John 3:17, Year A, Lent 2, John 3:1-17, The Rev. Mark A. G. Huffman, 2017

For God so loved the world….

Luther – The gospel in miniature

And yet…..it’s actually been turned into something quite different – a ”believe in Jesus or else”  sort of thing. It’s been changed from a promise of God’s love to a condemnation of unbelief.  Not so much emphasizing Jesus as the “Way” to find life in all its fullness, but rather that all the other ways lead to death or worse. Not lifting up the infinite breadth and depth of God’s inclusive, expansive love for all the world, but rather drawing lines between those who are chosen and those who are not; those who are in and those who are out.

Perhaps, knowing this would happen; knowing the way in which the devil, the world, evil, our human bondage to sin, brokenness – take your pick –  messes and mars even the best gifts of God; causes us like the first disciples to chronically miss the point,  to take even the most pure statements of God’s unconditional love and turn them into something else Jesus didn’t stop there, but went on to say in John 3:17, “Indeed, God did not send the son into the world in order to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

God didn’t send Jesus as another condition or requirement we have to meet, fulfill, accomplish, achieve. God sent Jesus as the fullest, clearest, plainest expression of his saving love. Love made flesh in a human being so that we could finally understand and believe it.

Certainly, it matters whether we believe it or not. Certainly, it matters whether you believe that you are the beloved and forgiven child of God. Certainly, God wants you to experience, see, know, trust God’s great love for you. That’s why God sent Jesus. So that you would know, could see, can believe.

But the focus isn’t our belief it’s God’s love for us in Jesus that makes possible, indeed creates our belief. We shouldn’t be telling people believe or else. We should be telling them God loves them no matter what. It’s the experience and understanding of that love of God for us in Jesus that brings belief. It’s not our belief that brings the love, that makes God love us. Belief isn’t a pre- condition of God’s love it’s the result.

          Certainly, how belief happens is a mystery. How we go from not believing to believing. Why some believe and others seem not to. Why sometimes I believe and other times I seem not to

          It’s like the wind Jesus says. “The wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

          But you do know that it doesn’t come from you. You do know that it’s not your choosing or not choosing that causes the wind to blow this way or that.

So too with faith, belief. It doesn’t come from you. It comes from God. It’s not you choosing or not choosing to believe that makes the difference, that brings belief, salvation, eternal life. It’s God choosing you that’s the only thing that really matters. It’s whether or not God chooses to blow the wind of the Spirit into your heart and life that decides things not whether or not you decide to follow Jesus.

          And fortunately for us, while we don’t know where the wind will choose to blow, we do know that God has chosen us. Perhaps we don’t know or at least don’t always understand why we are loved, but in Jesus we see that we are. We may not know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but in Jesus we do know that love comes from God and goes to us.

A lot of ink if not blood has been spilled over what Jesus really said or meant when he says in today’s gospel reading, “You must be born ‘anothen’” that’s the Greek word our NRSV translates as “from above.” I believe for all sorts of linguistic word study reasons that that is the correct translation, but there are at least two other possibilities – “anew” and “again.” RSV in fact chose “again”. “You must be born again.” The whole “born again” movement turns on this phrase.

In the gospel reading Nicodemas seems to clearly be misunderstanding Jesus and it is in this misunderstanding that he thinks Jesus did indeed mean born again. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” he asks. Which at least as far as Jesus is concerned is the wrong question. So why we would base our translation and understanding of this phrase on Nicodemas misunderstanding of what Jesus meant I’m not sure.

However, I don’t really have a big problem even with translating it as “born again”  except when that rebirth is turned into something we are supposed to do. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” is a great song but it’s terrible theology. In Jesus we see that God has decided for us; decided to come to us; to follow us through this world of shadows and sin; to accompany us through suffering and death. God has decided to love and save us. It’s only because God has decided to forgive and love and save me that I can follow Jesus.

People used to run around asking, “Are you saved? Have you been born again?” As though I could do something about it if I wasn’t. As though I could do it myself if I hadn’t been.    But the truth is that salvation is not a DIY project. You can’t give birth to yourself either the first time or again, or anew or from above.  If there’s anything we don’t have anything to do with clearly it’s our own birth. So too our rebirth is not our doing, not in our power to make happen.

Interestingly Jesus talks about being born of water and the spirit which sounds suspiciously like baptism. This water and this Spirit – the Spirit that fills this place. That continues to renew us again and again. That shapes us, and creates faith in the hearts and lives of the babies, children, young people and adults we baptize at that font.

Surely there is a mystical dimension to it….but there is also a very mechanical aspect. People are born from above, anew, again as they enter into our community through baptism and then listen to the stories we tell, taste sacraments we celebrate, participate in God’s work that we do with our hands and experience the way we love. They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. The love of God we share. The love with which God so loved the world. The love God sent Jesus to be and bring and die on a cross so that we would see and believe it really is so.

Lent – a time to get back to the basics

These basics. God so loved the world God sent the son. Not to condemn but to save.  To love us into life. Life that not only never ends but begins and blesses us each moment we believe in that love for us we see so clearly in Jesus

You must be born from above as Jesus says. That is to say from God. And of course you can’t make God do anything God won’t do. Fortunately for us, we see in Jesus this is exactly what God wants to do! For God so loved the world God sent God’s only son. Not to condemn the world but in order that the world and we and you might be saved – through him.

Amen.