Sermon transcript for March 16, 2014
How Can These Things Be?
John 3:1-6; 16-17
Belmont UMC--March 16, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Note: This sermon was preached in a combined service with our Golden Triangle Members, representing Burma, Thailand, and Laos. It was interpreted in Karen, a Burmese dialect.
Nicodemus was a leader of the Jewish community. He came to Jesus in the dark of night, searching for answers. He had witnessed the work that Jesus was doing and he was hearing the words that Jesus taught. Nicodemus was a person who felt he knew what to expect from God. He thought he knew God’s limits. He thought he knew what God would or would not do in the world.
But a teacher, named Jesus, was challenging all of Nicodemus’ ideas and beliefs. So he came to Jesus during the cover of darkness to get some answers.
Some of us recently attended an educational event in which one of the guiding rules is this sentence, “God’s middle name is surprise.” This means that God may do things we have not expected. God may indeed surprise us like God did for Nicodemus.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again.
Nicodemus asked Jesus the logical question, “How can I be born again when I am old?” Jesus was talking about a spiritual birth. Nicodemus was thinking about a physical birth. We forget that God can surprise us because we think about physical things and not spiritual things.
Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be?”
A few years ago I listened to the story of a young man whose life had been marked by hatred and violence toward persons who did not look like him. But he had a spiritual encounter with God. And now he teaches and preaches about love and justice. He brings different groups of people together and guides them to live together in peace and to love one another. The young man’s friends look at him now and asked, “How can these things be?” “How can this man be so different?”
We find it hard to think outside the physical and see the possibilities that God brings to our lives. But Jesus said that this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
If we had asked the congregation at Belmont 10 years ago if we would be worshipping together today, we would ask, “How can that happen?”If we had asked how friends from many cultures, friends from Thailand, Burma, Laos and many other countries would gather under in one room and worship, we would have asked, “How can that happen?” If we could have looked into the future to see us here together, we would have asked, “How can that be?”
But the Holy Spirit had another plan, God’s plan. And God used Pastor Sandy and her husband, Nick, and members of the church to fulfill God’s plan. And here we are, worshipping God in different languages. Here we are, growing in our love of each other, and learning to see things as God sees them.
Sometimes our different languages seem like a wall between us. At Christmas I watched the youth of the Golden Triangle Fellowship act out the story of the Prodigal Son. The language was not my language, but I quickly knew the story. And I was inspired by the youth and their enthusiasm for telling this familiar story of God’s love and forgiveness.
How can these things be? Because our stories are all centered in God’s story of love and forgiveness. This is the common language of all our lives.
And we are blessed when we remember what God is doing among us.
How can these things be?
The question is answered in five words of the Gospel story. The words are these, “God so loved the world. . .” “God so loved the world. . .” Do we believe those words?
Nicodemus must have started to believe them. The words changed his heart. And the wind of the Holy Spirit began to blow through his life.
We see Nicodemus again at the end of the Gospel. He is bringing spices to help prepare the body of Jesus for burial. His heart is full of God’s love. His new faith filled with imagination. Because of 5 words, “God so loved the world. . .”
Say them in your language to yourself. God so loved the world.
Feel the Holy Spirit moving in your life as well.
Sermon transcript for March 9, 2014
“Lost in God’s Garden”
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-9
Belmont UMC—March 9, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
We know this story from Genesis. It has an ancient and primitive feel to it, but in some ways it can seem quite contemporary and it can remind us of how human nature has stayed the same for a very long time.
The episode comes on the heels of the creation. God puts the human that God created right in the middle of the Garden of Eden, the garden’s name means “delight” and from it we get the idea of paradise. God gives the human the mission to “to farm it and to take care of it.” The human is to take care of and serve the creation of God. That mission continues to be our responsibility even today, but we have not always fulfilled the mission of creation care, have we?
The story we read today also describes how people become alienated from God. In Romans, Paul describes this alienation this way, “For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (7:19) Why is that?
When I was 18 years old one of the persons responsible for the renewal of my faith was a friend named Dinah. She was a young school teacher who nurtured me and a lot of us along the beginning of new found faith in God. One day Dinah and I were supposed to rendezvous at her home for a trip to church. I arrived first and I could hear the vacuum cleaner, an ancient bullet shaped monstrosity that had been passed down to her by her grandmother. The door was open and I could see into the living room through the screened door. To my horror, my spiritual mentor was screaming at the vacuum cleaner, which was clogged and I watched as she threw sections of the vacuum across the room. I did not know whether to knock or run away.
Dinah saw me standing there and she started laughing, though angry and frustrated tears still flowed down her face. She said, “How does a human being get so far away from God because of a stupid vacuum cleaner?” Why is that? How do we get alienated from God?
I haven’t found any place in the Bible where it says that it’s a sin to curse the Electrolux but Dinah’s question has stayed with me over the years, “How do we get so far away from God?” (I had a similar experience with a weed eater last summer and does feel a bit like sinning.) And the Genesis passage is a story about alienation, vulnerability and human nature.
