A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on December 16, 2012.
Electricity or steam, dynamite or big masses—by these things we are impressed. We believe in visible power, in physical force. We have lost sight of the fact that what we call physical force is but the reflection of God’s power, brought forth and sustained by the power of his Word. All that is exists through his Word, his will, his thought. The primary reality is neither iron nor stone; but the Spirit and the Word of God.
—Emil Brunner in Sowing and Reaping
Restore in us, our Father, the conviction that you have the whole world in your hand– the little bitty baby and everyone here in the palm of your hand. Help us to hold fast to the conviction that your eye is upon the sparrow and that every hair is numbered like every grain of sand. Each time we pray, sustain us with the hope for your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Hasten the day when your will, and your will alone, directs every life. Remind us that you are not far off or indifferent to the suffering of any, most of all, to the suffering of the little ones. Remind us that through your son you have borne wounds and carried scars, that you have suffered rejection and wept over the condition of this world. Comfort those who mourn their children today. Comfort those who mourn in mass and those who grieve alone, those whose grief is as fresh as Friday and those whose grief is long standing. Watch over us in this world of sin. Father, we pray for our own hearts. Change these hearts of ours so that we would never sow seeds of anger or violence, that we would never encourage a world of hostility or hate. In everything we do, may we demonstrate the hearts of peacemakers and thus be known as your children. In the name of Jesus, the Christ, we pray. Amen.
Jesus was born into a dangerous world. It was a frightening time in which to live. We think about constitutional rights, but the only people that had anything that resembled constitutional rights would have been Roman citizens. If you talked to a galley slave or a prisoner in a Roman prison, they would have probably laughed at the thought of human rights.
In many ways, your life was not your own. Perhaps we are familiar with the teaching of Jesus in which he says, “If someone commands you to go with him a mile, go with him two miles.” That was based upon the law that a Roman soldier passing through a village could take anyone and command them to carry their equipment for a mile. You had no say; you just did it. Of course, Jesus said, “If they ask you to go one mile, go two miles.” It was one of those indications that you had no freedom.
Today, we have people who express passion about taxes in our country. People might use the word extortion to make a point, but back then, it really was extortion. Paying taxes was much closer to a Mafia shakedown than it was to filling out a Form 1040.
It was a frightening time, and all Herod had to do was lift his finger and the innocents of Bethlehem foreshadowed the children of Connecticut. It is into this world that the angels come on a dark night and say to the shepherds, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” I imagine that they needed tidings of joy then as much as we do today. The word to them and the word to us, the word across the centuries has been that the Messiah comes and brings with him a new world that wants to break forth like the dawn. In every age, Christians have celebrated this time of year in the midst of darkness.
Some of you probably remember Christmas of 1941, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, but there have been other times when Christmas has come and there have been incidents in history and moments that seem to threaten the joy and push it back. Today, we come to worship, and in spite of things that we see and hear, we come believing that Jesus Christ truly is ushering in a new world. As we have worshipped over the last couple of weeks, we have indicated that this is a world for everyone. It is a world that can happen right here where we live today.
Our focus today based on the passage of scripture from John 3 is the awareness that this new world comes in a way that we cannot see, hear, touch, measure or weigh. It is easy to think that it is not real and that it is just religious self-help talk to try to make ourselves feel better. But the world of the spirit of God is dawning.
As soon as I mention the world spiritual, people go in their minds to the idea that this is just a metaphor, a dream, or pretend which is precisely why I did not use a spiritual world in the title of the sermon. If we say a spiritual world, everybody begins to discount it, but it is a real world that happens to be a world of God’s spirit.
The text today may seem a little out of place for Christmas. It is the famous encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus who comes to Jesus at night. Jesus’ reply to Nicodemus reminds us exactly of the fact that this is a spiritual world that Jesus brings. He says, “You must be born” what? Chances are if you were following along in your Bible, your translation might have said “again.” That is the common evangelical way of reading it. “You must be born again.” My translation said, “You must be born from above.” The truth is that the word Jesus uses here is ambiguous, and I think he is intentionally ambiguous. It can mean again, from above or it can mean be born anew. But it is Jesus’ way of trying to say that there is a dimension to life that is only known through God’s spirit. We are born of flesh and blood, but if we are to know the new world that Christ ushers in, there comes a place where we have to be born in relationship to the spirit of God.
