Having been a pastor for more than 40 years, and having preached hundreds of sermons by now, I still do not know how a sermon “works”.
There are times when I feel I have done the best I could—do the research and word searches, read preaching resources, have the right blend of humor and drama, and ensure it only lasts 12 minutes.
Then Sunday comes, and you’re about six minutes into this gem of a sermon, and you look around at the congregation, and see some taking a nap, others playing with their cell phones. The sermon just failed to connect.
However, there are times when I have a busy week, full of meetings, folks in the hospital, vigil services to lead. Then Saturday comes, and there is not much time to prepare the sermon. So then I pray the nice folks in the pews will suddenly develop temporary amnesia, and will love me anyway. After the service, I stand at the doorway, prepared to say, “Well, everybody has an off day now and again.”
But then someone grabs my hand, his eyes are all misty-looking, and he’s having trouble getting his words out. Finally, he manages to mumble, “You don’t know what those words in your sermon meant to me, Pastor.” His wife right behind him says, “Pastor, I’m going to the hospital on Tuesday for some surgery. After that sermon, I’m ready for anything.”
We pastors try our best to prepare a sermon that can speak to the congregation, that can give insights into how we live our lives serving God.
Today, I struggle with the passage from John. We have heard this part of the scripture many times, and I am sure many of you heard sermons of John 3:16. Nevertheless, I hope that with the help of the Holy Spirit, it will speak to each one of us today.
Late one night, a leader of the synagogue, a learned man named Nicodemus, came to visit Jesus, and said, “Teacher, I have seen you do some pretty impressive things. I think I understand most of what you’ve been saying. But what I want to know is, how do I get into the kingdom of God?”
Nicodemus had been listening to Jesus. But the more he thought he understood, the less he knew.
Outwardly, Nicodemus is the picture of confidence and self-assurance. The first words out of his mouth give him away: “Rabbi, we know….” “Let us have a teacher-to-teacher discussion here, Jesus.”
What exactly does Nicodemus know? He thinks he has God all figured out, and nicely packaged in a neat little box, how God can and cannot act in the world. He thinks he knows about people, and knows that they are born to grow old and die.
But something he heard Jesus say, or saw Jesus do caused him to wonder if he truly understands everything he thinks he knows about God.
The writer of the Gospel of John portrays Nicodemus as a sincere devout man who obeys the law, and exercises responsible leadership in his community. But at the level of faith, his vision is blurred, he cannot see things as they are in the eyes of God. So he comes to Jesus for help in understanding this mysterious kingdom Jesus had been preaching about.
Nicodemus comes in from the dark, seeking more light. “What do I have to do?”
And Jesus responds with surprising images. Re-birth. Spirit. Wind. “You want to get into the kingdom of heaven, Nicodemus? All you have to do is be born from above.”
In fairness to Nicodemus, the Hebrew words for “again” and “from above” may have sounded a lot alike. And they were probably speaking in low tones, maybe even whispering. So when Jesus said “born from above”, Nicodemus thought Jesus said “born again”.
Nicodemus asked, “How can an old man be born again? Is that some roundabout way of saying that there’s just no hope for an old man?”
“No, no,” said Jesus, “I did not say ‘born again’. I said, ‘If you want to get to heaven, you have to be born from above, from the Spirit.’”
Jesus said to Nicodemus that life in the kingdom is a gift given by God, from above. You do not earn it. You do not even work for it. This is given to you because of God’s love. No set of rules, no formula is going to get you there.
By the way, the ‘you’ here is in the plural so what Jesus most likely said was, “You all must be born from above.” This is not just a patch-up work but a total overhaul.
Like Nicodemus, we want to know what we can do to enter the kingdom of God. Is there a technique that produces the best results? Is there a website I can visit with illustrated directions? What kind of good work do I have to do?
But Jesus said it is a gift because of God’s love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
There are times when you come to church on a Sunday and you didn’t want to be here, when your mind is somewhere else, and to be honest about it, maybe your heart was somewhere else, too.
But then during the worship, in the hymns or the prayers, or as you eat the bread and drink from the cup when you take the communion, or even in the sermon, something gets hold of you, some mysterious force that somehow lifts a burden from your shoulders, or helps you understand something that had been puzzling you. And by the time you leave the church, your step is a little lighter than when you came to church.
Now you ask yourself, “What brought that about?” I cannot explain it. Or maybe I do know, but I don’t quite understand it.
This is the good news I bring for us today: any person can be “born from above”.
One need not be haunted by mistakes of the past, or fears of future judgment. One can be marvelously fulfilled, and vibrantly creative today. You feel that something happened that changed your life, and now look at life from a different perspective. I cannot explain it differently except that the Holy Spirit is responsible for the change. And that takes faith on our part.
We had this Bible study once, and we were talking about the laws that God gave to Moses. The passage mentioned the consequences if we fail to follow the laws. And in many of them, death is the consequence of wrong choices.
One of the participants said, “If you think what Jesus did on the cross for us, you can just imagine the big sacrifice of Jesus dying for us. We could have been punished by death, if not for him. We should be truly grateful.”
In the whole Bible, John 3:16 concisely outlines God’s relationsh with all of humanity. God’s gift of love and salvation for all life, forever and ever.
Dr. Van Tibus and Pastor Iris Tibus explained it well in the manual for leaders and facilitators for the University Christian Life Emphasis Month. It’s the Gospel in miniature! “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Jesus crucified is the big story in the Bible, God’s final word. It is a word of forgiveness and grace and love. It is not a story about temptation and turmoil of thought. It is more than a story of screw-ups or sadness. It is a love story that ends in amazing grace and joy to the world.
However, it takes faith on our part, and a lot of risk. That is what Jesus meant when he said you must be born from above.
Birth is an inherently risky procedure. Ask any pregnant woman entering the labor and delivery room. Despite the advances in prenatal care, despite the wonders of medical science, every expectant mother knows that birth is a risky adventure. Giving birth requires commitment and giving all that one has.
With that in mind, Jesus tells Nicodemus that being part of the kingdom of God demands giving all that we have. No one can be part of the kingdom of God unless one is ready for commitment. We must be willing to let the old life go, and trust in God’s love.
We must take the risk to start again. Taking risks is the only way we grow — not only in business but in our personal and spiritual lives, as well.
Faith and risk are intertwined. It is only when we stretch the horizons of our lives, when we venture away from the comfortable to follow Christ that we experience God’s reign in our hearts. That takes faith.
We must risk a new beginning. We must trust ourselves to a new birth in God to truly be part of God’s reign. As long as you hold on to the old, as long as you are afraid to follow, as long as you are unwilling to risk your life for God, you will not be part of God’s great adventure.
That adventure is all around us. For instance, when we ask God to open doors for us to make a difference in the lives of others around us, despite our fear of where that may lead us, that’s spiritual adventure.
When we talk to someone about our faith, despite our fear of what they may think of us because of it, that’s a spiritual adventure. When we think enough about God to want to be in worship despite the inconvenience it may cause us, that’s spiritual adventure.
When we leave the smooth, paved road, and venture into those unmarked trails is the time when faith becomes real — the new birth that Jesus has promised us.
Faith means being born again as a new person, leaving the comfortable behind to adventure with God. God calls us to follow Jesus on unknown paths. God invites us to venture forth in faith beyond the ordinary and mundane.
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