Posts Tagged ‘Understanding’

This I Know 11-25-18

In this sermon, based on John 18:33-37, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Pilate, as Pilate tries to wrap his head around Jesus. Its a mystery…and that’s okay.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-i-know-11-25-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The grace and peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Thursday afternoon, I was lounging around at my parent’s house, enjoying that low-key feeling post Thanksgiving-feast, when my brother grabbed me and hauled me downstairs into the basement to shoot a game or two of pool on our dad’s pool table.

We weren’t very far into our first game, when we noticed something strange happening. An odd tendency for a slow moving ball to begin curving towards the side pockets…and one of them in particular. We weren’t quite sure what was going on…only that this behavior was unexpected…but as confusing as it initially was to witness…we went into some investigation mode…and we came up with the following insight…

The temperature in my parent’s basement fluctuates pretty dramatically…and as it’s a wet basement, there are times when the air is quite damp and times when its quite dry.  We also realized that the pool table has been down there for several years now…and our final observation is that the table itself is wood, and not slate.  Perhaps you’ve already begun to realize what ultimately dawned on us…the table top has warped, creating slight downward angles towards the two side pockets…which itself results in a slow moving billiard ball curving in towards the pocket…which is great in every way, except if it happens to be the 8-ball…and so, once we figured this all out, we kept on playing, and simply adjusted our shots accordingly…in the end, this mystery was something we were able to figure out.

But thinking along those lines reminds me of an important bit of self-awareness that I have reached in my life…an awareness that there are some things I understand…some things I can figure out…and then there are things that will remain a mystery.

For example…I understand that anything that has mass will create a gravitational pull…however some things, like each of us for instance…is small enough that that gravitational pull our mass generates is so infinitely small, that it might as well be non-existent…but on the flip side…I also know that the earth is large enough and contains enough mass that it creates a gravitational force strong enough to keep us all firmly planted…and we don’t need to worry about floating off into space…I get all that…but what I don’t get, is how it works…that is, as they say…above my paygrade. (pause)

Now interestingly enough…this same sort of sense seems to be on display in today’s gospel. Christ the King Sunday…the final Sunday of another church year…and we wrap things up by acknowledging the kingship…or the reign of Christ in the kingdom of Heaven.

Now this year…our scripture lesson features an odd little back and forth between Jesus and Pilate…a setting found in the larger story of his betrayal and arrest at the hands of the religious leaders…just before his torture and eventual execution on the cross…an event commonly understood as his trial before the Roman authority. (pause)

Out of the 4 gospels…I do have to say that I appreciate John’s take on this whole deal…because when compared with the other three, John really does a good job of revealing the sneakiness of this whole situation.  Jesus is arrested for blasphemy…for daring to claim that he is God…and yet, the religious big-wigs know that they can’t order his execution on these grounds…the Romans may have cut them a lot of religious leeway…and they did…but that leeway didn’t extend to the point of allowing them to pick up a bunch of rocks and stone someone to death for claiming to be a god.

And so, if they want Jesus dead…and its seems that they do…they’ve got to ship him off to the political authorities…Pilate.  Now at this point, Pilate’s already asked them what he did…and he doesn’t really get much of an answer beyond Jesus being called a criminal…and with that…he’s got to try and figure things out.

Are you the king of the Jews? (pause) Now logic probably tells us the same thing that Pilate was thinking…this is a pretty simple question…yes or no answer.  If he says yes…that he is the Jewish king…well that means he’s in the midst of a political uprising…and crucifixion is the answer…if he says no…well then this whole deal is pointless.

But it seems like Jesus never gives a straight answer does he?  Are you king?  Why do you ask, are you curious or did someone say something?  And then we go back and forth…several questions countered with more questions…until Pilate seems to arrive at the conclusion “So you are the king.”  Only to get an equally confusing answer “You have called me king.” (pause)

I can only think that Jesus is revealing something important here…that whatever it is that God is up to through the Christ event…through the life and the death and the resurrection of the one who is the living Word of God made flesh…the one who existed with God and is God…the light which shines in the darkness…whatever God is up to in bringing about this whole kingdom of heaven which has already come near to us and at the same time is not yet fully realized…whatever it is…we just can’t grasp can we?

