The following sermon—"What Has Gone Wrong?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, July 9, 2017. Based on Genesis 3 and 1 Timothy 1:12-17, it is part of a series of sermons on the Christian story.

When a newspaper posed the question, "What’s Wrong with the World?" the Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response: "Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely Yours, G.K. Chesterton." I am what’s wrong with the world, he said. I wonder if he was the only one who came up with that answer.

What is wrong with the world? Everybody has an opinion on that question. Usually, we’re quick to blame someone else. We say, They are what is wrong with the world. It’s a serious question. In fact, every philosophy, every account of the world, every large-scale story, must give an account of the world as it is, what the problem is. What has gone wrong?

We Christians have our own story. Our story is the story the Bible tells. On the question of what has gone wrong, our story is realistic. We say, yes, something has gone wrong. We also say that we’ve gone wrong. Human rebellion is the heart of the trouble.  But the trouble has spread everywhere into every facet of life.

The Bible’s way of showing us what has gone wrong, and how life really works, is to put it in the form of a story. A story can be like a mirror. When we hear the story, we pause, then we take an honest look, and, lo and behold, we see ourselves. We hear this particular story and we recognize ourselves. What the characters in this story do, we continue to do. The consequences that swiftly follow their actions continue to mark our life in the world. This is our story too. Here is what happens. The Lord God who formed the humans placed them in a fruitful garden which the Lord God had also formed. They had the run of the place, with one exception. Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Life was good. Not boring. They did have meaningful work to do, tilling and keeping the garden.

They were also accountable to God. It was important for them to obey God’s commandment.

But there is another character that enters this story, a serpent, more crafty than any other wild animal. After a while, the humans begin to doubt God’s word. Did God really say that? Does God really have our best interests at heart? Could it be that God is not really for us, that God is holding something good back from us? They begin to think that it just might be better to go their own way. They reasoned that life could be better were they to take and eat of that one fruit that was off limits to them.

The story explores the woman’s thought process. The woman saw that the tree was good for food. That makes some sense, based on their experience with the fruit from other trees. It was a delight to the eyes. We have no reason to doubt that. Then this: the tree was desired to make one wise. Now that one seems to be a reach. A lot of us enjoy fresh fruit, but really, do we expect to go to the farmer’s market and immediately raise our IQ as a result? Can any fruit deliver on that promise? This part of the story is like a mirror. I suspect that what we’re being shown here is that when we begin to distrust God’s word, it isn’t long before we’ll fall for anything, even utter nonsense. We believe things about the alternatives that just aren’t true. And one thing you see in this story, this mirror which shows us what we also do, is that sin is not rational. It does not make sense. But we still do it. We read this story, and ask, What were they thinking? Maybe they weren’t thinking. Or at least they weren’t thinking very well. Sound familiar?

So the woman and the man eat the fruit. They do what the Lord God had told them not to do. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. How quickly their world changes. Shame and fear enter their lives.

The story is a mirror that shows us what we keep doing. It also shows us the state of relationships in the world today. The relationship between human beings and the Lord God is now marked by hiding. The relationship between the man and the woman is marked by blaming. The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate. That good relationship between the man and the woman has deteriorated into blaming one another for what has gone wrong. And now instead of harmony, there is tyranny. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. That is a far cry from "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh." The relationship between the humans and the world has also changed. It is no longer as harmonious as it had been. Now there are thorns and thistles that make work difficult and frustrating.

I’ve given you a lot of bad news today. Sometimes, though, bad news is exactly what we need to hear. We may be inclined to evade the truth if it’s embarrassing or inconvenient, but there are times when facing up to the bad news helps us move forward.

Yet even here, in this story that is so frank in telling us what is wrong with the world and with us, there are surprising hints of something else. That something else is God’s unexpected grace and God’s strategy to put things right. In the very darkest moment, when the Lord is addressing the serpent, we come upon this puzzling saying: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel." It seems that there will be ongoing conflict, ongoing struggle between good and evil. But then there is this hint that some readers have taken to be a prophecy of the work of Christ. Though the serpent strikes the heel of the woman’s offspring, he will strike the serpent’s head. He’ll do more damage to the serpent than the serpent will do to him. Could this be a prophecy of the Lord’s ultimate triumph over the enemy?

Whatever we make of it, there is another sign of God’s grace that is crystal clear. The man and the woman are overcome by shame. It doesn’t take any time at all for their disobedience to bear bitter fruit. So they try to do something about that shame. They sew fig leaves together and make loincloths for themselves.

We can see ourselves in that attempt. We’ve been trying to cover over the effects of our sin ever since. And the results have not always worked out as planned. So here is what the Lord God does. The Lord God makes garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothes them. What the Lord did for them was more radical than their effort was. It required the death of one of the animals. But it was an act of the Lord’s kindness to the humans. That act of kindness does not turn back the clock. The consequences of their rebellion are still present. Nor do the skins prevent them from being expelled from the garden. From that day forward, human life is lived out east of Eden. But those skins help them with their immediate problem, their shame. They may also be pointing forward to the distant future when Christ’s blood will be shed so that our shame can be dealt with in a lasting way.

