I Did It All By Myself!

John 3:14-21
[Jesus said to Nicodemus,] “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Lent4 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-18-12

Children’s Time: What was the first thing you learned to do “all by yourself?” Was it tying your shoes? How about counting to 10 or 20? Who knows the whole alphabet? Did you learn to ride a bike all on the first try?  No, it takes patience and practice.  You should be proud of yourself when you can finally do things on your own. It means you’re growing. You know, there are some things in life you’ll never be able to do all by yourself. Jesus says it’s something he does for us. He forgives us and helps us be faithful in the world. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son; that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” It’s great to know that God celebrates with us when we can learn to do things by ourselves. But it’s even better to know that God saves us from those times we just can’t do it on our own. Did you ever make mistakes when you were learning to tie your shoes? Or ride a bike? Or count to 20? No one gets it exactly right on the first try. This is good news for us – that God loves us so much that he sent his son to save us when we fail. Let’s fold our hands and bow our heads and close our eyes and thank God for saving us when we cannot save ourselves.

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

As I read over today’s lessons I couldn’t help but wonder: How can Jesus be so cool about everything? Oh, I know, last week he was tipping over the tables of the money-changers… and in a few days we’ll join him in the Garden at Gethsemane, trembling in prayer. But here with Nicodemus, he’s unfazed, giving him (and us) all that we need to face the troubles of this world.

Nicodemus has come to him in the night (most likely for fear that he’ll be seen associating with Jesus). He’s full of questions and troubled by anxiety, “Rabbi, we know you are a man sent by God for who could do such things as you do if it were not so?” And Jesus gives him these lines that have been such a comfort to the whole world ever since:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

They are words we’ve heard so often that it’s easy to lose sight of their meaning.  So, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I put together a limerick version of John 3:16…

For God so loved the world we’re livin’ in
That his only Son, he had given him,
For eternal life we might cherish
And nary a one would perish
For all who would come to believe in him.

So, eternal life is the prize, right? But what does that look like? I suppose it’s viewed as “holy health insurance” for some, after we die. “You’re in good hands… with Jesus.” To be sure, God wants us to trust and believe that we have a place in heaven for eternity. And yet, there’s something deeper. Jesus isn’t going to leave Nicodemus empty handed in the night.

It wasn’t just eternal life ‘after death’ that Jesus was driving at… He was also inviting Nicodemus into “new life” of being “born again” here and now! There was something going on in the present tense, between Nicodemus and Jesus.

It’s like that joke: “the Past, Present, and Future walk into a bar. It was tense!”

It was tense because everything Nicodemus had believed in up to this point was about to change. Rules about cleanliness and welcoming the Gentiles – the laws about healing on the Sabbath – were just a few of the ways Jesus turned things upside down.  Jesus told his followers plainly that he would be handed over to the authorities, killed and raised on the third day. In this lesson, he tells Nicodemus that he will be raised up – as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Now, there’s a story full of anxiety!

The Jews were wandering in the wilderness, and complaining that all they had to eat was manna (for breakfast, lunch and dinner). So, they took it out on God and Moses: “Did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us in the wilderness?” You can’t really blame them for growing impatient. But God grew weary of their complaints and let the snakes loose. They were getting bitten by venomous snakes and dying – which made them very spiritual again, as they prayed to God and asked Moses to do something. God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a stick and raise it up in the camp, so whoever was bitten by a snake could look at it and be healed. And it worked!

Fast forward to John 3:16 and you’ll get the context of how Jesus was using this story. When everything seemed to be changing around him, nipping at the heels of his faith, Jesus calms Nicodemus. To others, he said, “Come unto me, all ye who are weary, and I will give you rest.” Jesus invites Nicodemus into a new way of seeing the world: “This is why I was sent,” says Jesus, “to save the world. And it’s not something you can do for yourself. Only believe.”

It all seemed too easy – and so hard – all at once. As John Wesley once said, “Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.” And yet, knowing how it will all end up on the last day… changes how we live today. There’s a certain liberty and freedom that comes when we believe that all will be well – a freedom that lifts our burdens in the now, as well as the ‘not yet.’

Allan Bjornberg, bishop of the Rocky Mountain synod, once said, “the question at the heart of it always seems to be: Is it grace, period, or is it grace, comma? My head knows, but my heart hesitates. …Before the reformation days it was, without question, grace, comma. ‘Yours is the grace and mercy of God, comma, if you, or, comma, when you, or, comma, after you, or, comma, unless you, or, comma, until you…’”

But Luther and the reformers tried so very hard to get the punctuation right: “Grace alone. Period. Christ alone. Period. Word alone. Period. Faith alone.”

How are we doing at getting the punctuation right? Do we carry pocketfuls of commas, yet today? “God loves you, comma, if…?” “You’re forgiven, comma, unless…?” “You are welcome here, comma, until…?”

Are those commas directed at ourselves? I know I carry them still sometimes.  “I’m saved, comma, if only…” Or, “God loves me, comma, except for when…”

What if we could, just for once, hear that promise of John 3:16 as good news – pure, and unconditional love – for us. Period! Maybe it would be easier to treat each other gently, if we first saw ourselves as forgiven sinners. There’s no one in this room who is free from sin. No one is perfect. We all stand in the need of John 3:16. But why let it stop there? Jesus said, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” This gift of grace was never meant to be hoarded and boarded up.

It’s a harsh world out there! Snakes do attack. Anxieties about money and jobs are all around us. Politicians stoke the fires of fear as they drag down their opponents. Victims of abuse endure pain and ridicule, even at the hands of someone they love. And Jesus marches right into the middle of it, right up to Pontius Pilate and the powers that be – right up to Nicodemus – right up to you and me – and says, “Do not be afraid. The son was not sent to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.”

We get this religion business ALL WRONG when we make it about “being a better person” or about “getting our act together” for God. I hear that all the time from people who don’t attend worship: “Oh, well when I get my act together I’ll be back.”  Never realizing that this is precisely the place where we come to “get it together.”  We lay all our messiness at the feet of Jesus and he lifts us up to stare at his cross: “By grace you have been saved,” we hear in our 2nd lesson from Ephesians 2 “and this is not your own doing. It is a gift from God.”

I don’t know how much more clearly it can be stated. The punctuation is a period.

Let us live our lives in that faith, sure that we are covered under the promise of God’s love – and ready to share that love with all the world. Let us pray: O God, we give you thanks for loving the world (and us) so much that you sent your only son. Calm our fears and be born again in each one of us, that who whole world might come to know your saving love. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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