Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The King on a donkey



Palm Sunday Sermon planned for Sunday, April 13th, 2014.

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

First impressions. I remember my first impressions of you, of this congregation. There's two parts to my first impression of you. I remember sitting on the left row of benches, close to the front. I can't remember who was song leading. I think it was Joel, or maybe Gina Enns. I'm not sure. We were singing this hymn and we were totally butchering this one part - we didn't get the harmonies right, the timing was off. It was really quite miserable. I remember the song leader stopping us in mid-verse, smiling, and we were told to go back to the beginning. We were going to try this again. There was laughter in the congregation. There was a sense of ease. My first impression was that you didn't take yourselves too seriously - you were gracious with each other, and worship was meant to be uplifting and joyful - and it's ok if its not always perfectly polished. When we bring our best to God in worship - our best is still very human. And I liked that. Another part to the first impression was the fantastic potluck you put on that morning. Karen and I were worshipping at a church in Winnipeg that didn't really know how to do potlucks - there were mostly bought pizzas, freezer lasagnas, and Tim Hortons doughnuts. All things I love, but not quite in the same level or caliber as the table that we set here in Gretna. They say the way to a Pastor's heart is his stomach - very true! Those were my first impressions - and they were great. What was your first impression of Karen and me? Do you remember?

Although first impressions don't always get you a very good picture of the truth; they do tell you something; and quite often, they tell you something important. This morning, in our reading from Matthew's gospel, we hear about the way Jesus chose to make his first impression to the citizens of Jerusalem. Sure, many people had seen him already, many had heard about him. But there's something about Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem that strikes me as a first encounter - this is Jesus' real first presentation of who he is and what he's about. Of course, for the rest of us, and for his disciples, Jesus is no stranger - we've been following along the story for years; and now during Lent, in a focused way once again.

How does the first impression in our story this morning line-up with what we already know about Jesus? How does his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey line up with who he is and the kind of person he's already shown himself to be in previous stories? Since December we've been studying the life of Jesus and his encounters with all kinds of people. In these encounters, Jesus offers himself, he offers grace, new life, transformation. With this journey into Jerusalem, with David's Son entering David's City, we expect transformation and hope; that's what the people expect when they shout their Hosannas. Were they disappointed? Towards the end of the procession, we hear that the crowds were in turmoil. Did they not like what they saw? How many of these crowds, cheering on Sunday, were there on Friday, shouting "Crucify Him!"? Did his first impression not satisfy?

For those of us privileged to read about this from the bible, whenever we want, we can see the story developing in a masterful way. The author of Matthew's gospel does a good job preparing us for this kind of King, for Jesus riding on a donkey. After all, for us, the real first impression is already made in Bethlehem - a lowly birth for a King.  Likewise, the immediate chapters preceding our story all tell about the nature of the Kingdom of heaven. That it's not the usual kind of Kingdom that most people come to expect when they think of power and victory.

Two chapters before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, we read about a group of children that were being brought to Jesus so that he could lay hands on them and pray for them. I guess these parents thought it appropriate that children should hear from Jesus and be blessed by him - not just the adults. The disciples, on the other hand, didn't agree. 19:13 says that the disciples spoke sternly to these parents who brought children to Jesus. But Jesus would have none of it. "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." The kingdom of heaven belongs to children - let. that. sink. in. What is it about children? About their absolute need and dependence? About their simple trust? What is it about children that makes them role-model citizens of God's Kingdom? And yet, the disciples spoke sternly to their parents for thinking that Jesus would want anything to do with children.

This kind of poor attitude & behavior, on the part of disciples, is something we still see and hear about today, even in our church. Even to this day there are a  few disciples who feel authorized to scold children and the parents who bring them to worship Jesus. But Jesus interjects: let them come and don't stop them! Don't discourage them! The Kingdom of heaven belongs to children - the weak, the lowly, the needy. The donkey ride into town isn't all that surprising, is it? Not for a king who loves children, in all their wild and chaotic exuberance.

Then, in his discussion with a man about entering the Kingdom, Jesus told his disciples that in the Kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last. Karen and I saw plenty of donkeys on our trip to Ethiopia. One of my favourite memories is when we saw a donkey being pulled by a rope with three men yanking on it, and two men pushing the donkey's rear end. The donkey did not move. To ride a donkey is to know what it means to come in last place. It's not the ride you choose if you want to be in the front of the line. It's not the animal you choose if you want to present yourself as strong and victorious. They have warhorses for that kind of PR message. The donkey is trustworthy, but stubborn; it has immense endurance, it keeps going when things are difficult. It's not about arriving first - its about faithfulness along the way. The first shall be last, and those and the end - those who kept the faith, those who endured - they shall be the first.