What has gone wrong? Most people would agree that something has gone wrong, though we have a whole host of explanations.

How about the Christian story? The Christian story doesn’t evade the truth. Yes, something has gone wrong. The effects can be seen everywhere. This story shows us that it’s our own doing. It’s G.K. Chesterton all over again, admitting that he is what is wrong with the world. It’s better to face up to the truth than to pretend that there’s nothing wrong.

Even here, though, in the most tragic part of the story, we have a hint of another chapter that follows this one. We have a hint that the Lord God, who formed us out of the ground, is not done with us yet.

 

 

The following sermon—"Jesus Compassion"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, June 18, 2017. It is based on Ezekiel 34:1-6 and Matthew 9:35-10:8.

 

Last Sunday, I found myself in a crowd. Some 40,000 people made their way into University of Phoenix Stadium for Harvest America, and I was one of them. I’m glad that a lot of people were there, but while we were waiting and waiting to get into the parking lot, I wasn’t enjoying the experience so much. If I could have forcibly relocated all of those cars that were slowing our progress, I would have.

 

How do you like crowds? Perhaps you feed off of the energy of a large number of people who are anticipating some excitement. Or perhaps you can’t stand crowds. You find the other people annoying and you would just as soon stay home and read a book or watch the game on TV. When we encounter a crowd, we may become impatient and do everything we can to separate ourselves from the masses. So we sit up and take notice as we observe Jesus when he finds himself in a crowd. It’s different with him because he’s the one who drew the crowd in the first place. But the really impressive thing is his response. He sees the crowds of people and he has compassion for them. This is not the usual, Get out of my way! Not the usual critical spirit we have when we look at the way people carry themselves and the clothes they’re wearing.

 

Jesus has compassion. The Gospel of Matthew uses the same word for having compassion that’s used of our innards, our guts. The idea is that having compassion is being moved in our inner parts. It’s a strong picture of caring so much for other people that it has a profound impact on you. You’re moved within. You may even suffer along with the other person. To say the least, it’s not our usual response when we find ourselves in a crowd. But here is Jesus, responding to the crowds of people with nothing less than compassion. It reminds me of Charles Wesley’s line in one of his hymns: "Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art." With this crowd, Jesus has compassion. I propose that we take a close look and learn from Jesus about compassion. Perhaps it will rub off on us!

 

When I’m in a crowd, I see a crowd. I see people who are in my way, blocking my view or wasting my time or obstructing my path to the parking lot. Jesus, however, sees something that we miss. He sees the people as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It’s the book of Ezekiel all over again. It’s like that era when the leaders were worthless, or worse. The people were sheep without a shepherd to look out for them. Now, years later, Jesus looks out on a crowd of his fellow Jews, and he sees the same thing, the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Their leaders have let them down. The people are being fleeced by the officials who should be looking out for them. Other voices, loud voices, are inviting them to choose the way of violence, which will only get them into deeper trouble. So the people who made up the crowds were in bad shape. It would be normal to view them as a nuisance. Jesus, however, looked out on the crowds and saw people who were in desperate need.

 

That is what he sees. Can anything be done to help? Jesus has a small band of disciples, a small group of them. What can such a weak and motley crew do in the face of such need? It’s an impossible situation. But Jesus gives them something to do, one thing that will have a huge impact. He tells them, Pray! What shall they pray for? Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.

 

You see, the picture shifts from one part of the farm to another, from sheep to grain. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. So pray to the Lord of the harvest. It’s the Lord’s harvest. It’s God’s work first and foremost. Jesus looks at the crowd, and he first sees them as sheep without a shepherd. Now he sees them as an abundant crop.

 

N.T. Wright puts it like this: "Jesus looked at his contemporaries and saw them not only like sheep without a shepherd but, changing the farming imagery, like a field full of wheat with nobody to harvest it." There is work to be done. The people who make up the crowd need care. They need to be cared for and invited. But where are the workers?

 

Jesus looks at the crowd and he sees something promising, that the grain is ready to be harvested. He sees potential where most people would see none.

 

If only there were workers! So he tells the few workers he does have, Pray for the Lord to send more workers out. Ask the Lord to send laborers out to gather the harvest.

 

Can we pray like this today? Phoenix is once more the fifth largest city in this country, with approximately 1.6 million people. Now that’s a crowd! What do we see when we consider the vast number of people who surround us? Are there people out there who are like sheep without a shepherd? Like a plentiful harvest of grain that needs to be gathered in? Jesus bids his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest, send workers! Yes, there are a lot of Christians here in Phoenix, and more than one thousand congregations. Even so, it seems that there are people who are like sheep without a shepherd, estranged, confused, at their wits end. It seems that when we pray we ought to ask the Lord to send laborers!

