Follow Jesus in Love

“Follow Jesus in Love”

John 3-16 so loved, bible

John 3:14-21 (3:16) – March 11, 2018

Many people like sports. They watch football, baseball, basketball and hockey games on a regular basis. One thing that repeats on occasion at these sports matches, whether college ball or professional matches, is people who hold up signs featuring some important message. One message that keeps getting shown and broadcast on national television is the simple Bible reference of John 3:16. That is all. Held up to the camera on t-shirts, posters, and even more.

Lots of people are familiar with that Bible reference from the repeated broadcasts, but how many can quote the verse, word for word? Even if people can quote it, how many can go the next step and explain it? Talking about the context, the biblical situation, and the reason why the verse appears?

For that, we need to go back to the beginning of John chapter 3, where Nicodemus the Pharisee teacher and member of the Sanhedrin sneaks away to meet the Rabbi Jesus under the cover of darkness. To get a feel for how secretive Nicodemus is, imagine a secret agent or spy going for an undercover meeting. Imagine the caution and care that Nicodemus would be taking.          If other members of the ruling Sanhedrin found out about Nicodemus and his hush-hush visit to Jesus, I suspect Nicodemus would be in big trouble. The Pharisees were not exactly best friends with the Rabbi Jesus, and some of them were extremely antagonistic to Him.

After some talk between Jesus and Nicodemus about being born from above, the Gospel reading for today picks up in the middle of the conversation. Jesus brings up an event that happened back in the book of Numbers. Eileen read this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures for us this morning, too. Jesus breaks off talking about baptism and being born from above, and starts talking about Moses, of all things! Why change the subject to Moses in the wilderness?

The Biblical scholar Nicodemus understood immediately what Jesus was talking about. Of course he did! I bet he knew the Torah, the Books of Moses, backwards and forwards, and could even recite large portions of it, too.

However, the majority of us today do not have a clear understanding of this section of the Bible. Moses? A bronze serpent? Wilderness wandering? And of course, constant griping and complaining. It seemed like the people of Israel were forever complaining and griping. If it wasn’t one thing, it was the other. Gripe, gripe, gripe, gripe!

Listen to John 3:14-15. “14 As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. “ That is what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus.

Remember how I talked to the children today about healing, and how Jesus heals people? That was the situation Jesus referred to. Moses and the people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness for a long time. The reading from the book of Numbers tells us that the people kept up their griping and complaining so long, and at such a volume, that finally God said “Enough!” (I’m paraphrasing here, but it is pretty close to what Numbers records.)

I am sure all of us know somebody who complains all the time. I don’t mean some of the time, or even most of the time, but all the time. Complain, gripe, moan. Everything is wrong. Nothing is right. The food stinks. The leaders are constantly wrong, and the people surrounding them can’t do anything right, either.

Wouldn’t that be annoying? Troublesome? Irksome? Even extremely frustrating? How would you feel if everything you always did and said was wrong? According to this really negative person, that is? Take that negativity, and multiply it by a lot. By thousands, even hundreds of thousands. Practically all the people of Israel were thinking, talking and acting like this. Negative thinking and acting. Some people refer to it as “stinking thinking.”

Reading from the book of Numbers: “But on the way the people lost their patience and spoke against God and Moses. They complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in this desert, where there is no food or water? We can’t stand any more of this miserable food!” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many Israelites were bitten and died.” What an extreme reaction to griping and complaining!

But, don’t you and I act like that sometimes? Don’t you and I talk against leaders, and friends and families? Moan about the food and the accommodations, and complain about God and how we always get the short end of the stick? Gripe about how “It just isn’t fair! Why does that always happen to me? What’s the use?” You know what I mean. People who complain, gripe and moan. Maybe they even look a little bit like you and me?

Jesus reminded Nicodemus that God sent poisonous snakes into the camp. After the people repented and asked God to save them, Moses held up the bronze serpent high on a pole, and everyone who looked at the serpent was healed.

