By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 22, 2020
Ephesians 5:8–14 (ESV)
8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
The past few weeks have been days that has thrown me for a real loop. I mentioned last week that I am not used to living in an era where March is without basketball. I would say without the madness, but I work in retail and the paper good aisles are still empty. I do not want to joke about that too much because things are serious. We are advised to stay home. Just yesterday the news advised that our schools will be closed for another month, and that any non-essential laborer is advised to stay home. And for the first time since 1918, the Meeting of Evangelical Friends Church in Mid America Yearly Meeting have advised meetings for worship be postponed. There is plenty of stress going around. There is plenty of anxiety. It is difficult for us to look at our communities and see anything positive to speak about.
But I work in one of those industries that is considered essential, so while others are working from home, or trying to keep young students focused I am at work. And while I am working, either at the store or delivering groceries I interact with people, using the advised social distancing.
Today I move away from my traditional sermon on a gospel reading and encourage us to engage with one of Paul’s letters, Ephesians. The city of Ephesus is important to the emerging church. It is one of those seven churches of Asia that John wrote the Revelation of Jesus to which we can read about in the last book of the Bible. In that letter to the church, well to the angel of the church in Ephesus, something is said that is very important. There is some debate as to what the angel of the church means, some say it is the guardian angel charged with protecting the church and others say that it is symbolic speech that indicates the bishop of the church. I personally think that it is to the leaders. But in that letter John writes, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” This is very profound. We know Ephesus to be true. They know what they believe, and they live by it. This is a testimony to their response to the teaching and encouragement that they had received from the moment they first heard the gospel to the closing of the apostolic age of the church.
They work, they toil, they endure, and they will not stand for evil. In today’s passage this is exactly what Paul encourages them to do. Some people believe that Ephesus was the central church of Asia at that time. Many believe that Paul set up a sort of primitive seminary in this city, so it became this preacher making and sending metropolis situated on the shores of great sea. They send these teachers and preachers throughout the Empire. It was in this city that Apollos was taught the truth of the gospel. It was in Ephesus that it is believed that the Last Apostle, John, lived out his life. It was in this city that we see a dramatic change.
Ephesus was once the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was the site of the Temple of Artemis, and as Paul preached in this city it threatened the economy, because people that listened to the Gospel of Jesus turned from idol worship and stopped buying the silver idols being sold to those visiting the Temple.
To speak out against Artemis in this region was as offensive to the people as not standing for the national anthem is here. Their lives revolved around, and their identity was found in this temple. When the message of Christ came into their land, the people had a hard decision to make. Would they turn not only from their family and nation and take on the lifestyle of Christ, or would they continue in the life and lifestyle they had always known. I think it important for us to think about this for a moment. When Paul writes these words, he is not just speaking about abstract theory, but tangible reality. To claim Christ in Ephesus, was to be unpatriotic. It was to leave nationalism behind to focus on something different and greater. When Paul speaks of darkness and light, we often think that he is speaking in spiritual language, but it is deeper. He is speaking of life and lifestyle; he is speaking about the very essence of who we are.
“[F]or at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.” In scripture there is symbolic use of ideas of light and darkness. This symbolism goes to the very beginning of our human understanding, to our first parents Adam and Eve. In that narrative Adam and Eve were living in the garden of Eden. They had all that they could possibly need, and God walked with them in the cool of the evenings. We do not know how long Adam and Eve walked in the garden like this, but we know that eventually they turned from this lifestyle. I love this narrative, because there is so much that we can learn from it. The story is more than just a story of why the world is a mess, but it is a story of each of our lives. It is a story of the natural growth of a child into adulthood. It is a story of the decisions we make and how we make them.
Many of us think back to our childhood and have fond memories. Memories of an easy life. There were no worries, no bills to pay, and pretty much life was perfect. Then we became an adult. Once we become an adult, trouble begins. We make choices between food or pleasure, rent or entertainment. We quickly realize that we must work hard to simply get by. We did not have to do this as a child. We might help our parents with various income making projects, but our parents shielded us from the reality that those that do not work do not eat.
