Lent Week 4: Blind Religion

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As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

“How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

“Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

“Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.”

Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”

Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.

–John 9:1-41

Every once in a while you have occasions where current events and the liturgy intersect quite nicely.  This week is one of those times.  More on this later.

For those of you who are just joining in, we are in the middle of a season called Lent.  This is the six weeks and change before Easter.  This is forty days but it’s really forty-six days but it’s really forty days because the Sundays of Lent are “free days” which don’t really count as part of the Lenten season.  OK.  I know.  That can be extremely confusing to someone who hasn’t grown up in a liturgical Christian tradition and isn’t used to all of this.

At any rate, we are now in the fourth week of Lent.  Which means we have two more weeks to go until Easter.

One of the traditional readings for the fourth week of Lent is a story which many of you probably know quite well, the story of Jesus healing a man born blind.  We begin with Jesus and his disciples going along, and they come across a blind man.  John tells us that this man was blind from birth.

Naturally, the disciples’ first reaction is that somebody had to have sinned in order for the man to be in this state.  Either he sinned and fell into disfavor with God, or his parents or grandparents or somebody further up the family tree sinned and brought the whole family into God’s disfavor.  That’s just how first century Jews thought about such things.

Jesus is quick to set them straight.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:3)  Surprising.  Nobody sinned here.  God didn’t cause this, but He is going to use it.  To first century Jews, such a view of things was completely unheard of.

Next Jesus smears some mud on the man’s eyes, and has him go wash up in a pool called Siloam, which, as John informs us, means “Sent”.  There is a connection with the creation story here.  God created man out of mud, and now Jesus, the Creator in the flesh, is fixing what was wrong with this man, creating sight in him with a little dab of mud.

So the man returns seeing for the first time in his life, but Jesus is nowhere to be seen.  Now things are about to get real.

You see, Jesus did this on a Sabbath, as John informs us.  Why?  It isn’t that he was a Sabbath-breaker.  He was always in the synagogue on the Sabbath.  And those meals he was always eating with sinners and tax collectors?  A lot of them were probably Sabbath meals.  Jesus kept the Sabbath perfectly, both in letter and in spirit.  What he didn’t keep were all the crazy religious traditions that had sprung up around keeping the Sabbath.

When God removed Israel from the Promised Land and sent them into exile in Babylon, one of the issues involved was that they had a shitty record of keeping the Sabbath.  There were a whole lot of other commandments which the Israelites did not keep, but this was one of the biggies.  When Israel returned home, they vowed that things would be different.  Never again would they stray from God’s commands, and so provoke His anger against them.

The Pharisees, who came to power during this time, came up with all sorts of rules and traditions to ensure that the law would be kept.  Concerning the Sabbath, they spelled out 32 specific kinds of work which you were not supposed to do.  One of these was kneading clay.  This had to do with making bricks.  In Egypt the Israelites spent centuries as slaves making bricks to support the Pharaohs’ grandiose building projects.  The whole point of the Sabbath and the not-making-bricks thing was that God has delivered them and now they get to rest from all that.  But in the alternate universe in which the Pharisees lived, simply spitting on the ground and making mud was kneading clay, and therefore work, and therefore breaking the Sabbath.

So part of Jesus’ point in doing this miracle on a Sabbath is to tweak the noses of Israel’s supremely misguided religious elite.

Of course there is an investigation.  According to Mosaic law, if you had some illness which necessitated that you remain outside the camp (i. e. leprosy) and you were healed, you would show yourself to the chief priests and they would examine you and give the OK for you to come back into the community.  When the formerly blind man’s family brought him before the Pharisees, they were complying with this part of the Mosaic law.

But when it comes out that this was done on a Sabbath, things begin to get real.  Initially the Pharisees cannot accept that the person who did this is Jesus.  He doesn’t keep the Sabbath, he must be a sinner.  What does the formerly blind man think?  Here is how this parses out for the Pharisees:  God only works through those who keep His Law.  This guy does not keep the Sabbath, ergo he does not keep the Law, ergo he cannot possibly be from God.  So he can’t possibly be Jesus; he has to be somebody else.  This man had to have been mistaken.  But no, he insists, this really was Jesus.

