Second Sunday in Lent – Series A
The season of Lent, especially in Series A, returns us to the very basics of Christianity. Last week we remembered the fall into sin and the victory of Christ over the ancient serpent, crushing his head and rendering his power empty.
This week we get another set of foundational passages. God calls Abram to Canaan, Jesus speaks with Nicodemus the familiar words of God’s love for the whole world. Paul employs the Abram story as a way to dig deeper in the heart of that important letter to the Romans and its message about that love which God has for the world.
This Sunday offers us the building block of Christianity we call faith. Abraham, as Paul described for us in Romans, is an exemplar of faith. Jesus exhorted Nicodemus to faith as well. But just what is faith? When I ask that question in my classes, I am always amazed at the answers that I get. Most people really have no idea. Even the students who are coming out of strong Lutheran traditions (not many at Concordia, Portland) have no idea what faith is. This suggests to me a serious catechetical need within our congregations.
This is important. The definition of faith impacts so much of the interpretation of the text and that will in turn affect Christianity to its core.
First some examples of faith from every daily, non-religious life:
1. When driving down a two lane road, I trust that the oncoming car will remain on the other side of that yellow line and we will not have a high speed head-on collision. We will pass within 10 feet of one another, at a combined speed of 120+ MPH, but most of us think nothing of it. We believe.
2. The toddler on the edge of the pool, who jumps into the arms of her father, trusts implicitly that her father will catch her. She will not drown. She shrieks with delight and believes him.
3. My friend writes me a check; I trust that upon presenting it to his bank the promise made on the front of the check to give me $40 will be good. It is precisely because many businesses no longer trust the promise which is a check that they have implemented guarantees through bank cards or simply no longer accepting checks.
Second, a few things that faith is not:
1. Faith is not a weak form of knowledge. We often hear this in “I believe he said he was going to attend the meeting.” This really means, “I am not sure.” While this may be an accepted use of the word in English, it is unheard of in Biblical usage. Faith is never contrasted with knowledge as to suggest it is less sure, if anything it is the other way around. Faith is more certain than knowledge. But this is not just biblical, it was also common culturally at the time in which the bible was written.
2. Faith is not a manipulation of God, as though he were the divine vending machine and if I insert the faith coin, pushing the correct Lutheran doctrinal button, out comes eternal life. Faith is the exact opposite of this sort of manipulation, yet we often hear people talk about God rewarding people for their faith in just such a flawed conceptual framework. Unfortunately, the Bible, using a completely different framework, does sound this way when Jesus tells people “your faith has made you well” or “your faith has saved you.” But within the context of first century Judaism with its emphasis on works of the Torah, this was saying that faith is not work. Too often people have turned it into the work which we are supposed to do to earn God’s favor.
3. Faith is not an act of my will. There is no neutral ground upon which I can stand upon to make the decision which this implies. Rather than a traveler standing at a fork in the road, I am much more like a rail car on a track. I am rolling one way or another. The direction can change, but I am never able to make that change without outside forces acting upon me. This notion of faith as an act of the will arose many centuries after the Bible is written, particularly championed by Franciscan scholars in the 13th and 14th centuries as they did battle with the Thomists of the Dominican order who themselves located faith within the intellect. Today, of course, it is particularly found among Christians of an Arminian stripe: Methodists, Holiness bodies, Pentecostals, etc.
4. Contra Thomas and those Dominicans, Faith is not a mere intellectual assent, saying yes to a number of propositions. I can say that the oncoming car will not cross that line, but it really isn’t faith until I actually put my hands on the wheel and head out of my driveway down that two lane highway. Lutherans have recently fallen into this intellectual sort of an understanding, probably because we are still scholastics at heart and we are reacting to the Arminians. This sort of understanding sees adult confirmation as teaching a number of doctrines and the person is a member who says “yes” to those doctrines. Probably a six – eight week class, but a change of life or even habit is not expected.
Last – What is faith?
1. Faith is relational – the child who is on the edge of the pool ready to jump in, jumps into her father’s arms. He has caught her before and she has experienced his care and protection in many situations before she is on the side of the pool. This relationship is not of our construction, but God’s construction. He creates this relationship in our baptism. Imagine that the little girl on the edge of the pool is adopted and you are getting much closer to what I mean and Paul too. (see Eph 1.) As a relationship, then faith can also grow and be stronger. The first time the little girl stands on the edge of the pool, she may need some coaxing, by the fifteenth time she is hurling herself off the edge and laughing.
2. Faith is a relationship in which God saves me – this is not an equal sort of relationship in which I am working off something. I might work very hard in this relationship, but that is all subsequent to, flowing out of the work which God has done to me and for me. Indeed, faith would suggest that all my working is really God in me (Galatians 2:20).