As we mature, we begin to make larger decision that affect our life and the lives of those around us. Will we follow the teachings of those that cared for us while we walked in the gardens of our youth or will we turn? Light and Darkness. God walked with the young Adam and Eve. I love going on walks. I particularly love going on walks on trails in the wilderness, but the best walks are with children because when we walk with children, they see things that we do not see. They remind us of the awe of the world around us. The picture that I have shared on the various slides is one that I took on one of my walks back home on the farm. As we walk with a child, we often use those moments to teach them many things. We look at flowers and we teach them. The teaching can go from how the flower makes a seed and the see become food for us and other animals, we might teach them about the bees and how the pollen from flowers become honey. We teach them how to great people we see; we teach them how to be safe and what we should and should not touch. We teach as we walk. And God taught our first parents just as we teach our children. They grew, they matured, and they came to a point in life that they had to make their own decision. They looked at all the fruit in the garden and realized that the fruit of the tree God told them to avoid looked just as good as the other fruit, so they ate it. They made a choice and as a result they turned away from their teaching, and as a result there was consequences to their actions.
As our first parents walked with God they were in the light. Light is symbolic of wisdom, and knowledge. It is the divinely inspired knowledge that is used to make our decisions. While Adam and Eve walked with God they were in the light. But the moment they decided to turn from that divine directive, they turned away from the light and found themselves immersed in shadow. And shadows often play tricks.
You might have noticed that when the lights go off, the things in our rooms change shape. The artwork that my son has drawn that we have put on display look amazing when the lights are on, but when the lights go off those same drawings become the things of nightmares. I simple sheet of paper can cast a shadow on the wall that our eyes interpret as a giant spider or a bat. And when the air moves through the vents, those shadow move and suddenly fear grabs hold and you scream. Then all at once the light comes on and you sit in confusion because where you were thought for sure a bat once was, is now only a page with a drawing.
This is the difference between light and darkness. Darkness draws on our fears and ignorance. When we make decisions in darkness, we respond in the short-term frame of mind. We might call it the instinctual responses; fight or flight, eat or be eaten. We look at what is before us and we respond immediately. Our adrenaline is pumping, the stress is high. But if we meet that decision and are unaware, we will often make a decision that will cost us in the long run. Adam and Eve were hungry, and they saw fruit and they ate it, now the world sucks.
“But now you are light in the Lord,” Paul says, “Walk as children of light.”
Do you know a person that is cool under pressure? The world around them seems to be chaotic yet they seem at peace. Your mind is frantic, yet they are calm. What is the difference? Light and dark.
If darkness is ignorance, light is wisdom. Imagine someone you love has fallen and broken their arm, what will you do. The tears are falling, and you cannot tell if the screams are yours or theirs. You are in the darkness, you do not know what to do, but there is a nurse in the ER that softly speaks to you and the screaming ceases. Their gentle hands and voice examine the limb and they take you to see the doctor. The doctor is confident and sets your heart at ease, she knows exactly what to do and you bravely face the pain and all at once there is a cast on the arm and you have a piece of candy and a large bill. In that situation you were in the dark, and the doctor and nurse were in the light. You were ignorant or without knowledge, and they had the wisdom or ability to apply knowledge.
“[F]or the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.” If we go back to our first parents, Adam and Eve, they were hungry, and they ate fruit from the tree that God commanded them not to eat. They turned from God’s teaching and in the short term they were full, but the long-term results of that action left them struggling. People that live in darkness are often reactionary. They come to a quick decision and alleviate one problem, but because they were making the decision under duress, they failed to consider other possible issues that might result from their action. And due to that ignorance, they now have two other problems caused by the solution of first. It is often a story we see played out on the news, especially during campaigns. Everyone has a solution to the problem. The fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.
The doctor knows that a broken arm needs to be properly set, or the bone will heal improperly causing more problems in the future. If I was ignorant of the broken bone, and only treated the pain I would only cause greater pain in the future. Those that live in the light can approach the problem in a way that they can see the possibilities before them. They are aware of these possibilities because they taken the time to learn what might happen in each situation, or maybe they have seen it before and know what does not work. They know what is good and they know what could be better and they strive to make an environment for the best-case scenario to occur. But the most important statement in this section of verses is found in the tenth verse, “ant try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”
Discernment a powerful trait to possess. To discern is to test and found genuine, valuable, and approved. To discern takes time, but when we take the time to allow the process to move forward the long-term results are often better. Those that walk in the light, do not let the energy, emotion or stress pushing in on them, turn their attention. They remain focused. They remain calm. They look at what is presented, and they consider various solutions, and as they take the time to process, they find the one way forward that is best for all involved.