 

But a strange thing happens when you pray. People who pray for something tend to get involved. When you pray, your eyes are opened and you are prompted to become part of the answer to your own prayer. You can’t remain an innocent bystander. You get involved. When we follow Jesus’ instruction, praying the Lord the harvest to send out laborers, look out! We may well be among the laborers who are sent. When you pray for something and you see an opportunity to do something about it, you get moving. This is exactly what happens with Jesus’ disciples. The very people he asks to pray are soon sent out as workers.

 

Here, then, is a pattern for us to follow. First, learn to see people as Jesus sees them. Second, pray. Third, be willing to be part of the answer to your own prayer. We’re laborers in the Lord’s service. This doesn’t mean that we’re all doing the same thing. The Lord can use a whole variety of us, with a whole variety of gifts and a whole variety of places to serve. All sorts of people doing ordinary things can join together in making a difference, so that sheep will have a shepherd and the grain will be gathered into the barn.

 

For all of this to fit together, we need to circle back to where we began, Jesus’ own compassion. Karl Barth has this to say about how Jesus has compassion for the crowd: "The suffering and sin and abandonment and peril of these men not merely went to the heart of Jesus but right into His heart, into Himself, so that their plight was now His own, and as such He saw and suffered it far more keenly than they did. … He took their misery upon Himself, taking it away from them and making it His own." Jesus has taken our misery upon himself at the cross. His death on the cross is the greatest act of compassion there is.

 

So we look back to Jesus’ life and death, and we see him having compassion for people, even the crowds. But that’s the past. What about the present?

 

Jesus continues to have compassion for people who are like sheep without a shepherd. He has sent the Holy Spirit to continue his work. Not only that. He has sent us. We who know his compassion for us find our life in him. Now we are among those laborers who are sent out into the Lord’s harvest.

 

Here is what St. Teresa of Avila, who lived in the 16th century, has to say:

 

"Christ has

 

No body now on earth but yours;

 

No hands but yours;

 

No feet but yours;

 

Yours are the eyes

 

Through which is to look out Christ’s compassion to the world;

 

Yours are the feet

 

With which he is to go about

 

Doing good;

 

Yours are the hands

 

With which he is to bless now."

 

 

 

 

The following sermon—"Who Can You Trust These Days?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, May 7, 2017. It is based on John 10:1-10.

"Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet." Maybe you’ve heard these words before. They come from Will Rogers. I can’t help but like someone who could think that way and have such a great attitude toward everyone. I’m sure that I would have enjoyed the company of Will Rogers.

But if you try to be a Will Rogers clone, seeing every stranger as a friend you haven’t met yet, you may run into trouble. You may find that some of those strangers aren’t friends after all. They may try to pick your pocket. They may try to take advantage of your charitable attitude and do you harm. How would Will Rogers fare when some scoundrel stole his identity and emptied his bank account?

People talk about Jesus, how he loved everybody and wouldn’t it be great if everyone could be like Jesus, then the world would be a better place. But here is Jesus speaking about the way things are, and he uses words like thief and outlaw. He is no Will Rogers! There are, Jesus says, people who are up to no good. They do not have your best interests at heart. They come along with the goal of enriching themselves at your expense.

This is a hard pill to swallow. Why does Jesus have such a negative attitude? Because he’s seen people in his day who do more harm than good. Perhaps he has some of the local religious authorities in mind. Perhaps he is thinking of some of the freedom fighters who would take up arms against the Roman menace and get themselves and others killed in the process.

Jesus is realistic. There are people you ought not to trust. But he says more than that. He says something that takes a lot of confidence and courage to put out there on the table. He says, There are thieves, and then there is me! They came to steal and kill and destroy. I came to give you life, a full life, an abundant life, the best kind of life. That is my mission. I am not here to pick your pocket. I am here to give you a good and rich life.

We’ve heard people talk like this before. They say, All those other products are worthless.

Those who came along pushing them are frauds. But you can trust me! Really? We’re not so sure. Who can you trust these days? So we sit up and take notice when Jesus says these things. Jesus must be very sure of himself in order to speak this way. But can he deliver on his promise?

To help us grasp what he is saying about himself, he paints a picture with words. This picture or analogy is a common scene in the Middle East. It’s a sheep pen. Sheep are gathered into an enclosed space for their own safety. Access to the sheep is restricted. One figure in this picture Jesus paints is the shepherd. The sheep know their shepherd’s voice and will follow him. There is a world of difference between an outlaw and a shepherd. Keep the outlaw out, but let the shepherd into the sheep pen.

So, as you might expect, Jesus likens himself to that shepherd. He too is a shepherd, a good shepherd. His sheep hear his voice and follow him. You can’t help but think of what the Bible says, how the Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 23), and how the Lord gently leads the mother sheep (Isaiah 40). People who heard Jesus speaking must have gotten the point, that he is likening himself to the Lord. What a bold claim he’s making!