- 3. Faith trusts – It is one thing to say that the boat goes to New York, it is another to buy the ticket and book a passage. Trust is not something you think about but do not do, trust is something you do. Faith looks to God and expects that he will act in certain ways and lives life and forms habit based around those expectations. This is why I don’t veer onto the shoulder whenever I approach an oncoming car. If I believe God is with me always then I will start to act that way instead of as if he were absent most of the time. There are two worthy distinctions to make here. a. Faith trusts the promises which Christ makes. We believe Jesus. When he says he will raise us from the dead, we believe him. The more we know and understand the promises he makes, the better/stronger this faith becomes.
- b. Faith trusts the person who Christ is. This is when we say we believe in Jesus. Not merely that he exists, but that he is “for us.” He has the ability/power and the disposition to save us. I may not have a specific promise of how he will handle the current crisis I may find myself in, but I trust that he has answers and I believe he will come through for me. People who are relying on this second element of faith and do not have any knowledge/experience of the promises described in the paragraph immediately prior to this are in a weak position.
- 4. Faith loves – being relational, this also needs to be said. I can be in relationships which are predicated upon fear, hatred, even competition. The demons know about God better than we do, but they do not love him, hence we cannot say that they have faith. Please notice, the love is not the faith, but within the relationship established by God, love comes to us and returns to God. This is why I write the checks which I put in the offering plate. I love and express that love materially in giving gifts to the one that I love. The opposite of faith (unfaith?) will display an apathy toward God.
- 5. Faith seeks knowledge – being relational, it has a certain parallel with friendship. When I have a friend, I want to hear how he or she is doing, I want to know what is going on with them. If someone I love is in the hospital, I want to know what happened, the diagnosis, the prognosis, and how I can help. I want to know. God has this interest in us; this is why he numbers the hairs on our head and also why delights in our prayers. Faith also engenders in us a desire to know and understand God. Faith is not indifferent to the Word of God or those things which delight and displease him. The opposite of faith displays an indifference toward God.
- 6. There is a healthy distinction theologians need to make when using the word faith: a. There is the faith which we believe, this is summed up in the creed. (Fides quae)
- b. There is the faith which believes in Jesus. (Fides qua)
Both of these are proper uses, but it is important to know in which sense you or your interlocutor is using this word. If one of you is using faith in one sense and the other in the other sense, confusion and problems will abound.
Our English language betrays somewhat when we come to this term. Greek has a verbal form of faith: Faithing or to faith. English unfortunately has us use “to have faith.” This is a problem because that construction suggests faith is just one of the many things that I have and it puts a distance between me and faith. The NT seems to suggest that faith is what we are. I am faithing when I am Jesus’ lamb and he is the shepherd. I am faithing when he is the vine and I am the branches. I am faithing when he is the way, truth, and life which I need desperately. I am faithing when I am the orphan whom he has adopted (Eph. 1). I am faithing when Jesus is the door I am walking through to get into the sheepfold. I am faithing when Jesus is the healer who addresses my woes. Faith is not something you can separate from the person, as if you could hold faith in your hands. It is you. Or it is not you.
It is also important to note that our awareness of faith is not all that important. Philip Cary summarizes Luther to say that it doesn’t matter whether I know I am faithing. That is not really relevant. The baby who rests in its mother’s arms, naturally trusting that he/she is safe there, is unaware of what he/she is doing. But that is trust, that is faithing.
There is much more to say about Faith, but this should be a good place to start and probably more than most congregations are ready for in one sermon. Perhaps a whole bible class on the subject would be worthwhile.
Which brings us to the last question. What is the value of faith for our folks? Are we in a church attendance stupor? Have we entered into a mindset in which faith is an ornament in our lives and not the core or central part of those lives? Has faith become something of a peripheral element in our house, a picture which we hang on the wall and which we think is important, but which is not the over-arching or defining element of our lives?
Do our young folks struggle with the modern questions of faith? Are we even able to hear how they express their questions? Can you reply to a twitter or a text with a quote from the Book of Concord? Are they asking a completely different set of questions which revolve around authenticity and beauty?
Or have you had the experience that I have had of a person who comes to church excited and filled with wonder and joy, but after a few months among us we have pretty well beaten that out of them. Do we have a faith problem in that? Have you ever felt like you should tell the excited Christian to stay away?
If we assert faith is a relationship – we must earn the right to share faith with another by working inside that relationship. We cannot assume that we have the floor and have authority to speak, we have to earn it. That only happens when we are known by the other.
Collect of the Day
O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength. By Your mighty power defend us from all adversities that may happen to the body and from all evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
We have no strength. Is any modern person really able to say that? Whole religious movements are dedicated to the power to “choose.” That choice is perceived as power. Whether the choice is to end a life in an abortion or the power to choose Jesus and open your heart to him, the vocabulary betrays that this is understood to be the empowerment of the person.
