Christianity 201

April 2, 2014

Dumbest. Question. Ever.

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When Nicodemus comes to Jesus with questions, Jesus gives him a statement that then prompts one of the many comedic moments in the Bible:

John 3:1 (NLT) There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee. After dark one evening, he came to speak with Jesus. “Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again,  you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?”

Seriously, Nicodemus, do you really think that’s what he meant?  Well, we have to forgive Nick, because Jesus is introducing a new terminology, and whether you prefer born again, or perhaps born from above, the fact remains that new birth was a foreign concept.

Why does Nick need a new birth.  Interestingly, the answer to John 3:4 is found in I John 3:4 —

I John 3:4 (NIV) Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.

Sin has separated us from God, so we need a cleansing from sin so complete and thorough that we are no longer the same person we were.

Titus 3 combines the elements of washing and new birth into a single verse:

Titus 3:5 (NIV)…He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit

For Nicodemus this is too much to take in. Remember, he’s never heard this type of terminology before.

“How are these things possible?” Nicodemus asked.

The narrative ends with Jesus amplifying this in the familiar words of verses 16-21, but we don’t know anything about Nick’s response. But we meet up with Nicodemus — a character exclusive to John’s gospel — in chapter 7

49 This foolish crowd follows him, but they are ignorant of the law. God’s curse is on them!”

50 Then Nicodemus, the leader who had met with Jesus earlier, spoke up. 51 “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” he asked.

We don’t hear a response from Jesus, instead the crowd interrupts as the dramatically scripted Voice Bible makes clear:

Pharisees (ignoring Nicodemus’s legal point): 52 Are you from Galilee too? Look it up for yourself; no real prophet is supposed to come from Galilee.

Finally, we meet Nick for the last time in chapter 19:

38 Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. 39 With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. 40 Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth. 

Clearly, at this point, Nicodemus is a disciple; a follower. Because common names existed, John goes out of his way in chapter 7 and chapter 19 to say, in effect, ‘Make no mistake, this is the same guy.’  I think that’s important because of the way we’re left hanging at the end of John 3. John knows who Nicodemus is and what becomes of him, but rather than telegraph that early on his gospel, he brings Nick in and out of the story culminating with the concern that Jesus’ body be properly anointed for burial.

But Nick’s “dumb” question sparks an answer from Jesus that also includes verse 16, probably the most-known and most-quoted verse in all the New Testament.

So what’s become of your story? Following your initial encounter with God, long after your initial questions, where you do return to the center of God’s story? In what places does your story intersect with His story? At what point in your life would you say you experienced the new birth?


 

Go deeper: Father Dave offers what I believe to be a sermon transcript based on the late night conversation with Jesus and Nicodemus.

 

November 30, 2011

Advent: It Begins

It seems increasingly that Evangelicals are employing matches, cigarette lighters and fireplace starters on Sunday mornings to light candles in celebration of the season of Advent, a part of the Christian calendar more unfamiliar to some until recently.

While last Sunday was “the first Sunday of Advent,” the season of Advent begins for others with the first of December with the start of opening the little windows on the Advent calendar, another seasonal custom heretofore foreign to Evangelicals until recent years.

The blog St. Mark’s Lutheran Church kicks us off today:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…Isaiah 64:1

The Christian season of Advent begins with this plea from the prophet Isaiah. Sitting in exile in a strange country and feeling estranged from his God, the prophet prays: tear open the skies and make your presence felt, O God. Break the chains of your people and bring us peace and healing and freedom.

This prayer prepares us for the coming of the Christ-child. The heavens would be torn apart but not as the prophet had imagined. Instead of an eruption of heavenly wrath, complete with shaking mountains and nations trembling before the presence of God, there was an angel choir on Bethlehem’s hillside. Heaven had opened and a child had been born – just a child whose birth cries were lost amid the lowing cattle and the braying ass.

This Advent text reminds us of two wonderful promises of God. The first is that God does answer prayer. The deepest hopes and needs and dreams of our hearts move God.  At the heart of Christmas is the message that God’s heart is moved for us – not that our hearts are first moved for God. This is a wonderful mystery so remarkably demonstrated in the celebration of our Lord’s birth. That this should be true; how this can be true is inexplicable – but true.

The second promise is that when God comes, it is always in a way that is redemptive; God brings shalom – the healing peace for which the prophet prayed and for which our world yearns. This is the great surprise of God: God tears the heavens not just in judgment but in love… and a child is born who will rend the veil of death.

So, like the prophet, we pray and wait. Come Lord Jesus, come. Amen

An excerpt from a piece at Happy Catholic

… what continues to hit me, hard … was the picture of perfection that is painted for us by Isaiah.

A celebratory feast for all of us.

No more sadness or death for any nation because the veil is removed. That’s what we hope to find in prayer and at Mass, a time when that veil between God and us is lifted just a little. But Isaiah tells us that it will be permanently removed for all of us. Every person, every nation.

It will be as it should have been from the beginning.

During Advent we are to look for the two comings of Christ. We look for his Incarnation as a baby among us. We look for his second coming. For the first time, I really caught a sense of just what that second coming means. For all of us. For every person, every nation. I can look forward with great anticipation, thanks to that moment when the veil lifted for a second so I got the bigger picture from this reading.

Come, Lord Jesus.

From the blog, A Seat at the Table

Advent is always a new beginning. It is actually a beginning and an ending. We are beginning a new life with Christ at the center, a life that is full with Christ. We are leading and ending an old life. This must be so. There must be this movement…. We need to relinquish and empty ourselves, so that the newness Christ brings can enter and have a place to stay. We as Advent pilgrims on the way to the manger — to the great newness that the child brings — must allow ourselves to pass through the desert where John is preaching.