Jesus is the shepherd. But he takes this picture he’s painted and he turns it sideways to say something more about himself. We of course make the connection between Jesus and the shepherd. This makes it easy for us to skip right over this other thing he says. He’s still playing with this picture of the sheep pen, but he says something that you don’t expect, and he says it twice: I am the gate of the sheep.

What? A gate is an inanimate object. We get the point that he is the shepherd of the sheep and that the sheep hear his voice. How can he also be the gate? Isn’t it one or the other? Perhaps this part of the Gospel of John is saying two different things. Jesus is the gate, and Jesus is the shepherd. Keep them separate. Why, then, does this part of the Gospel of John not keep them separate but bring them together? What does one have to do with the other? How can the same person be both the shepherd and the gate? Or can he?

Help is at hand! I found an article written by Eric Bishop ("The Door of the Sheep," The Expository Times, 1960 article) which shares a story told by Presbyterian mission worker William M. Miller in Iran. He discovered that the shepherd sleeps in the opening of the enclosure that surrounds the sheep. The shepherd is also the door! Now I get it!

No wonder these two things are side by side in Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus is both the shepherd and the gate.

As shepherd, he leads us and guides us. For our part, we hear his voice and follow where he leads. Jesus is also the gate. Through him, we come in and we go out. He is the gate through whom we find life, abundant life.

In the picture that Jesus paints, and in the story of the shepherds in Iran, the shepherd lives dangerously. He sleeps where he does to protect the sheep. The shepherd is putting his own life on the line so that they can live.

I’m reminded of these lines from Psalm 23:

"He lets me rest in grassy meadows;

    he leads me to restful waters;

        he keeps me alive."

The Lord Jesus has paid a steep price to keep us alive. We Christians know that Jesus not only put his life on the line like that shepherd who is also the gate, but he actually gave his life so that we could live.

Jesus teaches us that he has come into this world in order to grant us life. He is no thief or outlaw. Who can you trust these days?  We can trust the One who has come to give us a full life, an abundant life.

It’s Psalm 23 all over again with its lush pastures and overflowing feast. It’s not merely squeaking by, but a rich and full life.

Yet strangely enough, people commonly decline his offer. We’re offered an abundant life, but we settle for others things. How is it that we settle for so little? C.S. Lewis wonders about this. He recognizes how important our desires are, then he make this observation: "Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. … We are far too easily pleased" (The Weight of Glory, 2).

What the Lord has in mind for us is an abundant life. Abundant life is not necessarily the health and wealth promised by some so-called prosperity teaching. Abundant life is a life with God. That is what makes it life to the fullest.

How can we have this life?  Look to Jesus who is both the shepherd and the gate. The one thing that he give us to do in this picture that he draws is to enter. He is the gate to life, true life, a rich life, abundant life. Enter!

 

 

 

The following sermon—"Blinded by the Light?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, March 26, 2017. It is based on John 9:1-41.

 

There is a song dating back to the 1970s called "Blinded by the Light." It’s a striking title because ordinarily light does just the opposite, it helps you see, it’s anti-blindness. So this is unexpected and strange. Can you really be blinded by the light? It can and does happen when another driver is coming toward you and insists on using the car’s high beams. So yes, I suppose that you can be blinded by the light. 

 

I am thinking today of another way in which you can be blinded by the light, and not just any light but blinded by the light. Jesus declares that he is the light of the world. Not one among many but the light of the world, one of a kind. At his command, a man who had always been blind receives his sight. The giving of sight to a man who had been born blind is a sign.

It’s a sign that points to something else, something about Jesus. He is the light of the world. He is the giver of light. He makes the blind to see. 

 

So what is not to like in this story? This man is blind no more. Everyone rejoices with him and they all live happily ever after. Right? Wrong! You might say that as soon as he receives his sight, this man’s troubles begin! So much trouble that he could even wonder whether or not it was worth it. 

 

Jesus declares that he is the light of the world. As long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world and there is work to do. But though Jesus is the light of the world, and though he has shone light in this unexpected act of healing, some see the light but some do not see the light. They are in fact blinded by the light. 

 

So it’s a story about Jesus as the light of the world. It’s also a story of resistance, our resistance. You see it in those hardliners among the Pharisees, as N.T. Wright calls them. These hardliners do not rejoice. They complain. Jesus did what he did on the Sabbath. Therefore he must not be of God. Over and over, they say, We know. We know that this man cannot be from God. Do they really know? We’ve all met people who are know-it-alls. They’re sure that they know all sorts of things. But we wonder. Does arrogance keep us from seeing the light, so that instead we are blinded by the light? The story seems to be warning us. Don’t be so full of yourself that it blinds you to reality. 

 

Then there are the man’s parents. What do they do? They duck! As we say today, they threw their son under the bus. When they are put on the spot, they tell the authorities, Ask him, he is of age. So much for supporting their son in his hour of need. You see, they are afraid. They do have something to fear, excommunication from the synagogue. And that is nothing to sneeze at. It would hurt to be thrown out of the worshiping community, to be ostracized from their friends. So even though their dear son has received something he’s never had before, the ability to see, these parents are blinded by their fear. 

