Sunday, June 17, 2018

“WAYS AND ….DOINGS”

A sermon based upon Jeremiah 4: 11-28
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  June 17th, 2018 
(3-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

How many of you remember the movie Duck and Cover? It really wasn't a movie but more of a "short" advertisement — just over nine minutes in length. But don't sell it short — it featured a great leading role, Bert the Turtle, and a very catchy theme song:
There was a turtle by the name of Bert and Bert the turtle was very alert;
when danger threatened him he never got hurt he knew just what to do ...
He ducked! And covered! Ducked! And covered!
He did what we all must learn to do.  You and you and you and you! Duck, and cover!
(Archer Productions, Inc., Duck and Cover (Distributed by the United States Federal Civil Defense Administration, 1951).

After what looks like a dramatized cartoon, Bert the Turtle follows the "duck and cover" rule when a monkey dangles a fire­cracker over his head and survives the blast.  But then the movie takes a more serious tone as live footage of a nuclear blast is run, and viewers are assured that the way to survive such a blast is to "duck and cover."  ‘Duck and Cover' was produced by the United States Civil Defense Administration in 1951, about two years after Russia detonated its first nuclear device.  As the Cold War between the United States and Russia grew, Civil Defense began designating fallout shelters and devising other means for protection from nuclear attack (From Sermons on the First Readings, by Chrysanne Timm, CSS Publishing Company, Inc). 

Other films addressed the threat of nuclear attack. ‘On the Beach' in 1959 and ‘The Day After' in 1984 imprinted terrifying images of the complete destruction and desolation that would occur after a nuclear holocaust.  Some of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s seriously questioned whether we would live to see forty years of age.  Many feared the total annihilation of the whole world, the undoing of God's good creation.  It wasn't until later in the 1980s that concentrated efforts toward peace between the United States and Russia eased the fears of nuclear destruction of our nations, and ultimately our planet.  But with the threat of Nuclear war with North Korea now on everyone’s radar today, fear of nuclear holocaust is on the rise again, but who realizes the threat, and who understands the warning? 

WOE TO US, FOR WE ARE RUINED! (13)
When we read this passage in Jeremiah, we cannot but help remember the terrifying images of films we’ve seen about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Japan is the only nation to have been attacked with nuclear bombs. As a result of that bombing, burning hot winds ignited fire upon anything that remained standing after the massive blast. Entire neighborhoods were laid waste, all structures destroyed. The cities lay in ruins and the fruitful foothills looked like a desert. 


Although Nuclear bombs were not dropped on Nazi Germany, fire bombs were.  In both Hamburg (1943), and Dresden (1945) fire bombings were carried out by both the Americans and the British Air forces.  The results were horrendous.  I’ve known people who experienced one of those bombings they spoke of fires being so hot, that even people underneath the ground were burned or suffocated in the bombing raids.  The question was ‘Why is this happening to us?’   The same kind of question was being asked after Americans watched the destruction in New York and the falling of the Twin Towers.  “What do those people have against us?”   Who will forget the horror of those who were trapped in those buildings, or those who rushed in to save them when the towers collapsed?   Still today, illnesses and sickness remain, as a result, of the dust of devastation and destruction.  

When you speak all the destructive forces in this world, some of which we’ve lived through, you can’t help but be moved by these images from Jeremiah 4.  They are some of the bleakest images in the Old Testament. This is certainly not the kind of text pastors want to preach. The nation of Israel had been duly warned that continual sin against God would bring judgment upon them. God pleaded with them to repent and return to him, but it was to no avail. 

Had I not watched the Twin Towers fall on live TV, I am not sure that I would reflect upon this text in the same way.  Most of us have never had great fears regarding safety and security for our households or our community.   Only recently, due to the rise of Terror and random copy-cat violence, are churches beginning to face and come to understand the threats to our world.   A local pastor said in a Security meeting I attended recently, that twenty years ago selling the need for having a security plan at church would have been next to impossible, but not today.   Today most everyone is waking up to the threats.   We are beginning to grasp the gravity of destruction and desolation that can happen in our own time and place.

FOR MY PEOPLE ARE FOOLISH…STUPID (22)
Jeremiah may have believed that even though Israel did not ‘get it’ and change her ways, that the southern kingdom where he lived in Judah, where Jerusalem was, and where all the smart people were supposed to be, would now understand the gravity of their situation and repent.  Surely after watching the ‘towers’ fall in the north, Judah’s choice would be clear and Judah would ‘get the message’ to choose God and choose life.  But Judah and Jerusalem did not choose God or the good, and in this text Jeremiah laments their ignorance: "For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good" (Jer. 4:22 NRS).

"Stupid is as stupid does." So says the famous quote from the movie, Forrest Gump.   When we think of the stupidity of people in Jeremiah’s day, it can remind how nowadays, even in a time of high tech, people can be as ‘stupid’ as ever.  Just type the words "stupid people dot com" into your internet search engine and you find loads of websites where people share their tales of stupidity. One man wrote: "My ex-wife once called me at a bar and asked, 'Where are you?' Another story is told about a high school teacher who assigned her class a paper on World War Two. On the date it was due, one boy came in empty handed. "I went to every library I could find, but I found NOTHING on World War Two. I found a lot of books on World War 11, though."

The most laughable, and often the most tragic stories too, are about the criminally dumb. Nearly any law officer could write a book on these. The following one came through the grapevine from a patrolman in Ohio in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  He was assigned to security detail at a New Orleans Wal-Mart that had been looted.  Several days after the flooding ceased, a man brought a plasma television back to the store's customer service department. He'd "picked it up a few days earlier" (those were his words). But when he took it home and plugged it in the television didn't work, so he was bringing it back for replacement. It was obvious to all that the television had been stolen. The officer had a tough time keeping a straight face as the store rep explained that this problem was to be expected since that part of the city still had no electricity.  Wonder how much time that man did for a TV he stole but couldn’t get to work because there was no power?

An Ann Arbor newspaper crime column reported that a man walked into a Burger King in Ypsilanti, Michigan, at 5 a.m., flashed a gun, and demanded cash. The clerk turned him down because he said he couldn't open the cash register without a food order. When the man ordered onion rings, the clerk said they weren't available for breakfast. The man became so frustrated he walked away.  Dumber still is the guy who walked into a Louisiana Circle-K, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the cash drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register, which the clerk promptly provided. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving the $20 bill on the counter. The total amount he got from the drawer? — $15.

Stupid behavior has its own competition these days. In recent years, the Annual Darwin Awards have honored "the least evolved among us." Sometimes the competition is deadly — as in the 2005 winner. "When his 38-caliber revolver failed to fire at his intended victim during a hold-up in Long Beach, California, a would-be robber did something that can only inspire wonder. He peered down the barrel and tried the trigger again. This time it worked."
(These stories from:  CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Sermons for Sundays after Pentecost (Middle Third): The Hard Task of Truth-telling, by Lee Ann Dunlap).

You might laugh, but it also makes you want to cry.   Stupidity can hit close to home too.   While criminally stupid is one thing, the spiritually foolish can have equally devastating consequences.  Year after year, Jeremiah had watched and warned his nation about the consequences of their spiritual ignorance, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.  Jeremiah laments: "….They have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil,…and do not know how to do good" (Jeremiah 4:22).  Spiritual foolishness leads to moral stupidity which brings social tragedy, with both personal and national suffering. As Jeremiah looked toward his nation's future, he saw only death and destruction: the earth "waste and void," the heavens "had no light," the foundations of the earth shaken to the core.  The fruitful land lay deserted and the cities were in ruin. From the depths of his soul, Jeremiah knew these desolations were the fate of the spiritually stupid.  So Jeremiah wept, even as God wept.  This is why he is called the ‘weeping prophet’. Why was Jeremiah weeping?  His people were acting like “stupid children," but still they belonged to God.

