is wheat. Today’s worship slides on PowerPoint feature my grandfather standing in a wheat field. My family knows wheat. What my grandfather is doing is testing the wheat to see if it is ready to harvest. Wheat has been a part of human civilization from the very beginning of civilization. When I took agricultural history class, they presented the idea that the domestication of wheat is the singular event that promoted civilization. When humans first learned to isolate and systematically grow fields of grain, they began to establish cultural centers. We can see this early in scripture, Cain worked fields and able was tended animals. Cain, according to scripture, established the first city.
Jesus speaks of wheat. The staple of human diet and the beginnings civilization. The layers of this teaching are eminence. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. Yes, Jesus is speaking of his death, but there is more. The teachings of the New Testament from the gospels through the various epistles all tell us to follow Christ, or to put on Christ. We are to take on his life and lifestyle so he is not only speaking of his own glorification but ours as well.
The requirements of bearing fruit are simple. We must die. This does not necessarily mean that we must physically die, but we must invest ourselves for something greater. We must take the risk. At harvest, a farmer goes out into their field and they reap their grain. This grain is the basis of their entire year’s life, it will provide for the most basic of their needs. But the farmer does not use all the grain, they keep some of that grain to invest in the next year. This is the discipline of farming. You sacrifice a portion of the immediate needs for the future. I say it is a discipline for farming but it is a discipline for all of life. This grain that could have fed your family is kept and sacrificed so that it can be planted with the hope of providing more grain in the future. If we do not make that sacrifice there is not a future.
I want us to let that sit in your mind for a bit. If you do not invest there is not a future. If YOU do not invest there is not a future.
The Greeks may not understand the theological concepts of God’s economy, but they are very aware of the economies of man. And that is why Jesus spoke in this manner. For there to be a future, we each must participate. We must invest our lives into the next generation so that a new crop can grow and a new harvest can be gathered. Those in business understand this in the realms of finance, those that are retired have participated in this as you prepared for your retirement. This is one of those aspects of life that we need to teach when we aid, because truth is always truth. Without short term sacrifice there cannot be long term success.
But Jesus is not speaking only about the economies of man. God also regards something as precious. This goes back to the conversation with Nicodemus, “For God so loves the world.” We are precious to God, not just those of us that have made verbal and visual commitments to Christ but every human being that has and will ever live. We all bear the image of God and because we bear that image, we are what God values in His economy. We are the wheat in his civilization, and we must make sacrifices to bear fruit.
When a farmer, like my grandfather, holds seed back from the harvest the intent is to plant the seed the next fall. Once that seed is in the ground it will sit there until conditions are right for it to germinate. It will then begin to grow for a while but it will go dormant through the entire winter. It must go dormant for a while because that dormancy prepares it for its next stage of life. Finally, when the time and conditions are right, the head will emerge from below the ground and the grain will begin to emerge.
It can take time for the seed to first show signs of life. When the plants begin to grow, the dormancy is also filled with stress. And when the plant begins to emerge from dormancy even more stress comes. The same is true in the sacrifices we make. We invest our lives into people. We encourage them, we provide aid in various forms. They might show signs of new life, but then they seem to go dormant. There is no further growth, and they seem to go stagnant. What do we do at that time?
We continue to encourage, and we continue to teach. That dormant period is vital. The wheat plant during the dormancy is still growing. It is during those winter months when the roots are going deep and seeking out the sources of nutrients and water. The dormancy is where those we are investing in are trying and experimenting with their faith. They are working through aspects of their lives that are deeper and more problematic than what we might see on the surface. It is that dormancy where the Spirit is working on the venom of sin within. Only after the roots of the spiritual life are developed can the seed, we invested begin to grow into the new life we hope to see.
It is that dormancy that is often neglected. Someone might seem interested and we invest, but they do not show enough growth so we back off. We do not continue to encourage, and eventually their roots wither and die. But are we continue to sacrifice our lives for those that God holds precious, when we continue to encourage and teach then when the time is right, they will begin to bear fruit?
It is not easy to live this kind of sacrificial life. My grandfather is one of the greatest men I know. It takes great faith to live the lifestyle that he lives. He is not famous. The only reason you see him today is because he is my grandfather, yet his sacrifices and sacrifices of those like him, have provided food for everyone in this building. Every year he invests. Every year he risks his life and the livelihood of his family, so that those in our civilization can live. Those are the requirements of bearing fruit. Those are the requirements of the church as well. Are we willing to make that sacrifice? Will we invest so others can live? If we do not die today there is no future.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 14, 2021
John 3:14–21 (ESV)
14 And 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, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
Last week we discussed Jesus at the temple armed with a whip and his tongue. I encouraged us to think deeper about this. And I hope we did leave last week and considered how we might be angering Jesus with our lifestyles.
