We have only a little information about Nicodemus. In his famous talk with Jesus after dark, he had the questions we ask: “Does God love this world, and, does God love me?” Did God love the 200,000 victims of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean several years ago? Or the uncounted and the innocent victims of war in Iraq and Syria? Or victims of domestic violence? When Nicodemus asked what it meant to be born anew, Jesus reminded him of the old story about Moses lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole, so that all who looked on it were healed.
In like manner, the son of Man would be lifted up and whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Then, where in our experience today, can we touch God and be assured of his love and concern for us? I think the outstanding question of our humanity is this: “Can we be sure of God’s love for the world? Can we be sure of his love for us?” And, “Where and how can we get in touch with God?
Someone had a dream of seeing all the people of the world gathered on the slopes of a great mountainside. They were milling around, looking, turning over great alphabet blocks, and word blocks, and knowledge blocks. The people were hunting, looking, searching. In his dream the man called out, what are you looking for? And the answer came back with a great roar, “We have lost a word.” What word are you looking for? They roared back, “We’ve lost the word for God.”
Indeed, we live in a world that seems to have lost contact with God, but simplistic thinking, bumper stickers, and roadside signs won’t help. You still see “Get right with God.” Or, “The wages of sin is death.” The suffering and injustices we knew in the 20th Century and that already plague us in the 21st, cannot be solved by appealing to slogans, even if they try to sound spiritual. The continual massive dislocation of people, whether in Central Africa Republic, or the Sudan, or Palestine or Syria, or the flaming rhetoric of speakers who hate the whites, or the blacks, or Jews, or Muslims — all these evils are the realities of the world around us.
And victims of disaster, or racism, or sexism, or the refugees and homeless — these people are helped far more by a contribution to Lutheran World Relief than by a gospel tract.
The love of God is meant to help people where their needs are greatest. To the degree that church people help relieve the suffering of others, we are putting God’s love into action. We have to approach the physical world, and its problems, as the province of the love of God. After all, those who love God cannot ignore the world, which God created.“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,” Jesus told Nicodemus.
As church people, we gladly connect the spiritual and material stuff of the world, because God made himself known to us in the person, in the body of Jesus Christ. God gave his son, to become one of us in the world. But knowing the presence and power of God is not always self-evident. That is, maybe you know people who excuse their lack of interest or involvement in the church by saying, “All I need of God is in a sunset or out on the lake, or I see him in the power of a storm.”
Trouble is, such thinking limits contact with God. Such thinking ignores his magnificent expression in the stories written in the Bible. Such thinking fails to receive his loving expression in the sacraments. Such limiting of God misses the magnificent and historic rituals in the worship of the church. Besides, seeing God only in nature makes him too small. If we want to see God’s power, we must see a girl wrapping her first born, making a bed for him near Bethlehem. Who would think of finding God there? But that is how God sent his son into the world.
For his life’s work, he left no exploration of distant lands, no literature, no art, no system of thought or logic, no scientific discovery, no statement of beliefs, even. Rather, we find him having a conversation with an inquirer. He explains God’s love as the way of love for others, the way of purity of heart, of heavenly hope and faith, life fully in tune with God. In short, we call the life of Jesus Christ a perfect example of the kingdom of God. It is in his life that we find God, and if we are reaching out to touch God, we need to do business with Jesus Christ as he is known in today’s world.
Nor have we left him stranded on the shore of some forgotten time in a remote place. The risen Jesus Christ lives in our midst, saying, “God loves the world.” It all seems too unreasonable, (and it is!) that he could be the near end of God, that this young Jew who lived only 33 years in one of the most obscure countries of the world, should be the Son of God. A pastor friend once mentioned the great miracles of the Bible and how hard they are to believe. He mentioned the dead being raised, the sea parting for the dry land escape from Egypt, the walls of Jericho falling down, the raising of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Then he said, “But if you can get past the miracle of God coming to the earth in Mary’s baby, the rest of the miracles are a piece of cake.”
And because of the reality of Jesus Christ, and God’s love that he came to give the world, we always make a mistake if we try to confine God to spiritual matters only, or try to keep the church, or church people, free from involvement in the real world. As someone wrote, “I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church.
“We need to recover the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves, at the town garbage dump, on a crossroads so cosmopolitan they wrote his title in Hebrew and Latin and Greek, (“or should we say, in English, in Arabic, and in Japanese), at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, Because that is where he died and that is what he died about, and that is where church people should be and what church people should be about.”
So, if we confine our religious experience and the love of God to Sunday activities, we make Jesus Christ a relic from Palestine only to discount his lordship over all of life. We have let too much of our modern religious expression do what Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers could not do, and that is to embalm Jesus and lay him out where we can point to his sanctified remains.
We cannot enthrone the remains of a late lamented Jew and seal ourselves off from the world He was sent by God to save with love. He walks again in our midst. In our green hymnal, we have John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Immortal, Invisible. The third stanza is my favorite “We touch him in life’s throng and press, and we are whole again. Through him our first fond prayers are said, our lips of childhood frame. The last low whispers of our dead are burdened with his name.” Godless people say life, then death, and that’s all. No, Christians say, there’s more. The true cycle of life is birth, death, and then comes eternal life.
We might think that we erect church walls to shut ourselves in while we pray. Perhaps we should ask whether we put up the walls to keep the world out, and there’s a difference.
While it is true that we retreat from the world to emphasize our closeness to God, we must also go into the world to demonstrate in our daily living that God in Jesus Christ loves the world.
We cannot stay within our walls and mind our own business. Staying within our walls may mean the church is neglecting its business. But God did not stay up in heaven and neglect his creation. In the life and mission of the church, through its worship and word, with sacraments and fellowship and Bible reading, we meet the risen Christ bringing us the love of God.
In the ordinary, unspectacular activities of singing, praying, preaching, with bread and wine, we recognize God at work.
And we rightly respond to such loving grace with support of Leslie House, with the Angel Tree at Christmas, with prayer shawls, with groceries year- round, and with a significant gift to the work of the North Carolina Lutheran Synod and the ELCA.
On behalf of all the countless and nameless people who will be served by your generosity, may I say for them, “Thank you. Your gifts are much appreciated.”
God in Jesus Christ gives us direction for life, strength for living. We rejoice in being born again of water and the Spirit.
We meet God in our midst, and having done so we go out into the world to reflect his love and power to those whom we meet.
God loves the world, and now we can help the world love God – stretching into the future for eternal life.