Sunday, February 17, 2008

Take It From the Top

Take It From the Top

© 2008 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Second Sunday in Lent: February 17, 2008
Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-7

Have you ever sat before a TV set with a remote control in your hand switching from channel to channel, pausing only briefly to see what is on? There is a descriptive term for this behavior of course: “channel surfing.” Someone once told me that men and women are different in the way we surf channels or surf the Internet, declaring that women are interested in seeing what’s on, while men are interested in seeing what else is on. However that may be, one of the things that sometimes happens especially when we are “channel surfing” is that unrelated remarks made in programs or commercials occasionally coincide in funny combinations. We might call this “commercial roulette,” and if someone were sitting in an adjoining room, only hearing the audio coming over the TV as we switched it, it might sound to them like this: “

...So, next time you have excess stomach acid, remember (click)...
...tonight’s late movie, featuring (click)...
...bad breath. It will make you say (click)...
...I love what you do for me!”

What makes this humorous is that the conversational fragments have so little to do with each other, yet they appear to go together. They only accidentally make sense.

Once a national gathering of religious scholars was held in a conference center hotel. The wall behind the platform in the conference hall did not go up to the ceiling, and just behind it was a bank of pay telephones. Several times during the conference the participants could hear people on the other side of the wall talking on the phones, but at one meeting it happened when the convener had asked the group to bow in prayer. As he intoned the opening phrase, “Oh God,” a fragment of conversation drifted over the wall, “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for some time!” Unfazed, the praying went on with several petitions, “O Lord, we ask...” concerning the health of various members, crisis situations around the world, and so forth. Again, the voice on the other side of the wall responded, “Yes, well I’ll see to that as soon as I can.”

Reading over this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, I am reminded of just such dialogues in which one participant doesn’t seem to be entirely aware of the presence, much less the meaning behind the words, of the other.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, and though I’m sure his intentions were good, we can infer from that note about the time of day the very thing we are likely to believe about people who go about their business under the cover of darkness. As it turns out, Nicodemus was in the dark in more ways than one. When he came to Jesus, he offered a very respectful greeting: “Rabbi, you are a teacher who has come from God, because no one can do the things you have been doing apart from the presence of God!” I have done a lot of teaching in my life, and if someone were to say that to me, I would be flattered and perhaps even a little uneasy. Such an affirmation is a lot to live up to. So, I would have expected Jesus to have blushed and responded, “Well thank you, how kind you are!”

Instead, Jesus responded with, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above.” One of the things we miss by reading this story in English is the fact that the very same Greek word used here can mean either from above, or again. Those two concepts don’t have a lot in common, but that is what the one word can mean, much like our English word “tear” which can mean either moistened eyes or a rending of fabric or paper. So, like the person channel surfing through commercials, when Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom without being born from above,” Nicodemus hears, “No one can see the kingdom without being born again.”

It’s almost a prescription for misunderstanding, and it only seems to get worse the more Nicodemus tries to understand it. “You mean,” he asks Jesus, “I have to crawl back into my mother’s womb before I can see the kingdom? Ridiculous! Not only am I 5'10" and 150 pounds, but I’m 75 years old, and my mother passed away nine years ago!”

Nicodemus awaits an explanation. Looking over his shoulder at Jesus, so do we. We’d like to know how to see the kingdom too, but we’re not sure we’ve figured it out from what Jesus has said so far. Nicodemus thinks in terms of human, material origins — what Jesus calls flesh — while Jesus has in mind another sort of origin, one that occurs in the realm of the Spirit. So Jesus goes on, “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

See? No? Well, don’t feel lonesome, neither did Nicodemus! Jesus continues speaking at another level of meaning from the one Nicodemus is hearing, continues with another single word that in the original language has two meanings. The Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, and that is also the word for “wind.” So now we hear that the flesh is flesh but the wind is the wind...or should that be, the spirit is the spirit, or the wind is the spirit or the spirit is the wind? I almost lose track where we are!

Finally, Nicodemus, by this time as baffled as we are, exclaims, “How can these things be?” He speaks for us all, in a way, and in doing so gives Jesus the opportunity to speak of the reality of the world of the spirit and the world of material existence. And what is the essence of these two worlds? What is God’s plan for both material and spiritual reality?

It is summed up in probably the most famous verse of all scripture, the one we often see flashed between the goalposts during televised football games, the one that many of us committed to memory at an early age: “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.”

Look at those two verbs that describe this central action of God: God loved, and God gave. Anyone who knows anything about the one knows that it inevitably leads to the other. Love without a desire to give of oneself is an empty love. And giving without love is never much more than a grim response to some feeling of obligation.

It seems to me that all this conversation about the material and spiritual nature of the kingdom results in this declaration about Jesus. God loved the world so much — this material world, terra firma, along with all the creatures on it — God loves this world we know and in which we live out our days. That’s quite a declaration in itself. There are plenty of religious perspectives which declare otherwise, which say that this world either is not real, or that it is a thing to be escaped or avoided. Plenty of people find no reason whatsoever to believe that the gods have any desire to have anything to do with this world. Not so this God who sends Jesus. He loves the world, loves it, lock stock and barrel, warts and all; loved it right into existence. God loves the world enough to want to redeem it. It turns out this passage isn’t about Nicodemus at all, but it certainly is about the sort of God we worship. This is a God of love, not as an abstraction, but as a verb: “God loved the world so much...”

And the way that love has been demonstrated, dear Nicodemus, was in giving: giving an only Son. Remember this Nicodemus, like so many of us, was caught up in a worldview which all but declared that the way to access the grace of God was through obedience and good works. The idea of God’s love as a gift didn’t enter into his thinking very much more than it does into ours during our average day. The very idea that this son who was given is a gift turns the entire merit system upside down, and that’s a lot to turn!

Do any of you watch Jeopardy? You know the key to understanding the game. Alex Trebeque reads the answer and you have to figure out the question. What if John 3:16 is the answer? Lots of people think it’s a pretty good answer, some have called it the “gospel in miniature.” So if this verse is the answer, what is the question?

Here are just a few of the questions this verse might answer:

Answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
Question: My parents used to abuse me, what is God going to do about it?

Answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
Question: What can be done about the inhumanity of suicide bombers who set off explosives or crash airplanes into skyscrapers, or who shoot unarmed people trying to retrieve relief parcels?

Answer: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son...”
Question: What hope is there for my life if I have tried to get myself back on my feet time after time, and each time I have failed?

It seems to me that at least one of the only answers that make any sense at all to any of our deepest human questions is filled with loving and giving. Not so much our loving and giving, but God’s. God’s giving of himself in Christ is what makes our pale attempts at loving and giving possible. God has given himself to us, unreservedly. Surely there is someone here today who has begun to feel the need to give himself or herself to God in return. Do it today. Do it with me as we pray.

Oh Lord, even as you gave yourself to us in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves to you. Take us and make of us what you will, for your sake. In Christ’s name. Amen.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, All Rights Reserved