The history of Israel is filled with God angering stories. There are so many stories of God being angry that some scholars have questioned if the God presented in the New Testament is different than the God presented in the Old Testament. I say some scholars, but those scholars usually start from a position of not wanting to recognize the existence of God, so when they see all the stories of God being angry and then look at the stories of Christ, they see a difference. We could spend hours discussing this, but that defeats the purpose. The thing I want us to recognize is that God got angry. And in much of the Old Testament they did not discuss what happened when everything was going well. It is often filled with stories of human errors and how God worked through those errors to preserve Israel, even though it upset Him.
This example is seen clearly in today’s passage. Jesus has finished his display of ire and he has returned to the mode we are used to, the teacher and miracle worker. He continued this through the feast, enjoying the celebration and many listened to what he had to say. Even the religious leaders must have listened to some degree, we know that Jesus had attracted their attention. If someone came in and knocked over our pews and threw books in our Meetinghouse, they would attract our attention too. But as they listened to his teaching, they realized that he was not far from their understanding and that caused them to think a bit deeper about his actions and his teaching.
Jesus goes back to where he was staying. We are not told exactly where Jesus spent his time when he was on his ministry journeys. Maybe he had gone to Bethany to stay with Lazarus’s family, or maybe he just set up a tent and made camp somewhere in the wilderness. I always imagine Jesus in a tent. And when Nicodemus comes to visit, I always imagine that they are sitting on rocks around a campfire. This has little to do with what scripture says and everything to do with what I might like to be doing on a nice spring evening.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night and when he comes, he calls Jesus, rabbi. He acknowledges that Jesus has some authority to teach, and they can only assume that it is from God. Again, I want us to imagine the scene, a wondering pastor in a tent being visited by a theology professor from the most prominent Seminary you can think of, maybe Andover Theological Seminary, which is the oldest seminary in the United States, founded in 1807, which is now in the process of merging with Yale. Imagine a theology professor from that ancient institution, in a suit sitting on a rock by a fire out in the wilderness. And while sitting there on the rock, he is being talked to not as the distinguished professor but as an equal at best, if not a student of this man living in a tent.
They sit and talk and Nicodemus is confused. And Jesus looks at him and says, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Here a man that is a respected teacher among the Pharisees is being treated like an erring student. And Jesus explains himself.
Nicodemus was confused because Jesus started this conversation with the concept of being born again or born from above. This idea is something that Nicodemus just cannot grasp and to be honest we have become so accustomed to the words today in our Evangelical teachings that I do not know if we really understand the concept either. To Nicodemus and to most teachers of Israel, being born into Israel meant that you were a member of God’s chosen people. There is not any need to repent or change anything if you respect your people’s customs and live according to the law. This is how most of world things as well. We are good people generally.
Jesus takes Nicodemus back into the history of Israel. He says, “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.” This gets Nicodemus thinking. Israel is not perfect, and they never have been. God redeemed the people from Egyptian bondage, which is what the feast they had just celebrated is to remember, and they go to the boarder of the promised land. They send in spies to get and idea of what they are dealing with, and those spies come back with a report that the people are too big. Egypt was the world’s superpower at the time, and they had walked out of Egypt with Egypt’s wealth because God was with them, and they look at the people in the promised land and think they cannot overcome them because they are too big.
Imagine the annoyance that would have caused to God. He had just brought the greatest nation in the world at that time in history to their knees, and the people do not think He can do the same with a nation that is a fraction of the size and might of Egypt. What does God do, none of them get to go into the land. They then embark on a forty-year wilderness hike. They wonder in circles for decades, and what do they do while they wonder? Well, they complain. While they wonder God is providing them with food, he has preserved their clothing so it does not wear out, and they are walking for forty years, my shoes are wearing out in less than six months and theirs are lasting a lifetime.
They are wondering and eventually that generation begins to die. Aaron died and the people mourned for an entire month. Aaron was their first priest, and they were thinking if their priest cannot even get into the promised land why did they leave Egypt in the first place. They complain even more, “why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loath this worthless food.” God has listened to this for decades, while every day he gave them manna and doves.