The truth about God and God’s purposes is confusing. Some people just do not get it (like Nicodemus, and like us, too). “Nicodemus finds this Good News confusing (John 3:10) because it demands that he let go of all that he has accomplished and understood — let go and become like a newborn, ready to receive the world on completely new terms.” [1] Nicodemus just did not understand the spiritual healing that God was holding out to him—and to us, too!

Sometimes, the world says “no.” Sometimes, God’s message of Good News just makes no sense to us at all. Sometimes, we are in the same situation as the people of Israel, where they got stuck in their complains and negativity.  One of the commentators I consulted believes “the reason for this is because we are to understand that God has manifested His love for the world in a particular way. Godloved” the world through His Son, Jesus Christ. God “loved” the world by sending His son into the world, so that He might be “lifted up” as a sin-bearer.[2]

We all are familiar with the picture or representation of Jesus on the Cross. Artists in Central America turn this picture around, and paint crosses with pictures or faces of lots of people on them. What a cosmic understanding that our Gospel writer had when he insisted that Jesus was raised up on the Cross, and He drew all the people of the world to Him! [3]

If we look at this from Nicodemus’s point of view, “for Jesus (or John) to say that God loved the world was revolutionary, shocking, and very distressing for a strict Jew. “ [4]

Jesus did not draw not just you and your friends to Himself. No, Jesus did not draw just one particular region or country to Himself. Jesus also drew people of other races, other ethnicities, and other faith traditions to Himself. Think about that. Really think.

God so loved the world. That means everyone, in every part of the world. As the apostle Paul might say, God loves everyone: Jew, Gentile. Slave, free. Rich, poor. No exceptions. Including you. Including me.

For God so loved you. For God so loved me. Praise God.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2394  Lance Pape

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[3] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/02/year-b-fourth-sunday-in-lent-march-15.html

Worshiping with Children, Lent 4B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015

[4] https://bible.org/seriespage/8-jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

“Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Healing of the Nations

“Healing of the Nations”

Rev 22 leaves of tree

Revelation 22:1-5 – May 1, 2016

When some people take trips, they often take tours. Large tours, with a large group of people, or sometimes a small, intimate tour. When you go on a trip to a different town or an exciting place, don’t you enjoy tours? When I went to Washington D.C. last May to see my daughter, we went to the National Cathedral. We went on one of the behind-the-scenes tours there, and were in a small, intimate group that went through the cathedral from top to bottom. Fascinating information! And such a gorgeous, awe-inspiring place, too!

We can think of today’s Scripture passage in that light. John was on a tour of the new heavens and the new earth. He was getting a personal tour from an angel, showing him all the awe-inspiring highlights of the new-created Holy City.

This new creation is going to be great! Just from the short description here, I can sort of, almost imagine how intricate, how detailed, and full of splendor that new Holy City will be. Can’t you? Reading from the end of Revelation 21: “22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.”

This City is not only full of glory and splendor, but, wait—there’s more. Much more!

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” Did you hear? The river of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for healing of the nations.

Let’s start with the river of life. That life-giving river is free for any to draw from. We can follow the allusion to the river or water of life, throughout the Bible. In Genesis 2, a river watered the Garden of Eden and made it fruitful. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet spoke of a river flowing through the Temple. Zechariah 14 mentions “Living waters shall flow out of Jerusalem.” And in John 7, our Lord Jesus says, “Out of the heart of the one who believes in Me shall flow rivers of living water.”

John mentioned the tree of life here in Revelation. There are not as many allusions in the Bible to a tree of life, but there are two. The tree of life is found in the Garden of Eden, in Genesis 3. And, in Ezekiel 47, the prophet describes the tree of life at some length. So similar to the description here in Revelation!