Failing there, the Pharisees haul in the man’s parents.  Surely this guy was a look-alike.  Surely he hadn’t really been blind.  The parents insist that he was their son, and that he had in fact been born blind.  But that is as far as they are willing to go.  They have no idea how he came to see, and they are not going to talk about it.  You see, the Pharisees had pre-decided that Jesus was not the Christ and that anyone who dared to confess him as such was to be put out of the synagogue.  The parents had heard about this, and they were not going there.

So they call the formerly blind man in a second time, put him under oath, and demand that he deny Christ.  They want to make a liar out of him; liars never tell the same story twice.  But not only does his story check out, he shows that he gets it:  “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:33)  Along the way, he tweaks the Pharisees’ noses: “Do you want to become his disciples too?”  The Pharisees are not too crazy about that.  They remind him that he was born in utter sin (presumably because he was born blind), insult him, and finally throw him out of the synagogue.

How blind religion can be, with all its rules and do’s and don’ts.  I promised you that we would get back to current events intersecting with the liturgy, and now, here we are.

Last week World Vision’s US office announced that it would, in limited circumstances, hire gays.  Your reaction was immediate and visceral.  Some of you, around two thousand or so, who had previously been World Vision supporters, pulled your support.  Others of you took to the airwaves, the blogosphere, and social media to denounce World Vision in the strongest possible terms.  World Vision heard you; in just two days they reversed this decision.  Hope you’re happy.

Everyone knows that gays are sinners, and sinners of the worst kind.  Any so-called Christian organization that hires them is not doing the work of God, and God is not pleased with them.  Anyone who supports such an organization is opposing God and perpetuating sin of the worst possible kind.  Such thinking is no different from the Pharisees who believed that God only works through those who keep His Law and that anyone who healed on the Sabbath was a Sabbath-breaker and a sinner.

So many people in our day and age say things like “I’m spiritual but not religious”.  Meaning:  I respect and appreciate God things but God people give me the willies.  Who can blame them?  I sure can’t.  Many young people are turned off to Christianity because of the way in which we evangelicals engage with the gay community.  This World Vision thing just dumped several truckloads of nitroglycerine on that fire.

Our ways of being religious get in the way of people seeing Jesus.  This is why so many people say “I’m spiritual but not religious”.  But Jesus operates in complete freedom from all of that.  Sure, there are God’s laws, and Jesus kept them perfectly.  But he will not allow himself to be subjugated to man-made religious tradition masquerading as the law of God.

Yes, the man born blind was steeped in sin from birth; the Pharisees had that right.  So are each and every one of us.  So were the Pharisees.  But they couldn’t and wouldn’t recognize that; nor would they recognize the rescue from sin that Jesus offers to each and every one of us.  Their religious rules wouldn’t permit it.

We now return to our story.  The formerly blind man has been booted out of the synagogue.  Jesus hears of it, and goes to find him.  Notice that.  He did not find Jesus.  Though he could now see just fine, he had never laid eyes on Jesus and did not have a prayer of knowing what he looked like or how to find him.  Jesus had to find him.

And the man believes.  He trusts Jesus at his word that he is the man who gave him sight.  This is what Jesus is to all of us.  To those of us who think that we can see just fine, thank you very much, Jesus is a light that blinds.  To those of us who are honest enough to admit that we are blind, Jesus gives us sight.

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Lent Week 3: A Meeting in the Noonday Sun

lent05This week we stay in John.

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

–John 4:1-26

She lived in a town called Sychar, in the heart of Samaria.  Samaria was right smack in the middle of things; if you wanted to go from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, you had to go through Samaria.

Samaria had lots of historic sites.  There was Mount Gerazim, one of the two mountains the Israelites passed between as they entered the Promised Land.  You can read about this in Deuteronomy 27:9-26 and Joshua 8:30-35.  There was Joseph’s field given by Jacob and Jacob’s well.  But having all the historic sites is no guarantee of orthodoxy; Samaria was also the site of Israel’s greatest idolatry.

The Jews hated the Samaritans–so much that they avoided Samaria if they could at all help it.  Anytime they needed to get from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, they would cross the Jordan and detour via the east side.  The feeling was probably mutual on the part of the Samaritans.  Jews saw the Samaritans as half-breeds–people who intermarried with foreigners out of convenience and disrespect for the ways of God.  The Samaritans worshiped on a different mountain.  They used a bastardized version of the books of Moses.