Next, in chapter 20:1-16, Jesus tells the parable of the workers. Three groups of workers were hired to work a vineyard, but each group at a different time of the day, with the last group only hired for a short bit of time to help finish off the day. At the end, the landowner paid all the three groups the same wage. Of course, those who worked the longest for the same pay as the newcomers complained. But the landowner insisted that it was his right to pay the employees whatever he desired. It's a parable about grace - about us doing nothing to deserve the grace we're given. The amount of hours on your clock, as a disciple, doesn't correspond to the level of grace you're given. Again, Jesus repeats, the last will be first and the first will be last. The Kingdom of God is not like working at Friesens, or most other places of employment, where every 10mins or 15mins is accounted for on a timecard. The newcomer to grace, and the veteran, receive the same plate-full. It's grace, pure undeserved grace, from top to bottom. You can't earn it. You can't save it up, hoard it, or set parameters around who deserves it. You got your share of it - be thankful! And be thankful when others receive it, no matter how their life compares to yours - in fact, quit comparing at all and just be thankful for the grace you've received!

The Church belongs just as much to the 8yr old who proclaims her faith & trust in the waters of baptism as it does to the 80yr old founding members. The Church is God's gift to us - a community where we belong the minute we come to terms with the Truth that God has claimed us in Jesus Christ! If you know that God has claimed you in Jesus, then you're paycheque at the end of the day is the same as your Pastor's, the same  as your Deacons - the paycheques all the same - Grace! Grace! Oceans of Grace! This is the kind of Kingdom Jesus announced - it's not about earning favour; it is about trusting God's love and power for the long haul. Not a horse that gets the job done quick, because we're worried about the hourly rate. Rather, Jesus comes on a donkey, where you put the clock aside, you don't worry about the time, and focus on trusting and faithfulness for the long haul.

Karen and I saw countless donkeys just wandering the countryside - and then we found out that these animals weren't lost. They were faithfully returning to their homes, without anyone there to guide them back. For many miles, they would slowly make their way back home so they could serve their owners once again the next day. It wasn't about speedy efficiency, but about trustworthiness and faithfulness for the long haul.

Before journeying on to Jerusalem, Jesus warned his disciples that we was going to be betrayed and killed, but that he would be raised from the dead. But his warning fell on deaf ears. His teachings about the Kingdom should have given them a clue, that his message would not be received in Jerusalem. The people wanted a King who would overthrow the Romans. They didn't want "the last will be first" - they wanted "the first will be first". His disciples should have been able to see it coming; but they were like us. No matter what Jesus actually said, we find ways of ignoring it and painting Jesus into our own image - making him support all of our own ideas and ideologies. We pick the teachings we like. We somehow skirt-around the ones that trouble us. The ones that don't fit into our views of who God is, of how things should go.

After Jesus warned the disciples, James and John's mother, the wife of Zebedee, came to Jesus and asked a favour. She wanted her sons to occupy the privileged seats in his kingdom - the right and the left seat. She wanted them to be captains in Jesus' army. Jesus' response to her request has become one of my favourite teachings of Jesus.  In response to her request, and the other disciples' frustration, Jesus says: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mat 20:25-28 NRS)

This passage is central to understanding how God's Kingdom works - of how God's power works, and of how we see God's power at work in and through Jesus' life. Sometimes we think of power as simply a kind of relationship that the people at the top have with those at the bottom. That those who are in charge of society have power, and those at the bottom don't have power. For the Kingdom of God, this is quite different. In the Kingdom of God, power operates through servanthood. Serving your neighbour and showing them grace and love can have a more transformative impact that any show of "power" according to the world's standards. It's this servanthood power that Jesus displayed when he washed his disciples feet and commanded us to do the same for each other. It's this servanthood power, when Jesus bore our sins on Calvary - rather than conquering evil by overpowering with its own tactics, Jesus overcame evil and death by suffering its worst blow - innocent death on the cross.

