Sunday, March 20, 2011

Born from Above (sermon for the second Sunday in Lent)

Almost everywhere else in the world, people drive on the right, so that when you step into the road you look left. It's the way things are everywhere.

But not in England. In England everyone drives on the left. This means that when you step off the curb you have to look right. The British has found that foreign travelers were getting hit by cars so often because of this problem that they finally put two words on the street just in front of the curb, so that when you look down to step off you can see them. "Look right."*

When one steps off a curb in England, one has to resist what one knows in one's very bones. One has to do the opposite of what makes perfect sense.

So it is with the realm of God.

No, it doesn't have to do with driving right or left. Nor am I talking about political orientation. It has to do with a whole host of givens, a whole list of what the world takes as true, a whole system of what passes for wisdom that must be abandoned, left behind, even denied, when one is to enter the realm of God.

Now the way Nicodemus would tell his story is something like looking left when one crosses the street. It's the most natural story in the world. It makes perfect sense. It fits all the facts.

Nicodemus would say, probably in a kindly and self-deprecating way, but he would say it nevertheless, that he was a good Jew from a good family who worked hard all his life to do the right thing by God and neighbor. And because of all his hard work, God had rewarded him, he might say graciously and generously, but he'd still call it a reward, with a happy, prosperous life, and the opportunity, he would probably call it, to lead the Jewish people in a time of great trial and difficulty.

And Nicodemus would not be the only person who would tell that story. Probably most people in Jerusalem knew his name. In all likelihood everyone who was anyone would have heard Nicodemus preach at synagogue. They'd know about his achievements, his awards and honors. They'd know about his brilliantly shrewd business dealings and admire them. He was Joel Olsteen and Warren Buffet rolled into one.

The life of Nicodemus, his identity in the world, said a whole host of things about the world and about God. It said for example that God blessed the righteous. It said hard work pays off. It said that its entirely possible to be a shrewd and prosperous businessman in the Roman Empire and a blameless religious leader at the same time.

But that's the story if you're looking to the left. In the realm of the world, it's a true story. It's patently obvious that it's true. There's abundant evidence. There's a bank account with so much money. There's a curricula vitae with all the facts. There's family, friends, business associates, political leaders, who would all line up and give testimony.

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is told by John, doesn't look left, because it isn't told from the perspective of the world. The gospel looks right.

Looking right, we see a moral coward, a man who knows who Jesus is but is afraid to publicly acknowledge him, who sneaks off to see him by night. We see a man who has been made great not by God but by his own determined efforts. We see a man whose real motives are all caught up with how he looks and what religious piety gets him, namely importance, attention, and connections to all the right people.

Nicodemus was also almost certainly the kind of preacher who taught that Abraham was a hero because he had courage, because he was an adventurer. Abraham was the father of Israel because of what a great man he was. Why would Nicodemus preach thus? Because Nicodemus and those who followed him wanted to believe that their lives were really in their own hands, to do with as they pleased. And that made perfect sense, because it fit all the facts of the world as they knew it, and for that matter, as we do.

Of course, that's only if you are looking left. If you look right, Abraham was not a hero because of any innate specialness of his own. He was not particularly brave or noble or visionary. He had one thing that made him righteous in God's eyes, that made him worthy to be the father of Israel. And that was his faith in God's promises.

And at this juncture we need to remind ourselves that God called Abraham as the start of a project to save the world. He wasn't calling Abraham just to bless Abraham. He was calling Abraham to be the father of a people who would be God's instruments in saving a violent and bloody world. This is what Abraham believed in. This is what Abraham became passionate about. This is what we see if we look at Abraham from the perspective of the realm of God. Not a righteous man whom God was obligated to bless. But a blessed man whose faith earned him righteousness. This is what he looks like when we look right.

Abraham, as Paul says this morning, became the father of Israel because he believed God's promise, and decidedly not because he did anything. Whatever he did, he did through this remarkable power that comes through believing God's promises. Abraham didn't leave everything and go to this strange land because he was going to get a pot of gold, or even because he was going to get a son. He was going because he believed the vision of the great nation, the nation he would die without seeing himself, the nation that would redeem the world.

The faith that Jesus taught, the faith that Paul preached, was not something new. God's Spirit, God's wisdom and power, comes to those who believe in God's promises and enter into covenant relationship with God. All the blessing and protection and empowerment is not given in exchange for some goodness of ours. It is given to those who commit themselves to God's purposes with a passionate devotion.

But this is only if you look right.

The rest of the world looks left. And they see a God they can obligate to bless them with what they want. If I have this thing called faith, then God will protect me. And the faith I have is that God will. It's simple, obvious, straightforward. Anyone can understand it. Just like looking left.

The realm of the world is where we all live, and it has all kinds of rules, all kinds of basic principles, and for many people, religion is finding a way to conform to all these rules and principles, to accept reality on reality's terms, to live the way everyone else lives. To be respected in the community, to be healthy and prosperous, is the chief aim of religion. The values taught in the pulpit are of no use if they do not aid us to be happy and well.

We all want to believe we live in a just and moral world. And if we look to the left we do. But not if we look right. If we look right we see a depraved and dying world, cut off from God. But we also see Christ, and we see salvation from the realm of God.

Faith in God does not and cannot lead us to conforming to the world. To believe God's promise, to believe that God will inhabit us if we surrender ourselves to him, to believe that even as we emerge as children of the light we will be opposed and hated and persecuted, but that we will nevertheless participate in the realm of God, made real in the world, to trust in that promise, to rejoice in embracing it, well that doesn't make a lot of sense. That's, well, looking right, when everyone knows you have to look left.

Jesus, who lived out his ministry firmly on the basis of his trust in God's promises, will not end up looking good to his neighbors. He will end up looking like the worst kind of criminal, the most bankrupt kind of failure. But that's only if you keep looking left.

If you look right, he looks like a king.


*I'm grateful to Lucy Lind Hogan, a professor at Wesley Seminary, who came up with this "look right" analogy in an essay on Paul's letter to the Romans.

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