Ephesus learned how to discern. They had knowledge and implemented that knowledge effectively. And they should because that was the lifestyle they were taught. But there is more to the letter that John wrote to their angel. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first.”
I mentioned before that the Temple of Artemis was the national identity of the people prior to their coming to Christ. Anything that spoke out against that was perceived as a threat to the very nation. Paul says that that lifestyle was darkness, but why? Because it was often a lifestyle that dwelt on the darkness of life. It focused on ignorance and alleviating the short-term problem at the expense of the long-term solution. When Jesus speaks against the angel of the church of Ephesus, he is saying you have done so much right, but you have turned something good into the very thing you left.
The temple of the idol was replaced with the pillars of faith, but they constructed a religious framework at the expense of life with God and others. Their quest for holy knowledge, prevented them to bear fruit of light that is found in all that is good and right and true. Their quest for having the right doctrine did not take them to walking or living that truth in their lives. They had knowledge but they were unable to implement the knowledge, so they were left in ignorance. And if they are left in ignorance, they are not in the light but darkness. They traded one form of darkness, for another. They turn to walk toward the light only to walk beyond it and back into the shadows.
This week as I spent time at work, I saw the fruit of ignorance and that of light. I have seen people driven by fear and people doing all that they could to bear fruit of light. There were people whose were driven by such fear that when they were told they could only purchase one package of toilet paper, they were unable to see that by throwing the other packages at the cashier they could have found themselves charged with assault. Darkness does surround us, but there is also light. I work in security and I also deliver groceries. This week I delivered several orders for people that recognized that they should not get out for various reasons. And as I gathered the supplies, they requested very few got upset that something was not found. And when presented with options we usually found solutions together. And this week several people have tried plant-based protein sources because someone took the time to tell them exactly what it was and how it can be prepared.
We can be driven by fear or darkness, or we can be discerning people walking in light. We can focus on the short-term or work together to find long-term solutions. Paul began this chapter by saying, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” To walk in light, we must take on the lifestyle of Christ: Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. We participate in this lifestyle when we come together to worship, when we withdraw to pray in an isolated place, and when we help others in various ways. We participate in this lifestyle when we stop looking at our own short-term benefits and instead look for ways to become a blessing for others.
As you take some time to center on Christ in centered worship, or communion in the manner of Friends. I encourage you to look at how you have approached your life over the past week and ask if you have been living in darkness or light. Have your actions reflected the life of Christ? And as we approach the week ahead of us, how can be bear fruit of light.
John 4:5–42 (ESV)
5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. 7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” 27 Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him. 31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
This week has been one that has really caused my mind to real. I walk through the store and shelving that is usually loaded with paper products, cleaning supplies , bread, and meat were empty. A few weeks ago I took on an additional part time job that I could do on my own time where I pick up grocery orders for others. I thought that this would basically be picking up a small order after work and dropping it off, but it has morphed into a job that is quickly becoming the method people are using to shop so that people can limit their contact with people outside their family units. I am not used to living in a community where people are advised to stay home, or where cultural traditions are disrupted over an illness. I have been on the phone with people seeking assistance, where their only hope is to get home and all their options have dried up. This new reality we live in has driven me to prayer.
This era of history is causing us to reexamine aspects of our lives. It is bringing awareness of our vulnerabilities, our fears, and our faith. As I sat with today’s passage I really thought about the woman at the well. We do not know fully who she is, we do not even know exactly what her situation might have been. Was she a widow multiple times over, or was she someone that just had trouble committing in a relationship. When we read through this passage we can become judgmental to a degree, and I will be honest I have always considered her to be a sinful woman but recently I have come to realize there are other possibilities to her current condition. The one thing that we do know is that she lived a life separated from the larger community. She is at the well hours after the rest of the community has been there.
Is she a caregiver? Has a plague entered the sleepy Samaritan town and she has cared for her husband only to have illness take his life? And as a result and righteousness she married her brother-in-law only to watch as the illness spread through the town so fast that she has not had time to officially marry the youngest brother? We just do not know. All we know is where she is and that she is a woman with a heavy burden placed on her shoulders. A burden she might not have wanted, and a burden that she willingly lives through even when the community looks toward her in disdain.
It’s interesting how the idea of a voluntarily quarantine can really change a perspective. It is interesting how one can assume to know something as truth, only to find that there are more possibilities when a different situation is introduced.
