Originally Preached at Alger First UMC on 3/12/2017
2nd Sunday of Lent, Year A
“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.” (John 3:1-21, CEB)
This is the second Sunday of Lent which means we’re in the second week of our series called “Living Your Baptismal Calling.” Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter, not counting Sundays. And with this series we are preparing together for Easter by focusing on the vows we make at our baptism. So if you’re baptized, I hope this series can be a reminder of what you or your parents agreed to in baptism. Because even if you were baptized as an infant, we’re still called to this life of baptism.
Now, if you’re here and you’re not baptized, you might be thinking “What good is this series for me? What in the world am I going to get out of this?” that’s ok, we’re glad you’re here. I hope this series will give you a picture of what a life of baptism is, and my prayer is that it might call you to come under the waters of baptism.
So each week, we’ll be focusing on a different part of the vows or promises we make in baptism in the UMC. This week, we’ll be focusing on this vow or promise, phrased as a question – “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
Now that’s a heavy statement, and we’ll unpack that later – Don’t worry. But I will say now that the work of accepting the freedom and power to resist is hard work. Because when I see evil, injustice, and oppression in the world, I think “I’m one man. What can I do?”
I hear about the evil of the heroin epidemic in Hardin County. Now, I’m not saying the users themselves are evil, but the drug itself and the culture it brings is evil. And I think “What in the world could I do to resist that evil?”
I think of all the racist and sexist jokes that I’ve made or laughed at in the past, even though there was a voice in my head saying that I shouldn’t do it, and I realize that I’ve fed into a system of evil, injustice, and oppression. So I think “How in the world could I resist this system of evil, injustice and oppression when I’ve fed it so often myself?”
I think this is a common experience for all of us, even if we don’t label things with “evil, injustice, or oppression.” We’ve all probably unwittingly bought food from a restaurant or a store that got their food from underpaid or mistreated farmers. We’ve all probably unwittingly bought clothes that were made in a sweatshop in a foreign country. And we think “But what in the world could we do to resist this evil, injustice, and oppression? We’re just humans!”
But hear this week’s baptismal vow again: God offers us freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. And when we accept that freedom and power, we are “born anew” just like Jesus talked about in that conversation with Nicodemus from the Gospel reading I just read earlier.
Now I want to talk about this new birth that Jesus talks about. In the church, we talk a lot about being “born again,” but do we really know what it means?
Think of when a human baby is born. It’s a HUGE change in everyone’s life in that family – especially if they’re like me and come with a twin – but think about the experience of the baby. They’d been sitting in their mom’s belly gestating for 9 months, just sitting in warm bliss fed through the umbilical cord. But when the baby’s born, now it’s in the real world all of a sudden. There are bright lights, loud voices, it’s cold, there are all of these strange faces. No wonder newborn infants cry so much.
Now Jesus is pretty clear that when he talks about this new birth, he’s not talking about a new physical birth. But I think Jesus is talking about a change in our lives that is just as dramatic as the birth of an infant. In this new birth that Jesus discusses with Nicodemus, we are born into a new spiritual world just like infants come out into a hospital room.
You see, whether or not we recognized it, God has been with us through our entire lives, from the moment we were conceived in our mom’s stomach.
And throughout our lives, God’s grace was like a mother’s womb nurturing us, preparing us for a birth into our true spiritual life. But unlike an infant who doesn’t really choose when to be born, we do choose our new birth. We have been gestating in God’s grace our entire lives, but it is up to us when we will submit to the new birth and exit the spiritual womb into a whole new life.
And I do mean a whole new life, not just our spiritual or religious practices that we try to separate from the rest of our lives, as if we could really separate the two. This new birth brings us into a whole new life, and that means new actions and a whole new way of living.
Before this new birth, we were just existing in a spiritual womb. We were unknowingly fed by God’s grace through a metaphorical umbilical cord. We were existing in the world but we weren’t really able to see the world as it really is. We couldn’t see the world through the eyes of God.
But in this new birth, we exit the birth canal into a new, fresh, bright, cold world. It is as dramatic a change as our first birth.
