Pentecost 5 (Lectionary 16)
Romans 8: 12-25 Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
My wife Darlene and I have just returned from some vacation time and part of our time was spent in Calgary at the home of our oldest daughter. While there in Calgary, the news broke with the story of a 5 year old boy who went missing, along with his grandparents.
Five year old Nathan O’Brien was dropped off at his grandparents’ home by his mother and tragically all three went missing. Earlier this week, the heartbreaking news came that the Calgary Police had changed their investigation from a missing persons file, to homicide.
Beyond the pictures of weeping family and friends and people throughout the community erecting memorials to the potentially slain victims, one is left with a pit in the stomach. It seems almost beyond comprehension that someone could murder the grandparents, but then to take the life of a little 5 year old boy, an innocent young life, takes it beyond belief.
On a global level we have been witness to an incredible tragedy in which nearly 300 people lost their lives as the Maylaysian Airlines plane was shot down over Ukranian territory by a surface to air missile. Once again, innocent lives are taken in a senseless act.
What is equally amazing is the fact that I dwell on only 2 events in the world this week; there are countless other areas in the world which are experiencing such violence, such tragedy.
All of this is quite discouraging. It is discouraging because we look and see that we are in a world still fraught with EVIL. There might be all kinds of ways to analyze and try to figure things out in a rational sense, or maybe even make excuses as a way of attempting to answer the eternal question: “Why?”
Unfortunately, we may not be able to answer that question to our satisfaction and we may be left with the understanding that this world is beset by evil.
Discouraging and frustrating. Okay, the world has evil elements. Now what do we do? Our frustration may compound because we might feel a sense of hopelessness. No matter how much we might hope, or wish, or pray, we seem powerless in the face of evil.
For people of faith, the sense of powerlessness might be very keen because we pray. We pray so hard for a cessation to war and violence. We pray for healing and many, many other things. Like the apostle Paul who notes in our scripture readings today, we groan with the rest of creation. Creation groans in pain and we long for peace, safety and security.
We groan and pray and long for the end to such decay.
We groan. Yet while we groan, we have an opportunity this morning, to hear from God. God has a word to say to us despite our groaning.
In the Scripture readings for today, we hear from God. Through the words of Jesus, God announces that God will overcome evil. Jesus says in our gospel reading,
“Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Jesus says that God is going to burn evil and eradicate it, just like you or I would burn weeds, burn garbage. God will one day destroy evil.
God makes a promise to one day destroy evil. Such promise is reflected in the story of Jacob, which forms part of our first lesson today.
In the reading from Genesis, we find Jacob on the run. Jacob, the second born child of Issac is on the run because he brother Esau wishes to do him harm.
Yes, Jacob did steal his brother’s inheritance through deceit, but I am sure he never believed that such trickery would bring expulsion from his family, loneliness in the wilderness and potential death at the hands of his brother.
Jacob is alone, but in a dream, he encounters God. In that dream God says to him,
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you."
In the end Jacob is not alone; God is with him and God will never leave him. Someway and somehow he will be looked after, he will be cared for and the troubles and tragedies he potentially faces will be removed from him. He is known by God.
Being known by God and what that means, is reflected in today’s Psalm. In the reading from the Psalms, we hear the heart and mind and love of God. God promises to burn evil because God knows us.
“You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”
The psalm writer who knows that humanity is loved by God is sure of one thing:
“Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
Darkness may surround us as human beings from time to time, but darkness does not surround God. The night is as bright as the day for God. God will overcome the darkness, God will erase evil from the face of this earth.
God will erase evil from the earth. We don’t know how, we don’t know when, but we live in hope. Hope in God is our strength and that strength comes in many ways.
Baptism is one of those ways.
Today was supposed to be a baptism day. Today we were supposed to baptize Emmerson but unfortunately circumstances have postponed his baptism until late August.
This should have been a day of great joy and celebration not a day to remind us again of our groaning and of the evil in the world. While that may be the case, I look forward to the baptism of Emmerson because it gives me comfort and solace and gives me hope.
In baptism we are reminded that we are known by God. We remind ourselves that we are children of God and INHERITORS of eternal life.
Yes, we are children of a fallen humanity and yes that fallen humanity creates and perpetuates evil. But our fallenness, our darkness is not the last word of God. God promises us that God will liberate us from sin and death. Even in our baptisms, we acknowledge that one day the love of God will conquor all and rule all.
Such are the promises of baptism.
While we can’t baptize today, we can affirm our baptisms today to remind us of the love and grace of God. Today we affirm our baptisms to help us live in hope.
We acknowledge the darkness in the world, but we also acknowledge how God works and moves in the world and how God invites us to participate in rolling back the darkness. We work with God against evil. In the end, God will remove all evil, but in the meantime, we participate with God in rolling back evil, one little event, or act of kindness at a time.
Today we affirm our baptisms to help us live in hope.
Hope springs eternal. Thanks be to God.
Genesis 12: 1-4a
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17
John 3: 1-17
I was born on April 27, 1956. I say this, not that you might “do the math” and figure out my age, rather I say this to remind us of the human experience. I do not remember being born, but I was born and so, share in one of the most common human experiences; we all experience birth. In fact it is probably safe to say that other than death, birth is something which is experienced by every human being.
We have ALL experienced birth and we know that this cannot be duplicated. Of course, this brings us to the problem of today’s gospel reading from John, the 4th Evangelist. The problem with today’s gospel is that we cannot experience birth again.