It is difficult for us to grasp the ancient world when we benefit from many scientific advancements. Although there was medicine in ancient times, it was not until the late nineteenth century that people really began to understand what was causing illnesses. At the birth of our nation doctors believed that “bad air” was the cause of many illnesses. Even the idea of sterilizing medical instruments was something unnecessary until a Quaker born doctor, Joseph Lister, took the theories postulated by Louis Pasteur and applied it to the washing of instruments and wounds to prevent infection. Yes, Lister’s concept of sterilization was what eventually became the popular mouthwash Listerine.
Prior to germ theory, and the discovery of microbiological life illness was believed to an imbalance of biles, bloods, and vapors. And many of these concepts would often get spiritualized making the cause of illness the work of demons. Imagine if your entire family suddenly without warning was infected with some sort of illness. Imagine if that illness began to snuff the life from loved ones. Imagine if your entire community saw you and your family as cursed. Then imagine that the illness spread from your family to another, you have moved from just being cursed by God to being a practitioner of the works of Satan.
This woman for some reason was not in good standing within her community, we do not know why and at best all we can do is speculate. But we do know that various superstitions placed wedges of separation between people, communities, and nations. This woman was of Samaria, we do not know as much about the people of Samaria as we do their distant cousins of Judah. The Samaritans were from the northern tribes, that through out scripture were regarded at those that displeased God. As a result of their disobedience they were conquered by Assyria, those vile people that the Prophet Jonah was sent to minister to. They displeased God, they were conquered, they were integrated to some degree with their conquerors and they were not pure. In the eyes of Judah, they were cursed people, people that should not be associated with. Their very presence in the general area of Judea was often considered a problem. If only they conformed to the ideas of Jerusalem and stopped their rebellion, then Messiah would come.
Jesus sat there by the well and he spoke to this woman. He spoke to her not as a Samaritan and Jew, but as a human being to another. He was tired from the journey; he was thirsty, and he did not have the tools to get a drink. Here comes this woman, possibly rejected by her community, Jesus knew her, he knew who she was and what others thought about her, and he did not allow perception to interfere with her humanity. He spoke to her as he would anyone that might have come to the well.
This action surprised her. She could not believe that he would speak to her. Immediately she became defensive, why are you a Jew asking me for a drink? She tries to establish that they have history and promise too, Jacob dug this well do you think you are better than him? He shares with her a teaching of the Messiah, and she basically laughs and says, “Whatever, you do not even have a jug, but if you can bring me living water sign me up because I’m tired of living through this life as it is right now.”
Jesus accepts her as a person. He does not allow ancestry or nationality divide them, when this is brought up, he points to what they have in common. When they connect in this area he then begins to work on changing aspects of her life.
We want people to be righteous. We want people to live a holy lifestyle, but often we want them to be righteous before they are even aware of the benefits of a different lifestyle. We push for change, but we have not inspired a reason for it. I can know a great deal of information about many things, but it is not until I am shown the true benefit of change that I invest.
A worldwide health crisis threatens us. I have a degree and education that has given me a basic understanding of various aspects of microbiology. I know what viruses are. I know what bacteria are. I know what to use and how to act when potential pathogens are around. I have even participated in growing some of pathogens for the sake of research. I have knowledge, but the reality of my lifestyle did not reflect the knowledge that I have. I will be honest; I did not make it my custom to sing happy birthday while I washed my hands. I knew it was important but it really did not matter because I’m not going to perform surgery, but then all the toilet paper is gone and suddenly I realize that if I do not change my behavior I might contribute to the illness of others.
I had knowledge but the reality of my lifestyle did not really matter, because it worked for me. The same could be said for this woman. Her life was not great, but she was resigned to it. She did not care if others accepted her lifestyle or not. Then a man asks for a drink and tells her to go get her husband. Notice if you will Jesus, knew full well that she was not married yet he accepted her lifestyle at face value. She was living as if she had a husband, but it was not reality. She brought up the fact that it was a relationship that many considered sinful, Jesus did not have to point it out to her. But once it was, he did not shy away from the truth. She quickly understood, and then she gets into a theological debate. The Jews say that we must worship in Jerusalem, but we have our own way here. You have your tradition and we have ours, how dare you come here and tell me I’m wrong. And Jesus responds with something that has often been at the center of my faith, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. ”
Spirit and truth. That is what we should focus on. We can get caught up in many things, but what it comes down to is Spirit and Truth. Are we living and worshiping like this? This idea has been central to the testimonies of Friends from their very beginning. If we believe that it is true, then we should live it out every day not just on a day that tradition says is holy. Our lives, our faith, our beliefs, and our actions should all be one. I cannot go to Target and cease to be a pastor for five days out of the week, I am who I am wherever I am. And so are you.
