Sermon: "Listen"

17 February 2008

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
February 17, 2008

Second Sunday in Lent


Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Listening to the voice of God, and trusting it, has always been hard.  I’ve moved across country now twice because I believed God was calling me, and I can tell you, it is not easy.  It’s not easy to face the unknown and just trust that the Holy Spirit knows the way.  I don’t like to drive to Bethel without Mapquest directions – it’s hard to imagine the courage and faith it took for Abram and Sarai to set out for the Promised Land.  And think about those first settlers who came to New England in those little wooden sailing ships – they were willing to listen to God’s call to new life, and respond.  Are we?

I suspect most of us are more like Nicodemus – full of doubts and worries about the truth of God’s love for us.  I heard a great sermon on this Gospel text at my preaching workshop last week.  Leigh McCaffrey, who’s a pastor now in Norwalk, pointed out that aside from how Nicodemus (as a leader of the Pharisees) had to come to Jesus by night to protect his respectability – he might have come to Jesus at night because he just plain couldn’t sleep.  Maybe Jesus had so gotten under his skin with the scene he had made at the Temple earlier that day that Nicodemus was tossing and turning and writing in his mind a rebuttal to the charges of wrongdoing Jesus had implied when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers – which is the story that precedes this one in John’s Gospel.

 We can assume that Nicodemus, as a member of the Sanhedrin (the governing council of the Jews), had at least heard what Jesus had done.  He might have witnessed it himself.  At any rate, now he wanted to hear Jesus in person.  Maybe he wanted to hear the young rabbi from Galilee explain himself for the trouble he’d made.  Maybe he wanted to hear the secret of Jesus’s success – in spite of his lack of education or credentials.  We all know people like Nicodemus – educated, well-respected authorities – who would not come to a new young leader to listen and learn.  He would come, instead, with challenges and pronouncements – which may or may not be phrased in the form of a question. 

Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley has an annual lecture and worship series each January – it’s what my former seminary does for “homecoming,” since we don’t have a football team.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes pray for a ref to step in and intervene when there is “unnecessary roughness” from the floor – we all groan when some puffed up preacher comes to the microphone with his “question,” which is really a long, run-on sentence of instruction he needs to share, clothed in the form of a question.  This is how Nicodemus came to Jesus. You can almost hear him clear his throat and begin his speech.  “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.”  But Jesus was too quick. He knew how to deal with guys like Nicodemus. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, from the realm of the Spirit, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus is derailed.  His train of thought gets halted in its tracks.  Here he had come to try to talk some sense into Jesus about the political gaffe he had made by barging into the Temple the day before.  Here he had come to try to explain to this simple small-town carpenter why he was not qualified to be God’s Messiah.  But before he could get into his corrective agenda, this brash young rabbi interrupts him with some vague nonsense about Spirit.  Nicodemus had come to debate the law, to do respectable Bible study and prove Jesus wrong – and he couldn’t even get his argument started.  And you know it would have been a brilliant, well-thought-out thesis – to be admired for its academic elegance – because he’d been working on it that whole sleepless night.

Rabbi Harold Kushner defines idolatry not as the worship of statues but as our striving after our own worldly success.  Even our religion can become a human “work” of pride that distracts us from actually experiencing the presence of God’s awe-inspiring Spirit.  In his book, Who Needs God, Kushner writes, “What’s wrong with idol-worship, with worshipping human achievements as if they were the ultimate accomplishments, is not just that it is disloyal or offensive to God.  The sin of idol-worship is that it is futile.  Because it is an indirect way of worshipping ourselves, it can never help us grow, as the worship of a God beyond ourselves can help us grow.  As a result we find life flat and uninspiring, and don’t realize why. …Our souls are …starved for that sense of awe, that encounter with grandeur which helps to remind us of our real place in the universe….”