Sadly enough, foolishness and stupidity are with us yet.  Not long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki became "cities laid in ruins” of the our planet being plunged into darkness with no light from the heavens has shifted from poetic language to an all-too-real possibility.   In the days since then, humans have not only split the atom and drop the bomb, but we have spliced the genetic code and trod on other divine mysteries, as well. Designer babies may soon be an option for those who can pay. Gene-specific germ warfare (killer viruses which can target a specific ethnic or racial group) may well be added to future war arsenals. Jet travel in the modern age means a deadly virus can be passed around the globe in a matter of hour.

As Lee Dunlap has said, “ Miracles" have become the norm of human science, while God is increasingly pushed from the public arena.  Even though much good has been accomplished by the human pursuit of knowledge and control, we have, by our own stupidity, placed our own survival in jeopardy. Global warming, ozone depletion, worldwide pandemics, even the rise of terror, are very real consequences of spiritual foolishness. We have usurped God's authority while failing to attain God's wisdom and in so doing invited judgment upon ourselves.

Yet spiritual foolishness need not be on such a world-wide scale. Examples are evident even in churchyard.  Spiritual stupidity, like any other, happens when we don't stop to think about the long-term consequences of our actions, or when we refuse to listen to the warnings of others when the truth is right in front us.  We live in a time, as the Washington Post says, when the “truth has a difficult time” getting through.  And believe this: We religious or spiritual types can be as obstinate and dense as anyone.

Pause for a moment to consider what we might call "stupid church behaviors" and most of us could fill a page or even two. To give a few examples: How about Baptists using to fight religious battles with each other rather than finding it a resource to read and learn how to love, or what about so called Christians having "hissy-fits” in the pew over the color of the  carpet or the problem with the youth people then come and ask the pastor why the church has so few children. Duh!   Or what about those who oppose making the building more accessible to handicapped persons or more appropriate for strangers with the reasoning, "We don't have anybody like that who comes here." Of course not — they can't get in the building or not feel wanted or welcomed!  When one church council adopted a goal to bring in needy children and youth, a member complained, “Those kids don't belong to our church!”’Okay — that was sort of the point! Don’t we want kids who need the Lord as much as those who know the Lord?

Then there's the pastor who, like many others, scheduled mornings in the office and afternoons doing hospital calls and home visitation.  Part of the congregation complained they could never reach the pastor because he was always out and about while others said he spent too much time stuck in the office. RIGHT!  Everyone knows more than the pastor how to be a pastor!  Finally, consider the story of one church member who, while visiting friends, had been invited to attend a thriving mission church in Los Angeles. She returned to her own church in Ohio rather indignant because the church was packed on their arrival and they were seated in the very back while the local street people, prostitutes, and addicts were given room in the front. Some of "those people" even participated in the service. She handed her pastor a newspaper article on the congregation and its pastor, inquiring whether this church received any mission support. If so, she was solidly against it. She did not want her dollars going to support a church prostitutes have a front row seat.  Wonder where this church got such a notion? Could it be from someone who ate with tax-collectors and healed lepers?

 "My people are foolish," we could well hear God say about us today. "They have no understanding." How sad it is — the pain and the heartache caused by our own stubborn ‘ways…and doings.” Makes you wonder how the church has survived all these years. Yet, miraculously we are here.    The tragic story of what happened to Jerusalem, and even to ‘the temple of the Lord’ which was burned and destroyed along with the rest of the city, makes an important warning to us, in hopes of waking us up.   The point is that we all share in the responsibility of what happens and what doesn’t happen.  This is one of the most important messages contained in the book of Jeremiah.  What you do to others and what you don’t do for others, will come back to haunt when the world you thought was forever, falls apart, and there is no way back.

THE WHOLE LAND SHALL BE A DESOLATION, YET…. (27)
Stupid children we might be at time, but we belong to God. Suffer the consequences of our foolishness we shall, but God has a plan to save us, and all creation as well.  

And God does not relent, either in judgment or in salvation. "I have not relented, nor will I turn back" (Jeremiah 4:28). God utters a breath of mercy in the midst of the ruins of our human failures:  For thus says the Lord, "The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 4:27).  Here, God breathes love and hope even in the midst of the harsh, hot heat of his anger and judgment. God pledges that humanity will not utterly be destroyed. For some, there is still time and space to turn around, to take our attention off only what we want and to join with Jesus in redeeming the broken, desolate places of our world. 

Here, the prophet reminds us of one thing above all else.  Even when life stands in ruins: Redemption is God's specialty. "For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son," the Bible says. When all the hatred and fear and corruption in the human arsenal had been inflicted upon the Son of God in a place called Calvary, he bore it upon himself and took it to the grave. Scripture tells us the mountains quaked and the heavens grew dim, and the community of disciples sank into despair, much like the experience of Jeremiah. Then God raised Jesus from the dead, and all that hatred and corruption came to nothing. As the Apostle Paul would later write, "God's foolishness is greater than human wisdom." In this we must have confidence.  Even when we are stupid in our behavior, God can still save.

As Rabbi Kushner once said: ‘God's not calling names; he's calling us to life! L'chaim! To life! Kushner writes: "The uniqueness of the human being is captured in the phrase that we are 'created in the image of God.' We have a moral dimension. We can be good or bad, where animals can only be obedient or messy. (He says) "When Charles Darwin shocked the conventions of the 19th century with his theory that human beings were related to animals and did not represent a special creation, someone asked Darwin, 'Is there anything unique about the human being?' Instead of talking about upright posture or brain cavity size, Darwin answered, 'Man is the only animal that blushes.' (Kushner goes on:) "To recognize that we have done wrong, to recognize that more might have been expected of us than we delivered, is part of the uniqueness of the human being. No other creature can do that. Animals (and little children) can realize that they are about to be punished for something they did, but only mature human beings can judge themselves." (Harold Kushner. To Life! (Little, Brown, Inc., 1993) pp. 184-5).


So, dear friends, when we fail or realize our wayward ‘ways and doings,’ we need not duck and cover from God as Adam and Eve did after their sin, or as Judah did when Jeremiah preached.  Let us return to God’s grace and mercy.   Let us trust God and dedicate ourselves to the care and redeeming love God has placed in our hearts, in the name of Jesus.  Are willing to admit or need and judge our wrongs in hope?

Dr. Tom Long of Princeton Theological Seminary quotes a character from a short story by Paul Devries: "There was a time when we were afraid of being caught doing something sinful in front of our ministers. Now we are afraid of being caught doing something immature in front of our therapists.". The essence of good therapy, by the way, is to help us learn to take responsibility for ourselves, and to not take inappropriate responsibility for the actions of others. Jeremiah thought there was a great deal to be responsible for in this world, and we're the only ones around to take responsibility.  Anything else is just plain stupid. Mohandas Gandhi said that these are the things that destroy life -- the stupid things: "politics without principle, pleasure without conscience, wealth without work, knowledge without character,
business without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice." (Source unknown). Gandhi put in modern language; God put it in eternal language. The ten commandments could just as well be known as the ten "don't be stupids.".

