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2nd Weekend in Lent, March 11 & 12: "Breaking Out of the Bubble"

Lent 2A.  March 12, 2017. “Breaking out of the Bubble”  John 3:1-17

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ.

3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

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.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

Jack and Jill live in “bubbles”.

No, it’s not a nursery rhyme.  People say we live in bubbles that affect how we receive news, those with whom we interact, the churches we attend, the neighborhoods we reside in, the books we read, our facebook posts –all of which inform our beliefs and opinions, which can sometimes just reflect the beliefs and opinions of those in the bubble with us.

Diversity advocates – and I’m one of them -- help cut into the bubbles to expose Jack and Jill to people and ideas they normally would not seek out.  Some people have warmly received so-called “political correctness” and “diversity training;” others have criticized these as shallow or self-evident exercises designed to annoy us or waste our time.

An article in last Sunday’s NYTimes traced studies that showed that diverse groups – groups made up of people of varying races, genders, ages, and so forth – were more productive and original in thought than non-diverse groups.  Moreover, not only were the groups more creative, but individuals have also been found to be more socially and intellectually nimble if they had moved out of their comfort zones. Perhaps they became fluent in a second language, traveled in places where their mother tongue was not universally available, read books and saw films by foreign writers, studied other religions, and associated with people their own tribe might be tempted to call “the other” – all these activities helped rather than hindered a person’s development.

Such people often develop a humility that serves not only as the first step toward learning, but also the first step toward acceptance of grace – the grace of hospitality from one, the gift of a story from another, or the grace and love offered us by God.

Maybe that humility, that desire to learn from someone different from himself, drove Nicodemus out of his comfort zone to seek conversation with Jesus one incredibly significant night.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the religious elites who were very scrupulous about keeping God’s basic laws as well as many additional laws that so-called ordinary people had neither the time nor the ability to observe.  Pharisees were tempted to look down on these “other people,” who were often illiterate and oblivious to their own non-observance.

Jesus was to Nicodemus clearly an “other.”  He was not from Jerusalem, not from a priestly family.  He had no permanent address, probably no family of his own; he did have some men from the seashore and countryside who followed him and he had reputedly been a great success with the wine at a recent wedding in Cana.

Nevertheless, Nicodemus was intrigued and curious enough to reach out of his Pharisee comfort zone to talk with Jesus.  Maybe they sat out on a rooftop – maybe in a quiet garden – maybe in a small room or workshop.

Why at night?  Simply cooler, or less busy for the Pharisee and the teacher?  Was Nicodemus embarrassed to be seen with Jesus, or shy, or did he want this connection kept private from his religious colleagues? Was this reaching out a sign of humility -- or a combination of all of the above?

We don’t know what Nick expected.  He had heard of Jesus’ signs, what we sometimes call miracles.  He gives Jesus credit for being “from God.”

But he seems puzzled; he doesn’t “get” what Jesus is trying to tell him.  And yet, look at the results!  John records Jesus proclaiming some of the most wonderful words in the Gospels! 

Say them with me, “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.” (John 3:16)

In stepping out of his comfort zone, Nicodemus was rewarded with words which would eventually change his life as they have changed your lives and the lives of millions.  Words and love from Jesus offered him to be born anew, born from above -- some translate it “born again.”

I wonder how Nick left the encounter…did he sneak away to think about this?  Did excitement dance in his heart?  Did he scratch his head and wonder?  Was he enlightened, confused, overwhelmed? 

How do WE hear these words, recorded for us so many long years ago?

Are these words so familiar that they are too familiar?

We read “God so loved the world.”  The Greek for “world” is “kosmos.”  That sounds like the “whole world” and more to me.  So this doesn’t allow us to limit God’s love to a local neighbor or just the people we know or like.  And if God loves the whole world, that would include people like us and people who seem strange to us, people who find us strange, people we are not likely to meet or know if we stay in our “bubble,” people across the widest diversity spectrum we can imagine.

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I wonder if Nicodemus became an instant follower of Jesus?  Was he able to embrace the idea that God could love people ignorant of the hundreds of Pharisaical laws which he endeavored to keep, or people unable or unwilling to keep them, or Samaritans, or women (we’ll hear that famous story of the Samaritan woman next week!), or Gentiles!  The Romans!?

We hear precious little about Nicodemus until the dark afternoon of Jesus’ death and burial.  At that time, Nick stepped out of the darkness and into the light of John’s Gospel when he brought a costly mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body before they laid it into the tomb.  Here he was, a man who would never by law touch a dead person, bringing embalming ointments to honor a man who had been hanged on the cross, the most horrible and shameful of all executions.

Such generosity is a witness to the power of Jesus’ mind-opening words – and to the love Nicodemus came to feel for this teacher from Nazareth.

Verse 17 of our text reads, “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” This reminds us that we too are not to condemn those God does not condemn, such as the greedy rich, the powerless poor, the unemployed, the uninsured, the confused, the addicted, the undocumented, the non-Christian, the Muslim, the atheists – even as we are not condemned for who we are.

Cynthia, in Wednesday’s Lenten devotion that the church sends out via email, after discussing the good work of the furniture bank, prayed, “help us to accept others for who they are.”

We can’t save the world; Jesus has done that.  But we can begin by seeking to understand the people of the kosmos, respect them and thus come to love them, as Nicodemus came to love Jesus.  We can step out of our comfort zone, break out of the bubble, as Nicodemus did that memorable night.

Frederick Buechner wrote (The Sacred Journey), “To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in the sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake – even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death – that little by little we start to come alive.” 

In that spirit, a young white seminarian asks to be assigned for internship at an African American congregation.  A businessman encourages rather than laughing at diversity meetings and seeks meaningful conversation with an employee in a different department who is differently-abled or of a different background from his.  A retired couple seeks out a book discussion group with non-church folk or with men and women of a different political party.  A person – young or old – gives up vacation time and spends money to take part in a mission service trip.

None of this is easy, but unlike “Nick at night” these things are not done under cover of darkness, but “walking in and with the light of the world”, with Jesus, loving the kosmos God loves. 

After Nicodemus came into the light, on the day that Jesus died, no doubt he also shared the joy of Easter morning two days later – the Easter which we anticipate at the end of Lent – and at the end of our lives.  Amen.

Pastor Beth Orling