The passages of scripture leading up to Jesus' triumphal entry have paved the way for this moment when Jesus steps up onto this lowly animal. The king who welcomes children, the king who serves and washes feet, the king who steps to the back of the line - this king climbs up on a donkey. He offers the citizens of Jerusalem a first impression - and its a clear one. Your King is here! See him, lowly and riding on a donkey! There was enough of a crowd for things to get pretty noisy. They were there, cheering and chanting. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" Some were there to welcome Jesus with cheering; but we also read that the whole city was in turmoil. Jesus' arrival stirred things up. Not everyone was happy to see him.

Most people would have preferred a contemporary ruler, maybe like Putin. When he drives around town, he's sporting a 7.7 Litre Russian-made Limo, called a ZiL - 8.57mpg. Or perhaps people would prefer an Obama, who is toured around in a 2009 Cadillac nicknamed "The Beast" - 8mpg. What kind of car would Jesus drive? I read that Pope Francis uses a Ford Focus to drive himself around the Vatican... you can't get much more lowly than driving a Ford. Humble guy!

There's days that I would prefer to have seen Jesus riding into town on a warhorse - bulldozing down all his enemies; getting rid of all the bad guys; tossing out the Romans; setting up camp in Jerusalem with all the angels by his side. There's days when the power that overwhelms the enemy through destructive force - there's days when that's really appealing. But on days when I'm feeling defeated; on days when it's become abundantly clear to me that I've been the one betraying Jesus with my thoughts, words, or actions; on days when I'm lonely or feeling misunderstood; on days when I'm feeling far from God's presence - on days like that, the figure on the donkey draws me in. The lowly King who draws near and washes my feet; this figure draws me in.

I don't know where you're all at this morning. Perhaps you are very eager for a Jesus coming to town on a warhorse to kick some butt. And believe me, there are things in our world that need tearing down - desperately. But I'm guessing there's many of you out there who are, like me, frustrated by our own messy lives, our own stubbornness, our own sin and brokenness. I'm guessing there's more of you out there hungry for a gentler Jesus then will come alongside you in your pain, in your grief, in your loneliness. That's the impression I get with Jesus riding into town on a donkey - he's the one who comes to the Samaritan woman at the well, whose life is fractured by broken relationships - and he offers peace, rest, hope, living water. To be sure, in just a few verses, this lowly King is going to cause a ruckus in the Temple. Jesus is not just a lowly servant king, he is also a fiery Prophet, and a Priest who actually brings us into the presence of God. But today, as we head into Passion Week and consider the ways in which our own lives are caught up in darkness; as we consider how our own journey is marked by death and suffering and abandonment; as we think about how the Cross is something we continue to bear - this morning, let us be thankful for a servant King who comes in gently on a donkey. Let us proclaim our allegiance to the Lion of Judah who comes to us as the Lamb who was Slain. Let us give all praise, glory, and honour to the One who defeats death on our behalf by giving up his own life! Let us shout our Hosannas! He is the King who comes to us, meets us where we are and he makes us new, he restores, he heals.

Please join me in singing a song of declaration, of praise, to the King who makes all things new!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Nourishment



Sermon planned for Sunday, March 23rd, 2014.

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:1-42

What are your needs? Call to mind a time in your life when you felt a deep need. What was it? One of my most basic needs, I've come to realize, is friendship, companionship. This past week, Karen and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary. I recall, at the time of our wedding, feeling so thankful that I had found a friend & partner; someone to share life with. The year before I met her, I had experienced something I never had up until that point - a profound yearning for friendship. I was surrounded by friends during my last few years of college. But when I moved to Rosthern, to take up the role as youth pastor, I experienced a social vacuum for the first time in years. I didn't really know anybody there. After the first few months of my time in Rosthern, I felt a deep hunger for friendship and for companionship. That's when I started attending several college & career groups in Saskatoon. I met a few good friends - some that I still connect with to this day. But this one time, after our worship service was over, I noticed this woman looking at me - and that she kept looking at me, which obviously means that I was staring at her too. That's how things began for us - a long stare across a crowded church sanctuary. 10 years later, I still thank God for allowing me to find such a kind and godly friend. I feel as though God provided for one of my most basic needs - a friend to walk with.

This past week, at youth group, we were talking about our Christian faith and how it connects with the issue of social media. We talked about how God cares about every part of our life - that there's not one sphere of our day that God's bored with. If God cares enough about people, in the bible, to tell them about how to deal with mold, skin rashes, and proper clothing - then we can know that there's nothing about our lives that bores God. It all matters to Him. All of our needs matter to God. Our simple needs. Our physical needs. But also our most profound, deep, and spiritual need.

