Items filtered by date: December 2017
17 December 2017

John 3:1-8, 16-21

Love. BORN Here.

December 17, 2017


          Our God comes up with some pretty extreme solutions.  When the world needed to be saved from sin and a lack of love, God did not just tell us that we are loved.  God did not just teach us about love.  God sent the Son to be BORN for us as love, taking on all our human frailty and suffering.  The desperation of the world’s need and the depth of God’s love demanded an extreme solution: Love.  BORN Here.

          And when Nicodemus, or when any of us, needs to get right with God, to be able to live a life of faith and love, God doesn’t give us a self-help book.  God doesn’t just show us a path of spiritual growth.  Through Christ and the Holy Spirit, God makes it possible for us to be BORN anew, to start completely over in love.  The desperation of our need the depth of God’s love demand an extreme solution:  Love. BORN Here.


          So God the Son was born as one of us in Bethlehem.  And that same Jesus told Nicodemus, You must be born anew.  These are extreme solutions.  A little too extreme for Nicodemus.  He took Jesus a little too literally about this new birth.  He protested that being born anew isn't possible.  There may have a part of Nicodemus that was afraid, that didn’t want to have to go back to square one, didn't want to start all over.  He tried to dismiss, he tried to tame Jesus' extreme solution.

          And we too have tried to tame God’s extreme solutions.  Or rather, let me speak for myself:  I know I have tried to tame God’s extreme solutions.  I turn the birth of God's Son into something warm and fuzzy, a time to eat too much and exchange gifts with people who don't really need them. But from Luke 1, listen to what Jesus’ mother, Mary, said about his birth:  “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  There's nothing tame about that!  In so many ways, we try to tame what Christmas means. 

          In the same way, I often tame what it means to be BORN anew.  I have treated the term “born again” dismissively—oh, that’s something they do in other denominations.  Of I’ve pushed it off on other people--oh, that’s something other people need, people more sinful than I am.  “Born anew”—that’s not something I need; I’m ordained, for heaven’s sake!

          But the first person Jesus told—technically the only person Jesus told—about being born anew was Nicodemus, a Pharisee.  John calls him “a leader of the Jews.”  Translate it into our culture however you want, but Nicodemus was a VRP—a very religious person.  It turns out that VRPs need new birth too.  In fact, it’s not just that even VRPs need to be born anew; it's that especially very religious people need to be born anew.  Because we VRPs are tempted to think that we are good enough, right enough, spiritual enough all on our own; that we can do it with a little help and support from God.  What Jesus is saying is, “No you can’t.  You need to start all over; you need to let the Holy Spirit remake you in the power of God’s love.”  It’s an extreme solution. 


          There is another connection between God’s Son being BORN of Mary and the call for us to be BORN anew.  When the angel told Mary that she would conceive and bear a son, Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  It's natural enough question, but the angel replied, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Christmas is not about what we think is possible, but about what’s possible with God.

          Nicodemus has similar concerns.  He speaks four sentences to Jesus, and in three of them he uses a Greek word that can be translated as ‘can.’  “How can one be born after growing old?” he asks.  “You can't

enter into your mother’s womb a second time, can you?" Nicodemus' thinking is limited to what human beings can and cannot do.  Jesus is all about what God can do.1  Being born anew is not one more human step; it’s a whole new possibility from God.  Living a life totally focused on love is not something you can do or have to do; God makes it possible to be born anew into a life of love.  Love is BORN anew.  Here.

          Martin Luther taught that this new birth is not about what we must do or not do; it’s about what we must become.2  All our doing, all our thinking, all our trying, just gets in the way of what God wants to do in us. 

The story is told of the woman who set out to discover the meaning of life.  She read everything she could get her hands on—history, philosophy, psychology, religion.  But she wasn't satisfied.  She visited very smart people and asked them the meaning of life, but they didn't agree with each another.  Finally she sold all her possessions and went to far places in search of the meaning of life.  She went to South America, to Africa.  Finally she went to India.  People there told her about a man high up in the Himalayas.  She climbed and struggled and finally reached his front door.  “Yes,” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. 

          “I’ve come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath.  “What is the meaning of life?”

          “Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.

          ”No,” she said.  “I mean, no thank you.  I didn’t come all this way for tea.  I came for an answer!”

          “We shall have some tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside.  While the tea was brewing she began telling him about all the books she’d read, all the people she’d talked to, all the places she’d been.  The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor didn’t leave any time for him to reply), and as she talked, he placed a cup in her hand.  Then he began to pour the tea.            She was so busy talking that she didn’t notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea began spilling out onto the floor.      

          “What are you doing?” she yelled.  “It’s full.  Can’t you see that?  There’s no more room!”

          “Just so,” the old man said.  “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do?  There is no more room in your cup.  Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”3

          “Love. BORN Here.” is not about what we must do or not do, but what we must become, not about what’s possible for us but what’s possible for God.  This Christmas can you empty your cup enough for love to be born, here?


          We used to call this new birth 'conversion,' and the most famous conversion stories are alll about VRPs (remember them?).