The prayer, however, suggests another anthropology than that which obtains in the world today. We are helpless, much like the little children Jesus welcomed into his arms whose nature Jesus said was essential to entering the kingdom of God. They were not innocent, those little children, any more than my own children are innocent. They were helpless and weak and powerless. Jesus came to raise dead people, not to buy drinks for the marginally alive. He raises the dead, so hurry up and die already! At least stop counting on our own strength to carry us through. Strong faith that looks to itself is not strong, but grotesquely misguided. Strength of faith is found in my own weakness and need for the strength of God for me. Strong faith is looking to God for strength.
By God’s mighty power we ask to be defended from all adversities that happen to the body and the evil thoughts that may assault and hurt the soul. The dualism aside, the prayer seems at first blush to fit better with the reading last week in which Jesus overcomes the tempter, but this is actually building on that event.
The adversities of the body are pretty straight forward and if you have ever spoken to an elderly person only to get an “organ report” you know just how serious the adversities of the body can be. For Christians of every time, of course, this also includes those persecutions which are not part of our common human existence but which are peculiar to our confession of Christ.
I wonder if we don’t put God out of the bodily adversity protection business. We have cars that will brake if we get too close to a car in front of us, and they will steer us back into a lane if we drift out of it. They will warn us is there is a person in the blind spot and if we are in an accident, air bags will inflate like giant pillows lest we dash our heads against the dashboard. Have we written God out of the “defend me from adversity” business? Do we rely on pension plans, safety features, medicine, and doctors more than we rely on him? Should we be seeing those folks as gifts of his care instead of things unto themselves?
The evil thoughts that assault and hurt the soul, on the other hand, are a little tougher to understand. Obviously this includes the lusts and the hatreds that may deform our actions into sinful behaviors, but that is only the tip of the iceberg here. The nasty inclination is the obvious part of it, beneath that is a vast chunk of sin which is hidden in our minds and over which comes the veneer of respectability. Concupiscence is the term we use for much of this. We have an inner compulsion to sin and quite often we are so used to that we think it is normal. We may even make a virtue of it. Is capitalism and the philosophy of the free market simply greed harnessed? How much of our humor is not at another’s expense? How much of our success is not predicated upon another’s harm? The stock market dictum “buy low, sell high” is predicated on someone else foolishly doing the opposite.
What do we put into our hearts and our heads? Why is it so much easier to read a chapter out of a trashy novel than the Bible? What images do the films and television shows we watch put into our heads? Do they lead us to sin or righteousness? We may argue that we do not act on those things, so they are relatively harmless, but if they are leading us one way and we are expending our energy resisting them, is that really something we want to do?
Our thoughts themselves can be sinful too. Jesus’ explores this in some depth in the Sermon on the Mount. It is not only the act of harming my neighbor that is a sin, but also the hatred and envy. This is what the ninth and tenth commandments are really about, our attitudes toward our neighbor. Paul’s injunction to humility in Philippians 2 is really contradicting both first century Roman culture and 21st century American culture with their emphasis on competition and success, a theology of Glory. Paul calls us to weep with our neighbor in his distress and to rejoice with him in his success. Our culture delights in laughing at our neighbor’s problems and grumbling about his success as if it were owed to us.
We want Jesus to control our minds too? That is a pretty scary thing for a person to say, especially since the enlightenment which has so emphasized the mental capacity of the human being. But this gets clearer when one remembers the love which Jesus has expressed to us. The one to whom we would submit even our minds is the one who submitted to the will of his own Father on the cross. He knows the struggle that a human being has when confronted with radical obedience of this sort. He has done it himself.
That is why this prayer is really a prayer of faith. Only faith can pray it, at least honestly.
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.
What do we learn about God in this passage? God is not very rationally selective. Abram was no catch. We learn in Joshua 24 that Abram was an idolater. Moses will say that God did not pick the children of Abraham because they were anything special. As the story will unfold, Abram will not get the faith thing right very often.
God is faithful to promises. All the things which he promised Abram, he delivered, often contrary to any expectation. Abram will try to make it easier for God, but God will have none of that.
God is gracious and loving. God had rendered judgment in chapter 11, but here in 12 he was turning around to bless and save the very people who had rebelled against him, bestowing the very things they sought to wrest from God through force – meaning and community.
What do we learn about faith in this passage? Trust in God’s promises can be a bold thing. It took some guts to believe and do what God asked Abram to do here. God asks us to trust some pretty improbable promises. Abram was childless and 75 years old. Sarai, his wife, was past the age of childbearing. He would be a father of a great nation? He was probably looking toward an old age dependent upon his nephews and nieces for care. Those folks were in Haran. God is asking a 75-year-old man to leave the only support structure he has available to him. Is this why he brought Lot along?
Faith is not getting it right, but faith does follow and do. It was not sufficient for Abram to sit in Haran and expect God to do everything, hearing and believing God meant he got up and moved, leaving behind his father and family.