Pilate was a political dude…that’s what he knew…that’s what he understood…and so he was trying to apply this knowledge…this understanding on Jesus and whatever it was he was up to.  The religious leaders…his own people…they’re cranky with him…so clearly something is going on right?  And Pilate tries to put in terms that he can comprehend and deal with.

God bless him, he’s trying isn’t he? But clearly…he’s failing.  Just like my inability to understand what makes gravity…the kingdom of heaven, whatever that means…well that’s above Pilate’s pay grade isn’t it?  Honestly its above everyone’s pay grade…because God is just so much bigger than we can wrap our heads around…and that’s okay.

But if that’s the case…and we’re gonna leave things ambiguous and I guess we can say unanswered…then what do we do with this passage?  And as I ponder on that question I’m drawn to the very last thing that Jesus says today. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world…to testify to the truth…Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

I thought about this idea of truth…and it’s a concept that’s scattered all over John’s gospel…but perhaps no more importantly then when Jesus himself declares “I AM…the way…and the truth…and the life.”

Jesus himself is the truth…and he reveals so much about this life…a new way to live…a new way to be in the world…a new way to live in harmony with God and with our neighbors…not a perfect life, for Jesus knows that none of us are capable of that…but rather a life where confession and repentance and forgiveness is also a possibility. A life in which we live as if the kingdom is already here…because…it is…Jesus told us that.

And maybe, just maybe as we live our lives in a way that reflects the reality of this kingdom of heaven…and whatever that will ultimately look like…maybe that’s how we participate in God’s ongoing action of bringing that kingdom into existence.

And we do this because this is what Jesus has told us to do. He has shown us a new way…he has illuminated a new way for us…and through the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit which Jesus has sent upon us all…he continues to reveal more and more and more about what life in the kingdom looks like.

And one of the commands that he has given us also serves as signs for us…and that is the sacraments. When we receive the bread and the wine, we are reminded that his body and blood were broken and shed for all people to make forgiveness possible…and in the waters of baptism, we are washed both literally and figuratively as we hear the promise of God’s claim upon each of us.

That’s the amazing thing about this whole deal…its always about what God has said about you…the action is accomplished by God through Christ…and while we respond to it…our salvation…our acceptance…our invitation to the party is never dependent upon us…something that I think is revealed when we consider that age old parable of the prodigal son.  The father goes searching for both brothers…and brings them in…doing so with an assurance that you’re already at the party.

Isn’t the joyful thing we realize through the gospel…that whatever it is that this kingdom looks like…that whatever this heavenly party is…we’re already at the party…and God’s ongoing action within this world seems to be aimed at reminded us of that.

But that doesn’t really fit into our rigid, rule laden reality does it?  And those who so strictly adhere to “the rules,” well they have a really hard time accepting this reality of Christ don’t they? And so they try and put Jesus in a box…that’s what Pilate was up to…and I can’t help but think that’s what the religious leaders were ultimately up to as well.

But the good news remains…that God will not be limited to a box…and God’s love and grace for each one of us will not be limited either.  The gospel tells us, we’re already welcome…we’re already accepted…we’re already at the party…some of us just haven’t realized it yet.

And that right there…that’s why God invites us to join in this ongoing work of reconciling the world…to be the hands and feet, carrying this good news…that you’re already at the party…not because of anything that we do…that’s not the way…He is the way…and his way reveals the truth…and this truth to hold onto is not who you are or what you have done…its who’s you are through what he has done. Amen.

I Do Not Understand 3-12-17

In this sermon, taken from John 3:1-17, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. A grammatical situation reveals the truth, that often we lack the ability to understand what God is up to.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/i-do-not-understand-3-12-17

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Just out of curiosity, is anyone out there fluent in Spanish? I am not…I know just enough to be dangerous…and I truly discovered this fact during my final year of seminary as I spent two weeks in a congregation with a large Hispanic population.  Throughout the course of the time that my small group of classmates and I were in the congregation, we met with many different individuals for conversation…and that would always include one of the two pastors present for the purpose of translation…but we all attempted to communicate with one another directly in one another’s language, at least as much as we were able.