Will we be smart enough to understand what God meant?  It's said that a woman rushed up to the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler after a concert and cried, "I'd give my life to play as beautifully as you do." Kreisler replied, "I did.". Will we?  Will we give our life to what is right even in bad times?  We should, and Jeremiah tells us why.  Even when times are at their worst, when all we see in our church or community or in the mirror brings us to the brink of despair, we ought not lose hope in doing good because God did not lose hope for us, or for the world. Because Christ does not give up on us in our foolishness, neither shall we give up on ourselves or others. Releasing our folly and clinging to Jesus we find forgiveness and hope for new life, not for ourselves alone but for the entire world. Amen.



Sunday, June 10, 2018

“Something That Does Not Profit”

By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  June 10th, 2018 
(2-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah: Prophet to the Nations

A pastor encouraged the reading of the book of Jeremiah for his congregation.  Not long afterwards, one of the church members shared that she tried to read Jeremiah, but did not get very far because she did not like it.   She said Jeremiah is full of too much gloom and doom.   The pastor agreed that words of hope are not that easy to find in the book of Jeremiah, but they are there.  When you do find them, he said, you also discover they are words of true hope.   You might even come to understand, that it is through the gloom and doom that real hope comes.

But before can discover the hope, we have to face reality, and sometimes reality can be hard.  In today’s text the prophet complains that God’s people had forsaken God and chased after worthless idols.  Jeremiah understood that when people desert God, they don’t just leave God, but they exchange their devotion for God for someone or something else.   Jeremiah warns that this is always an unwise ‘trade’ that ‘does not profit’ in your life.  

Such a negative exchange is really nothing new.  It also happened during the Exodus from Egypt. If you recall, before the Hebrews got to the land of promise they violated the first commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me."  The, by the year 600 BCE, they had been chasing idols for so long,  it had become as natural as breathing.   According to Jeremiah, they didn’t know they needed help because they didn’t know they had a problem.  If things were to change for the better, Jeremiah had to let them know what he problem was, and how they could turn back toward God to find God’s help.

I REMEMBER….YOUR LOVE (2)
“I remember the devotion of your youth….,  “You followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown…,  Israel was holy to the LORD…”.    These are words reflecting upon a great heritage with tremendous potential and promise.   That’s why Israel was called the ‘promised land’.   Israel was a chosen, unique, special people, who, as Jeremiah says, was ‘brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things….” (v.7).   As you listen to these words from the prophet, you get the idea that in spite of early challenges, Israel had a great beginning.   She was truly a blessed people.  

When you hear such retrospective language, you can’t help but think about our own heritage as a nation.   We certainly aren’t God’s chosen people above everyone else, just as Israel wasn’t superior to everyone else, which this text makes clear.   But Israel did have a unique calling, just like every nation and all peoples do.  America has had a unique calling too.  When Columbus originally sailed in 1492 on a course to find America, it would have landed him somewhere around or not far from North Carolina.  Instead, a flock of birds flying southward caused him to turn south; thus the Spanish flag was never the predominate flag on American soil.   America was then mostly settled by more humble, religious, God seeking, puritan British people.  They weren’t perfect, but they were unique.  In light of this, someone has asked, “Why is it, that South America, which was settled by Portuguese and Spanish explorers, has far more natural resources and potential wealth, yet North America developed much more quickly and fully?   Could the answer be that, most of those who settled South America were in search of gold, while most of those coming to America were in search of God? (From “Fire in My Bones, by Fred Wood, p. 27, 1959).

I don’t want to over romanticize the founding of America, but I do think that we have had a unique heritage, where the overall emphasize was on being a nation with a special calling, someone like Israel, to be a ‘light to the nations’, even if it has had more of a secular mandate. Our forefathers respected matters of faith, and believed free faith was most important for national freedom, so they wanted to separate the powers of religion and government, so that freedom for life would continue with less human corruption than they had experienced in Europe.  Now, 241 years later, we are learning that this great experiment in freedom has it’s challenges and limitations too.   As we see political corruption increase and religious devotion and ethical morality decrease,  we find ourselves wondering, much like Israel did: "How did we get in the shape we are in” and  “Why has our nation fallen upon hard times?   They believed they were God’s chosen people.  We believe we have ‘great’ purposes ‘under God’ too.  They couldn’t figure out what was happening. We can’t figure out why our own democracy is threatened.  The people were wondering then, we are wondering now, ‘what went wrong’

The text opens like divorce court proceedings, like God is filing for divorce against his own people on the grounds of a lack of affection.  Through the prophet God says, “I remember how it used to be, so what happened?  "What wrong did your ancestors find in me?" (vs. 2,5).  The assumption here is that God hasn’t changed.  The fault lies with Israel.   The expectation was that God and Israel would have a special relationship, but now they had become distant.  Israel had become unfaithful in this relationship, chasing after worthless idols and going after other loves.  By doing so, Israel had become just as worthless as they idols she chased after.

A very bashful fellow who was still in high school had a crush on one particular girl. He finally got up the courage to ask her to go to a dance at the school and lo and behold, she accepted. He was all excited. The night of the dance he got all dressed up and took her flowers. Once they arrived at the dance he asked her if she wanted something to drink, and he went to get them each a Coke. When he came back with the drinks she was kissing another guy. He is in his late thirties now and still single. He still hasn’t got over it.  God’s people forgot who brought them to the dance, and God couldn’t get over losing her (From Daniel S. Clark
Waverly Road Presbyterian Church. Kingsport, Tennessee  in a sermon,  Jeremiah: Prophet of Hope).

Years ago a retired couple came and asked if I would talk with their son.   They said he was having trouble in his marriage.  We set up an appointment and had several sessions together with him.   He seemed like a very nice guy, but his heart was breaking.  He wanted his marriage to get better.  We talk a lot about things he could do better to save his marriage, but his wife never came.  Her heart was already elsewhere.  To her, the marriage was already over.   Her focus was already elsewhere, and she was already trying to find another place to live.  All the counseling sessions were useless, because she no longer cared. She found someone else.

Remembered love can be heart-breaking.    You can hear the pain and hurt in God’s voice repeating itself throughout.   “I remember…your devotion…. your love as a bride….” (v2),    “Israel was holy….”(3).   Israel had a faithful partner in God, but she engaged in partner swapping.   Jeremiah even suggested that other nations were faithful to their gods, even though they were really no gods at all, while the people of Israel, who had a relationship with the one true God, became unfaithful (vs 11).  The end result was not just how God had lost his people, but that Israel had chased after what was empty and meaningless for so long, they could no longer distinguish between what was true and what was false, what was real and what was fake, what was life-giving and what was brought destruction and death (vs., 11, 13, 17).  In short, Jeremiah was trying to help the people see how they had been swindled, gipped, and cheated, going after something which ended up being ‘nothing’ (11b).

…GONE AFTER WORTHLESS THINGS (5)
In many small towns across America some kind of annual County Fair used to be the social event of the year.  A typical carnival or Fair might have the usual carousel or Ferris Wheel, sometimes pony rides, fireworks, and always there were all kinds of games of chance.  Pick a Duck,  Waterguns, Pellet Guns, Ring or Coin Toss.   With all the ‘games’ you could play, you would purchase a ticket at a chance to win.  If you played long enough at any of these games, you would probably win and impress your girlfriend.   The problem was, you might spend $10 to $15 dollars to win a prize that wasn’t worth $5.00 or less.   But when you are young, you just want it to look like you ‘mastered’ it.