We might just want to begin any examination of this text by asking what the opposite of faith might be. Sometimes we can learn the most about something by defining its opposite. It is helpful to turn to the chapter immediately before this call to Abram to see what I mean. In chapter 11 we read the story of the Tower of Babel. There we read that the people gathered in one place and they said to one another,
“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
The people of Babel sought to do something of significance and to have community, two good goals but they sought it through their own means, building a tower to heaven. But it is important to remember that their goals, their desires were in fact good. What they wanted was a good thing, but how they went about getting it was the problem. How often isn’t that true for us too? The young man who joins a gang or the man who cheats on his wife or the kid who cheats on the test is most often looking for something good. In the case of the gangster, a safe community of peers, the man who has an affair is probably looking for something he once loved appropriately in his own marriage, the child who cheats on the exam is looking for the praise which comes from the good grade. In an important sense, these examples provide the opposite of faith which Abram had. The cheater or gangster have faith in themselves, not a faith in God. The opposite of faith is a works righteousness which counts on my own works, even the idea of “faith” that is the good work that I have done. Should God’s favor be a reward given to my faith? Or is there something else at work here.
In the case of the folks in Babel God disrupted this good desire evilly done. But that is not the end of the story. Right here in the words of our text, God turns around and gives to Abram the very things the citizens of Babel had been looking for and more. Abram is promised that he will be the father of many nations – a huge community. His name will be great – he will be significant. God even gives him more. He will bless the one who blesses Abram and curse the one who curses him.
So what does all this mean for reading Abram/Abraham? He is an exemplar of faith because he listens, he trusts, and he gets up and moves. God stands on the edge of the pool and Abram jumps into his arms, he cashes the check. Now, any careful reading of the text of Genesis will also reveal that Abraham is not entirely consistent in this. Sometimes he tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister so as to preserve his own life but to turn away from the promise to have many children by this Sarah. Was he ditching her so he could find another, more fertile Sarah? He first establishes Eleazar of Damascus as an heir and then seeks to go around the system with Hagar and Ishmael. God must rebuke this exemplar of faith on occasion. But finally Abraham listens to God’s terrible command and binds his son, his only son, the one whom he loves, on an altar and is willing to lose him, trusting that God will keep his promise to bless Abraham with many children even though he is about to commit genetic extermination of the line of Sarah and Abraham.
Abraham is a really complex exemplar of faith. He does not get it very well. He often stumbles. Do we in fact sometimes miss holding up these people as real life examples of faith when we only talk about the good Abram who gets this right? There is value in that image of Abraham. Paul seems to do that in Romans 4.
The most interesting exploration of Abraham’s faith can be found in Soren Kirkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” which explores Abraham’s internal conversation as he climbs Mt. Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. It says in Genesis 22 that the binding of Isaac was a test of Abraham. God knows Abraham believes, the one who really knows after the event is Abraham.
This chapter 12 of Genesis is the beginning of the story, not only of Abraham but the story of us all. As the children’s song says, and Paul in Galatians 3 says, we are all children of Abraham. The proper response to “who are you?” is always, “my father was a wandering Aramean.” We are children of this Abram/Abraham by faith.
I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? 2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. 4 Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand. 6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7 The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.
This is a wonderful psalm with a great deal to offer the preacher. It is regularly used at funerals, but this is an opportunity to preach it in another context and make those funeral sermons stronger. The words of this Psalm are also regularly part of the baptismal rite. He watches over our comings and goings from this baptismal day forth and even for evermore. That is a really good thing to say. It is a faith-full thing to say.
Romans 4:1-8, 13-17
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
The editors of the pericope system have elided vss. 9-12 which you can read here and stopped the reading in the middle of the last paragraph which I have continued to the end of the chapter.
Paul has furthered the discussion/understanding of faith: Abraham believed God, and this faith was the mechanism for God to give Abraham righteousness. Faith is contrasted here against the “buy/sell” mechanism we are accustomed to using in this life. Faith is not simply the work we do to which God reacts, but faith is something very different. Faith and the righteousness which God gives obtained before Abraham was circumcised, obedient to the command/covenant of
God. God reacts to no one that way, but his love is freely and fully given, simply because that is his very nature. He is not reacting to my faith, but my faith is the expression of his love to me.
Vs 16 is really important here. Faith is not the thing which I get right and the guy who is damned screwed up. That turns faith into my work again. Faith is the salvation which God has won and gives to this whole world. In this sense we can talk about faith as an objective reality. But this is hard, because we also sometimes talk about faith subjectively, as something which does distinguish the saved from the damned. We have to be careful in this discussion to remember that the reason I am counted among the elect is not because I got something more correct than the guy who is not. The free and full forgiveness of every sin is won by Jesus for all humanity. The Formula of Concord’s articles on Free Will and Election are most helpful here.
Abraham’s frequent failures of faith did not undo the relationship. That persevered because it was established by God, not by Abraham.
Chapter 4 of Romans serves as an extended illustration/exploration of the letter’s thesis statement which was just restated in Romans 3:21-27. There Paul spoke of a righteousness which was from God through faith.