Paul H. Harkness, “Our Journey to the Cradle,” 4
in People’s Companion to the Breviary

This one is from a blog, Thinking Outloud (a similar but different name than my other blog)

…Advent marks the beginning of the church’s annual liturgical review of the great stories of the faith.

Traditionally it starts with the prophets, who warn that God is among us and will show her/his self even more clearly in the days to come. Get ready! they shout. I’m always puzzled at this exhortation. How can a human being get ready for God?

It’s this great human gift and problem of looking into the future. As far as we know, other mammals aren’t able to imagine the future in the same way we do. They live their lives much more in the “now” than in the “then.” But humans are so in love with the future, we think anything is possible there. The allure of a future we can imagine makes us all less attached to the present, I fear. We put off anything we can. The present? Well, we’re just passing through.

The answer for me is the spiritual skill of waiting. It’s some of the toughest emotional work we do, holding ourselves in the present while expecting something in the future. It’s not about gifts and presents, I think. It’s about waiting for God to be fully revealed to us and to a hurting world.

I will be thinking about Waiting this Advent. How hard it is, why it’s important to grow that emotional muscle, what living in the present while expecting the future feels like. I think it’s the central work of faith, managing the now and then. A belief that both the present and the future deeply matter. 

This one has appeared twice at Gerry Straub’s blog:

“Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” -Thomas Merton

Since the tenth century, Advent has marked the beginning of the Church year in the West. Today, Advent is hardly noticed, rarely observed, obliterated by a shopping tsunami. Advent is not four weeks of shopping for Christmas. The word “advent” literally means “arrival.” Advent is a time for being awake and aware, a time for longing and waiting, a time for preparing for the coming of Christ. Jesus tells us to light our lamps and wait for the Master. Our waiting should be an active not passive waiting. During Advent we get ready to become active participants in God’s incarnation by creating peace in our spiritual, social and personal relationships. In Advent we are asked to look at our lives, and if we see something amiss, we need to correct it. We need to turn our swords into plowshares. Our lives need to be transfigured into vessels of God’s love and compassion. Advent is a time to renounce our clinging to false securities so our eyes will not be so blinded that we cannot see the arrival of Christ in our midst. Jesus may come to you today in the form of a beggar.

We have become so familiar with the Nativity story that it is almost rendered impotent in its ability to speak to us. Advent invites us to look carefully at that cold night long ago, when there was no room at the Inn for Mary and Joseph, as we prepare to open the doors of our hearts to the coming of the Messiah.

Part of the power of the Christmas story is that it describes beautifully the spiritual birth of Christ in the heart of a mystic. In metaphorical language, Christ is born in the poor manger of our own empty hearts, the poor manger inside us, emptied of all ego, of all clinging neediness. Advent is the time of cleaning, of emptying ourselves of ourselves (and anything else) to make room for the birth of Christ. Swept clean and empty, it is the poorest, most humble place on earth and yet the perfect place for the birth of God. St. Francis and St. Clare understood this living story so well and embraced it so fully that they indeed became human vessels of the Christ child.

The best way to celebrate Christmas is to actually experience the birth of Christ within us in a deeper way than ever before. In order to do so, we need to make the inner crib ready for this new life by eliminating all the noise and inner clutter that would crowd Him out. The best way to do this is to set aside time for silence, prayer and intentional love and reverent kindness.

Jesus is coming and will soon knock on the door of your heart. Get ready–that is the message of Advent. And it is a message we need to repeatedly hear throughout the year. God’s coming transcends past and future, is more than a past event or a future expectation…God’s coming is now, this very moment. God is coming. Is my heart ready to become God’s dwelling place? I’m afraid to answer.

I wanted the last word to belong to Clark Bunch at The Master’s Table

…One aspect of studying prophesy is to realize that just as Jesus fulfilled all of the prophecies of his first coming he will someday fulfill the New Testament prophecies of his second coming.  The incarnation of the God’s Son is the greatest event in history… so far.

In the Parable of the Tenants Jesus relates the story of a land owner who leased out a vineyard to some wicked men.  They either brutalized or killed the messengers he sent to collect the rent.  Finally he sent his son, reasoning that he would be respected.  They killed the man’s own son, thinking if the heir were dead they would inherit the land.  The first century audience responded that those evil men would suffer horribly when the landlord returned.  Jesus told this parable against the leaders of the Jewish faith.  Just as their ancestors killed the prophets – God’s messengers – so they were about to kill God’s own Son.  Further, he said the Kingdom would be taken from them and given to others, namely the faithful believers among the Gentiles.

In the Old Testament, the coming of the Messiah was foretold.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son.”  God is not a man that he should lie.  He is faithful and just concerning his promises.  These are scriptural truths to consider as we honor the waiting for Christ’s first coming and eagerly await the second.

Persons wanting to discover more of the deeper implications of incarnation have no shortage of online material to spark their discovery.  Each day between now and December 25th, thousands of new pieces are added.  Just do a Google blog search (type “advent” as your search criteria) or a WordPress search, then prayerfully ask God to guide you to some articles that will enrich your appreciation of the season.

November 23, 2010

Faith in a Prayer

The personal problem I have with The Sinner’s Prayer is that I spent an additional 14 years of my life lost because my trust was in what I did rather than in what Jesus did. I trusted in the fact that I repeated those words rather than the fact that Jesus, God in the flesh, was crucified, buried and raised three days later. Though I had repeated those words, my trust was no more in Christ than it was before I said them. My trust was right where it began…in myself.

The “sinner’s prayer” is probably one of the great Evangelical add-ons; one that exists even as Evangelicals deplore the additional doctrines and practices of Roman Catholics.

The article linked to here is the first of two parts written by Eric Douglas, a pastor in the U.S. Check this out.