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The World Upside Down

Reverend Philip Stringer

John 3:1-17

LET US PRAY: O merciful Father in Heaven: You give the knowledge of your saving help-- a comfort to your people. Feed our hearts with your Holy Word, and make our hearts instruments of your glory, today and all days. AMEN

Last Tuesday I stood in the research room of the National Archives’ Philadelphia facility — and in my hands was a document that few people (other than a few archivists) had seen in nearly 200 years. On the delicate, yellow page, written in India Ink, was a map and the words, “Coast of U.S. of No. America. New York to St. Augustine. April 3, 1827.

In 1827 there was no reason to map further south than St. Augustine, because there was nothing of interest down there. “The coast of U.S…” Not, “EAST coast of U.S….” because there was no Pacific coastline of the country. Only the Atlantic. The Louisiana Purchase hadn’t happened yet — they weren’t even sure how far away the Pacific Ocean was!

As I stood there reading this document, I thought about the man who had written it. Never in his wildest imagination did he think that I would be reading it 200 years later in a world such as ours — a country that spanned the continent, filled with hundreds of millions of people; with planes — and satellites and spaceships that could look at the entire coast he had surveyed with just a glimpse of the eye. A coast he had spent months traversing and risked his life to record. If I could speak to him and tell him about the cities and the machines and the scale of wars and peril of the planet, I can imagine the wonder in his eyes — the shaking of his head in disbelief. “How can these things be?”

It is a natural thing for you and me to view the present moment as the fullness of time. It is only natural for us to place ourselves and this moment at the center of the universe; for each of us to place our own story as the central story — the most important story. It is only natural for us to look at the world through the lens of where each of us stands. But today, Jesus gives us a reminder that we are not the center of the universe, this is not the only moment that matters and there is much —- so very much — that we do not understand. And he reminds us also that all of that is OK — because the One who does understands all things — the One who does span all of time and who does stand in all places is also the One who holds us. Today, you should hear and know in the words of Jesus that you are part of something much greater than this moment; part of something much bigger than your own life. And that even though these things are greater than you — they are not more precious than you. You are loved by the creator of all things.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee — a teacher of the laws and the ways of God. And Jesus was a puzzle to him. He clearly saw in Jesus something that was special; divine, even — inspired — good. But at the same time, Jesus said and did things that Nicodemus didn’t understand. Like you and me he could not help but try to make sense of the world around him based upon the things he knew — but the things he thought he knew about God through his reading of the scriptures and the customs of his people did not always align with Jesus.

He wasn’t alone, of course — Jesus was a puzzle to everyone — and to acknowledge Jesus’ divinity — or at the very least his favor with God — set a person up for challenges. Especially for someone like Nicodemus (who was supposed to have all the answers), acknowledging Jesus could make people question his legitimacy.

One of the noteworthy things about Nicodemus was that he chose to seek Jesus out for answers. The easiest thing would have been to try to discredit Jesus and dismiss him as illegitimate. He could have joined those seeking to destroy Jesus in order to preserve his own authority. Or he could have simply ignored Jesus — dodging the uncomfortable questions. But instead, Nicodemus sought him out. Under the cloak and protection of darkness, true — but he sought him out, nevertheless.

He acknowledges Jesus, but he tells him he’s confused. I’m not sure if Jesus’ response to him is a compliment or knock-down. When Nicodemus says, “we know you come from God,” Jesus tells him in effect, “you wouldn’t know this if the Spirit of God hadn’t revealed it to you.” What Jesus is telling him is that we don’t have to figure everything out on our own. God is with us. And with God’s guidance we can see and understand things that the world does not.

It is why we see that strength is made perfect in weakness, that the first are last and the last are first. It is why we know that the power of love is greater than the power of armies. And it is why the world laughs at us.

Today, there are people who tell us that we need to be afraid — and that our political decisions need to be driven by our fears — and that we will be stronger by mocking and rejecting the poor and the weak and the helpless.

We are told over and over again through advertising that we will be happy if we buy enough stuff, that the more beautiful we are the more valuable we are.

We are told that dictators and despots will shape the world and that if we want to succeed and be safe we need to be like them.

We are told a lot of things that on Sunday mornings we say we reject. We are sort of like Nicodemus that way. Sunday morning is our “nighttime” when we come to see God where no one can see us. We hear words of good news and of hope that we long to believe — but then we look at the world around us — and the world we live in when we leave here — and we ask, “how can these things be?”

The truth is that truth and justice and good are always getting trampled in the world. How anything good survives in this world is beyond me.

This is Memorial Day weekend — I don’t know why it is that we STILL live in a world where people must go to war and people must die to protect the innocent and helpless. I don’t know good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people.

But how we choose to live in this world is up to you and me. The doctrine of the Trinity is Christianity’s answer for how to do it.

The Trinity doesn’t make sense in material terms — 1+1+1=3, not one. How can all of them be fully present in three different ways — or three different places. If that is what is tripping you up about the Trinity, my advice to you is: forget about it. Don’t worry about that. The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t a physics lesson. It is a way of trying to communicate to us the nature of God as pure and perfect love.

The Father gives everything to the Son.

The Son gives everything to the Father.

The fullness of God that issues forth is the Spirit.

God exists as a relationship of giving and receiving perfect love.

You and I are created in the image of God. We are created to love — and it is only in loving that we will experience the fullness of life. Paul wrote that perfect love casts out fear. It is only when we can look upon our enemies with love that we no longer fear them. It is a mystery — we never stop learning what it means. We never stop learning how to live it better. But in a world of violence and hate and fear and seeking control through them — Jesus shows us a more excellent way. Will we side with the breakers and haters and tyrants, or will we side with peace rooted in love? The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding.

Imperfectly, but as best as I can, I choose the way of Jesus. I choose the way of love. And I know — so do you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here today. And it’s hard. We don’t do it perfectly. Even St. Paul — the guy who wrote that perfect love casts out fear, also wrote, “why is it that I do the things I don’t want to do and I don’t do the things I do want to do?” None of us does it perfectly — how can we — we don’t even understand ourselves, let alone the ways of God — but like Nicodemus, we are trying. And what Jesus pointed out to Nicodemus, I remind you of today: you do not have to try alone. God’s Holy Spirit is with you.

And the fullness of God comes to you and me in this simple meal of a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. How it is that we can hold the fullness of God in our hands is a mystery — but it is true. God comes to strengthen you, comfort and encourage you for life out there.

I’m making a guess here — but I don’t think Nicodemus ever got all of his questions answered. How could he? Martin Luther once said, “how can you finish learning what God himself hasn’t finished teaching?” I think Nicodemus continued to wrestle with his faith and how to apply his faith in life — just like you and I must do.

But there is one more thing about Nicodemus that I think is fascinating. When we first read about him, he is coming to Jesus in the secrecy and protection of darkness.

At the end of John’s gospel, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathea, the man who asks the authorities — the people who killed Jesus — for the body — and they are the ones who placed Jesus’ body in the tomb. Nicodemus has gone from being a man following Jesus in the shadows — to a man so devoted to him that even after Jesus is beaten down and defeated by the world, he is willing to publicly hold his broken body and reverently bury him.

That is a man who has learned to live with questions. He’s a man who could say, “I don’t necessarily understand everything about it — but I believe in the power of love. I don’t understand everything, but I know it’s true.”

And it’s true for you and me, too.



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