 

Jesus is the light of the world. He is doing things. He does saving things. But if we meet him with arrogance or fear, we just might be blinded by the light. Consider those religious hardliners and the man’s parents. We read about them and we chuckle. How can people be so thickheaded? It is a funny story but it packs a punch. What does it say about us? We find here that we can be in the presence of the light and miss out altogether! In fact, if we aren’t careful, we can become entrenched in our blindness. 

 

In this story, people don’t stay put. That’s what makes so interesting. There is movement, and I think that is one of the really important things for us to observe. Can people really change? That man who had been blind changes a lot. Receiving sight was only the beginning. At first, we find that he is happy to admit it when he does not know something. Who healed you? Where has he gone? I don’t know, he says. 

 

But as the story unfolds, he changes. Even though Jesus is nowhere to be found, the man figures things out a little bit at a time. Well, he must be a prophet. Then, he must be more than a prophet because he has done something unheard of. Finally, when Jesus does appear on the scene a second time, the man who had been blind sees even more clearly. He becomes a believer and even a worshiper. 

 

This relentless forward movement toward the light takes place in spite of all sorts of obstacles. He is questioned and threatened by powerful men. Still he proceeds to put two and two together. And as he discovers more and more, he speaks up in spite of the the threats. That takes some nerve! But he does pay a steep price. They condemn him as a sinner, blaming him for his blindness, then they excommunicate him. That’s how he’s rewarded for his insight. 

 

While the man who had been blind is moving one direction, those hardliners seem to be headed in the opposite direction. They move from questioning to threatening, even lowering the boom on this man whose chief crime was telling the truth. They become more obtuse, more resistant, more stubborn, completely blinded by the light. In this story, we observe movement in two opposite directions. One man is moving toward the light. The others are moving toward the darkness. 

 

The prayer book I’ve been using this year included a reading this week that is taken from the C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity. It says, "Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heaven creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is Heaven: that is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other" (cited in Guide for Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, 125-6). 

 

That’s a very sobering and timely word. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. That’s what we see playing out in this story. I’ve often noticed that the really important thing, even more than your starting point, is the direction you’re headed. This poor man who lived so long in darkness had an unpromising start. On the other hand, these particular Pharisees, these hardliners, have had every conceivable advantage. They know Scripture. They have had years of instruction. They have one another. Yet when the light of the world enters the picture, what is the outcome? The healed man is progressing to one state, the heavenly one, while the others are progressing to the other. 

 

Jesus himself, at the end of the story, explains what is really going on. He says, "For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind." These are hard words. Jesus’ coming forces a choice. How will we respond? Neutrality doesn’t seem to be an option. It’s one way or the other because Jesus has come into the world for judgment. 

 

Jesus came as the light of the world. Some people came to him, attracted to the light. The man who was given sight kept moving, kept coming to the light. What a joy it was for him to be in the presence of the Lord and to bow down before him! But there were others, plenty of them, who had the opposite response. Though they too were in the Lord’s presence, though they had witnessed his power in action, an act of healing they could not deny, it did them no good. They actually ended up worse off than they had been, blinded by the light. They rejected the light of the world. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, people loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19). 

 

It’s the same story for us today. The light has come into the world. What will it be for us? What do you want? That’s the key question. How we answer it will determine the direction we go, toward the light or toward the darkness.

 

 

 

The following sermon—"What Do You Want?"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Sunday, March 12, 2017. It is based on John 3:1-21.

Have you ever gotten more than you bargained for? You ask a simple question and you get a long, rambling speech. Have you even made an innocent comment and accidentally opened up a can of worms? Have you ever wished that you had just kept your mouth shut because you got more than you bargained for?

I feel for Nicodemus. He got more than he bargained for. He had gone to some trouble to have a conversation with Jesus. He came at night. Maybe that seemed like the best way to have some quality time to talk with Jesus about things that matter. No distractions to interfere. Yet the longer he is there with Jesus, the greater the confusion. Every time Jesus says something, Nicodemus is left scratching his head. It’s one puzzling statement after another. Nicodemus has mental whiplash because the topics shift so quickly, one strange saying after another.

Sometimes it’s merely baffling. Other times, though, it seems like a personal attack.  For instance, Jesus asks him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?"

Nicodemus is not accustomed to being attacked or ridiculed. He is highly educated. He is a prominent leader. People look up to him. He has worked hard for a long time to get where he is now. No one trifles with Nicodemus. Until this night.  Jesus accuses Nicodemus of failing to believe. You’re Israel’s distinguished teacher, are you? How can it be, then, that you don’t understand how the spiritual life works? What’s the matter with you, Nicodemus?