Now for me…my one year of Spanish my sophomore year of high school didn’t do a lot of good…and my ability to communicate in Español was pretty much limited to introductions. Time after time we would go around the table introducing ourselves…and each time I would say Mi llamo es Scott…which literally means “My name is Scott.”  Now, grammatically, there was nothing wrong with what I was saying…but after hearing several others from my group introduce themselves I started to pick up on the regular way for a person to say it. Soy Scott…now saying it this way literally means “I’m Scott.” (pause) Again, neither one is technically right or wrong…they are just two ways to say the same thing.

Now the polar opposite situations happens in today’s gospel lesson. Rather than hearing two different ways to say the same thing…we begin to discover one way of saying two different things…but first, let me set the stage.

We’ve moved into John’s gospel…where we’ll remain for the rest of the season of Lent…and perhaps that’s not a bad thing…maybe its fitting during this season we usually consider pretty dark as we move towards the cross…and if you’re familiar with the major theme here in John’s gospel it’s the idea of light and darkness…and the contrast between the two…we hear this theme all over John…as the narration of different stories continues to give us little clues about the state of things…telling us the time of day or that an encounter happens at night.  (pause) And in our story for today…that bit of narration is right out there.

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus…a leader of the Jews…He came to Jesus by night, calling him Rabbi…seeking something. Now this all happens in Jerusalem…and of course we’re pretty early in the whole story. Jesus has been baptized…he’s publically performed his first miracle…or sign as they’re called here in John…and he’s made his way into the capital city for the first of 3 Passover celebrations…he’s already caused a major stir in the temple when he started cracking a whip and throwing a bunch of tables around…and since then he’s just been around the temple…performing more signs and teaching. And this is where we pick up.

Nicodemus is one of the big wigs…not only is he a Pharisee, but he’s also a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He’s kind of a big deal…and if we were to compare him to a present day figure, we’d probably call him a Seminary professor with 3 or 4 different PhD’s. This guy…he knows his stuff…anything having to do with Jewish culture or their religion, or their faith, or their understanding of the law…he’s your guy…Nicodemus was the 1st Century Jewish equivalent of Google…if you had a question you went to him…not the other way around.

And perhaps this is why its so strange that we find him seeking out Jesus in the first place. Maybe the council sent him…or maybe he was just curious…but either way…here in the middle of night…in the midst of darkness…Nicodemus comes searching…calling Jesus Rabbi.

Now there’s a lot of back and forth in this story…as the teaching moment begins as a dialogue between the elite Pharisee and the traveling Rabbi…and the first thing that Jesus does is point out the error in the way that the council perceives him. We know that you are from God because no one can do the signs you do apart from him.

And Jesus response…you don’t get it. You can’t see the kingdom of God…you can’t perceive it unless you are born from above…and with this statement…Jesus and Nicodemus are off to the races…they engage in a lively debate around the idea of being born. (pause)
But here’s the problem…remember how I talked about 2 ways to same thing in Spanish…well here…we find 1 way to say 2 things…Jesus says “born from above.” But Nicodemus hears “born again.” (Pause) And it raises the question of just how that happens.  Well, funny enough it has to do with the original language…the very language that Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking to one another as they sat there debating…keep in mind they’re speaking the same language, but Greek gets funny right here…and the word that Jesus uses to say “from above” also means “again.”

Let me give you an example…desert…I say that and I might be talking about a delicious sugary post-meal treat…or I might be talking about leaving you high and dry in the midst of your need. Same word…two different meanings…and the same thing has happened between Jesus and Nicodemus.

Now the conversation goes back and forth…Jesus offering explanations…Nicodemus asking more questions…but seemingly getting nowhere as he tries to understand what Jesus is attempting to teach him.

But maybe that’s not so out line in the first place. Jesus talks about being born from above…whatever that means. Nicodemus is thinking more about the physical reality of what Jesus has said…and logically speaking…it just doesn’t work…to be born again? How can that happen…no one can enter the womb and be born a second time. I know how biology works…and that’s not how biology works.