There are lots of ways to express what happens when you spend $15 dollars and come away with a prize with less than $5.00.    In the south, we might say you got cheated, gipped, or ripped off.   In other parts of the country they might say "You got 'slicked,' " or "snookered."  People who do this to you are called ‘wheeler-dealers’, ‘con-artists’ or ‘snake oil salesmen’, because they nearly always got the better end of the bargain they offered.  Their skill is that they have a way to get you ‘hooked’ and then make you feel good, even when they take get money.   If you fall for the smooth talk they spew out once, people might have sympathy, but after that the local folks would just shake their heads and say, "You got slicked!"

We all get "slicked" from time to time. Most of us will get cheated from time to time regardless of how carefully we live; but sometimes we plunge right into a bad decision based on half-truths and flowery promises we want to believe.  How often in our own lives have we given up what is truly valuable for the cheap stuff — like routinely giving up time with our children for that time-and-a half overtime pay, or trading fidelity in marriage for a temporary fleeting passion? As one preacher remarked, "I've never heard anyone at the end of their life say 'I wish I'd worked more hours' or 'I wish I hadn't wasted so much time playing with my kids.' " How often have we exchanged the glory of a sunset for a recliner and the evening news? (“You Got Slicked.” CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Sermons for Sundays after Pentecost (Middle Third): The Hard Task of Truth-telling, by Lee Ann Dunlap).

In matters of the spirit and faith, how easily and readily we might exchange quiet moments with God for a wasted hour on social media, (which statistics say makes you feel worse), or some exchange Sunday morning worship for an extra hour of sleep.   Too many times haven’t we all listened or given in to the smooth talk and empty promises of the world around us, investing our lives in stuff and activities that are meaningless, useless and fleeting.  Is it any wonder that many feel empty and cheated by life, by the media, by the establishment, never daring to admit we've in what we have wrongly chosen, we’ve been "gipped," ‘ripped-off’, or ‘cheated’?

When the prophet Jeremiah looked around in his own time, he recognized that his people were getting "cheated" too.   What was really going on wasn’t a pretty picture.   People had become obsessed with security (Jer. 49:30), self-preservation (2:18), self-indulgence (2:13), investing their lives in material possessions, while neglecting and starving their widows and orphans (Jer. 49:11).  In their quest for "homeland security" they bolstered defense budgets but ignored the sick and the elderly.  Professional politicians cut deals for profit and safety then conveniently forgot their promises when the winds shifted (Jer. 23:27). 

Perhaps what is most important for us realize about this social, spiritual and political decline, is that this was not something that just happened over night.  It began as soon as they entered the land of promise seven hundred years before (Exodus 32:4). To put that in a little bit of perspective referring to Columbus again, Columbus discovered this land in 1492.  Based on what is happening in our political world today, as defense budgets climb and Medicare along with Medicaid continue to receive cuts, what do you think our nation will look like, 700 years after 1492, in 2192?   Is it possible that in 2192 we will be a land that has completely lost its value because we have chased after so many empty idols for so long, that we can no longer tell the difference between what is good and what is evil (Daniel Clark).   Will we, like the people of Israel, have forgotten the story of our own freedom, how God was with us to give us this wonderful land ‘flowing with the milk and honey’ of freedom and opportunity, which can be lost by us, when we go after the things that don’t really matter, except that they cause us to end up with nothing?
MY PEOPLE…HAVE FORSAKEN ME  (13)
While we aren’t really a ‘religious’ nation like Israel, we have been a predominately religious, if not Christian-value dominated people, building our lives on the Judeo-Christian ethic.  But when we go after lesser things, we not only lessen our desires and values, but we eventually lose faith, and head toward more trouble too, don’t we?    This is the same point Jeremiah is trying to get across to Israel.  When God’s people go after ‘other gods’ which are worthless idols, they become like the gods they go after, and they become a worthless people too.  This is exactly what Jeremiah means when he says, “My people have committed two evils:  they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and (they have) dug out cisterns (wells) for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (13).  When you are living in a desert where it sometimes rains less than an inch from May to October, you’d better have something that holds water.  Does our ‘faith’ hold water?  How to we return to a faith that does?

So, when people lose their ‘devotion’ (2:2) to what matters most, and seem doomed to having a greater past than they have a future,  what is the hope?  Is there anything we can learn from this great prophet to help us ‘turn’ from the ‘disasters’ that will come (2:3)?

Through everything, Jeremiah says, God remains faithful.  The people of Israel could not save themselves. But their faithful partner, God, had the power to save them.  In the midst of unfaithfulness, God allowed the people to learn and know what is true, what is real, what is life-giving and what matters most.   They could only learn this by realizing that they had ‘forsaken’ God himself, who is their ‘fountain of living waters’ (13).  

Second,  they also needed to realize that in a world where spiritual ‘water’ was just as much a matter of life and death as physical water, that they mistakenly traded the ‘wells of God’s love and mercy’ for ‘barrel of fun’ that would hold no water.   It wouldn’t hold any water because it was a ‘cracked pot’, broken, and full of holes.    God sent Jeremiah to remind the people that the only true hope was the faithfulness of the God who was calling them ‘return’ to him so God could heal their ‘unfaithfulness’ so they could be ‘blessed’ again (3:22, 4:2).

Is this a realistic ‘hope’ for our times too?  Well, actually, the prophet Jeremiah believed this wouldn’t happen in Israel either.  Jeremiah said: “I thought after she has done all this she will return to me”; but she did not return…she did not return with her whole heart, but only in pretense…” (3:7, 10).   The book of Jeremiah is full of doom and gloom, because this was the people’s choice.  God said ‘return to me’ (3:14), but God’s children did not return (3:20-25).

A few years ago, Richard Sheffield tells of how he attended a Citizens Committee in Lima, Ohio met to ensure that the relationships between people who make decisions in business, and the people who make things in business, made sense. One of the speakers in the meeting, said, in terms of business opportunities and community development and labor-management relations, "We have the chance of a lifetime!"  The truth is, ‘a lifetime’ is the only chance we have to do the right thing!

Interestingly, another speaker at that meeting was talking about the "transformation" of American business.  But that speaker said he felt that ‘transformation’ isn’t a strong enough a term.  He wanted to talk about "metanoia" in American business. "Metanoia" is a word you can find on the lips of Jeremiah, John the Baptist and on the lips of Jesus.   These Biblical people didn’t have M.B.A.s, but they knew something about life, and what ‘good business’ means.  It means REPENT!  Without having the ability to ‘turn’ the right way in our lives, whether personal or business, we will keep going the wrong way.  Repentance is good for business, and it’s good for life.  Without the ability to ‘repent’, your business and your life will no longer ‘hold water’ and you will be living a ‘cracked pot’ life.


Six-hundred years after God spoke to Jeremiah God spoke again, and finally, in the person of Jesus Christ.  When we turn toward Jesus, we say we are tired of chasing after gods that are no gods, because we too have been fooled many times by idols that are worthless which leads to ‘cracked pot’ lives with lesser value.   Jesus said he came not just to give us ‘living water’ (John 4:10), but he said, ‘let everyone who is thirsty come to me’ (John 7:37).  Jesus is the living water because he is the one who remained faithful still teaches us how to return to living faithful, meaningful, and abundant lives.  Amen.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

“Don’t Say I’m Only…”

A Sermon Based Upon Jeremiah 1: 1-19, NRSV
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
9th Sunday in Ordinary Time,  June 3rd, 2018 
(1-12) Sermon Series: Jeremiah

“Now the word of the LORD came to me….”  (Jer. 1:4)  How could anyone think such a thing?   What if someone here today, among us, would stand up and say, “I have a word from God?” 