This healing aspect of the tree of life really intrigued me. Yes, in the time of the new heavens and the new earth, we will receive life from both the life-giving river and the life-giving tree. But, healing? Who doesn’t need healing, in some way, somehow? Especially now, in this fallen, imperfect world. Individuals need healing in many important ways. Physical healing, yes. But also psychological healing. Emotional healing. And, spiritual healing.

We are not in that time of the new heavens and new earth, though. We are still in the in-between time. Sometimes today, certain churches and ministries teach the children of God that God our Heavenly Parent actually makes us sick.

According to these churches, God has given us diabetes, cancer or depression to teach us something. Or, God allowed, even orchestrated neglect, trauma or abuse to take place to somehow make us a better Christian. As if God would ever do such a thing!

In the Bible, we learn about God healing various people. Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus heals individuals in body, mind and spirit. Just like the tree of life, with leaves for healing. Healing, upbuilding leaves. When we enlarge that healing to groups of people, of nations, there can be healing of relationships, healing of resentments, healing of hatred and animosity. To reference the book of Isaiah, God will settle all disputes, and see that every sword is beaten into a plowshare. No one will ever need to fight or go to war anymore.

This is just one aspect of group healing or national healing. But, there is more! I am so appreciative of the point of view of a commentary I consult from time to time, The African American Lectionary. [1] In it, Reverend Michael Lomax gives a short background and history of healing services. How these services over the years have allowed and provided African Americans hope; “hope to endure racial discrimination, economic exploitation, and emotional trauma, debilitating physical illnesses, death, and ruptures in relationships.”

Thank goodness that—in many places across the country—conditions have improved. Not only African Americans, but all people of color are often able to, in the words of Rev. Lomax, “have access to various modes of physical, mental, and emotional healing, including advanced health care and various kinds of counselors. Still, healing services continue to be a mainstay in African American congregations, where worship leaders invite the community to look beyond problems to catch a glimpse of God’s plan for restoration.”

Here we are, in the in-between time. We are not yet in the time that John talks about in this passage today, the time of the new heavens and new earth. We cannot see the crystal clear river, or smell the sweet, medicinal odor of the leaves on the tree. Not yet!

However, God has given us promises. God has given us a plan. God’s plan for restoration.  In the here and now, in the in-between time, God does heal, in any one of a number of ways. As Rev. Lomax says, “God’s healing may not include a cure of our immediate ailments. Instead, God’s healing may provide resources for us to press on in spite of our ailments. In healing services, God awakens the hope that allows us to live with grace and dignity in the present, even as we await God’s ultimate transformation of our brokenness in the future.“

What do we hear from this passage today? This word picture of a life-giving tree that bears fruit every season and is fed by a crystal river that flows out of the throne?  Sure, we have an abstract message about the fullness of eternal life. Sure, it is a complicated picture of life. However, the world will be transformed. It is completely as God intends it to become.

We can ask a follow-up question: how would this picture of the end of the world help Christians who are having hard times now? I think this picture would give believers hope. Hope in God, and praise for hope in God’s name on the foreheads of the redeemed.

As Rev. Lomax says, “God’s ‘healthcare plan’ provides equal access to wholeness and does not simply favor those who are already powerful and privileged. The healing leaves that God offers in this scene are as accessible as the river that flows. The healing supplied is not only an individual experience but also a communal experience because the leaves are “… for the healing of the nations” (22:2).”

Yes, this visionary tour of the new creation by our angelic tour guide gives us hope for the present. Hope for provision of strength. Praise be to God! God’s healing is here and now. And, God’s healing is something we all can look forward to!

God willing, may God’s healing come on earth as it is in heaven. Alleluia, amen!
[1] Michael R. Lomax, Guest Lectionary Commentator, Associate Minister, Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, Nashville, TN,  http://www.theafricanamericanlectionary.org/PopupLectionaryReading.asp?LRID=4

(Thank you to Rev. Michael Lomax and to the African American Lectionary for their excellent insights into Revelation 22:1-5.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)