So here she was, at the well in the hot of the noonday sun.  You didn’t come for water in the middle of the day unless you had a really good reason.  Lugging that water jug all the way up to the well and then all the way back home was hard enough work; why compound it by dealing with the heat of the sun also?  Most of the town’s women drew water in the evening, when there was still enough light to see where you were going but the heat of the sun was much less fierce.

And therein was the problem.  You see, this woman had some baggage.  She lived over in the seedy part of town, you know, the part where you just don’t go at night.  She had had five husbands; each one had divorced her and cut her loose.  She was now “living in sin”, as we would say, with another man.  This was simply the least worst option for her as she had no honorable means to support herself and the rabbis would not grant her another marriage.  They had been lenient enough to grant her numbers four and five.

All the other women in town knew all about her baggage.  And they would all be there at the well in the evening.  None of them knew her story.  None of them knew what life was like for her.  But that didn’t stop them from formulating their own judgments and expressing those judgments in hushed tones that were just loud enough for her to hear–and probably intended to be just loud enough for her to hear–whenever she came to the well.  If she had to deal with that or deal with the noonday sun, she preferred to deal with the noonday sun.  At least the sun didn’t gossip about you behind your back.

But on this day, things were a little different.  There was a man sitting there at the well.  A man who wasn’t from around here.  Now in that culture, Jews just didn’t associate with Samaritans.  (We knew that already.)  And men didn’t associate with women.  Women were viewed as second-class citizens and there were all sorts of complicated cultural protocols that you went through to arrange a marriage and you just didn’t step outside of that.

But Jesus didn’t care about such things.  (You knew that already too.)  And so he asked this Samaritan woman for a drink.  Really he didn’t need it, but when you’re hanging out at a well, that’s as good a conversation starter as any.

Now in John, Jesus is all over the place.  He will start in one place and then quickly jump to something completely different.  We saw this last week with Nicodemus, and we see it again here.  After the woman expresses her incredulity that Jesus would ask her for a drink or even talk to her in the first place, he starts talking about living water.  “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

The woman obviously is thinking of well water.  This kind of water requires work.  Hard work.  “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”  But Jesus is talking about something completely different.  Water that bubbles up from inside of you and never runs dry.  You can drink this water and never be thirsty again.  This water does not come from Jacob’s well or from any other source here on earth.  This water flows from the Lord, the fountain of Israel.  It comes from God, like the water from the rock that Moses struck in the wilderness.  Paul ties this rock to Christ:  “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Now the woman’s interest is caught.  “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”  Well, not quite, but close.  She is still thinking well water and not having to come up to Jacob’s well every day.  She still doesn’t have a clue who Jesus is, other than some stranger claiming to offer her water that is better than what she can get at the well.

“Go, call your husband.”  Ah, now the truth comes out.  Jesus doesn’t go there in order to shame her or accuse her, as the other women of the town would, only to show her that he is much more than anything she had ever suspected up to that point.  He is greater than Moses or Jacob or Abraham.  She senses that he is some kind of prophet.  Good.  Maybe he can settle that age-old question that had divided Jews and Samaritans:  Which mountain?  But worship is not a matter of which mountain when the Son of God is standing right there in the flesh, right there in front of you.

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  True worship of the Father is through the Son who is the Truth in the Holy Spirit.  In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last week we saw that the Father begets the very worshipers He seeks through water and the Spirit.  Worship is not a matter of finding the right mountain but of being found by Jesus.

This is precisely why all these controversies about which is the true Church have no traction with me.  Roman Catholics claim to be the true Church by virtue of apostolic succession.  The Eastern Orthodox claim a different version of apostolic succession and have their own reasons why they believe the West to be in error.  Protestants are all over the board.  Some believe it is a matter of confessing the right doctrine or having the right viewpoint on certain theological issues.  Some believe it is a matter of speaking in tongues.  Some believe it is NOT speaking in tongues.  Some believe it is worship music.  Some believe it is the color of the carpet in your church’s vestibule.  But true worship is not a matter of finding the right church or the true church, it is a matter of being found by Jesus.  You don’t get close to God by climbing up mountains to get to him.  God draws you close by coming down to you, by putting on human flesh and taking it to the cross.  Worship is receiving what God has to offer you.