Even though I’ve had 9 years of education beyond High School, have been specifically trained to interpret the Bible and preach God’s word,  I would still be very reluctant to claim that I, myself, have a special ‘word from God’.  While I can preach the word, teach the word, and try to live the word (even God’s word of truth too) as best I can, but I must leave the final interpretation of what the word is, and what the word means, to the inspiring work of God’s Holy Spirit in you.   Besides, I’ve known some people who have said they heard God speaking to them who needed to see a psychiatrist, or they were already in the hospital.   For that reason alone, aren’t most of us reluctant to make or accept such a claim that God is speaking through us, or through them?

Still, contrary to what we might call normal or abnormal,  in this text we encounter a priest’s son, Jeremiah, saying, not once, but four times, that ‘the word of the LORD came’ to him (1:2, 4, 11, 13).  What kind of ‘word’ was this, and how can it have anything to do with life today?   

For these weeks of summer, we are going to think about what the ‘word of the LORD’ meant then and what it might still mean for us now.  Jeremiah claimed that God ‘put out his hand and touched his mouth’ to ‘put the words into (his) mouth’ (v7).    Could God, still ‘put his word into’ our hearts, our mouth’s today? Could God still be speaking truth to us through this ancient prophet?

BEFORE I FORMED YOU (5)
The great preacher Fred Craddock died just a couple of years ago of a ripe old age.  Not long before he died, Fred was asked to write about his own call to preach, when he was a boy growing up in eastern Tennessee.   In that book about his ‘Call to Preach”,  Fred first spoke of informing his father. When his father heard that his son had decided to study for the ministry, all he could answer was, “At least don’t be like John the Baptist….Don’t lose your head.”  Fred said:   “I realized that sometimes God’s calls in a voice that is not loud enough for the whole family to hear.”

Fred’s mother was different.  She told Fred that she was ‘proud’ of him and she assured Fred that his father was proud too, though he didn’t know how to say it.  On the Sunday before the Monday Fred was to catch the bus to go off to college, his mother said she had something to say to him now, that she could not tell him earlier. 
Most of the words I repeat now come from Fred Craddock himself, as he told the story his mother told him:  When Fred “was about eight months old (he) contracted diphtheria. It was in the winter of 1928-29.  At that time, diphtheria was a killer of babies and children.  If you visit old cemeteries today, you may find a number of stones marking the graves of children, stones bearing dates within the same period of twelve to eighteen months.  You would be safe in guessing that diphtheria had moved across the area and taken away its children.”  

“At the first fear of the disease, all children in the family and in the communities were told sternly, "Don't go near the baby." Then came all the home remedies volunteered by grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Remedies wrapped in moaning prayers.  If you recited all the concoctions poured into the throat of children in those days, the remedies themselves would have been enough kill most babies." Vinegar, honey, homemade whiskey, kerosene, sugar, seltzer-all in various combinations and around the clock.  "Give him a sedative so he can sleep." "No, don't let him sleep.  As long as he is crying and coughing the diphtheria cannot smother him." There were all kinds of confusing contradictions in the treatments, but there was no confusion about what the illness did.  The disease formed a membrane over the air passages to and from the lungs.  If the membrane completely covered the air passages, breathing stops and the child dies struggling.  It could be a horrible death, and few survived.

Fred’s momma said “the remedies were not working; Fred’s breathing became increasingly labored. A medical doctor had to be found.  Remember this was 1928-29.  Country people were very confident about their own home remedies.  Doctors cost money, a very scarce commodity.  Doctors were few, and miles away.  There was no hospital, even at a distance. To say, "Get a doctor," meant desperation and fear; all else has failed. There was a telephone about a mile away.  Fred’s daddy ran the mile. There was a doctor five miles away. He got to a telephone and the operator connected him with a doctor.  

Fortunately, the doctor had recently traded his horse and buggy for a Ford automobile.  He was there in a slow flash.  His name was Dr. Penn.  Dr. Penn attended to Fred with his best medicine, his best methods, and his most comforting words.  He even hummed "Blessed Assurance" the entire night.  Fred heard that country doctor still humming it years later. The old gospel tune was apparently good for what ailed you too.

As the night wore on, little Fred’s breathing came with increasing difficulty. Each breath was a rattling gasp. Fred was growing worse, in spite of Dr. Penn's bag of cures, his repeated application, his effort to be reassuring, and "Blessed Assurance."  Fred’s momma refused to leave the room, in spite of the doctor's insistence.  She needed rest and could not rest. To her, leaving the room would be giving up. Dr. Penn gave Fred a shot, with the look of a doctor who had reached the extreme edge of his resources.
Again, the doctor firmly insisted that Fred’s mother leave the room.  "I will sit with him until daybreak," he assured her.  Fred’s mother did not go into go into the next room where Fred’s daddy was already sitting upright and sleepless.  She left the house and went to the barn, hoping the distance of about one hundred yards would be beyond earshot of my choking.  It was not.  Fred’s mother lay on loose hay, crying and praying.  In her prayer, she said, "Dear God, if you will let him live, I will pray every day that he will serve you as a minister." The endless repetition of this prayer relaxed her and she went to sleep.

When daylight waked her, she heard no sounds from the house. She ran. As she rushed into the room, Dr. Penn stirred from a half-sleep. He answered the question before she spoke: "The crisis is over; he is sleeping."  Thank you, Dr. Penn. Thank you, God.   Handing Fred’s mother a few bottles with instructions, the doctor assured her, "He'll be all right, but don't hesitate to call if you need me."  With that, he closed his bag, put on his coat and hat, as Fred’s daddy cranked the Ford, being successful on the first turn, "We will pay you, Doctor, when we can," Fred’s father promised.  "I know you will. I will send you a bill."  How much was it?  He never sent the bill.   He just kept humming, "Blessed Assurance."

When Fred heard his mother tell this story, on the day before he went off to begin to answer the call to become a preacher, Fred asked: "Momma, why didn't you tell me this when we talked last year?"   "Well, I guess there are two reasons, Fred’s mother told him.   “In the first place, I felt guilty for bargaining with God.  We should not try to use prayer to bargain with God. It's disrespectful,” she said. “I hope you never do what I did, even if you are desperate as I was.   But the main reason I did not tell you until now is that I didn't want you to become a minister because you knew I was praying for you to become one.  That would be like your being a minister to please me. It's nice for children to want to please their parents, but not like this. It is too important. I wanted you to say "Yes" to God, not to me."
Fred Brenning Craddock. Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots (Kindle Locations 214-247). Kindle Edition.

Most preachers, ministers, whether it be Fred Craddock, Jeremiah, me, or the preacher up the road, would probably try to explain to you, that the reason they have a ‘word’ from the LORD, would have been in the works long before their own personal decision.   Jeremiah said that even ‘before’ he was ‘formed in the womb’ God knew him.  “Before he was born” God “consecrated him” (5).   In ways that can never be fully explained, nor explained away, God is at work, calling, someone to be his voice in the world.  The question is not ‘is God still speaking’, but the question is really, ‘Who is still listening?’  “I know that the Spirit of God is the brother of my own” the great poet Walt Whitman said.  Are we still so sure that God’s Spirit speaks within our own? (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-versionSong of Myself, 1892). 



TODAY I APPOINT YOU…. (5, 10)
When God called Jeremiah, it was during some of the most difficult times of Israel’s history.  Jeremiah good reason not to answer: “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy (6),” he responded.   

Biblical scholars suggest that Jeremiah was no more than 23 years old when God called him to become “prophet” to “the nations” (5,10).   Jeremiah was to take God’s message to kings, princes, religious leaders and to a whole nation, and what’s more, this was a message no one wanted to hear.  This message was that the nation was doomed; and about to be overthrown by its enemy.  Such a message was not only repulsive to everyone, it would be considered treason by the government.   After saying what Jeremiah said, one wonders how he ever made it out alive.  How could God ‘appoint’ or ‘call’ someone like this?      