In the first section, Paul seems to suggest that the person who is saved through faith is in fact in a better position than the imagined person who actually keeps all the rules and earns heaven. One is getting a pay check; the other is getting a gift from the hand of the king. Which would you rather have? One is the staff member, the other the honored guest. How do we simply settle for the role of staff member when God would give us much more?
The omitted section is really important but unfortunately confusing for folks. Paul reads his Torah quite literally, but in a different way than we do. For him it is inspired to the punctuation. Thus the very order of the events is significant theologically. The account in which Abraham is counted as righteous happens in the Torah before the rite of circumcision. Thus the circumcision could not have caused the righteousness.
If you are reading the wonderful world of Pauline scholarship these days, you may be familiar with the New Perspective on Paul (NP) – championed by scholars like James Dunn and E. P. Sanders. NP has challenged traditional readings of this passage and the whole book of Romans, suggesting that Paul really only has in mind the ethnic identity markers of Judaism, not what we understand as works righteousness. This has been helpful and good on some fronts, but it does not satisfy me entirely and I think sometimes draws conclusions which are overstated.
In the section after the omitted paragraph, Paul asserts that faith makes one a true descendent of Abraham, not adherence to the law. Abraham, whose faith revolved around the birth of a son and the promise that he would be the father of many nations, becomes the father of us all. That is not just a platitude for Paul. He really means that. The most important thing to say about any of us is that relationship we have with the Father, a relationship we share with Abraham and every other person who has called upon him for help. We take our place in long lines headed by lepers
and the blind, the guilty and the lonely. With one voice we all cry out – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us.” or perhaps as we are more familiar just, “Lord, have mercy.”
It is not a genetic signature that makes one a member of the true Israel. It is faith, the gift of God, the relationship established by him now in baptism, but the same relationship he established with Abraham when he made the covenant some 4000 years ago. Abram has become the father of many, many nations. Today some two billion folks call upon the name of Jesus. They are all Abraham’s children.
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.
What does one say here. John 3:16 is the most commonly quoted verse by evangelical Christians today and many Lutherans too. It is a great verse, often called the Gospel in a nutshell. Most Sunday Schoolers can still recite it.
The context, however, is often lost and perhaps I do want to say something about that. John is a very dramatic writer. The whole story of the blind man in chapter nine is really written like a brief Greek play, with only 2-3 characters on stage with a chorus at any given time. This scene too is really made for TV. John tells us that it is night, under the cover of darkness and all that this implies. When you consider the role that light and dark play in John’s Gospel, this is not an
accident. One of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, comes to see Jesus at night. Is he a child of this darkness?
John is making use of a favorite technique: irony. Nicodemus and Jesus enter into a conversation in which you know so much more than Nicodemus. Do you remember the chapter before, at the wedding of Cana, at which the servants knew about the wine when no one else knew? Now you are the servant who is in the know and this Pharisee, this teacher of the Law is clueless and you can laugh at him stumbling around in the dark. Jesus speaks of rebirth, Nicodemus thinks he is speaking of a physical re-entry into the womb of one’s mother. It is patently ridiculous, but that is the point. He is dense, while you, the reader, are not. You are watching this whole scene unfold on the stage of your imagination. It is ok to laugh. I think John wanted you to laugh.
Jesus puns on the word for wind, spirit and breath, all one word in Aramaic and in Greek – pneuma in Greek. The pneuma blows, we see it in the trees we see in everyone born of the Spirit. Jesus speaks of the new life which comes in that faithful relationship with God. This is a great mystery, baptism creates life, water and Spirit combine. It is both physical and not physical, at the same time. We often wonder about baptism, it seems like such an unlikely way to give a new life. Jesus gets this just right here. The truth be told, if you tell a seven year old the facts of life and exactly where a baby comes from he is likely to look at you and say “Yeah, right!” This is especially true if you have explained all the details. Is it odd that the creator who would bestow life the first time that way would bestow a new life in a way that might surprise us too?
Nicodemus has a hard time with this, and Jesus turns the tables on him again. If he is really a Pharisee, a truly spiritual Israelite and cannot understand these things, what hope does he have of the truth in heavenly terms? The Pharisees are quite convinced that they are first in line for that kingdom of God, if not already in it. Jesus just told him that he is in fact a long ways away.
If Nicodemus is not yet confused enough, Jesus takes the next step, the son of man must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness. A day when venomous snakes bit the children of Israel, they prayed for the snakes to be taken away and God did not do it. Instead, he gave them another snake, a serpent of bronze hung on a pole so that if bitten, they might lift their eyes, see the elevated serpent and live. I don’t know of a better faith story in a nutshell in the OT. If there are a bunch of venomous snakes crawling around at my feet, you can be sure that my eyes are glued to the ground, but salvation lies in taking my eyes off the problem and lifting them to the sky and looking at the peculiar deliverance the God has provided. And what is so odd about that deliverance is that the deliverance looks surprisingly like the problem.
