Genesis 12:1-4a Psalm 121 Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 John 3:1-17
One day in my Old Testament class, our professor, James Sanders, said that whenever the people of Israel defined God too narrowly, they got into trouble. And they got into trouble repeatedly. Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings are passages that I think have been used by many to do just that – define God and God’s message too narrowly.
In Genesis the Lord promises to make Abram the father of a great nation; Abram will later be renamed Abraham. He is told to leave his home and go the land God will show him. For centuries now people have fought over land in the Middle East. The focus on God’s promise of land to Abraham has overshadowed the true meaning of God’s covenant with the people of Israel. God’s promise to make Abraham’s name great is, “so that you will be a blessing.”
Elsewhere in the scriptures we are taught that the people of Israel are to be to a light to all nations – that they might draw others to God. They have been chosen for a purpose and that purpose is not just to receive God’s blessings – it is to share God’s blessings with others. We, too, have been blessed so that we might share God’s blessings with others.
In the gospel, we have Jesus telling Nicodemus that we must be “born from above” in order to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus takes this literally and asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” From this exchange, many Christians now speak of being “Born again.” Jesus clarifies that he is speaking of being born of the Spirit, but this confuses Nicodemus even more. He asks, “How can these things be?” Which prompts Jesus to speak of earthly vs. heavenly things. If we apply what he says to the Old Testament reading, the land is of the earth, being a blessing to others is of the spirit.
As Jesus continues, I’m sure Nicodemus is even more confuses by what he says:
No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
This is almost a riddle.
In John, Jesus speaks openly of himself as the Son of Man, which is to say, the Messiah – but what he says in not always so easy to follow. Here, when he speaks being “lifted up”, scholars have suggested he is referring to when he will be lifted up onto the cross and crucified. He continues to speak of the Son of Man when he says the verse that may be the best known of all Bible verses – John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What follows is just as important, for Jesus says these together: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Where we place the emphasis is this scripture may depend upon our faith background.
Far too often, Christians are perceived as condemning others because of their emphasis on the importance of the phrase “everyone who believes in him.” Some teach, that believing in Jesus is the only way a person might receive eternal life. Not to believe in Jesus as the Son of God is to be condemned to eternal damnation. But, this passage also says, “Jesus did not come to condemn the world,” but to save it. How?
If we continued to read further in John, Jesus does speak of believing in the name of the only Son of God – but then follows it with a discussion of light and darkness and good and evil. In the 14th Chapter of John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.” This, for me, answers the question as to how Jesus saves the world – he teaches us the way to truth and life. Jesus is the way.
There is no magic that comes from professing a belief in the name of Jesus, but we can find our way to truth and life by following the way of Christ – the way, which our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, refers to as “the way of love.” Being born of the Spirit is to turn toward the light. This world is full of darkness, but the light of Christ helps us to see it as Christ sees it. The light of Christ helps us see and respond to people in need. It helps us to see others as children of God – regardless of their religious beliefs, political affiliation, orientation, gender, or nationality.
The way of love is inclusive. Anytime we divide people into groups, view them as being one of us or one of them, we are failing to follow the way of love. We are all children of the God most high, the God who sent his Son to teach us the way. The way of love teaches us to look for what we share in common, rather than focus on our differences.
“For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son,” teaches us the depth of God’s love for us. God’s love, and the way of love, that his Son teaches us needs to be the cornerstone of our faith. We need to speak less about Jesus and do more as a community of believers. Being a part of a loving community, a community that loves and supports one another and those in need, is how the church is the body of Christ is the world today.
Let us pray.
Loving God, you sent your Son to teach us the way to truth and life. Help us, we pray, to come together in love, to support one another, that our lives might be a witness in this community to your love. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.