Two weeks ago, with the beginning of Lent, we heard the good news that God encounters us in our trials & temptations; then, last week, we learned of how God meets us in times of blessing. In both trial & blessing, God encounters us and draws us into deeper connection with Him. Into deeper trust in Him. But in these encounters we also meet a God who cares about our Needs, who comes and nourishes us.

This past Fall season, we heard the story of the Manna in the wilderness. The people were weak with hunger, remembering the fleshpots of Egypt. Our passage this morning continues from that scene. The people wandered from the wilderness of Sin to a place called Rephidim, and the text says that there was no water for them to drink. It's one thing to be without food, but no water adds a whole other level of urgency. I knew of a pastor who fasted from all food every year during Lent - he lost a lot of weight, but he survived; until the doctors warned him about its affects on his body. But you can't do that with water. You can't survive for more than just a few days without water. And with all those thousands of people without water, what do you do? Israel complained.

The main focus of the story is Israel's complaining. When Israel remembered this story and told it to their children, their focus wasn't so much on their desperate need for water - it was more on their attitude. They remembered how they quarreled with Moses, and complained about their situation. Often, when we remember and retell our own personal stories, we tell them in a way that makes us look innocent. We don't always do this - but often. Israel, for some reason, doesn't do that here - it does in other places; but it's surprising to see how often Israel remembers her story in a way that is actually quite embarrassing for Israel. This story displays how needy they were. How miserable they were. How they failed to trust God. How they put God to the test. The Old Testament tells the story of God choosing Israel, but the stories are, for the most part, very clear - they are chosen not because of their virtue. Israel knows that she is chosen as God's people only because of God's great mercy. Israel is the beneficiary of undeserved grace. God meets Israel's needs even when Israel is at her worst - whining and complaining. During their worst, while they were miserable and without trust, God came to them in their desperate need and provided water from the rock.

In John's gospel, we heard the story of Jesus traveling through the land of Samaria. In this passage we find another one of the shortest verses of scripture, and like some of the others, it's a crucial one. We read in verse four that, while traveling along, Jesus had to go through Samaria. The Greek word " Ἔδει " means that this wasn't optional, it was necessary. Such a small detail, but it says so much. What does this mean, that Jesus 'had to' travel through Samaria?

Jesus didn't have to travel through Samaria - at least not for geographical reasons. Most Jews, when travelling between Galilee and Judea, would have taken the longer route that bypassed Samaria; Jesus, like every other Jew, would have known about this bypass. And every other Jew would have taken that longer road; just as the Samaritans would have avoided traveling through Jewish lands. There was no love between Jew and Samaritan - they avoided each other. So why does John's gospel tell us that it was necessary that Jesus travel through this land? It's because of what we read last week: for God so loved the world. Jesus, the Word made Flesh, is God's act of love for the world. For the nations. For the Gentiles. For the Samaritans. Jesus had to go through Samaria because that's who he was - he was the Divine Son of God, whose mission it was to spread the good news of the Kingdom to all nations.

In Samaria, he stopped-in at a well in the city of Sychar. And there he met a woman. A woman who is famous by now. His conversation with her is the longest conversation with any other woman that we have recorded in the New Testament. He was crossing boundaries. He crossed boundaries the minute he took the shortcut through Samaria. He crossed boundaries the minute he started talking to a woman at a well, all alone. But all of these boundary crossings are what it means when we read that it was necessary that Jesus travel here. It was necessary that he break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. It was necessary that he break down the barrier that kept this woman from experiencing wholeness and peace. Jesus came to reconcile us to God, and to create a new humanity of reconciled enemies - a community of brothers and sisters in the family of God.

Who was this woman? What were her needs? We learn that she had been married five times; and was now with someone who wasn't her husband. What does this mean? Oftentimes, I've read this passage with the assumption that this woman was a terrible sinner, guilty of being a loose woman, an adulteress. I've made the assumption that these failed marriages must have been her fault. This past week, as I sat with this text, studying it, and reading up on it, it became clear to me that there's nothing there to support my assumptions. We don't know why her previous marriages ended. We don't know if she had been widowed five times. We don't know if she had been divorced for reasons that were not her fault - perhaps she was barren and her husbands just tossed her away. We do know that, in that time, most Jewish men had the right to divorce their wives for almost no reason at all. Perhaps the fault wasn't hers - that she had merely been discarded by a series of men. We don't know. And our gospel text doesn't solve this for us. What is telling, though, is that nowhere does it state that she was a sinner needing forgiveness for being an adulterer or for anything to do with her many marriages. There are other places in the gospels where Jesus' ministry to a person begins by Jesus declaring their sins forgiven. Not this one. Her most basic need, according to this text, isn't specifically forgiveness - it is Living Water, she needs Jesus himself.