Jesus deals with this Samaritan woman as she is, as one he came to seek and to save.  Not much of a big deal to us, but it was to the people of Jesus’ day, and even the disciples.  They were scandalized.  A woman with a past, and not much of a present.  What on earth was Jesus thinking?  Replace “Samaritan” with “queer” or “whore” or “druggie” or “pimp” or “homeless guy” and you begin to get the idea.

And remember that we, too, are the Samaritan woman.  The only difference is that we have superior means at our disposal to maintain the illusion of respectability and of having it all together.  When you have the cushy job and the new house in a fashionable part of town, when you have the 2.6 kids and the minivan on a quiet and safe suburban street, it is so easy to pretend that you have it all together.  But scratch a little below the surface and it gets real messy, real quick.

“I know that the Messiah is coming, and he’ll straighten it all out.”  So she says to Jesus, not even knowing the half of it.  “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  One of the very few times in all of the Gospels when Jesus comes straight out and says that he is the Christ.  He doesn’t say this to any of the high and mighty religious types of Israel–not this directly, at least–but he says it to this poor, miserable train wreck of a woman who had had five husbands and was now living with what would have been number six.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This is grace–pure, unmerited favor from God.  While we were still sinners.  A Samaritan woman at a well.  And each of us.

Lent Week 2: A Clandestine Meeting

lent05For this week’s reading we move to the gospel of John.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God.  For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked.  “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and you do not understand these things?  I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe it if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

“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.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.  But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.

In this reading Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night for a little head-to-head, rabbi-to-rabbi meeting.  Why at night?  We don’t know.  There would have been legitimate reasons for Nicodemus to come to Jesus at night.  Perhaps he didn’t want to draw attention to himself.  Perhaps it was a matter of convenience and scheduling.

But in John’s writings, things frequently tend to mean more than one thing, and time is frequently significant.  So it’s safe to say that there is more to the fact that this meeting is taking place at night than just that Nicodemus didn’t want to attract attention or that he and Jesus were busy people with busy schedules and night was the only time they could connect.

Night is the time of darkness (duh).  But for John, the darkness of night is a metaphor for spiritual darkness.  Ignorance.  Unbelief.  Atheism.  Paganism.  Idolatry.  Knowing many things but knowing nothing about God.

To Nicodemus, Jesus was a teacher who had come from God, who performed signs which proved that God was with him.  Correct, as far as it goes.  But he doesn’t even begin to suspect the full truth of who Jesus is–that Jesus is not just come from God, he IS God.  He is more than a rabbi, he is the full embodiment of what the rabbis taught.  He is the Torah walking around in human flesh.

Now darkness in itself is not a bad thing.  In the hands of God it is full of creative possibility.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  (Genesis 1:1-2) Then God spoke the creative word “Let there be light”, and there was light.  And from there all the world we see and know was created.  Ignorance is teachable; darkness is lightable.  It is only those who think they know everything who are in trouble.

Jesus wants to call Nicodemus out of his spiritual ignorance.  So he answers Nicodemus’ introductory remark with an out-of-left-field remark which has nothing to do with what Nicodemus just said, but everything to do with Nicodemus himself.  No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.  The actual word used here can mean either “again” or “from above”.  Perhaps a better rendering would be “unless he is born again from above”.  To see the kingdom of God requires a second birth.  Your first birth won’t work; that was from below.  Unlike your first birth, this birth must come from above.

So what does this mean?  John has already clued us in to this back in the intro to his Gospel:  “Yet to all who believed him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”  (John 1:12-13)  Notice the parallel between verse 13 and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus.  When you believe Jesus, that is, when you trust in his name, you become a child of God, born not of any human or natural processes but by the action of God.  This is what it means to be born again from above.

Now Nicodemus is totally in the dark.  He doesn’t have a clue what Jesus is talking about.  “How can a man be born when he is old?  Surely he can’t go back into his mother’s womb and come out a second time?”