  • Saul was the most religious person there was, following every rule in the Bible and punishing anyone who didn’t.  And then, literally, he saw the light.  He was born anew.  He received a new name, Paul.  He let go of the rules and made his message the love of Christ for all people.  Love was BORN. Here.
  • John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was definitely a VRP.  He'd been a priest for years.  He’d been a seminary professor, a missionary to America.  Yet he was discouraged and unhappy.  He went to a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, where suddenly, he said, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”  Love was BORN.  Here.
  • Years ago I visited a church member who’d been given just weeks, maybe months to live.  He was a VRP, a long-time pillar of the church.  But he’d been estranged from his son for years—didn’t approve of what he called his son's "lifestyle."  The first thing he said when I got there was, “I want my son to come home.  All these years I’ve kept him away.  I was wrong.  All I want before I die is to tell him I’m sorry and that I love him.”  Love was BORN.  Here.
  • The mother of a seven year-old child in our church told this story.  She and her son were talking about faith in the car.  (I’ll pause to let that much sink in--you parents can talk to your kids about faith!)  And the seven year-old said to her, and I quote, “Mom, faith isn't just a word.  It transforms people!"  I believe, in so many words, that’s what Jesus said to Nicodemus.


            Christmas is an invitation to be born anew, to be transformed, to let God do what’s possible only for God.  Christmas is the perfect time to empty your cup and let Love be BORN.  Here.


1 See Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 174.

2 See Bruner, 172.

3 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Stay for Tea, Nicodemus,” Living by the Word, The Christian Century (February 21, 1996), 195. 

10 December 2017

John 3:1-8, 16-21

LOVE. Born Here.

December 10, 2017


          What was born at Christmas?  Well, Christ, of course—the Messiah, Immanuel, the Son of God.  But most simply, LOVE was born at Christmas.  And each Christmas we long again for LOVE to be born in our world and here in our church and here in our hearts. 

          Love was born at Christmas.  Nowhere do we see this more clearly than in John 3:16: “For God so loved that world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  The Son is the gift of the Father’s love.  Love is and love must be at the heart of the gospel and the heart of our lives.

          This is true throughout the New Testament.  The great command-ment is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).  After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus said there’s really only one commandment:  “that you love one another” (John 13:31).  1 Corinthians says that three things stand the test of time—faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (13:13).  1 John goes so far as to say, "God is love" (4:16). The greatest image of love is the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward child home with joy and not a word of judgement (Luke 15:11-32). Love is the heart of the gospel and of life. 


          Nevertheless, we make endless attempts to place other things at the heart of life.  From all the hoopla, you’d think that what was born at Christmas was decorations and cookies and presents under the tree.  These are great but they’re not the heart; that’s love.  Some people put rules or regulations or traditions at the heart of the gospel.  All these have their place, but they’re not the heart; that’s love.  Some of us, especially us pastors, put church activities at the heart of life—worship and service and Bible study.  These too are wonderful but they’re not the heart; that’s love.

          And some people believe in God’s love, just not for themselves. They consider themselves unworthy or for some reason outside of God’s love. Martin Luther encouraged such people, “Search in your [heart], whether you are not also a [person] (that is, a piece of the world) and [do you] belong to the number which the word “whosoever” embraces, as well as others?”1  Love is born at Christmas not for some, but for all, including me, and no matter what you think, including you.


          You may have noticed some harsh language in this scripture.  There is the prospect of perishing and the idea that some of us are condemned.  Love may be at the heart of the gospel, but love is not the only choice in life.  There is always the danger of perishing--of wasting one’s life on something other than love.  If love is not at the heart of life, then something else is at the heart, and is that not a form of perishing?

          And though God did not send the Son to condemn the world, it’s a sad fact that some of us condemn ourselves.  When you turn a light on, some people will come to it; others will hide from it.  I had a friend who one year dedicated himself to loving his wife more fully and sensitively.  He spoke more kindly to her and listened more carefully to her.  He did little things for her around the house and took her special places.  After a few months, word got out, and several men came to ask him for hints on how they too could love their wives better.  But other guys came and complained that the way he was treating his wife was making them look bad and wouldn’t he knock it off.  Put love at the center—some will gather around; others turn away. 


          In some ways, keeping God’s love at the heart of life is so simple.  Just don’t complicate things.  There’s a Peanuts cartoon where Peppermint Patty and Charlie Brown are sitting under a tree and she asks him, "Do you ever think about love, Chuck?"

"All the time," he says.  "Is music the food of love? Is love a many splendored thing? Is love here to stay? Does love make the world go 'round? Is love . . ."

"Wait a minute, Chuck!" she interrupts.  “I asked you a simple question and I wanted a simple answer! I didn't expect a whole lecture!  Let's start over . . .  Do you ever think about Love, Chuck?"

"Love?" he mumbles, with a confused look on his face.

"That's what I figured. . ." she concludes.  Don’t complicate things!


Yes, love is simple, but it's not easy, and when it's needed most, there's nothing sentimental about love.  You parents know what I mean.  Love waits by the phone when a child is out too late, and then hugs them like fury when they finally get home.  Love washes clothes and cooks meals and helps with homework without ever getting thanked.  Love keeps loving when lines are crossed, when angry words are spoken, when disagreements become impasses. 

Think about the love of God that sent the Son into the world.  Who knows how the Father must have worried while the Son was living down here?  Who knows how it hurt the Father to see the Son rejected and despised.  Who knows how the Father's heart broke when the Son breathed his last?  And who knows how the Father must suffer still when in the Son's name people judge and exclude rather than love and include? 

This is the sort of love that was born at Christmas:  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.


I tell you again: tradition has it that John, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John and Revelation, had a disciple come to him.  "Master," he said, "Tell me one thing. . .  Why is it that you always write about love?  Why don't you ever write about anything else?"  St. John paused, waiting for the disciple to work it out himself.  Finally, he answered:  "Because," he said, "in the end, love is all there is."2

Look in the manger, my friends, and what will you find?  God’s love, only love.  Because in the end, that's all there is.


1 Quoted in Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 211.

2 Quoted in Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). 


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