And so after some back and forth Nicodemus finally throws up his hands and utters his final words of this story. “How can this be?” (Pause) You know there was another time when a person asked that very same thing…when an angel appeared to a young woman and said You will have a child…and this girl, maybe you’ve heard of her, she goes by Mary…asks How can this be, for I am a virgin?

In both cases…Mary and Nicodemus, they’re thinking about these things in terms of the physical…what can we see, what can explain…but the kingdom of God…this new reality that Jesus is bringing into the world…its not physical…its something else…something that we can’t quite put our finger on…and I’m guessing that often times as we consider what this book (hold up a Bible) has to say to us…we can’t quite put our fingers on it either…and like Nicodemus we end up asking “how can this be?”

Now Jesus seems to respond to that question today…offering up what I’ve long considered to be a rebuke…at least until quite recently. Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things.” I always thought Jesus was coming down on him…but what if Jesus is simply making an observation…that even the most highly educated…even the one who by all human understanding should be the one to get this…even you CAN’T understand.  He goes on too…if you can’t fully grasp earthly things…how could you be expected to understand heavenly things?

Now a couple different things happen at this point…Jesus goes on teaching…and in the end offers up one of the most well-known passages of scripture…reminding us that because of God’s perfect sacrificial love for the ALL the world, he gave his son, not to condemn the world but to save it…all of it. (pause) Jesus lays out this vitally important, and very deep…DEEP truth…and Nicodemus has faded from the story. (pause)

Quick side note, remember when all this is going on?  Night time right? In the midst of darkness…and its still dark…and it would seem that Nicodemus remains in the dark…lacking understanding…not finding what he’s been looking for…for Nicodemus, the light bulb hasn’t gone off yet…Now I’ve long wondered if he ever “gets it.” Because here today…it looks like a no.

But his story isn’t over yet either…and he pops up 2 more times…the next time we see him…his kind of passive aggressively defending Jesus to the council…saying that its not lawful for them to condemn someone without a trial…not really picking a side…but cling to technicality.  But then the last time he pops up…at the cross…helping deal with the dead body of Christ…out there in the open…in the midst of the daylight for all to see. (pause)
Admittedly, Nicodemus is often criticized…because here at least…he just doesn’t get it…and he remains in darkness…in the lack of understanding…but I think its because he comes looking for Jesus instead of the other way around.

Maybe its because I’m Lutheran…but it seems to me that anytime we go looking for Jesus…when we go searching for God…we’re gonna miss the mark…because we look in the wrong places…and it is God who finds us. That’s what Jesus’ presence in our reality is all about…that’s why, out of his perfect sacrificial love for the world, God sent Jesus into the world…and that event…the whole aspect of Jesus’ in our reality…something they call the incarnation…that’s about God coming to find us where we are…in the midst of the darkness…not the other way around.

Now the amazing thing about the incarnation is that we need every aspect of it to even begin to makes heads or tails of this whole Kingdom of God thing. You’ve heard me talk about the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…and we need every aspect…his perfect life gets us nowhere without his cursed death on the cross…and we need the death, because you can’t have a resurrection without it.

And if the ongoing example of Nicodemus shows us anything…its that we need all aspects to even begin to understand. He didn’t get it until after the death of Christ…when he publically displayed that he was a follower of Christ…but even his closest followers, the disciples…even they failed to understand what was happening until the resurrected Jesus showed up again….and to be perfectly honest…even that was lacking.

Because here’s the thing about faith…we are clinging to the promises of that which we cannot see clearly. Scripture gives us tiny glimpses into the truth that Christ has brought into the world with him…but we cannot fully understand in this life.  The apostle Paul reminds us that now we see as in a mirror dimly…but one day we will see face to face.

One day…but, we’ve got to get through death before we reach that day…because it is only when we join with Christ in the resurrection…and we have put aside all these human limitations…only then will we truly comprehend the glory that Christ has made possible.

And so in the here and now…its okay for us to admit that we don’t understand…to ask the question How can this be? And then to realize that we probably won’t come up with a satisfactory answer…but rather to cling to the hope we find in the promise that because of God’s perfect love for us…we will not perish, but will have eternal life. Amen.