No advanced standing for you. Your only hope is to go back to kindergarten. Better yet, back to the womb! Try being born all over again. Have you ever been in a situation where you expected someone to defer to you and it didn’t happen? When a famous pro athlete goes out on the town and is confronted by someone working security who doesn’t seem to be treating him with proper respect, he asks, Don’t you know who I am? Doesn’t Jesus know who Nicodemus is? Why, then, does he knock the great leader down to the ground, repeatedly? Is there some good purpose in what he is doing?

Perhaps there is. Nicodemus got more than he bargained for that night. But now I mean this in a good sense. Yes, Jesus does challenge him. Yes, Jesus tells him that he must start all over again. No, he doesn’t defer to Nicodemus on the basis of his prior accomplishments. But notice how Jesus does take a lot of time with Nicodemus. He is giving his nocturnal visitor a thorough explanation of God’s great purpose and how we fit in.

Jesus gives Nicodemus incredibly good news. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Jesus is not trifling with Nicodemus but giving him the greatest treasure of all. It’s the announcement of the love of God and the offer of true life. It’s not something you have to earn. It’s not a negotiation. It’s a gift. Our part, Jesus tells Nicodemus, is to believe.

Jesus tells him further that God’s purpose in sending the Son is not to condemn but to save. This is good news indeed. But again, our part is to believe. If we do believe, we are not condemned. If we don’t believe in the name of God’s Son, we are condemned already. This is a shocking thing that Jesus is telling Nicodemus. The judgment that everyone expected to come at the end, the very end of human history, is already playing out now. And it revolves around the coming of God’s only Son. Something has happened that is so significant that it constitutes a dividing line. You are on one side or the other. It all depends on this one thing that is given us to do, which is to believe.

We don’t find life with God by performing a whole set of tasks. Nicodemus has done a lot of things in his life. But that doesn’t matter. Even he must go back to the beginning and be born from above. For him and for us all, believing is the key thing.

I’ve been saying that, when Nicodemus visited Jesus that night, he got more than he bargained for. So it is that Jesus doesn’t merely tell him that it’s important to believe. Jesus also shows him what that believing looks like, and, just as important, what not believing looks like. He shows Nicodemus the terrible danger of getting it wrong.

This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Jesus is talking about what happened when he arrived on the scene. He’s saying something here that feels like a slap in the face. We like to think that we’re pretty good, not perfect to be sure but not all that bad either. Jesus is saying that people actually prefer darkness to light. Given the option between the two, we choose darkness.

Lest we miss the point because it’s so outrageous, he adds another comment. All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. You see, Nicodemus might have tried to tone down Jesus’ teaching. Well, yes, we can imagine him saying, we all need a little bit of improvement. Yes, we are off by a few degrees and need a course correction to get our believing on track. Jesus, however, says that the situation is worse than that, far more radical. Human beings actually hate the light. That’s the trouble. Only something drastic, like being born again, will work the needed change.

The failure to believe is rooted in something we would rather not think about or admit, that it’s possible for us to love darkness rather than light.

Jesus is saying something important to Nicodemus about our life with God. The really crucial matter, even more crucial than getting our beliefs straight, is the human heart. Even if you know a great deal, as Nicodemus surely does, if you hate the light, you will get nowhere. In fact, you will experience condemnation even now. The way forward is to love the light more than darkness.

I keep saying that Nicodemus got more than he bargained for. Jesus’ words to him go down deep. He showed up that night hoping to have a polite discussion, but he ended up having his heart examined.

I’ve just finished reading a book that helps us appreciate what Jesus is doing with Nicodemus. It is written by James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, and it’s called, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. It begins like this:

"What do you want? That’s the question. It is the first, last, and most fundamental question of Christian discipleship. … We are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person. … So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing. Jesus’ command to follow him is a command to align our loves and longings with histo want what God wants, to desire what God desires, to hunger and thirst after God and crave a world where he is all in all. Jesus is a teacher who doesnt just inform our intellect but forms our very loves." (1-2)

If we love the light rather than darkness, then we will respond to Jesus by believing, since he is the true light that has come into the world. When we read the gospels, we find that many people did believe. But there are plenty of surprises. We find that some people who had every advantage got tripped up or were offended. We also find that some people that we would judge to be least likely to believe end up coming to Jesus and following him.

It’s the principle of spiritual life that we are still seeing before us today. The important thing is not your starting point. The important thing is the direction you’re moving. Are you moving toward the light because that’s what you love, that’s what you want? Or are you running in the opposite direction?

Next week, we’re going to encounter another person who had a long conversation with Jesus. She is as different from Nicodemus as anyone could be. She is a woman, she is a Samaritan, and she has a complicated and troubled history of relationships. Yet she comes to the light. Her starting point does not prevent her from responding positively to Jesus.

As for today, we find that Jesus gives Nicodemus a lot more he bargained for. He takes him out into the deep. We’re still puzzling over some of the things that Jesus told Nicodemus that night. But at the end of the day we’re left with a very simple question that is the most important of them all, a question we all have to answer: What do you want?

