Sunday, March 8, 2020
Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
Prayer of the Day
O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Genesis 12:1-4a The blessing of God upon Abram
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 The promise to those who share Abraham’s faith
John 3:1-17 The mission of Christ: to save the world
Title: Thy Will IS Done…In Christ
A noteworthy place for bad theology – as in applied theology, or expressed theology, those understandings and teachings about God that are not the result of the learned ones writing in their ivory towers, but rather the theology that is expressed by everyday people like you and me, the theology that comes from the combination of life experience and lessons and anecdotes we absorb, the theology that we apply to get through daily life – Yes, the best place to hear this kind of grassroots theology expressed poorly, perhaps even to the point of damaging, is at a funeral. The things I have heard people say in these times of grief, sorrow, and loss would make an angel weep. And probably does. “I guess it was her time.” As if there is a heavenly time piece for each of us counting down to some pre-ordained moment of departure. Or worse, when someone says: “God called him home.” Well, that might sit right for a person who has lived a long life and whose physical, mental, or emotional state has diminished such that quality of life is next to nil. But try saying that to parents who cannot understand why their child has been taken from them at such an early age.
In a close second for a setting riddled with bad theology (and sort of connected to the funeral) is any discussion about God’s will. Any number of confusing events of suffering are attributed to “it must have been God’s will.” Back in the funeral setting, it’s a variation of those other painful expressions I quoted. Say “it must have been God’s will” to the people of Nashville recovering from a tornado. Announce it to St. John’s Lutheran Church of Nashville whose building was leveled. Try passing off the Coronavirus as God’s will. The people of 14th century Europe certain thought that when confronted with the plague. They thought self-mutilation would satisfy this angry, vindictive, punishing God as they theologized that God’s destruction-filled will was being unleashed with all its fury.
In college, a setting filled with young adults stressed about making decisions that would have a major impact on our futures, I remember hearing people saying things like, “I’m praying to know what God’s will is and whether I should work at this summer camp or that one.” As if, had they picked the “wrong one”, they were in for the worst summer of their lives. But knowing and following God’s will would assure them of the richest of experiences and all would be wonderful.
“Thy will be done.” We pray it each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Saying it is one thing. Trusting it, knowing it, following it, is a whole other issue. In some ways it is a mystery and faith is required. In other ways it is, partially at least, revealed through observation and discernment is required. But in all ways, it is beyond our knowing, understanding, comprehension, and full commitment.
Nicodemus was seeking to know God’s will. And he was growing in certainty that Jesus was sent from God, that through his ministry Jesus was doing God’s will. Nicodemus heard evidence in the things that Jesus was teaching and in the miraculous signs that he was performing. And it appears that Jesus feels that there is no reason to respond to Nicodemus’ confession of faith. It wasn’t a question. It was an affirmation from an elder in the community, a respected man who was of the party that thought doing God’s will meant strict adherence to the ancient law and that only those who were a part of their people would be considered under God’s will and a citizen of God’s kingdom that is built on the fulfillment of that will. And yet, he comes to Jesus late at night. Perhaps fearful of what others might think of him. He is seeking God’s will in one who some of his cohort had already judged a trouble-maker, a radical, a law breaker.
A quick note about context here – This late-night encounter with Nicodemus is recorded in the third chapter of John. Very early in his gospel. But John is the one who is not concerned with a chronological story. He is the one who is more concerned with witnessing to the signs that testify to who Jesus is. So, in chapter 2 we have the story of that famous first miracle – the water turned to wine. But then, directly after that, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover and he clears the temple of all the sellers in that most angry of episodes. As a part of that event, Nicodemus’ fellow Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign that would give a rationale for such an outrageous act. But Jesus says: “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days.” After his resurrection the disciples realized what he meant by this then outrageous claim.
All of this is to say that John has not recorded much about Jesus’ ministry before this encounter with Nicodemus, and yet Nicodemus has seen enough to see God’s will being worked by Jesus. Both, there must have been a lot more that John didn’t record. But also, it was clear early on, that Jesus was God’s will in human form. His words and his actions were a display of God’s will.
So, what does that mean for us? Well, if we are looking to know and understand God’s will, then we are wise to look to Jesus, his teachings and his miracles, his signs and his passion. And when we do that, the idea of God’s will would bring death to someone (the earlier comment made at a funeral), makes no sense. Jesus heals. Jesus restores life. God so loved the world that Jesus came to conquer death. And reading further into verse 17: Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save it. That is God’s will – to save the world. That is first and foremost. Not to bring punishing destruction. And wherever that Will that seeks to work love and life is spread, there is God’s kingdom, or kin-dom, or reign. And we pray that God’s reign would come to all parts of our life.
But we continue to live in a world of rage and roughhouse, of disease and disorder. Following God’s Will does not mean we are spared from what the world doles out. Abram heard God’s call, followed God’s Will, and he and Sarah were faced with all kinds of tests and hardships. Paul, the writer of our second reading followed God’s Will and he was beaten, imprisoned, stoned nearly to death, run out of many a town, and finally beheaded, all because he was following God’s Will and spreading God’s reign with the good news of the gospel. It wasn’t God causing the hardship, but the world as it fought against God’s Will. And of course, Jesus’ passion and death are the ultimate testimony that following God’s Will puts you in opposition to the world’s power and places you on a cross for all to mock as they assume that God has abandoned you.
But, as Easter people, we know that God’s Will always has the final say. God’s Will is that neither the world nor death will win in the end. For God’s Will brings new life to all through Jesus. God’s Reign is where our new life in Christ begins through the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s Will and God’s Reign live in the waters of the font, God’s Will is proclaimed in the presence of Christ at the table, and God’s reign is nourished in us when we gather and eat in Jesus’ name.
As a diverse community of faith, we live into God’s will as we seek to share the love of Jesus Christ with all creation. And as we do this work by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are spreading God’s reign.
As we speak those words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” may we seek to live it with faith and confidence, and with wisdom and commitment, may we trust and be at peace, and seek to go grow in understanding and persistence. God’s kingdom invites us to Dream big and Fight hard in Jesus’ name. God’s Will is that the Holy Spirit and the communion of saints are joined together in this work. Because God so loves that world that God gives, and gives, and gives. May God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
The Rev. Mark Erson,