Nicodemus, having arrived at the top of his profession, didn’t know it consciously, but he probably was coming to Jesus looking for something missing from his life, something he couldn’t name.  But he suspected Jesus might have it.  Nicodemus was intellectually fulfilled and outwardly successful, but I suspect he was spiritually starved.  That great philosopher of religion, Joseph Campbell, warns us not to neglect, in our modern rationality, the place where the spirit dwells. He writes, “When you get to be older and the concerns of the day have been attended to, and you turn to the inner life – well, if you don’t know where it is or what it is, you’ll be sorry.”  Nicodemus was a teacher of the law – he knew quite well the ways of godly living, the proper rituals and prayers of his religion.  Perhaps Nicodemus had gone to Jesus to listen – but most likely he had expected to have his opinions confirmed.  Like most of us, he probably was not looking for new spiritual lessons that would lead him to be saved, or to be changed.  I doubt he had expected Jesus to challenge him to do something so radical as be born again. 

“Born again” is a loaded term for most of us because fundamentalists like to use it so much.  They often quote John 3:16, “God so loved the world,” and turn it into a scientific formula for salvation – profess aloud your belief in Jesus and win your get-in-to-heaven-free card.  But I believe John 3:16 is more descriptive than prescriptive.  “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” In other words, if we fail to believe that we are truly loved by God, then we get caught up in the pain and stress of our own vain striving.  The life-giving choice is to instead trust in the grace shown to us in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. 

What we are called to do in our churches, I believe, is to come together and listen carefully to God’s beautiful and unending love song to us – and then go out and preach and teach and live as best we can the good news of that eternal and steadfast love. It’s as if we are called to open as many doors and windows to the Holy Spirit as possible.  When we let the wind (or pneuma) of God inside our meetinghouse, the Holy Spirit can create a refreshing, and even enticing, climate of grace.  This is what I believe Jesus calls us to do when he says we need to be born anew, or “from above,” or from the Holy Spirit. The law confines and controls the soul.  The spirit of love sets it free.  In the presence of the Holy Spirit, under the influence of God’s amazing grace, we cannot help but be moved to sing out with joyful thanks and praise.  We cannot help but give as generously of our material resources. When the Spirit is alive within us, we cannot help but serve the Lord with gladness.

I’d like to close with a story with a man I knew who I’ll call “Bud.”  He was a good and brave man – a Korean War veteran who’d worked hard in business and, with his wife, raised a healthy family.  He was cheerful and confident and, like a lot of people, he came to church when he could, when business travel or sports events didn’t conflict.  That all changed when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  His wife was a more devoted Christian than he was, and when she turned to the church for help at this time of crisis, he did too.  Like Nicodemus, he was stumbling around in the dark looking for something beyond himself, but he couldn’t exactly admit it – or name what drove his new hunger.

He couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t called himself a Christian, but his wife’s faith had grown out of great trial and hardship in her youth.  She didn’t call herself “born again,” yet she had made the conscious choice to seek God out for help, to worship regularly, and to study scripture and give her time and talent and treasure in faithful church membership.  Our challenge, which we took on together as his wife and pastor, was to help Bud tune his heart to listen to the voice of God and learn to live in the world of Spirit that Jesus talks about.  Over time, he came to trust that the love which had held him from his birth would continue to hold him through his final weeks and into the life to come.  He was worried that his illness was taking away his ability to speak – but we reassured him that in the world of Spirit, words are rarely necessary.  And I can tell you that in his last hours, his eyes and the strong squeeze of his hand held in them all the faith and hope and love his family needed to hear – because with God’s help, they had all learned to listen.

Like Bud and like Nicodemus, we may come to church trying to find answers to questions we can’t even name – and all the time, the Spirit of the Living God is loving us, holding us, changing us.  Just being with Jesus, sometimes, is the destination, even if all we can do is sit with him in our darkness, and listen.  Jesus is the one who calls us into new life.  Our birth into the world of spirit is done for us by the blood and labor of another, Jesus Christ.  Jesus stays close to us, faithful midwife to our souls, and whispers words of grace and truth to help us along. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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