Then there is truth. What is truth? This question has kept philosophy students occupied for centuries. Even scripture recognizes that humanity struggles with knowing truth. For centuries the greatest medical minds believed that illness was the result of bad air or imbalances in your bile levels. When scientist began to say that illness was caused by germs, they were laughed at and ridiculed. It took time and a great deal of research to convince people that what they thought was true was not true at all.
This is where the harvest field narrative comes to play. Some labor at planting and others reap the harvest. Some do research and others practice. Some speak and inspire, and others apply those concepts in life. Lister learned about germs from Pasteur and became a successful surgeon. Pasteur’s ideas were not accepted until Lister used it in a practical manner. The gospel is foolish until someone sees it lived out in front of them.
We have a great deal of fear griping our community and nation. We need to be mindful of this. The truth is that there is a pathogen, a virus that can make people very sick. The truth is that it affects some worse than others. The truth is that we are not immune, and we do not have a proven method of healing. The truth is that God has provided in our DNA the ability for our bodies to handle pathogens through our immune system. The truth is that if we provide environments of sanitation and hygiene, we can reduce the severity of this fearsome virus. Should we not be concerned? We must be concerned because our lives mater. How you live your life within a community affects those around you. The truth is that if I do not show a different lifestyle to the world, they may not realize that there is hope.
Jesus shows us how to approach life. He shows us how to interact with those around us. And he encourages us to be active in our lives. Build relationships even with those that might have different perspectives and live in truth. As we enter this time of open worship let us recognize how our lives are intertwined. Let us recognize that though we have different perspectives that God is focused on something more important. Let us embrace the spirit and truth and live it out in our daily lives. Knowing that encouraging people to eat, and wash their hands is not being led by fear but promoting truth. And encourage people where they are to focus on life with God and their community is the most important work they can do.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
March 8, 2020
John 3:1–17 (ESV)
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, 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 the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe; how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 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.
Have you ever had a conversation that changed the direction of your life? You may or may not fully remember it, but there was probably one conversation that set things in motion. What caused you to decide that your spouse was the one you wanted to spend life with? What prompted you to stay in a career that you were ready to leave? Why did you decide to give that church another chance, and then another for the past twenty years? We often do not think about these things too much. Sometimes they fade back into the distant memory that we rarely consider, but conversations and relationships are at the root of many of our decisions.
This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is probably the most important conversation in human history. I say this because this conversation contains the first verse that you probably memorized. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” How often to we recognize that this recognizable verse came not from a sermon, but a conversation.
Nicodemus was a pharisee, and one of importance. He was considered a ruler of the Jews, which means that he had a seat on the counsel that governed the religious and civil relationships within Israel. This group had power, because it was the body of representatives that met with the Roman officials to transmit the edicts to the populous as well as taking the concerns of the people to the governor’s court. They also were the arbiters of the understanding of the Torah. This counsel of various traditions would define what was acceptable practice within the teachings of the faith. Nicodemus was an important figure in the Jewish community.
I have often heard, and probably said myself, that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because he wanted to be secret. I have thought about this more as I reflected on this passage this week. I have considered more deeply because I am on a board that speaks to the practice of our faith, so I have a perspective that I did not have before. I love the church, I love meetings for worship, I love meetings for business, I love area meetings, and I love yearly meetings. I love everything about how the Friends Church does things. I am weird, and that’s ok. There are very few things that you can get me engaged in long conversations, if you do not know what those are you probably have not engaged me in a conversation about church. The thing about being on the elder’s board, is everyone wants to talk to you. When I go to an area meeting, I am usually the last to leave because someone needed to talk. When I am at Yearly Meeting, I rarely get to bed before midnight because someone or several people had stopped me to discuss something. When these conversations occur, I lose all track of time because in that moment that conversation is the most important thing. Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jewish people; he is one of those people that holds a position on a counsel that is recognized as being a father of the faith. His entire life is devoted to interpretation of the laws of Moses and how to practice that lifestyle in your daily life. I imagine he loves his position and his job. I imagine that Nicodemus would probably turn a simple question around to take you deeper in your spiritual understanding of life.