But instead of backing up and breaking it down for poor Nicodemus, Jesus pushes him further.  “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.”  In Genesis 1 the Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth waiting for the creative word of God to be spoken.  To be born again from above is to be born of water and the Spirit.  This is why water is part of the rite of baptism by which a new believer is received into the Church:  in baptism the water comes together with the Spirit which you receive upon coming to faith in Christ.

“Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  Flesh and spirit go together in John just like old man and new man, sinner and saint.  Flesh gives birth to flesh.  A sinner can produce nothing but another sinner.  The curse of Adam is inherited.  But the Spirit gives birth to spirit–a new you, free from the curse of Adam.  That is what Nicodemus must become.  He may be old, but he must become a newborn baby spiritually in order to see the kingdom of God.  He may know every verse of the Torah by heart and be a true son of Israel by circumcision, but he must be born again from above, born of water and the Spirit, in order to have any part in the kingdom of God.

Now Jesus really pushes Nicodemus:  “You’re the teacher of Israel and you still don’t get it?”  He goes back to the Old Testament.  As the Israelites were crossing the desert there was an episode where they grumbled against God and he sent snakes.  God had mercy and instructed Moses to make a bronze snake and hoist it up: anyone who was bitten by a snake was to look at it and he would live.  The same thing is happening again, but on a much broader scale and with a much broader scope:  the Son of Man will soon be lifted up on a cross, just like that bronze serpent.  All who look at him by faith–that is, by believing Jesus and trusting in his name–will live eternally.

Nicodemus needs to see things in this light and recognize that Jesus is not just a miracle-working rabbi but the very son of God.  This is how much God loved the world–that he sent his only Son into the world so that whoever believes may not be condemned but have eternal life.  God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world–the Law has already done an excellent job of that–but to save it through his suffering, death, and resurrection.

We don’t know anything about how Nicodemus responded to these words of Jesus.  But the next time we see Nicodemus, we see him with Joseph of Arimathea.  Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he feared the Jews.  They went to Pilate to receive the body of Jesus.  Nicodemus brought along some fine spices, about seventy-five pounds worth, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  He had seen Jesus lifted up on the cross; no doubt he remembered Jesus’ words about Moses lifting up the bronze snake in the desert and made the connection.

Lent Week 1: Jesus in the Wilderness

lent05This year for Lent we are going to walk through some readings that are traditional for each week of the season.  (Okay, I know.  I’m just barely getting this in under the wire.  Deal.)  Today’s reading comes from Matthew 4 and is the familiar story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written:

” ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up on their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

–Matthew 4:1-11

Jesus went out into the desert and fasted forty days and forty nights.  This is where we get the forty days and forty nights of Lent, and it is the major emphasis of the Lenten season.

By passing through the Jordan at his baptism and then heading out into the desert, Jesus recapitulated Israel’s journey to the Promised Land, but in reverse.  The forty days of Jesus’ fast parallel the forty years of Israel’s journey through the wilderness.

The devil came to Jesus at the end of his forty days of fasting, precisely at the time he knew Jesus would be at his weakest.  If he was ever going to have a shot at successfully tempting Jesus, surely it would be right after Jesus had had nothing to eat for forty days straight.

Sure enough, the devil’s first temptation to Jesus concerned food.  “Tell these stones to become bread.”

Classic temptation here.  Play to the physical appetites.  Throughout human history, people have shown that they will do anything for bread.  We will sacrifice our freedom, even our unborn children, to whoever promises to keep our bellies full.  But to live this way is not to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Look at what the devil was asking Jesus to do here.  He was asking him to create bread in ways that go completely against God’s creative modus operandi.  Jesus would have had to command the stones–stones which He Himself had created at the beginning of time, which He had spoken into existence as God’s creative Word (John 1:3, 10)–to give up their identity as stones and become something else entirely.  He would have had to annihilate those stones and cause the matter to reconstitute itself as bread.  God just doesn’t play that way.  When Jesus needs bread in the wilderness, he multiplies it, as you will see if you continue reading Matthew’s gospel.  He does not “transubstantiate” stones into bread.

“But come on.  It’s only a few stones.  Who’s going to miss a few stones in the midst of all this godforsaken country where it’s nothing BUT stones?”

Jesus didn’t bite.  “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.  He refused to use his divine power in order to meet his own needs in that moment.