It’s seems this kind of dangerous call also came to a 26 year old single mother, Ashley Smith back in 2005.   It was 2:00 a.m. and Ashley needed a smoke.  But she was out of cigarettes. And so she decided to go to a nearby market in order to feed her addiction.  As she was leaving her apartment, she noticed a blue truck in the parking lot with a man in it. She didn’t think too much about it. She had only moved into that apartment two days prior. So she thought maybe he was a neighbor coming home or something.

"She got into her car and went to the store. She came back to her apartment about five minutes later. And the truck was still there. And he was still in it.  Ashley got out of her car and rushed to her apartment. As Ashley started to put her key in the door of her apartment, a man stuck a gun in her ribs. She began to scream, but he told her if she did what he asked he wouldn’t hurt her. 

At first she didn’t know who her assailant was, but when he took off his hat, she recognized him from a news report. He was Brian Nichols. Brian Nichols was a prisoner brought to court for the retrial of a rape conviction. When he arrived at the courtroom he overtook his guard. In the melee he took her gun and shot and killed the presiding judge, the court reporter, a deputy and a federal agent. Then he escaped. 

Now this man who had earlier in the day killed four people in cold blood was in Ashley Smith’s apartment. He tied her up with masking tape, a shower curtain and an extension cord. Ashley pleaded with him not to hurt her. She told him that she had a 5-year-old daughter who she was to meet at 10:00 a.m. the next morning. And that her daughter would be very upset if her mother didn’t show up. She also told him that her husband was murdered four years ago, and if she too were murdered, her little girl wouldn’t have a mommy or a daddy.

Ashley Smith spent hours talking with Brian and listening to him. He told her that he deserved to have a bullet in his back. She said, “No one deserves that!” He said that he felt like he was “already dead” so it didn’t matter what happened. She told him he wasn’t dead. He was standing there before her very much alive, which she pointed out to him was a miracle. They talked about what he had done, and they watched television coverage of the manhunt. It made him sad to see what he had done.

Sometime during the night Brian untied Ashley, and she asked him if she could do some reading. He asked her what she wanted to read, and she pulled out her Bible and a copy of Rick Warren’s best-selling book, A Purpose Driven Life. That night she opened the book to Chapter 33, her reading for the day. She read aloud the first paragraph. Brian interrupted, “Stop.” He said, “Read it again.” The paragraph raises the question: “What is your purpose in life?”  There ensued a deep discussion about purpose and failure and sin. Brian said he didn’t have any purpose. His life was over. She told him that his life wasn’t over, that he might get caught and that his purpose from now on might be to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to fellow inmates.  Finally Ashley told Brian that it takes more of a man to surrender and pay for what he has done than to kill others and himself.

In the morning Brian put the guns he had stolen under the bed, and Ashley made pancakes for his breakfast. She asked him again if she could go and meet her daughter. He told her she could. When the police arrived Brian Nichols held up a white towel in surrender and went peacefully.  This man, who had burst into Ashley’s apartment claiming to be a soldier on a mission, now walked out gentle as a lamb, thanks to Ashley Smith’s humble courage.  How did she do it?  How did Ashely keep her cool?  Ashely later commented to reporters that she wanted Brian’s mother to be able to say “Thank you” that no one else had to die, including him.   We also know, that Ashely herself struggled with methamphetamine addiction, and desperately felt she was already on a mission to see her child and be her mother  (From a sermon, “Humble Courage,” by  Reverend Ruth Harper Stevens, preached at chapelhillumc.org).

Hearing about people like Fred Craddock’s, or about the courageous response of Ashely Smith, we encounter something of what it might mean to hear and answer God’s call today.   Maybe we haven’t experienced exactly this way, but haven’t we found, either through fortune or misfortune, that we too have been given something to say or something to do, that no one else can or will do.   Hasn’t something in life asked us all, if not even forced us to reflect upon our own ‘calling’ or ‘purpose’ in life?   
 Charlie Brown once said in bewilderment, “I feel like I was born on the wrong planet!”   Life can surely seem like that at times.   I’m sure Jeremiah must have felt like he was born at the wrong time too.   God had ‘put his words’ into Jeremiah’s mouth but this did not make answering God’s call easy or delightful.   It was a message to ‘pluck up and pull down’ as well as to ‘build up and plant’.   

Maybe, what finally encouraged Jeremiah to answer God’s call, is what most of us also finally come to learn about life too.  When we answer God’s call, it doesn’t always mean we discover what we ‘want’ or ‘wish’ to do.   Sometimes it means having to do something we don’t necessarily want to do, but we know we have to do.   That’s what it was like for Jeremiah, for Moses, or and how was for many others, both then and now.  When the call comes, it doesn’t stop ringing until we have to ‘pick up the phone’ and answer.   

I WILL BE WITH YOU… (8, 19)
Jeremiah answered God’s call, even though it wasn’t easy for him to answer.   Perhaps the reason Jeremiah did answer, was because the call also came with God’s promise:  “Do not be afraid of them,  for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord (8).   …they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you…. (19).”

When Dr. Robertson McQuilkin resigned as President of Columbia International Seminary, to care for his ailing wife, Muriel, the Seminary told him they would make sure she was cared for.  “She doesn’t know who she is,” seminary officials and board members argued.   McQuilkin responded: “No, she doesn’t know who she is, but I know who she is.”   Later McQuilkin explained to a Christianity Today. “When the time came, the decision was firm.  It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity.  Had I not promised, 42 years before, "in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part"?  This was no grim duty to which I stoically resigned, however.  It was only fair.  She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was!  If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”
http://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/june/died-robertson-mcquilkin-columbia-president-alzheimers-ciu.html

How will the call of God come to your life?  Will it come to care for a sick child, a family member, a neighbor, a spouse, or perhaps to teach, preach, or conduct some kind of ministry to others, which will never pay you what it’s worth?  How will the call come, and when it comes, how will you answer and know God is with you in this?   

Since I’ve already introduced Fred Craddock to you again, I want to conclude how he came meet Dr Albert Schweitzer, the famous missionary doctor.  What you may not know in some of his theological views, Albert Schweitzer was not always very orthodox.  Today, we might even have called him---a liberal.   

I think I was twenty years old,” writes Fred Craddock, “when I read Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. I found his Christology lacking--more water than wine. I marked it up, wrote in the margins, raised questions of all kinds.    Then, one day I read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for a big organ in a big church up there. According to the article he would remain afterward in the fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment.  “I bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went to Cleveland. All the way up there I worked on this Quest for the Historical Jesus. I laid out my questions . . . I made references to the pages . . . I figured, if there was a conversation in the fellowship hall, there’d be room for a question or two.

“I went there; I heard the concert; I rushed into the fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with my lap of questions. After a while he came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, and seventy-five year’s old. He had played a marvelous concert. You know he was a master organist, a medical doctor, philosopher, Biblical scholar, lecturer, writer, everything. He came in with a cup of tea and some refreshments and stood in front of the group, and there I was, close.

“Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: ‘You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me. I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go. We have a medical station at Lambarene. If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?’

“I looked down at my questions,” Fred Craddock said, “and they were so absolutely stupid. But  I learned once again, in that moment, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” (From Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, eds. (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), pp. 125-126.)