Likewise with Jesus, the salvation is not to be found in the removal of death, but in the unjust death of the one man who did not deserve to die. Go figure! What a strange and upside down sort of God we have. If my enemies are Sin, Death, and Devil, how is it that salvation comes in a gross miscarriage of justice, a great sin, which results in the death of a truly innocent man, a black day on which Satan rejoices. That day is my salvation. God does not do away with Sin, Death and Devil, by some exertion of smashing power, he submits to them.
Right in verse 11 John has Jesus do something dramatic that we don’t pick up on in our English language. The number of the second person“you” shifts from singular to plural. It is as if the camera angle shifts and suddenly Jesus is looking right at all of us. We have scoffed at Nicodemus’ foolish answers and questions to Jesus. He just doesn’t get it, but do we, honestly? Is the charge of disbelief suddenly shifted to the readers?
I have always wanted to produce this little vignette as a drama and have the Jesus character break down the fourth and begin to address the audience at this point.
For God so loved the world, the whole thing, that he gave his only Son. Jesus is no longer just talking to Nicodemus here, he is calling out to every human being who has ever and will ever live. God loves you. Through that wonderful relationship he creates in that love, he saves you. Even death does not have the mastery.
The word of God often rewards the patient searcher. Nicodemus will, by the end of the Gospel come and ask for Jesus’ body. The call made by Jesus for Nicodemus to be reborn was clearly heard. By the end of the Gospel he is no longer in darkness and hiding, but openly identifying himself with this crucified Rabbi from Nazareth.
Another question might suggest itself to us: What did we learn about Jesus here? Jesus does not shy away from calling Nicodemus to do something hard. He won’t let him stay comfortably a Pharisee. He calls him to a new birth, a thing which Nicodemus cannot understand, but Jesus still calls him to it.
Jesus mission is to save, not condemn. The heart of God which reaches to us in faith is fundamentally salvific, a rescuer, one who would restore the broken and lost humanity. Jesus tells us that God is not eager to be done with this world and destroy the sin, but to rescue and restore it. Too many folks see and hear Christians speaking words of loveless judgment upon sinners and imagine that we worship a God who judges.
Jesus is very patient. He clearly disagrees with Nicodemus but he enters into discourse with Nicodemus, challenges him, but he does not send him packing. He engages this fellow who seems rather dense to us. The bulb is not bright in Nicodemus’ shed! He is not cast as the crispiest chip in the bag as my teenage daughter is wont to express it. He was blinded and narrowed by his adherence to tradition and custom.
It is not accidental, of course, that this discussion happens entirely at night. Light and dark are potent themes throughout the Gospel according to John. The dark is the time when bad things happen. Jesus is arrested and tried at night. The day, when the sun shines and the Son shines (John 9) is when good things happen. There is much to be made of this. I am not always sure just how much is too much, however. I will commend you to the commentators on this one.
In the discussion group we thought that “born again” might be worthy of exploring. There is a New Guinea tradition that someone who has gone seriously astray is brought into the middle of the village and told that he must start over. He needs to learn the ways of his people once more.
Is this what happens to us. We have to learn all things anew in Christ. I still have the same job, same family, same neighbors, etc., but now I come to them differently, through a new lens, through a new way. Now Jesus is in the middle of this picture and I am not. Rebirth might be seen as something that redefines our whole existence.
Do we confront a culture which does not “get” Jesus in the same way that Jesus confronted Nicodemus? How does Jesus’ words to Nicodemus help us see how to deal with such a culture? Jesus reasons with him, but also simply declares some things. He does not seem to wait for Nicodemus to catch up or understand before he leaps to assert the next thing.
Law and Gospel
1. Does Abraham shame us? Have we clung tightly to our comfort and our pleasures and turned back the call which God has extended to us? God’s grace is resistible.
2. Have we therefore acted faithlessly? Do we spend our money confident of his care? Do we meet our challenges aware of his promise to be with us and to give us strength for this day? Do we love our children and see our spouse as the gift from God that they are? Do we exercise the amazing gift and authority to forgive a sin, no matter how large? Or do we bear the grudge and nurse the wound?
3. Do we look for God everywhere except in the places he promised to be? I have said it before, I really believe that if we believed that someone was putting the very body of Christ into our hands, we would not complain about the music or anything else. We could sing off key in Latin and we would still be there. Is the murmuring we so often hear in our churches but a symptom of a profound faith problem? I recollect the snakes in Numbers were sent among the people for murmuring.
4. We really are of ourselves spiritually incomplete and incompetent people. God has done all the work and we cannot even get the faith right. He has born the weight of this world’s sin, and we miss out because we struggle to believe. The many misconceptions of faith which make it into my own work, work terror in my heart as I am then forced to ask the questions of “have I got enough?” “Is what I have, the same thing as saving faith?” how do I know?