So now the devil stepped up his game.  He took Jesus all the way up to the tippy-top of the temple in Jerusalem.  No idea how they got there straight from the middle of the desert.  No idea how Jesus and the devil managed to stay upright while standing on that narrow spot.  Not important for us to know.

That devil was a crafty one.  He quoted some Scripture to Jesus, a snippet of a Psalm.  “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

This was a temptation of faith.  Does Jesus, the Word in the flesh, trust the word of his Father?  Or would he put it to the test?  Would he jump down and see if the angels really did come to lift him up?

But that wasn’t how Jesus rolled.  Angels would come to minister to him, as we see from the reading, but not here and not now.  Jesus came to be lifted up, but not on a temple with angels carrying him.  He came to be lifted up on a cross.  And there would be no angels to catch him that afternoon.  He would face death alone, with nothing but trust in his Father.

In the interest of full disclosure, the psalm the devil quoted was Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12.  But the psalm goes on to read, “You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.”  The serpent–a reference to the devil and the form he took when he first appeared to Adam and Eve.  The devil knew what was coming–this crucified Savior would tread upon him and trample him.  And he didn’t want to go there.  Don’t blame him.

Jesus matched Scripture for Scripture faithfully.  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  To test the Word is to tempt God.  Never a good idea.

So now the devil took Jesus up to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor.  How they got up there, we don’t know.  How the devil managed to get all the kingdoms of the world into Jesus’ view from that spot, we don’t know.  It’s not for us to know.  How it happened, doesn’t matter.  That it happened, does.

This was the temptation to fidelity.  Would Jesus remain faithful to God and to his destiny?  The devil was proposing a very appealing shortcut.  Just bow down to me, he said, and all this will be yours.  Who needs Calvary?  Who needs the cross?  We can skip all that nastiness and go straight through to what you really came for, which is to rule over all the world.

This temptation was unique to Jesus, yet it is one which all Christians face, and the Church as well.  A Kingdom without a cross.  Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of the world and all their splendor.  But we exchange our worship for significantly less.  For Jesus this was an opportunity to bypass Calvary and the cross.  But the end does not justify the means.  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

In facing the devil, Jesus recapitulated Adam’s encounter with the devil.  Adam faced the devil in a garden.  He had Eve his wife at his side.  He was surrounded by all sorts of trees that were good to eat.  The devil came in the form of a serpent, a form that would be pleasing to man.

Jesus, the second Adam, faced the devil all alone.  He was in the middle of a desert, a huge space devoid of anything remotely good to eat.  He had no one at his side.  We don’t know what the devil looked like when he appeared to Jesus, and we probably don’t want to know.

Jesus’ temptations were greater than those faced by Adam.  Where Adam fell, Jesus stood.  Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded.  Where Adam succumbed, Jesus resisted.  Where Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death into the world, Jesus’ obedience and eventual death brought forgiveness of sin and life into the world.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

–Romans 5:19

Another Look – Joyce Meyer: The Anti-Lent

meyerBefore we get too far into the season of Lent I wish to draw your attention to something which runs completely contrary to the spirit of Lent.

Joyce Meyer lost her brother a few years back.  He was a Marine Corps veteran whose life was ruined through drug abuse.  He went missing for thirty days before being found dead in an abandoned building.  How did she take it?  She went to a conference of prominent church leaders and used his tragic death as sermon illustration fodder.  Her text was John 5, the story of the paralytic lying beside the pool who had been there for thirty-eight years.  She made it into a story of all the blessings and rewards you can get from God through diligence, faith, and good old American pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps resourcefulness and ingenuity.  She drew frequent and stark contrasts between her brother and his life of self-pity, and her own determination, despite all the hardships of her growing-up years, to choose the right path and make something positive of herself.

Read:  Joyce Meyer: The Anti-Lent

I am going to keep on coming back to this because I want us to see the contrast between this and what Lent is all about.

Those of you who attended Ash Wednesday services this week had the opportunity to receive ashes on your forehead.  These ashes are a visual reminder that we are dust and we shall someday return to dust.  As such we have no capacity to save ourselves.  No capacity to lift ourselves up out of our present condition as sinners deserving of death.  No hope whatsoever, but that Jesus came and took our sin and the death which we so richly deserved upon Himself.