And that’s what Jesus talks about with Nicodemus. Now this guy, Nicodemus – he’s an interesting character. He was a Pharisee, and St. John, the writer of this gospel, has already told us about arguments that Jesus had with these people called “Pharisees.” And John has already helped us to see these Pharisees as protectors of the status quo, the religious elites. And Nicodemus is apparently one of them.
And he came to Jesus at night. Now that’s important. Because night covers up our actions. We read toward the end of the passage I read earlier, in verse 19 “This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil.
So we read what Nicodemus says to Jesus. And it’s kind of surprising, actually. It seems like he really believes Jesus to be someone who came from God. But Nicodemus still came to Jesus under the cover of night. Which suggests to me that he might have wanted to keep his belief in Jesus’ divinity a secret.
So Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness shows me that he hadn’t experienced this new birth despite his belief in Jesus.
He hadn’t experienced this new birth, he wasn’t seeing the world in a new way because his actions and way of living didn’t line up with it. He’s still seeing and hearing the world from inside his spiritual womb.
Now the truth is that so many of us are Nicodemus. So many of us, me included, can see ourselves in this character in the story.
We profess our belief in Jesus, maybe we come to church regularly, maybe we sing the hymns, maybe we even talk to the pastor about, but we don’t let it show. Our action don’t really line up with our confession.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement in England, our forefather in faith, talked about this in a sermon he preached called “The Almost Christian.”
And in this sermon, he described the characteristics of what he called an “almost Christian.” Someone who is an “almost Christian” is generally moral – they don’t lie, cheat or steal.
They might look like a Christian. They go to church, they act how they think God wants them to act, they even control all their conversations and thoughts so that God would be happy with it. They do good for others and they work hard it. Maybe they help at Commodities, the monthly food pantry here, maybe they volunteer at social service agencies in Hardin Country or Lima. They tithe 10% of their income to the church. Maybe they even pray and study the Bible on their own.
But Wesley said that even if we do all of that, we only have the “form of godliness.” We’re not an altogether Christian, just an “almost Christian.”
If we are an “almost Christian,” we haven’t experienced the new birth. We look the part, but we aren’t there yet. Because people who are altogether Christian are filled full of the love of God and the love of neighbor. They look at the world with completely new eyes, like they’re a freshly born baby.
They see the world bathed in the love of God and they see everyone around them and everyone in the world as loved by God. So they love them too. And if we truly love them, we will act in ways that will bring the kingdom of God to bear on the world, where the light of truth banishes all evil, injustice, and oppression; where our neighbor can see the love of God in our lives.
Baptism calls us to this new birth, calls us to be altogether Christians. Baptism calls us to a life where our actions match our confession, where others can see Jesus in us.
When we allow ourselves to be born anew, we accept the freedom and power that God’s been offering out to us. And we’re called to accept that freedom and power in a very public way.
You see, God has already offered us all the freedom and power that the Creator of the galaxies can offer us. This freedom and power is offered out to us at this very moment and has been offered to us from the moment of our conception.
Now, so many of us are not free. We are in debt, we have difficult relationships in our lives, we had difficult childhoods which still imprison us. So many of us feel powerless. Maybe it’s hard to feel empowered when we’re living in the small village of Alger where many of you remember the better days of this village. But freedom and power are already offered to us by God. It’s up to us to accept it, but it’s already been offered out to us.
But when we accept this freedom and power given by God, we’re called to do something with it. We’re called to use this freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
And that brings us to an important question here. I’ve been talking a lot about evil, injustice, and oppression. But what do those words really mean? Now, I will say that those words are really these huge concepts, and we don’t have time to fully discuss them here. But we can at least scratch the surface here.
John Wesley, the same guy who preached that “Almost Christian” sermon, wrote a set of General Rules for the first societies he started in England. These societies were the beginning of the Methodist movement and they’re still in the UMC Book of Discipline to this day. And John Wesley’s first general rule was to do no harm by avoiding evil of every kind.