5. Do we have an issue in much of the music which passes itself off as Christian? Look at the subject of all the verbs. “I praise…” “I come to you…” “I worship…” When does God act within all this? Is it the only way we sing?
1. Faith is a relationship which God establishes and God nurtures. This takes this awesome responsibility out of our hands. God will not run roughly over us. We may
close our eyes and resist him, it is true, but that only makes the faith that much more sweet.
2. A child who has disappointed his or her parents is still their child. God has committed himself to us in Jesus. Like a father signing on the dotted line of the adoption papers, he has entered into this relationship for the long haul. His patient care is greater than our failings.
3. His love seeks us out. He did not put it in a room or some temple somewhere, but he gave it legs and voice, heart and eyes. You probably first felt it in the gentle arms of your mother, you have felt it ever since in the love of God expressed through the countless Christians he has brought into your life and into your family. Through them, God seeks you out so that he may love you.
4. That love does not simply leave us in the mire of our sin, but it also picks us up. I desire to please my earthly father because he loves me and has been incredibly kind to me. I also have been changed by the love of my heavenly father. Can you think of the many ways you are different because of this love?
1. Rescued (Gospel: That the Spirit of God would blow in the life of the hearer and create/renew in him/her the confession of faith in Christ who is God’s answer to all that ails us.)
The Baptized Christian has been plucked from nameless and insignificant orphanage of death and hell, embraced by a loving God and called his child, born anew into a new family, a new relationship with the Father. God so loved the world that have gave his only Son so that the whole world might be wrapped up in that Son through the incarnation and thereby saved. Jesus’ whole purpose in coming into the flesh is to save the world.
The preacher this day really wants simply lay out the gospel in a nutshell which is the great John 3:16 passage. Being a Lutheran preacher, however, he is cognizant of that context. The new life, the rescue, the salvation which God has worked has come through a birth in water and Spirit. This is a day to proclaim baptism. Is that the only way God does this, of course not, but the first part of this reading suggests that Baptism needs to be at the center of this proclamation. Here you might import the Psalm which is used in Baptism.
The second issue which needs to be there is the connection between that rebirth of the Spirit to the lifting up of Christ, for every eye to see. There is a fascinating little comparison there, some of which is outlined in the notes above, but which is also available in the many commentaries. The image of the Israelites looking to the snake for
healing has a strange and striking similarity to the crucifixion of Christ. It is such a counter-intuitive way to rescue to the world!
The trick to this sermon will be to clearly identify your law. Don’t dwell on it, but it really has to be something that grabs folks. To be rescued, you have to be rescued from some immediate or real problem. A life preserver thrown to a drowning man is gratefully received. Throw the same life preserver at a fellow walking down the street and he may charge you with assault. The wise preacher will know that his congregation knows what this threat is before they came to church today. If your sermon would try to get them to know a new problem, you will spend all your time on this and have less for the Gospel. The preacher’s job will be simply to articulate what they already know, and spend the bulk of his time on the rescue itself, not on the development of the problem.
2. Born again (That the hearer would acknowledge that God has rebooted his/her life in baptism and forgiveness, opening up a whole new way to be a human being.)
We often reboot a computer just to get the thing to work again. Jesus has rebooted our life, not just one in our baptism, perhaps long ago, but he does it daily. Luther says we daily drown the old man that God may raise a new man.
But being reborn is not just a nice little platitude which makes us feel good. God is serious when he gives us new life. He is talking about a new life which we can really lead. God called Abraham to follow, and he followed. He got up, he moved, he listened to God’s direction and took off for a new land.
Jesus speaks to Nicodemus and calls him to a reborn life. He is not saying that he should leave his wife or job or anything else, but he is calling him to be a different kind of husband, a different kind of neighbor and citizen. That difference is that Jesus has rebooted that life. It is no longer operating on that old principle, but on Christ. He is the center of that life and from him flows all sorts of new shape and direction for this life.
That new direction and shape begins with God’s gift to all. He loved the whole world, so we do too. He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. So we are no longer in the condemning business, but the saving business. Yes, that means we speak the truth, but always in love. We witness to the reality of sin, but God does the condemning, I don’t. I need to discern, but God is judge.
But there is another facet to this too. Jesus speaks of a bronze serpent on a pole, lifted up. He is talking about his sacrificial death. Sometimes having one’s life redefined means that God calls us to sacrifice. It will not always be easy. Abraham left family and friends behind in Haran. The Disciples whose lives were all rebooted on Easter went to martyrdom and lengthy years of hard service. This is not always rainbows and unicorns.
3. By the Faith of Abram (OT and Epistle: That God’s word would inform the understanding and life of the hearer in regards to faith, keeping him clear from idolatry of fideism and to be securely found in the sure and steady hands of Jesus.)