I imagine that Nicodemus was the type of person that would encourage you to love your faith. He had heard about the teachings of Jesus, and the signs that he had performed, and Nicodemus wanted to talk to Jesus. There is a problem though. Nicodemus is a public figure. He is walking out to Jesus and along the way people are meeting him, and suddenly the simple task of walking out to speak to this wondering teacher named Jesus has taken the entire day. Now the sun has set, and Nicodemus has finally come into Jesus’s presence.
This is not the traditional understanding of this conversation, but I want us to consider it in this manner. Nicodemus did not approach Jesus in a way that other religious leaders did later in Jesus’s ministry. Nicodemus approaches Jesus not to test him, but to listen. When he approaches Jesus, he treats him with respect. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” He calls him Rabbi. We might not think of this as being a big deal, but you do not call just anyone Rabbi.
Nicodemus and those that are within his community, had heard the teachings of Jesus up to this point, and they had been impressed. They had heard or may have witnessed some of the miraculous signs that Jesus had performed, and we greatly impressed. They had decided in their minds, that Jesus deserved the title of Rabbi, even though the fully knew that he had not had the traditional training that was required for that title. Nicodemus and those he represented were open to the possibility that God could do things in untraditional ways.
Nicodemus had spent the entire day, talking to the people. He had spent the day listening and teaching. He had encouraged and blessed. He was a man that many looked to for the answers of life, the universe, and everything. He was that guy. And he recognized that he just might not have all the answers. He left room in his interactions with those around him, for a possibility that he might be wrong. And when Jesus came onto the religious scene expressing a form of religious teaching that took a different approach, he did not immediately oppose it. Instead he took the time, he took his personal time, to learn. And he did not just take the interpretation of someone else, he went right to the source, he went to Jesus.
“We know that you are a teacher come from God.” He says to Jesus. Think about this for a moment. Nicodemus speaks to Jesus in an inclusive manner. The word, we, is first person plural. I’m not a grammar expert but to say we means something important. It identifies yourself as part of a group for one thing. And in this case, it is accepting Jesus into that group. “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” This goes with his address of Jesus using the term Rabbi. He is acknowledging that God has anointed the teaching in some way, and that the authority of Jesus does not come by human tradition but comes from a tradition that supersedes their tradition. He is recognizing that Jesus is speaking from a position of a prophet.
Nicodemus knows that the teachings Jesus encourages are not traditional, but he also knows that they could still be within the veil of orthodoxy. So, as a ruler of the Jews he wants to know more. And Jesus welcomes the conversation.
Nicodemus starts by saying, “We know that you are a teacher come from God…,” And Jesus responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This response is very strange. First off Jesus is saying things like being born, and Nicodemus was talking about Jesus being a teacher and signs. What could be born have to do with anything?
Do you remember the idea of Jesus calling the disciples to be Fishers of men meaning something to the effect of like a fish out of water? Nicodemus is coming to Jesus for one reason, and Jesus knows this. Nicodemus knows this as well. They both are very aware that the reason Nicodemus is coming to visit with Jesus is because Nicodemus is a ruler of the Jews and he wants to know if Jesus’s teaching will fall within the acceptable traditions of their faith. As far as Nicodemus can tell there is nothing wrong with the teachings of Jesus, but there are a few things that kind of seem out of place.
If we were to review the first few chapters of John, we would see a couple of things happen to this point. John the Baptist testified that Jesus was the one that he was saying would be even greater than himself, Jesus called the disciples, and they went to a wedding. At that wedding the wine ran out and Jesus’s mom decided that Jesus needed to do something about that oversight, so Jesus turned some water into wine so that the celebration could continue. After this wedding, according to John’s Gospel account, Jesus made his way to the temple during the Passover Feast, and he became upset with the religious industrial complex that was found in the temple courts. He was irate about the livestock being sold, and the money changing that was occurring. And he began to turn tables over, and he drove people out of this sacred space using a whip made from cord. Jesus had challenged the entire expression of Jewish faith.