Perhaps the best way to answer God’s call is not by trying to figure what everything or everyone else, but perhaps the best way is ask yourself how God wants you to ‘be a Christian’ and to be 'with you' right now.   I doubt that any of us will dare ask and answer any kind of call until we also realize that God’s promises to be ‘with’ us: “I am with you….to deliver you”?  God told Jeremiah.  It is not going to be easy.  But I am with you.   Are you with me?   How do you answer?  


PRAYER: “Lord help us to answer your call in our lives.  Even when it is not easy, help us to know that you are with us and you will work through us, to do your will and to bring us promises of hope that are filled with love and grace.  Amen.”

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Born…A Second Time?

A Sermon Based Upon John 3: 1-21
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018

A sociologist visiting a tribal village raised her camera to take pictures of some children at play.  Suddenly the children began yelling and waving their arms in protest.  Seeing their antics, the freshly minted Ph.D. lowered her camera in embarrassment.  She had forgotten, she explained to the chief, that certain tribes believe the soul is lost if one’s picture is taken.  She then launched into a long-winded explanation of the camera’s operation. Several times the chief tried to interrupt, but to no avail.
Finally, after putting all the primitive man’s fears to rest, the savvy sociologist allowed him to speak. Sporting a wide, toothy grin, he told her, “The children are trying to tell you to take the lens cap off.” (King Duncan).
In today’s text about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, we see the master teacher trying to get this super-serious Pharisee to take the lens cap off.   The Pharisees were the most devout Jewish group.  They insured that the Jewish faith would continue through some very dark times. 
The times were still dark.  We are told that Nicodemus comes to Jesus ‘by night’.  In John’s Gospel, darkness is typically a sign of doubt or unbelief (cp. 1:5, 9-11). As smart and educated as he is, Nicodemus is “in the dark” when it comes to Jesus.  Who is this man? Where does he come from? What’s he trying to do?
Still, there is something about Jesus that gnaws at him. He doesn’t know exactly what it is. Jesus is not like other rabbis. There’s something unusual about him. So Nicodemus takes a risk and goes to Jesus ‘by night’ to question him.  He states respectfully and politely, “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” (v 2).  Nicodemus appears as an honorable man.  Even if he doesn’t understand Jesus, he shows him respect and calls him “Rabbi”—Teacher! 
But what has caught Nicodemus’ attention is not simply that Jesus is a ‘teacher come from God’, it’s also these ‘signs’ (NRSV), ‘miracles’ (KJV), or ‘miraculous signs’ (NET) which imply that ‘God is (really) with him.’ Like so many, Nicodemus is captivated and motivated by the ‘signs’ that point to something being very different about Jesus.
HOW CAN THESE THINGS BE?  (v. 4, 9). 
Jesus sees through this fascination with ‘signs’,  confronting Nicodemus with God’s call to conversion: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’ (or born again, [KJV]. Either way is correct).  Jesus does not seem to be interested in compliments, but moves straight to the heart of the matter.  Jesus demands thought, response and action.  Instead of getting lost in theological musings, Jesus calls for a complete ‘make-over’ of the heart---an actual spiritual transformation which points to genuine change.

Immediately, Nicodemus answers with an honest question: “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the Mother's womb and be born?” (v. 4).  This call for ‘radical change’ goes against the normal way of thinking and observation, both then and now.  People still have questions about what ‘born again’ means.  In the 1970’s, when Jimmy Carter, a southern Baptist, was running for president of the United States, and declared himself to be a ‘born again Christian’, the press went scrambling for their dictionaries to decipher what he meant.  (https://hollowverse.com/jimmy-carter/#footnote_4_10673). 

Nicodemus raises questions, but we need to understand that he is not doubting the power of God.  Nicodemus clearly understands that "no one can do these signs...apart from…God" (3:2b).  Perhaps he had heard about the Wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned to wine (2:1ff.).  Maybe he saw with his own eyes how Jesus ran some of those ‘dirty dealers’ out of the temple (2:16). Of course, God can change things.

As we’ve already pointed out, Nicodemus is also not questioning the identity of Jesus as a good ‘teacher’ or legitimate ‘Rabbi’.  He recognizes that Jesus has ‘come from God’(v.2a).  The reason he comes to Jesus at all is because he has witnessed something uniquely different and important about Jesus.  He realizes that these miracles were not shallow, isolated events.  They run deep.  He couldn’t separate these ‘signs’ from Jesus himself.  These miracles made him, and others too, feel that when they were standing in the presence of this man Jesus it was as if they were standing in God’s presence too. 

Nicodemus’ encounter reminds us that Jesus provoked, and still provokes, all kinds of reaction and response.  Jesus made some people love him enough to want to follow him their whole life long, while others hated everything he stood for, and they hated him enough to murder him.
If you remember, in the Bible that King Herod was so disturbed by Jesus’
birth that he slaughtered thousands of innocent children trying to keep Jesus from growing up (Matt. 2:16).  John the Baptizer, who called for repentance and baptized anyone who came to him, felt unworthy to baptize him (Matt. 3:14).  Unlearned Fishermen, became willing learners and his followers (Mark 1:18).  A brother of one of the disciples; a man named Nathanael, at first said that ‘nothing good could come out of Nazareth’, later named Jesus ‘the Son of God’ (Jn. 1:49).  Now, in our text, an educated Pharisee breaks from the others, seeking answers too. 
  
The Scottish Bible Scholar, William Barclay, reminds of one more thing Nicodemus does not doubt:  Nicodemus does not doubt God’s power, nor does he doubt that Jesus is from God,  but just as importantly, as Barclay wrote, "Nicodemus is not doubting that humanity needs to be changed nor is he doubting that people need a new beginning in life."   Nicodemus is realistic about the human condition.  He knows that there is something that goes wrong with the human race.  Nicodemus also knows that something about us must change, or he would not have put his religious career at risk and come secretly to Jesus.  He knows, that even being good or being religious is not enough.  Our human need to ‘change’ as this is exactly why he comes to Jesus ‘by night’.     

After the fall of the communistic grip over East Germany an Evangelical Pastor shared the joys of release and freedom with his congregation.  However, this wise pastor knew that the excitement would be only be temporary.  Difficult days were to come after the celebration had ended.  The message he gave to his congregation the Sunday after opening of the Berlin Wall was one we all need to take to heart.  His message in one sentence was, after the freedom party was over: "We are still not
free!"  That pastor knew the truth.  The real enemy was not communism.  The real enemy is still here.  The real enemy is in us!  It is not something out there that needs to change to bring us the freedom we need, it is something within us.  

So, the question Nicodemus poses that is most important in this whole encounter and conversation is, simply "How?"  Nicodemus was asking the curious, honest, most practical question of all: "How can anyone be born when they are old?  Can anyone enter a second time into the mother’s womb (v. 4)…?"  “How can these things be” (v. 9)? 

Have we not all, at some time or other, been at least a little negative about our ability to change?  We have a popular saying: "The more things change, the more things remain the same." Maybe the negativity of Nicodemus was similar to that which was experienced by the prophet Jeremiah over 600 years earlier.  With society crumbling around him, the weeping prophet looked over the decadence and degeneration of his own people and asked:  "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the Leopard its spots.  Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil...Woe to you, O Jerusalem, How long will you be unclean (Jer. 13:23,27).  This same pessimism may have been what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes felt when he also said, “That which is crooked cannot be made straight”(1:5). Such pessimism about human change not only predates Jesus, it also continues today, even into our world, as when the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire who once rather sharply said: "The better I get to know people, the better I like dogs."  That's strong language, but doesn’t it still resonate with us?  In another moment Voltaire wrote even more dramatically: 'Show me one real Christian and I'll become one.'
      