The preacher will want to look at the opening essay of these notes to see what I mean here. This is a teaching/proclamation. The preacher wants to hold up a teaching for his people, the point being that misbelief here is dangerous. It leaves the Christian in a vulnerable position.
If the person believes that faith is a work, he is trusting himself, and our enemy can exploit that. When we feel like a failure, he will whisper in our ears that our faith is a sham, and we will not enter the kingdom. He wants us to despair. Or he may let us simply continue blithely to trust ourselves. Knowing that we are like a tree whose root is pinched, weakened by insufficient nourishment.
Praise God that our ability to get this right is not what is determinant of our hope. God has gotten this right. He has not saved the folks who get faith right, he has saved us all in Christ. Jesus has come into the flesh because we are all a little like Nicodemus and lousy at this faith thing of ourselves.
That said, we proclaim God’s work today, and rejoice that we can see what God is doing for our faith. We proclaim a better thing that the world has for us, even many in the world who fly under the banner of Christian. That faith which I proclaim brings us great comfort because it is really Jesus himself.
4. Faith (All three readings – that the Holy Spirit would free the hearer to rest confidently in the gift of God’s faith.)
This sermon wants to take on the real problem of culture’s charaterizatio of faith as a work/asset/possession which we would use as a currency in our relationship with God. This often results in a great fear. Do I have enough? Am I rich enough in faith?
We will define faith. Look at the opening essay for some of this material. We want the hearer to come to the realization that faith is the description of who we are, not a thing which we have and which we may have stuck on a shelf somewhere in the basement of our life.
The illustration of a “faither” is necessary. What is that sort of person. We don’t need to know that we have faith, we need to know Jesus, what he has done, what he has promised. The question is not whether I have believed. The question is really did Jesus die for my sin, save me from death and devil, give me the relationship with God.
The end result of the sermon should be that the hearer has confidence. God works faith him/her through baptism, word, and sacrament. God has defined who I am. I am now the sheep whom the shepherd seeks. I am the branch which the vine sustains and feeds. I am the child in the father’s arms.
5. Sin on a stick! (Gospel Lesson – John 3:14: That the Spirit of God would turn the eyes of the hearer toward the crucified Christ, who has become sin for us, all that is wrong with this world, that seeing him we may be saved.)
The preacher who attempts this sermon is looking for a little shock value with this. God’s love for the whole world is somewhat scandalous. Our human nature loves to make silly distinctions, because we love to look at ourselves. We love to think that somehow I am better than the guy headed for hell, God has noticed me. That is why I am on the train for heaven. We may not even think about the guy headed for hell, we are just as able to play the comparison game with much pettier items. We can think we are somehow better than the guy with the cardboard sign begging for money, the gal in the wheelchair, etc. In baptism we were given a relationship with God which has fixed our eyes on Jesus, but what do we see? Do we see some perfect and beautiful thing? In one sense, yes, of course Jesus is beautiful, but Lent reminds us that we have our eyes fixed squarely on the death of our sin – we gaze on sin itself.
The people of God in the OT had been afflicted with serpents in response to their grumbling. In a great irony, Moses made a serpent of bronze, held it aloft and in looking at the serpent, the bitten person is healed. We too are bitten by the sinful serpent. We are afflicted unto death, and it will be the death of us. This is hard. The ground is crawling with poisonous snakes, I probably have my eyes glued on the ground, but God calls me to lift my eyes and look up.
Today God holds up his Son on a cross. He has turned that beautiful Son into the very sin which destroys us (II Corinthians 5 – he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us). And when we turn our eyes toward him, we see our own sins on that cross, in his body and death. We often think of faith as something mysterious and difficult. But it is really keeping our eyes on Christ, the author and perfector of my faith.
We often want to hide our sins, and the devil has a great power over us by blackmail. He might expose what we really are. But Jesus exposes my sin and your sins. He becomes those sins and hangs them up there for the whole world to see, for God to see, and for God to punish there. The devil’s power over us is broken in Christ’s death.
Bring it right back to the visibility issue. Nicodemus cannot even see the kingdom of God. He thinks he is already in it, and Jesus says it is not even on the horizon for him. Nicodemus’ sins will have to be held up before he can really get it, before he is in that kingdom. The next time we see Nicodemus in the story, he is helping Joseph of Arimathea and some women get Jesus’ body down from the cross. That is what that purple cloth is doing on the cross in front of many churches in this season. Nicodemus used such a cloth to get Jesus’ body down from the cross.
The sinner who hears this sermon should be encouraged in this preaching. Lifting his eyes toward Calvary, he sees Jesus hanging there, but he also sees his own sin hanging
there, and thus, he also sees his salvation, the salvation which Jesus came to bring to us. The people of the Exodus who looked at the bronze serpent did not die of their snake bite. The human being whose eyes have been lifted up to see Jesus also does not die, not really. Even that great foe, the implacable enemy of us all is defeated in Jesus’ death and resurrection.