Monday, February 18, 2008

Feb. 17 sermon "Ready to Go"

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

I remember when I felt a calling into the ministry. I had grown up in a minister’s family, so the terrain wasn’t unfamiliar for me. The calling was nourished through the efforts of the church. I had been to a national event where attendees explored a calling into ministry held in Los Angeles of all places.
The calling was a collection of experiences, really, and I’ve shared some of those experiences before. When the calling into ministry crystallized for me, it was in a hotel room in Dallas that I was sharing with my dad. He was a DS in Little Rock recruiting black ministers at a conference there to come to Arkansas, and I was a youth minister at Bartlesville attending a week long school for Youth Ministry at SMU. When my father suggested to me that ministry was a profession where I could utilize and pursue all of the various passions that I had for teaching and organizing and visioning, I heard the idea again as if for the first time. The invitation to consider ministry had a freshness to it. So, I followed. I went home to Bartlesville and talked about it with Lara, and then began doing the various things that our denomination requires of a candidate for ministry.
I applied to seminaries, and Lara applied to post-doctoral internships, and we left it in God’s hands. Lara’s process of application left less room for “choice” than did my seminary application process. She applied and interviewed at several locations around the country, and then ranked her preferences. The internship sights ranked the candidates, and wherever one was “matched” was where one went for their internship. And lo, it came to pass that Lara was matched at her first choice at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and the one seminary to offer me a full scholarship was Claremont School of Theology.
I remember envisioning I-40 as a Yellow Brick Road of sorts, that God had his hand in our journey and would give us guidance along the way. It was the kind of shepherding that even though I had heard the stories all my life, I didn’t realize I could actually depend on from God. I didn’t even panic when our U-haul broke down outside of Elk City!
Abram was called to go. God didn’t give the destination, He just called and asked if Abram was ready to go. God asked Abram to leave behind his country and clan and start over again. That is the theme of Lent. Are we ready to go? All of our self-examination should be oriented toward this question.
There is a promise involved. This is called the Abrahamic covenant. God does not give instructions for his journey, just a destination and a promise that God will make Abram great. Likewise we can’t rely on scripture to give us a detailed roadmap—instead what we find there is a promise of inheritance. But for this inheritance to be claimed, we must leave behind our self-constructed inheritances and reputations. We must not rely on our own efforts, but must learn to trust God’s promises.

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about a journey as well. It is a journey from one state of being to another.
The Greek word anõthen can mean either "from above" or "again." Nicodemus takes it to mean "again," whereas Jesus has the first meaning in mind as is evident from the ensuing conversation. Nicodemus asks how anyone can be born again after having grown old. "Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?"
John is fond of having Jesus say something, only to be misunderstood by the hearers, which then provides an opportunity for Jesus (or John) to explain the true meaning of what was said. Nicodemus grossly misunderstands what Jesus has said. Yet what Nicodemus says is utterly true on another level. One cannot start all over again. In a crassly literal sense, it is unthinkable to reenter the mother’s womb and be born again.
But even when understood metaphorically, a new beginning is not too likely in human terms. Can there be newness of life? Can hereditary characteristics be changed? Can old habits be broken? As long as one thinks in human terms as Nicodemus does, the possibilities are slim. But Jesus offers another possibility: one can be born from above, or as v. 5 states it, one can be born of "water and Spirit.
Are new beginnings possible? Can human beings be transformed? Can an older person like Nicodemus find spiritual renewal? The answer, ironically in this case, is that a miracle from heaven is needed! "You must be born from above." Human self-improvement and determination will not suffice. Scrupulous, Pharisaic adherence to the law will not do it. How can one experience a new beginning after a lifetime of entrenched habits, solidified routines, and hardened character, not to mention hereditary and genetic traits? Can such a person experience the renewing power of the kingdom of God and be transformed by it? Apparently that is how John’s community has understood the message of Jesus and is bearing witness to that message.
So, Abram is given the promised land, and that is one way of understanding God’s promise—a place which is physically bound and identifiable. Jesus speaks of another destination where we are said to have our “second birth:” the Kingdom of God.
One who enters the kingdom of God by being born of the Spirit has experienced the reign of God, which cannot be experienced by someone who is simply born of the flesh. This is in keeping with John 1:12, which states that those who have received the power to become children of God were born "not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God." This involves a complete reorientation of one’s goals, desires, affections, values, and the direction of life. Everything is oriented toward the kingdom of God as the center from which life is lived out.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Eugene Peterson translates Paul to speak of this journey or shift in orientation as relocating to a new continent. He says in chapter 6 1 So what do we do? Keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving? 2 I should hope not! If we've left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? 3 Or didn't you realize we packed up and left there for good? That is what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace - a new life in a new land! 4 When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. 5 Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-sovereign country. 6 Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life - no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: 7 8 If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. 9 We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. 10 When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. 11 From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did. 12 That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don't give it the time of day. 13 Don't even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time - remember, you've been raised from the dead! - into God's way of doing things. 14 Sin can't tell you how to live. After all, you're not living under that old tyranny any longer. You're living in the freedom of God.
So, the life of faith is not a destination. It is the journey itself. God calls and then continues to call, always unveiling more and more grace. God’s call sometimes makes things become clear, and it sometimes stirs up the waters and causes us to be conflicted. But if we keep journeying on, trusting in God’s promises, we will not fall.

No comments:

Post a Comment