For this reason, as I was studying the passage this week, I decided to just hear the story without those assumptions. A woman comes to a well and is encountered by a man who knew everything about her - and all he had to say was to offer her Living Water. We don't know much about her life, but it must have been a rollercoaster ride. She was in her sixth relationship. Whatever the reason for those changes, you can imagine some of the emotional challenges she might have faced. You can imagine the stigma that she would have experienced in her community. You can almost hear the gossip at the coffee tables - making assumptions about her character, coming to conclusions about why she had been repeatedly discarded. And with a life on display, she would have felt as though people only saw her through this scandal - they didn't really know her for who she was.  But at the well, that day, she met a man who truly saw her - and this scandal didn't keep him away. He was there - it was necessary for him to be there - to cross boundaries, and to provide for her need.

This morning, we've heard two stories about needs being met. In Exodus, we heard of the Israelites grumbling and complaining, and of the water they received to quench their thirst. Then, in the gospel of John, we heard Jesus offer the Samaritan woman Living Water that would satisfy completely. In both these stories, we encounter God who meets our need in ways that get to the core of who we are and what we really need. The Israelites needed to come to know that God was trustworthy; they could lean on God in this wilderness journey; they could trust God with their very life. The woman of Samaria needed to meet someone that wouldn't discard her; someone that wouldn't judge her and cast her aside; someone that saw her beauty, her worthwhileness. That she wasn't just a person to be thrown away, or ridiculed, or isolated. She needed to know she was loved by God. What do we really need? What do you really need this morning?

Please join me in the New Testament, in Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 5, beginning at verse 1. (Romans 5:1-11)

What is our most basic of needs? Is it water to quench our thirst? Is it a spouse? A close friend? A roof over our heads? It is true, we do need these things - we need food & water; we need relationship of some sort, companionship of some sort; we need the security of some kind of home. And God provides our needs - not always to the level of our wants and desires. In the Church, God has created a community where His Spirit leads us to build one another up. When there's a death in the church family, we give food, we share, we pray. We have helped people pay bills when the money's tight. We've helped organizations like MCC do some amazing work at meeting people's immediate needs - I've seen its impact with my own eyes in Ethiopia. It's profound the way God is raising up generous Christians to meet people's need. It may not be water from a rock, but it's no less important. We also offer each other friendship, emotional support, and companionship. Yet when our bodies fail us - when water itself won't get us out of our mortal predicament - who meets our ultimate need?

While we were weak... while we were sinners... while we were enemies - Christ died for us. And this is how we have been saved! Christ's death for us - his faithful obedience to death on the cross - has won the victory for us all! All we need do is trust Him! Like the Israelites in the wilderness; those whining complaining Israelites at the rock of Meribah; all we need do is learn Trust in God. While we were whiny complaining sinners - Jesus offered us his hand! While we were cast-out, discarded, and weak - like the woman at the well - Jesus offered us His very life. All we need do is Trust - have faith! As that 70's pop song put it, "Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters! Put your hand in the hand of the man from Galilee."

The journey of Lent we're on is about peeling back the distractions - the good, the bad, and the rest - to focus on the very best thing! God has come to us in Jesus Christ - offering us all of Himself - so that everything about us can be drawn into God's healing & transforming hand. We have had our most basic need met in Jesus - we have peace with God, our judge, our life-giver - the one who has overcome the grave.  Can we remember that as we share food after worship this morning - whether at our potluck or at home - that Jesus has offered us himself as the Bread of Life. It's not only at communion that we remember Christ's sacrifice - we can remember it every time we break bread together; whenever we share table fellowship. Jesus' life, death, and resurrection has provided our deepest need - his sacrifice has set the table for our need. Will you trust him to meet your need today?