 

 

 

The following sermon—"The Greatest Gift of All"—was presented by Gale Watkins at Westminster on Saturday, December 24, 2016, at our Christmas Eve service. It is based on John 3:16.

 

In the city of Detroit, there lived a man by the name of Haskell. He had a job that paid him well. But Haskell’s life was changed for the better, and he decided to leave that job, and do something that didn’t pay as well, but was what he really wanted to do. He loved his new work, but his finances were tight, very tight.

 

Haskell’s young son was about to have a birthday, and Haskell wanted to buy him a gift. But there was no money to spare, not even a little. The night before his son’s birthday, Haskell told his wife that he didn’t know what to do for the boy’s birthday.

 

But during the night Haskell had an idea. So, when his son got up, Haskell told him, "I wanted to buy you something for your birthday, but I didn't have any money. So here’s what I will give you. I give you myself for your birthday. I’m yours for the whole day. We’ll do whatever you want, so long as it’s free!"

 

At the end of the day, long after sunset, Haskell and his son returned. Haskell dragged himself in, and fell down on a chair. His wife asked him, "Where have you been?" Haskell replied, "Where haven’t we been? We went to every park in the city of Detroit! We tried every swing, every slide. We turned over every rock and found every frog in this whole city!"

 

I want to ask you a question: do you think that boy will ever forget the day his father couldn’t buy him anything, but instead gave him himself for a whole day?

 

We have gathered together this evening, because God has done for all of us what Haskell did for his son. God has given us himself, not only for a day, but for all time. In Jesus Christ, God has given us his very self. This is what we celebrate tonight. This is the greatest gift of all.

 

One of the best-known verses in the Bible, and rightly so, is John 3:16: "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."

 

God loved. God gave. The gift God has given us is his own Son Jesus. This is the measure of God’s love for us. In giving this gift, God has given us, not merely good things, but his very self. That famous verse tells us that, with Jesus, God has made it possible for us to have eternal life, which is life lived in relationship to God. Eternal life is knowing God, and it begins now. The event we celebrate this evening is rooted in God’s vast love for us. What a gift! The God of the universe is telling us, "I give you myself."

 

What must we do to receive this gift? What must we do to have this new quality of life? We receive this gift by believing, by trusting God. John 3:16 tells us that this gift is for "everyone who believes." Our part is to accept this gift as meant for us. What we must do is say "yes."

 

It’s Christmas Eve. Perhaps there is a gift with your name on it waiting for you at home. Some people will open their gifts tonight, Christmas Eve. Some wait until Christmas Day. But I doubt that there will be many unwrapped gifts twenty-four hours from now.

 

So imagine this. We meet each other a week from today. I tell you, "I’ve received a great Christmas gift!" "Oh? What is it?" "I don't know. I haven't opened it yet." What would you think of that? Does it make sense to receive a gift, and never get around to opening it?

 

An unwrapped gift will do you no good, not even the most practical gift ever, unless you open it up.

 

It sounds crazy, but sometimes we’re like that with the greatest gift of all. We refuse the gift right in front of us. It is like leaving a Christmas gift unwrapped all year long. The greatest gift any of us have ever received is the one we celebrate tonight, God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ. Eternal life is not something we earn, it is a gift. But we do have to unwrap the gift. We can benefit from the greatest gift of all by saying "yes" to God. If you’ve never said "yes" to God’s offer of life in Jesus Christ, you can do that tonight. God loves you so much that he came in person to save you from your sins. Will you unwrap this, the greatest gift of all?

 

Some of us here have unwrapped this gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ a long time ago. But you know how it is with last year’s Christmas gifts. They sometimes don’t get much use. Novelties of years past gather dust in the closet. When it comes to God’s gift of love, why not come like young children who can’t wait to tear their Christmas gifts open? Let’s gladly receive God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ.

 

"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."

 

 

 

"Time to Make a Change?"Sunday, September 25, 2016. It is based on Luke 16:19-31.

A pastor and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the pearly gates waiting for them. "Come with me," said St. Peter to the taxi driver. The taxi driver did as he was told and followed St. Peter to a mansion. It had anything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an olympic size pool. "Wow, thank you," said the taxi driver. Next, St. Peter led the pastor to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set. "Wait, I think you are a little mixed up," said the pastor. "Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a pastor, went to church every day, and preached God’s word." "Yes, that’s true. But during your sermons people slept. When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed."

Maybe you’ve heard that one before. There must be hundreds of those St. Peter at the pearly gates jokes. I’m glad to report that not all of them involve pastors. No one imagines that you can learn anything from these jokes about the geography of heaven. They’re not documentary reports. They’re imaginative, not factual.

These jokes do shed a humorous light on life on earth, on pastors, taxi drivers, husbands and wives, lawyers. On and on it goes. There is an endless supply of material.

The ancient world had something similar. People told stories that were set in the hereafter. For instance, a rich man died, and a poor man died. Then something would happen and a moral would emerge from the story. Again, these stories don’t give us a map or a timetable of what awaits us in the hereafter. Instead, they tell us something about life on earth, what is good and what is bad.