And he got specific with what he meant by that word “evil.” He talked about avoiding fighting, revenge, “uncharitable or unprofitable conversation” (in Wesley’s words), doing to others what we don’t want them to do to us, singing songs or reading books which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God; amassing wealth for ourselves. It’s a long list, that’s only a portion of the evil John Wesley calls us to avoid.
But when we’re born again in baptism, when we accept the freedom and power God gives us, we’re not just called to avoid evil, injustice, and oppression. We’re called to resist. We can see an example of this from the German churches during the rise of Nazism and Adolf Hitler leading up to World War II.
During Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, a lot of German churches fell in love with the power that Hitler offered them and they tried to use the Gospel to justify the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazis. But some church leaders in Germany saw how wrong this was and formed the Confessing Church.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany and was one of the most famous members of the Confessing Church. And he accepted the freedom and power God gave him in his baptism to resist the evil, injustice, and oppression in his own country by actively resisting Hitler. He was even involved in a failed assassination attempt on Hitler which led to his imprisonment. He was eventually killed at a Concentration camp.
So this vow to accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves calls us to not participate, to not let ourselves get caught up in the cycles of racism still very present in our society. It means not letting ourselves be divided just because of our political leanings.
I’ll be specific here. This has been a very divided political season. And many of us have heard about protests and marches in a lot of places, especially since President Trump was elected. Now maybe you thought these protests and marches were good and needed, maybe you thought they were ridiculous, maybe you have no opinion on them because they’re not happening here.
But the organizers for each of those demonstrations were using their first amendment rights to resist evil, injustice, and oppression however they understood those words. Whether they were in the right or wrong is a whole different conversation beyond the scope of this sermon.
What I’m getting at is that we as individuals and as the one body of the church have tended to not live out our baptism in public. So often, we try to keep our faith or religion in this one corner or part of our private life so that it doesn’t get in the way of the rest of our lives. But our faith is meant to affect our whole lives. This new birth is as big a change as an infant exiting their mother’s womb and entering the world.
But because we have tended to keep our faith cloistered away out of sight, we participate so often in evil, injustice, and oppression.
Maybe we let ourselves talk about people behind their backs, maybe we make or laugh at those racist or sexist jokes that we know are wrong, but we think they’re funny.
Evil, injustice, and oppression are so present in this world – they’re everywhere – that it’s hard for the most well-intentioned and observant person to not get caught in these cycles of evil, injustice, and oppression. These cycles hurt so many people that we can’t see, so we just don’t think about them.
We are called to be born anew. God offers us freedom and power and calls us to accept that freedom and power. But to accept it, we must submit to a new birth and enter a new life with new actions and a new worldview.
God has already given us, or at least offered to us, this freedom and power. And God continues to offer us this freedom and power. It’s not a one-time deal where if we don’t accept it, it’s gone forever. We can accept today.
But with this freedom and power, God calls us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. This freedom and power weren’t offered to us just so we could enjoy them on our own. They were offered so that we might push back against evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
Now that’s a big call. But I offer to you a way to think it through and act on it that’s less expansive and overwhelming. You should have two identical inserts in your bulletin that say “Living the Call” at the top. Could we get both of those out?
On those inserts, you should see two questions. First, think of at least one example of evil, injustice, or oppression that you know you need to resist. I invite you to write it on that line when I give you a couple minutes to think it through here.
Then the next question: “Think of one concrete way you will accept the freedom and God gives you to resist whatever it was you wrote down for the first question. I invite you to write it on that line.
I’ll give us a couple minutes of silence to think this through and try answering the questions. And when you’ve answered them, I invite you to copy them on the second insert that’s identical to it. You keep one, and I invite you to give the second one to someone else here today. Maybe to your spouse, maybe to a friend here, maybe to whoever is sitting next to you in the pew. That way, someone else knows what you wrote down and can hold you accountable to it. “How are you doing in accepting the freedom and power to resist?” Because if we don’t intend to actually accept the freedom and power to resist, what’s the point? So I’ll give you a couple minutes to think those through and try answering the questions, then I’ll close this portion of the service with prayer.
[Online-only readers: The congregation had bulletin inserts to guide them through this process, but it’s easy to do on your own. How will you accept God’s freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression?]