Nicodemus saw the problem immediately.
Jesus is visited by Nicodemus, a man of great status. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Jewish council, a very powerful and influential man; even so, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. This Jesus may still be suspect and he certainly has his detractors; Nicodemus chose to stay anonymous and not be identified with Jesus.
Nicodemus knew, as everyone else did, that the signs and miracles Jesus was performing, were specifically pointing to the advent of God’s kingdom in their midst. It appeared that God’s presence was with Jesus and the kingdom of God was possibly being introduced through Jesus. How could one clearly see this coming kingdom of God? Are there additional signs and wonders that one could look for that would confirm Jesus was the Messiah and that God’s kingdom was being realized through Jesus? How could one ensure that they would be INCLUDED in the kingdom of God?
Nicodemus asks lots of questions and was totally unprepared for the answer. Jesus responds by saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."
Now, I put emphasis upon the phrase FROM ABOVE. In the process of translating ancient manuscripts from ancient languages like Greek, into English, the translator has options. The Greek word used by the 4th Evangelist is anothen, which can mean both “from above” and “again,” or “anew.” This text is often translated into English as BORN AGAIN, but I will opt for the translation, BORN FROM ABOVE.
It may sound like splitting hairs, but there IS a big, big difference.
Whether Nicodemus heard born again, or born from above, it suggested the same thing to him: one cannot repeat the birth process. And we would all agree with Nicodemus, no matter what the age. Robert Hoch, Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Worship, University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, IA wrote the following on the website Working Preacher (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979): “When I shared this text with my daughter, nine years old, the idea of being born from above seemed too abstract. But when I asked her if it was possible for her younger brother, three years old, to return to his mother’s belly in order to be born all over again, she laughed: “Nooooo ... he wouldn’t fit and plus he couldn’t see anything!”
We all laughed. And I think that small experiment in reader response criticism might lead me to prefer the more literal translation: it seems to make Nicodemus’ objections recognizable, at least to our nine-year-old.”
While we can all laugh at the musings of a 9 year old who laughs at born again, we need to understand that while Nicodemus felt he had identified the problem, he essentially did not UNDERSTAND Jesus. Nicodemus gets it wrong; it is not born again, it is born from above.
Some Biblical scholars suggest that one can harmonize the Greek language by saying that Jesus suggests we need to hear both meanings rather than either one or the other: ‘“To be born anothen’ speaks both of a time of birth (‘again’) and the place from which this new birth is generated (‘from above’)” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979).
And this is VERY important. Jesus suggests that one can only be a part of and experience the kingdom of God if one is born from above. From ABOVE.
The kingdom of God, the promises of God, comes to people who are “born from above,” “who are born of water and the spirit.”
What does this mean?
People do not work for this birth, people do not earn this born again experience. Instead, says Jesus, one is born again, from above through a specific event, an event that happens at the cross. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, he will suffer and die; he will sacrifice himself for the rest of humanity. The promise of God is that humanity will be saved; humanity will be redeemed and made holy and pure by God, through this event on the cross, through this death and sacrifice.
The promise is that God will give up God son, out of love, so that humanity will have the gift of life. Humanity will HAVE the gift of life, not judgement nor condemnation, but LIFE. God expects nothing back, expects no repayment. God does not expect humanity to earn this eternal life, but to simply have faith and trust in God’s promises.
From ABOVE? Yes, from above; in effect, God comes DOWN to humanity, comes deep into the human experience, to die and at the same time, to give life.
To emphasize this, Jesus speaks those famous and timeless words,
"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.”
God comes down, dies, rises again, through Jesus and gives us the gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Even here, this kind of birth from above seems rather impossible. We are a conditional people; we are very much a cause and effect type of being. We live our lives, using the words, “if,” and “then.” IF I do this..... THEN, that will happen.
WE live in an “if,” “then” world.
As an example, we say to ourselves, “IF I work hard enough, THEN I will have all the wealth, all the riches, all the things that I want.”
Or.... we say.... “IF I make a deal with God, IF I promise to keep all the laws and rules that God dictates, THEN I will surely get to heaven.”
That is the kind of birthing process we understand and to which we respond.
But that is not the birthing process that God gives to us. God want to give us more than we realize or maybe even desire. God is rich in promises. God wants God’s people to have the very best, the fullness of life. God knows that there is no humanly possible way that we can keep all the rules; there is no way we can cover all the “ifs.” We can’t keep all the laws and demands necessary to live clean and spotless lives. We are not perfect and God knows it.
God knows that we need to be born FROM ABOVE. So God births us from above.
The only thing WE can do, is trust and have faith. Even here, God knows that we struggle with faith and trust at times and even HERE, God promises to send God’s spirit to us, to open our eyes, to make us pure and holy, not through our own efforts, but through GOD’S efforts. Even here, God will give us the gift of faith, so that we can trust in this strange birthing process.
And through this strange birthing process, we are NEW! We are not DIFFERENT, we are NEW. As the Scriptures say, we are new CREATIONS. And then what?
Then we live this out. We find our expression, within the kingdom of God. We live in the kingdom; we find our space within the kingdom of God as we experience the gifts and blessings of God. We share those blessings of God, so that others will know that God through Jesus has birthed us all, from above. We live as if we have been reborn; WE ARE NEW.
Thanks be to God! Amen.