Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Lent - 2/17

God Grants Us Spiritual Rebirth

Lent II
February 17, 2008
John 3:1-17
Bethany Lutheran Church

Are you a born again Christian? I was a high school student when I was first posed with this otherwise ridiculous question. It was one of my first encounters with the Evangelical movement that was ever so rapidly booming in number. One of my good friends, Teresa, approached me after school one day. “Are you a born again Christian?” she asked. Taken completely by surprise, I was faced with a question that sounded so simple, yet I did not seem to have any immediate answers. “Ask me again tomorrow,” I said, “I’ll have an answer for you then.” And so that night I did my homework.

When I saw Teresa the next day, she had been waiting for me outside one of the classrooms. She posed her question yet again, “Are you a born again Christian?” I responded with utmost confidence, “yes”. Next she began asking for the date on which this all occurred, as if I by my own power could cause my spiritual rebirth. Knowing she would not be satisfied until I gave her a date, July 18, 1982. It was the day on which I was baptized. It was on this date that I was reborn. It was on this date that God birthed me through the waters of baptism. Just as babies cannot prevent themselves from being born, neither could I prevent myself from being baptized, neither could I prevent God from working in and through me when I was reborn.

There may be a few differences between the particularities of our Christian faith that is grounded in the Lutheran traditions versus those communities that are commonly referred to as Evangelicals. But we are also very much alike too. Dare I remind you that Bethany is part of the ELCA. The “E” standing for “evangelical”. How do you exercise your “E”? How do you live as one who is evangelical?

I would like to suggest that we begin by adding another celebration to our annual calendars. Many of us are always looking for another good reason to have a party. Exercise your “E”, exercise that you are evangelical by celebrating your baptismal birthday. Of all the celebrations we have, let this celebration be among them. Let us regularly celebrate and remember when we were baptized and marked as one of God’s children.

It is the same reason why more and more Lutheran churches position their baptismal fonts near the entrance to the sanctuary. It is precisely the reason why they are being kept filled with water. When we pass by a baptismal font, the waters call out to us, calling us to remember our identity. Making the sign of the cross is not a mere Catholic thing, for it is much larger than that. Making the sign of the cross is a remembrance of our common identity that is shared in Christ. Martin Luther, our founding father, understood this, and he likewise encouraged people to touch the waters, even on a daily basis. We encounter water throughout every day from the shower, to the kitchen sink, the rains that fall, or rivers and lakes we walk past. Touch those familiar waters and remember that you are a child of God. Touch the waters in the baptismal font on your way up to communion or on your way out of church today and let us celebrate the common identity that we have. Touch the living waters of your baptism and celebrate the spirit of God that is working in and through you.

Read the first couple of chapters of John’s gospel later this afternoon. You will not find any account of Jesus’ birth, like you find in the gospels Matthew and Luke. John’s gospel does not record the shepherds or wise men that so many of us envisage at Christmas time. Rather the narrative of John’s gospel focuses on the elements of our spiritual birth in Christ.

What does the Spirit look like? We have symbols and images to represent it, like a dove or a ray of sunshine streaming through the clouds. Perhaps the best way to recognize the spirit is when it is among us, as in the story of Nicodemus.

There is not much that is written about Nicodemus. He only appears in John’s gospel and only at three very distinct points. We are told that he is a leader of the Pharisees. Like any good politician, there are certain things that you do not want the public, or even your colleagues to know. The Pharisees did not regard Jesus all that highly. If Nicodemus was found to be talking with Jesus, the authority and status which Nicodemus held could have been greatly challenged. The Pharisees had heard plenty of talk about Jesus, none of them, however, wanted to endorse Jesus for who he was.

But something was stirring inside Nicodemus. The news about Jesus and the stories that he heard were perhaps somehow different. Nicodemus had to find out for himself who this Jesus guy really was. And so, in order to protect himself from public humiliation by the other Pharisees, Nicodemus set out at night in order to find and speak with Jesus. When Nicodemus found him, what may have begun like an interrogation by a Nicodemus who was full of questions, Jesus became for him a teacher, teaching everything including what Martin Luther referred to as “the gospel in brief.” Verse 16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son into the world so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” It is the New Testament in a nutshell.

Nicodemus would be born again. The spirit was stirring within him. We are not told where Nicodemus goes after he leaves Jesus. I would like to imagine that on his way back to the Pharisees, he stopped to see John the baptizer by the lake. Something Jesus had said to Nicodemus remained with him. For in the next account of Nicodemus a few chapters later, we find him among his fellow Pharisees who are planning on how to arrest Jesus. Nicodemus does not agree with the other Pharisees, nor does he remain silent. Rather he speaks up in Jesus’ defense with his knowledge of the law. Something has changed in Nicodemus’ life, for he is no longer content with being the leader of the Pharisees if it means wrongfully accusing someone.

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness in order to heal the wounded Israelites, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. Jesus must be lifted upon a cross for the healing of the world. For it is in his death on that shameful and horrific cross that the people of God find life. It is in dying with Christ, that we are also raised to the newness and fullness of life. “For God so loved the world.” – the world – everything last thing that he created. There are no limits to God’s love. Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar takes up this belief in a book he has written entitled “Dare we hope that all men [sic] be saved?” For God so loved the world that the graves are all empty. God so loved the world, the entire world that even the depths of hell are empty.

We are all judged by our own histories. We are all judged by our past actions. Employers judge people based upon their resumes, criminal records, and previous work history. We judge ourselves based upon our own bundles of doubt, uncertainties, lost wishes, false hopes and fears, good and bad habits. We know precisely how often we fail others, not living up to our promises, not fulfilling our own expectations. It would be great if only we could break free from ourselves – break free from our past and to start fresh with a new beginning. Our physical birth cannot be repeated and so instead we turn to the waters for in the waters we are spiritually reborn. We are reborn in those waters, given a new identity as people of God. Washed and made pure from all the wrongdoing that we have done, marked instead as God’s holy people.

Nicodemus makes a third and final appearance in John’s gospel. After Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in embalming the body. It is Nicodemus who helps to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial in the tomb, following each of the burial laws in order to honor Jesus in this final way. In the three short snip-its of Nicodemus’ life that are recorded in John’s gospel, he has gone from being a skeptic to that of a believer and eventually a participant of Jesus’ words. Nicodemus has been born again and the spirit is alive within him.

So touch the waters. Do not be afraid to splash the waters, for they are the waters of our life in Christ. Celebrate that you are born again by playing in the water and watch how the spirit will move within the people of this community. Celebrate and live your life as a child of God so that others may see within you the Christ who is life-giving. For our God desires to be near us, seeking to engage us and shape us as a holy people

Vicar Luke Smetters

 

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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