Thus, when Jesus tells one of these stories, everyone knows what he is doing. He’s telling a tale about the hereafter to shed light on what is happening here and now.

What is happening at the time when Jesus tells this story? At this time, Jesus is drawing to himself the most unlikely people, tax collectors and sinners. They’re responding positively to his teaching. They are spending time with him. They are eating together with great joy. They are entering the kingdom of God that has drawn near in Jesus.

This is unexpected. People who are looked down upon by respectable folk are being given a warm welcome by Jesus. With him, the kingdom has come, but it’s come in a surprising way. Things seem to be upside-down. It’s like the taxi driver’s fabulous reward in that St. Peter and the pearly gates joke that I told you.

So Jesus tells a story in which a previously invisible man is not only seen but is called by name, Lazarus, and he is given a warm welcome in the bosom of Abraham. What could be better than that? The one who had been in the worst possible predicament finds a home in the kingdom of God. And on the other hand, the man who was not only rich but was what we would call filthy rich and a big showoff to boot finds himself on the outside looking in. The one who was on the wrong side of the gate is now held tenderly in the bosom of Abraham, while the one who dressed to kill in this world finds himself separated from the good life by a great chasm, a heavenly version of the Grand Canyon. It’s a total reversal. Everything is upside down. Or is it right side up?

So Jesus gives us his variation of the sort of folktale that was so common in those days, like the St. Peter at the pearly gates jokes that we’ve heard so many times. But Jesus’ variation on the theme packs a punch, or actually a couple of punches.

For one thing, it drives home the teaching that we took up last week, that you cannot serve God and mammon. You see it so clearly in this man who was ridiculously rich and wanted everyone to know it. His clothes were expensive imports. He indulged himself constantly. He feasted every day! This practice forced his employees to violate the Sabbath by having to prepare a big meal seven days a week. His whole life revolved around his money and all the things that money could buy. He served mammon with a vengeance.

And look what it did to him. He was hardened to the plight of the poor man who was so desperate that he would settle for just a few scraps from the rich man’s daily indulgence. In this life Lazarus was the invisible man. A gate kept the rich man insulated from the likes of Lazarus. Only the dogs took an interest in Lazarus. So Jesus is telling this story to get the attention of his critics, who were Pharisees and scribes. They loved money. He is drawing this outrageous picture of a man who worshiped money to show them where their own lives are headed. Perhaps this tall tale will get under their skin. Perhaps it’s not too late for them to make a change.

I said that this story packs more than one punch. Here is another. The human heart can become so hardened that nothing softens it. This is a truly frightening prospect. Here in the afterlife is a man who is on the wrong side of a great chasm, and he still doesn’t get it. He still thinks that Lazarus exists only to serve his needs. That’s the reason he says to father Abraham, Send Lazarus to help me out. So he knows that this invisible man has a name, but he thinks that he can still call the shots. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to apologize to Lazarus for failing to pay attention to him while they were both still living?

It gets worse. The man who had been rich left five brothers who are still on earth, and no matter what they’re offered, they are no more responsive than their brother who is now doing hard time in Hades. They have Moses and the prophets. No matter. What if someone were to come back from the dead, resurrected, and appeal to them? No matter. They have hearts of stone. Is it too late for them? We wonder about that.

Jesus could have ended the story with the great chasm between Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and the formerly rich man suffering in Hades. But he adds the part about the five brothers. They are still on this earth. They are still within earshot of the gospel. They’ve been unresponsive so far, but who knows? If tax collectors and sinners can be won

over, then maybe there is hope for the five brothers.

Maybe there is hope for us. You see, Jesus tells this story, not to speculate about the afterlife, but to get through to us who are still here. He wants us to take a look at ourselves. Like those five brothers, we’ve been given a great gift, Moses and the prophets, the Word of God. And even more, we have a witness who has been raised from the dead, Jesus himself. We have been given so much. How are we handling it?

Let’s hear Jesus’ parable, then, not as a preview of the afterlife or a tall tale about a fabulously rich man who got his just desserts, but as a challenge to ourselves to hear the Word now and let it shape our lives now.

And that Word, Moses and the prophets, is clear enough about the sort of life that God has in mind for us us. Moses and the prophets have plenty to say about loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially the neighbor who is hurting. Had the rich man really heard the Word and heeded it, he would have been compassionate toward poor Lazarus in this life. Then he too would have had a place in the bosom of Abraham.

As for us, we’re the five brothers who are still here. We have the witness of Moses and the prophets. We have the Word made flesh, the Lord Jesus himself, now risen from the dead and present through the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. We have opportunity to see our neighbor and extend compassion. Even now, we are welcomed into the kingdom that Jesus has brought near. Jesus’ parable, like the stories that people told in those days and like our jokes about St. Peter at the pearly gates, is a message about life on earth, how we live today. It’s time to make a change.