When Teresa and I were beginning our language study in West Germany, we arranged to have a private tutor during a holiday period.  The young lady who came to help us was a very warm and delightful person.  She was working on her teaching certification and agreed to help us for a few weeks.  She was an easy person to get to know.  As we talked, I found out that she was registered as a Protestant, but really was not a professing Christian at all.  She was agnostic and was well read in the writings of the French atheistic philosopher, Jean Paul Sarte.  But she was still very interested in my being in Germany as a missionary. She asked us the normal questions I was used to being asked: Why would one leave America and come here

I spoke to her as best I could about who Baptists are and why I answered God’s call to come to Germany.  Then I asked her why she was not interested in the church, since there was a church on almost every street corner in Germany.  Her answer was honest and open. She told how she grew up in a family that registered Protestant in a predominately Catholic neighborhood.  There was not supposed to be religious persecution any more.  That was supposed to be past.  Instead, her Catholic neighbors looked down upon her.  Her family was often talked about and treated unfairly.  The Catholic Church in her neighborhood would not allow her to attend their school nearby.   The Church, as she observed it, was filled with people who would come to show their religion on Holy Days but it did not affect daily life.  She saw religion spoken with the lips, but their hearts were not in in.  Through the years, her attitude had become like that of Voltaire: "Show me a true Christian, and I will become one."

YOU MUST BE BORN FROM ABOVE (v. 7)
The late Ben Johnson, who taught at Columbia Seminary in Georgia, told the story of a young man who came to the door of a monastery with a large duck in his arms.  He asked for his uncle, one of the monks, and said he wanted to give his uncle and the other monks the duck as a gift for all they had done for him.  Eat it in good health, he said.
A few days later another knock came on the monastery door. I am a friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. I’ve been a little down on my luck lately and I was wondering if I could impose on you for a bite to eat and a place to stay. The monks welcomed him happily and served him some leftover duck.
A few days later, there was another knock on the door. I am a friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. Could I impose on your hospitality for a day or so? He too was welcomed and given a steaming hot bowl of duck soup. And then, you can imagine, a knock came and it was a friend of the friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. That night at dinner he was presented with a steaming hot bowl of water. He was surprised but they explained that this was soup from the soup of the soup of the duck the nephew brought.
Now that is a silly story, but it says something profound about how distant we can become from true faith.  Too many people are content to live with a watered-down Christianity. Perhaps their mother or father or their grandparents had a profound faith in God, but they have been making-do with something that is weak, tasteless, and certainly without nutrition.  Is it any wonder that so many say religion does more harm than good, or that there isn’t anything to it?  Maybe this is what Jesus saw in religion too.
But I definitely don’t want to leave this here.  Jesus surely doesn’t.  Do you see again how Jesus answers this negativism of Nicodemus?  Jesus explains how this is change is not only possible, but it ‘must’ happen.   Jesus answers from the heart of God: “Do not be astonished that I
said to you. 'You must be born from above..." (v.6-7). In a world that says we can't change things, we don't really change, or the
more things change, the more they remain the same, the words of Jesus challenge us, stirr us, and awaken us a greater truth.  “Don't be so amazed” says Jesus.  Don't let it surprise you.  Not only can people and societies change, it is a necessary and change is unavoidable, if... you want to see the future…, and if you want to see God’s kingdom come (v. 3). 

When you hear Jesus' words over against the negativism of Nicodemus, and against the pessimism and skepticism of our world too, they shine like a lights in our darkness.  Jesus is the one who remained optimistic about our humanity.   But to believe in this kind of optimism is never easy, because as Jesus implies, most of the things Jesus teaches us to believe seem impossible on our own terms.  

Long before I first went to Europe, the first European I ever came to know was my roommate in college.  His name was a Frenchman, named Pierre.  Pierre was loud.  He was proud.  He was vulgar.  He drank too much.  He thought he knew everything. It was not a good first impression.  I knew that if our relationship was going to amount to anything something would have to change.  They told me I was going to get a football player for a roommate, but I ended up with a French, Karate, kicking catholic.  I tried to change him.  I tried to witness to him.  All the talking I did was like talking to a wall.  So, after a couple of months past, I decided to give up and move out.  I was losing my concentration for my studies.   I went to talk to the college administrator and he found me another room in another dorm.  Finally I was finished with Pierre.

Then, a year or so later, while I was eating dinner in the college cafeteria, someone came into the hall calling my name with a certain French accent.  "Joey! Joey!"   I turned and felt him touch my shoulder.  "I've got some news that you will be glad to hear."  "What is it?"  I replied.  "Last week I became a real Christian. I am going to be Baptized this Sunday night and I thought you would like to know." 

What I learned in that moment, impacted me so much, that later on in my life I went to Europe as a missionary.  Pierre made me realize that even against all the negatives in this world, Jesus can still change people.  And it’s not a truth about Jesus that changes us, but it’s the living, eternal Christ, who ascended to the Father, returns to us in the Spirit, who is present with and in people who can and will to be changed. It is this living Christ, who still touches, challenges, and changes the lives of Europeans, Americans, Asians, Africans, and Indians, if we will open our hearts to him.
 “Do not be astonished…, Jesus says.  'You must be born from above."  This is not some fantasy or an option of a religious viewpoint.  This is still the true hope of all the peoples of the earth.  The only way to receive and enter the eternal kingdom is through the human heart.   Jesus does not say you can change, might, or you can change if you want to, but the optimistic Jesus says you ‘must’ change: You must be born again!

FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD…. (v. 16)
With all this talk of change in the human heart, we still need finally reveal the most important part of Jesus’ answer.  Nicodemus was a smart man, but it was still hard for him to ‘understand’ (v. 10).  Jesus explained to him about the very mysterious wind of the Spirit which ‘blows where it chooses’ (v. 8), but since we can’t see it, nor can we control it, how to we discover it.  How do we tap into this Spirit that gives us second birth?   

It is no accident that this discussion ends with a picture of the cross.  It is on this cross, where ‘the Son of man must be lifted up’ (3:14) that people come to ‘believe’ and gain the gift of ‘eternal life’ (15).  It is with this proof of love, that God can change human hearts, from the inside out:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn. 3:17 NRS).
      
Not long ago, the Reverend John Buchanan retired after 48 years as a Presbyterian pastor in New York City.   Writing an article about his retirement, looking back over his half century of ministry, he remembered one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a little boy. After the child had been baptized with water, John Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy's head and addressed him in Trinitarian language, saying, "You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever." Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, "Uh-oh."

It was an amusing moment, and people in the congregation smiled, of course, but "it was [also] an appropriate response," wrote Buchanan.  It was a stunning theological affirmation ‘from the mouths of babes….’ (Psalm 8.2).  This "uh-oh" was a recognition that not only had everything had changed, and that this boy would never be the same. He was now being called, because of something he could never do for himself or by himself, to live a different way in the world.   No wonder he said, "Uh oh." Life would never be the same. (From in "Beginnings and Endings," The Christian Century, Jan 25, 2012).


What makes you say ‘Uh oh’?  The American Evangelist Billy Graham once asked the German Theologian Karl Barth what was the greatest and most overwhelming theological thought he had ever pondered.  Dr. Barth answered in the simplicity of an American Sunday School song:  "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."  Faith in this unconditional love for you is what can change us from the inside.   This love, so generously displayed in Jesus’ death, is so graciously and freely given by the God who is willing to pay the price of love.  Believe this and you will be born again, and again, and again.  Amen.