The setting of our story is Paradise. The setting is the place of blessing. The setting is the place of God’s graciousness. It is the garden of God’s creation and I try to picture some of the most beautiful and idyllic places, from hiking Cascade Canyon in the Grand Teton Mountains or up the Porter Creek Train in the Smokey Mountains during the height of wildflower season, or watching glaciers calve in Glacier Bay in Alaska. Try to imagine a place more compelling, a place where God has given creation everything needed, even companionship with each other, with God.
God said to the humans, “Look around, make yourselves at home. Eat anything you want.” There was this one exception: one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and of that tree God said, “Do not eat the fruit from that tree.” Then human nature kicked in and the trouble began.
The story gets a bit familiar. Imagine parents saying, “Children, you can have a snack when you get home. There are healthy snacks in the refrigerator, there’s string cheese and fresh vegetables and yogurt. We even have apples and potato chips. We are well stocked with snack foods. Feel free to eat any of those snacks, but you may not, under any circumstance eat any of the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that are in the yellow cookie jar beside the stove.” Hearing that, all the children can think about are chocolate chip cookies.
Imagine if God said, “You can sit anywhere in the garden. There are garden benches all over the place. But you may not sit on this bench. I painted this bench just a few minutes ago with dark green paint and the paint is still wet. That’s why it has a wet paint sign on it. Do not get near it. Do not touch it and get your finger prints on it. Do not even think about it!” And as soon as God leaves the garden, I’ll touch that bench just to see how wet that paint really is.
When our oldest son was a little boy, his mother wrapped his birthday gifts and then said something like this, “Lars, I have wrapped all your gifts and put them by the desk in the bedroom. Stay away from them.” (This was not her finest parenting moment.) When I came home that afternoon and went into the bedroom, I found that all the presents had been cut open and Lars had tried to conceal his sin by taping them back with little suture like strips of green florist tape. There was a part of me that wanted to show him how sneak a peek at his presents more deceitfully.
What is wrong with us? Why are we so disobedient? We judge the human beings in our story today for deliberately disobeying God—especially after God had been so gracious and generous. Was it so hard to stay away from that one tree? How hard could that be?
The setting of the story is the setting of God’s blessing and God’s graciousness and this is the setting of our lives as well. God has been so good to us so gracious. God loves us and in the setting of this gracious, we fail and become alienated from God. Things have not changed much.
The man and woman ate from the tree and then went and hid themselves among the trees in the garden. They felt alienated from God. When I got into trouble as a child, I would go and hide in the woods for awhile. But one cannot hide forever.
Do you ever feel that kind of alienation from God? We all do from time to time. We blame the Sunday School literature or the hymn choices or the sermon. Or maybe it is because we went to church under pretense, unwilling to be honest about our utter helplessness without God. I suspect there is no better hiding place than right here on Sunday mornings. We can at least try to fool the neighbors, even if we cannot fool God.
And God said to the man (Adam), “Where are you?” The rabbinical interpretation I read about this went something like this: Yes, the all knowing God knew where the Adam was, but the Adam did not know where Adam was. Adam needed to confess “I a here, I am hiding, I disobeyed, I’m lost in your garden. I just realized that I’m naked and cold.”
During the season of Lent we need to hear God asked, “Where are you?” And spiritual transformation begins when we are able to answer that question openly and honestly through self-examination and awareness.
We know that Adam and Eve were not ready to answer this honestly. Adam said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” He blames God for creating the woman and he blames the woman for giving him the fruit. It is not his fault. And he disassociates himself from the woman. He does not say, “My wife gave it to me.” Have you ever said, “Do you know what your child did while you were at work?”
Eve is not ready for confession either. She says, “The serpent did it. He tricked me and made me eat it.” How quick to blame someone else for our failures!
I was throwing the ball to my little boy in the back yard. Time after time he swung his bat and missed the ball. He’d pick it up, look frustrated and throw it back to me. I threw the ball and he missed yet again. He picked up the ball and he walked up to me like a professional catcher coming out to the pitcher’s mound to talk to the pitcher. It held that ball up toward my face and said, “You are not very good at this, are you? You are supposed to hit the bat. Try again.”
“Lord, I could do better if you would quit missing my bat. If only you were a better pitcher, Lord.”
We need the season of Lent. We need to smear the ashes of our humanity on our foreheads and start to be honest about where we are on this journey. We need to come out of hiding. We need the time to say to God, “This is who I am right now. I know it is not a very pretty picture but it is who I am, and I know that only by your grace and forgiveness will I be able to be your disciple.’
We need the season of Lent to honest about our failure to fulfill the mission, to take care of the garden, the creation. We can use the season to find new ways to do this well.
We need the season to reflect on our relationships with each other and seek ways to make them better. We may need to forgive someone and be reconciled.
We need this season to hear God ask, “Where are you?” “Where are you, Ken?” And our gracious God will always be there, waiting to love, to forgive and to fellowship with us.