This is the rabbi that Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, came to see. Jesus had challenged the very foundation and authority of the priests. He did this during the festival that the greatest amount of people could see, during Passover. Josephus, the Jewish historian, estimated that during the feast of Passover there could be as many as 2.7 million people passing through the temple complex. Meaning there would have been livestock available for 2.7 million people. And the money being changed was enough for those 2.7 million people to have temple currency enough to purchase a perfect sacrificial lamb for their Passover celebrations. We are talking a disruption of the equivalent of a multi-million-dollar conference of trade. Some of Jesus’s teachings were a bit out of place with the traditional teachings of the religious leaders.
Yet, Nicodemus recognized that there was authority in Jesus’s teaching. And Jesus responds, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This throws Nicodemus for a loop because Jesus uses words that can mean multiple things. This statement can mean two things. Born again or born from above. Nicodemus takes the born-again train of thought. How can a man be born when he is old?
“Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” This second statement of Jesus during this conversation where it becomes a bit clearer. To be born of water is an expression of physical birth. When the water breaks the baby will so emerge. That is the first birth, the physical or natural birth. The birth that Jesus is speaking of is the birth of the Spirit.
To Nicodemus and to everyone in Israel to be born into their nation was the only birth required. They were children of Abraham, they were the hires of the promise, God’s chosen people. Jesus is telling them unless you are born of the water and the spirit you have nothing. It is not difficult to understand that Nicodemus struggled with this. We all struggle with this.
I am a good person. Surely that is enough right? I do not steal; I have not murdered anyone doesn’t that mean that I am good enough? These are the things we say today. In Nicodemus’s era they would say something similar, well actually they would have more to do with I remembered the Passover, I offered the sacrifices, I gave a tithe on everything I owned even the mint that grows wild in my yard. I have done everything right. Yet, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that it is not enough. Just being born is not enough to get one into the kingdom of God.
Jesus then mentions the serpent that Moses lifted in the wilderness. I have mentioned this serpent before. It was the salvation of rebellious people. They grumbled against God, and God allowed them to face the world without his protection and their camp was infested with venomous snakes. When they were bitten by these snakes, there was no remedy and death would soon meet them. But God provided a way. He instructed Moses to form an image of their curse and to hold it up on a pole for all of them to see. And when they were bitten, they could turn and be saved. They could turn back to God, return from their rebellion and the venom of rebellion would not cause their ruin. But if they relied on their own merit, death awaited them.
Jesus uses this image to illustrate the concept of being born from above. It is a turning from our worldly understanding and returning from our own rebellious ambitions. It is a return to the things that matter in God’s economy. What exactly does God value?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.” God values the world. He values the world to such a great extent that he came to live among us. He lived a complete life, from being formed within a womb, being born, he grew from an infant and experienced childhood. He went to work with the family and worked at that business for seventeen years. He was known as a carpenter. For thirty years he lived life as a common man, and then he entered ministry. He was tempted just as we are tempted. And he showed us how to live life with God. He did all of this because he wanted the world to turn.
But the venom of rebellion still courses through our veins. We like to be in control. We like to pull the strings and to make the decisions. We like people to acknowledge our greatness, and we want the respect that we feel we deserve. We like ourselves, and if we are honest, we do not like when someone suggests that we might not be enough. But there is not a single person here today that is enough in themselves. Yet God loves you. Even though you rebel and reject him. He loves you enough to live for you. He loves you enough to die for you, and he loves you enough to raise from the dead to give you hope.
Nicodemus looked at Jesus with questions in his eyes, and Jesus said that he needed to be born again. Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jewish people; he was the most religious as you could be. Yet even he was not where he needed to be. He had the venom of rebellion in his veins. The venom coursed because he like so many failed to realize that God loves the world, not just us. And if we cannot look at the person across from us, the person across the ocean, or south of the boarder as a person loved by God and worth living and dying for, we are not able to see the kingdom before us.
Nicodemus spent his entire day teaching and investing in the lives of Israel. He spent the entire day encouraging them in their faith and at night he finally was able to speak with Jesus. Nicodemus is a man we should want to emulate in many ways. We should invest our lives in those around us, just as Jesus did. But we need to always remember that we can invest all we want. We can serve all day, for our entire life, but if we do not turn to God, and love the world as he does, the venom of our own rebellion will take our lives and condemn us.
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, let us consider the conversations we have had. Are we encouraging the world to turn to Christ?