God had been protecting them, feeding them, providing water, and ensuring that they were clothed and that they had shelter, yet that was not enough for them. What else could God do to prove to them that he would care for them? He left them alone for a bit.
Why do bad things happen to good people? The answer is right in scripture. We do not recognize the good but focus on the bad. The desert is filled with numerous deadly obstacles. The people did not realize how much God had been doing for them. He provided a cloud by day and fire by night, protecting them from the harsh temperatures of the desert day and cold temperatures at night. But there are also deadly venous creatures. God withdrew his hand of protection for a moment and venomous snake began to find their way into the camp. And people began to die from the bites.
The people became aware that they their complaining, their speaking out against God and Moses was the cause of this situation. And they plead to Moses to appeal to God for deliverance. God again had mercy on them. He commanded Moses to build a sculpture of the serpents and put it on a tall pole so when the people were bitten, they could look upon the sculpture and believe or trust that God would provide for them.
Every one of the people of Israel had been bitten by the snake and deserved death. It is only the grace of God that kept them alive. Jesus reminded Nicodemus of this. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The people in the desert were not saved because they were Israelites, but they were saved because they turned to God. Each person in the wondering camp had to turn themselves to God. Without the turning they would have all been dead. The venom of the snake’s bite course through the veins of everyone because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world but to save it. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, just as every Israelite in the desert.
Imagine you were Nicodemus, a prominent scholar among the Pharisees, and you had just heard these words. All the theological understanding available to us is nothing if we do not realize one simple thing. If we do not turn to Christ, we no matter how good we might be will die, because we have the venom of sin in our veins. God is not judging us; we have judged ourselves. We can mope around complaining about how unfair the world is, we can complain about how unjust the world is, we can get ourselves worked up into a pity frenzy but if we have not turned to God, nothing will ever change.
And how could it change? “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
What do we do when no one is looking? There is a saying going around over the past few years, “Dance like no one is looking.” The idea is that when you feel like no one is judging you, you are free to be yourself. There is a lot of truth to that, but then there is a flip side too. Why are we hiding in the first place? Why do we act differently when we think people are watching? Even when we are not doing anything wrong, how often do we sneak an extra piece of dessert and tell people to act like they did not see it? How often do we trip, get up, and look around to see who saw us? This is what Jesus is talking about. When we live our lives in the systems of the world, we live in fear and darkness. We are constantly looking over our shoulders and hiding. How can things change if even the “good” people of the world keep secrets?
No one is good. We live our lives in discontent, dishonesty, and lack of empathy. When the mask mandates were issued what was our first response? For many of us, including myself, we complained. Why? When someone drives a bit too slow in front of you, what do you say? When we smash our finger when we hammer a nail, is it safe for kids to be around you? These are little things, but they point to something bigger. We, even good Christians, are not good enough. That venom still courses through our veins.
We like to hide and we like our privacy. We do not like it when people poke their noses into our business. But why? We fear. We are afraid that someone will see who we really are and our reputation will be ruined. And we perpetuate that fear by how we respond to others.
How do we change? The truth.
Each of us is capable of great good and great evil at any given moment. We like to think that we would never be as bad as the Soviets or the Nazis but the reality is that we are all capable of it. And the only way to change is to recognize who we are and turn to God. When I say turn to God, I do not mean merely going to church. Church is essential or I would not be here, but the church is also filled with flawed human beings and we can become distracted. Aaron, the first priest, could not enter the promised land because of sin, what makes us think we are any better? We need to be honest.
We can be good and evil. We can justify our actions to make ourselves look good, but are we being honest? Look at your lives through the lens of Christ. How good are you?
When Nicodemus came to Jesus that night, Jesus told him that, unless one is born again, they cannot see the kingdom of God. That phrase born again, or born of above, is one we hear a great deal. But do we know what it means? When the people of the desert were bitten by the vipers they knew. If they did not turn their death was imminent. For us we are more like Nicodemus, we have our definition of what it means, but do we live it out in our lives. Do we have a new nature? Do we have a new purpose? Are we living a new lifestyle? Can we see in our world something God loves?
That is the kicker right there. Do we see in our world something God loves? Do you see something worth giving your life for? That is the reality of being born again. It is seeing things with new eyes, experiencing them from a new perspective. It is seeing the things around us not as dire but as loved. So loved that God the Father sent Jesus to redeem it with His life, death, and resurrection. I began by wanting us to consider what would make God angry. I think this should give us perspective. God is angry because we do not care for what he loves. Let us think about that as we enter this time of Centered worship.