The word spiritual is so overused and misused. So many times, it is used like a higher form of narcissism where people are generally interested in the fuzzy realms of life, but what Jesus talks about is not that at all. It is about God’s spirit. It is about being in touch with, being alive to, being aware of and realizing that God’s spirit is a force in this world. He uses the analogy of wind. Can anybody really see the wind? No. We can only see the dust that blows in the wind. To those people that Jesus was teaching in Palestine, they could have only seen the sails fill out on the boats on the Sea of Galilee or a veil of sand and dust as it blew across the Judean wilderness or a tree or grass as it bends, but who can actually see the wind? Jesus says that the spirit is like this. You cannot see it or touch it but you know what it does and you know it is at work. There are times where we encounter people whose lives are changed, people whose homes are healed, people who have been enemies that are now reconciled, people who have been hopeless who somehow move above the hopelessness through faith in Christ. We can only describe their lives as victorious and triumphant. We would not see, measure, touch or take a picture of anything but it was the spirit of God in this new world that Christ brings in that is moving. It is moving and doing, and even when we are not paying attention, the new world is coming.
I won’t bore you with all the Greek verbs, but one thing Jesus tells Nicodemus is this: God wants to pour his life into us. Think about being born from above and think about God as heavenly Father. Here the language talks about God putting his life into us. What would that mean?
Do you remember that awful TV show, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Was it exciting to you to look at somebody’s solid gold bathroom faucets and all the things they had in their home and to think what it would be like if we could somehow share in that lifestyle? Shoe closets bigger than my bedroom, sound systems that would rival IMAX.
Stop and think for a moment: What is God’s life like? God is love. We learned that in 1 John. Plain and simple: God is love. That means once and for all, God has made a decision that God loves us—each of us, all of us, any of us. God’s intention is to want the best, do the best, and work for what is most hopeful, for every single one of us. God is love and God loves us. Because of this great love, God always wants restoration and reconciliation. Therefore, God is always working in ways that would heal the damage, restore the relationship, and offer forgiveness so that no one might need to live apart from God. One of the things we always think about God is God is all knowing and all wise. How many times do we find our wisdom falling short and our knowledge inadequate? Just think what it would be like if we could share in the eternal wisdom of God.
Here it is. Here is his word that imparts that wisdom to us: to have our lives filled with love, to be people of reconciliation and forgiveness, to have available to us the eternal wisdom of life, to know how things really are and to direct our lives according to the plan that God has and what God knows is good, helpful, and wholesome for us. What would it be like to share in that life?
Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus and says, “You must be born from above.” You must come alive to the spirit of God, not just to any sense of spiritual (with a little “s”) quest but the Spirit, God’s Spirit. It is only God’s Spirit that can give us these things.
Today, as we come in anticipation of the holiday and as we come during the advent season and think about a new world, it is a spiritual world and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness there is more to life than what I can see and touch and what I can take a picture of. The thing that is the depth of life and the thing that is more powerful than all these others is the spirit of God. There is a new world coming and it is a real world, a real world of God’s spirit.
This sermon has taken about three different versions this week. A couple of weeks ago, the plan was laid out for this to be an advent sermon. Then, after the events of Friday, the focus changed. What do you say in the midst of what everybody is thinking about and worried about? It was beginning to take another direction.
Most of you know that my daughter, Rachel, lives on the West Coast. She sent me a link to a website called “ILikeGiving.com.” She said, “I thought of you when I saw this.” It is a project to encourage generosity in life. It is “I Like Giving” but you can fill in the blank. I like cars. I like clothes. I like bugshells. It is ways that people have found to be generous in their lifestyles through cars, clothes, bugs or whatever it may be. While I was still trying to figure out what to say about this in light of last Friday, I clicked on “Adoption,” and it was one of the most inspiring stories I have seen in a long time. I thought, The headlines are about tragedy. The headlines are about sorrow and grief, but here is a story about a family that has adopted all these children and no one ever hears about this. But this is the new world coming. This is the spirit of God at work in this world changing, moving, sharing love, sharing hope, reconciliation, joy, and the wisdom of God. There is a new world coming. It is happening all around us, and sometimes we are so blinded by the darkness and the frightening things that we fail to notice. But there are glad tidings of great joy. Christ has come and his world is coming with him.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.