Tena Toews trusted this God. She, like so many of our brothers and sisters, have gone ahead, before us, offering us this example of simple and profound trust. Not perfect lives, but trust in Jesus, God's Son. Trust that Jesus is who scriptures say he is. Trust in spite of profound difficulty and suffering. Paul knew about sufferings - and so do we. Paul writes that our sufferings give us cause for boasting. Why? Because in our sufferings we find ourselves strengthened with endurance, which produces character - characters like Tena's, marked by love, hospitality, kindness, and joy. Whether cancer, a disabled child, or depression - these obstacles to life did not stop Jesus from crossing over into Tena's heart, into her life, and into her family.

The obstacles in our life - the failures, the challenges, the wounds - they don't keep God from crossing over into our life; Jesus doesn't take the bypass around our brokenness. It doesn't keep God from meeting us in our need. And just as importantly, our situation doesn't keep us, as a community, from offering God's reconciling love to others. The Israelites were chosen by God's grace to be a community of blessing for the nations, as whiny as complaining as they were. The Samaritan woman received Jesus and his Life Giving water - she was born again that day - but she didn't keep the gospel to herself. She became the very first missionary to the Gentiles, and many came to know Jesus, influenced by her testimony about him.

God has crossed every boundary in the way - and he has met us in Jesus. Paul says that we have now received reconciliation with God. But he also notes that Jesus has recruited us - His Body, the Church - to be partners with Him in that reconciling work. Like the Israelites and the Samaritan Woman, we've had our needs met in Jesus - for a purpose! We're called to share! To show hospitality! To meet our neighbours with kindness and generosity, like Tena was so fond of doing. To proclaim the good news of Jesus, in our actions, our words, and in our very life together as a Church. Who are the broken in our community? The thirsty? The outcast? Who are those on the fringe, stuck behind obstacles? Will we be those who sit on the outside in judgment? Or will we be the hands and feet of Jesus, crossing any and every boundary, to offer Jesus' love, his healing and transforming grace? Will we walk with people in their need, offering whatever love we can from Him who first loved us? Will we journey into the no-man's land, like Jesus into Samaria; to meet people in their situations of need. Not with judgment, but with Jesus' life giving water? His love? His grace?

May you know this Jesus who meets us to provide our need; and may you become a vessel through which God pours out his life giving Spirit to those who need it, all around. Amen!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Blessing



Sermon planned for Sunday, March 16th, 2014.

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17

Last week we looked at the story of Adam and Eve, succumbing to temptation in the Garden of Eden; and we looked at Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. We spoke about what it means to encounter God in our trials and temptations. We saw that both in the story of Adam and Eve, and in the story of Jesus in the wilderness, we are faced with a God who searches us out – a God who persistently refuses to allow our disobedience to be the last word about us. We heard the gospel, that in Jesus we come to know God’s clearest message about us: namely, that God is with us, saving us, redeeming us, and setting us free from our sin and our slavery to ourselves. We saw that even in our darkest of trials and temptations, God is after us with love and restoring grace. If that’s the kind of God we meet in our trials and temptations; then what about when we experience blessing? Where is God at when we experience peace, blessing, and abundance? What is God’s presence like when we are blessed? If, last week, we looked at how God encounters us in the midst of temptation, struggle, and brokenness, then this morning our scripture texts show us how God encounters us in His blessings towards us. If, last week, we learned to recognize the good news of God's "NO" to our sin; then this morning we get to hear the gospel of God's "YES" in his blessings, most powerfully by sending us his only begotten Son.

Abraham and Nicodemus are our main characters this morning. Last week, from Adam and Eve, we learned that our first step in Lent is shining the light on who we are, on our temptations, on our failures. To expose their grip on us. The first steps in Lent are steps of confession and repentance. By his grace, Jesus frees us to move on to the second step - to begin to see and enter the good life God has prepared for us. This is where Abraham & Nicodemus come in - they are examples of what it means to encounter God in the midst of blessing. As we learned this past fall season, we are saved for a purpose. Paul writes that "we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." (Eph 2:10 NRS) A life of being blessed and blessing others. The second step of the journey of Lent is to open our eyes to the life of blessing that God has prepared for us.

The way God meets us in our blessing is not altogether different than the way God meets us in our trials and temptations - both encounters are meant to draw us closer to Him, to rely upon God, to acknowledge our dependence on our Creator, our Lord. Let me explain with an example. Turn to the person sitting beside you and share with them "What is one of the best gifts you've ever received?"

What's the best gift you've ever received? Of course, the Sunday School answer works here - Jesus - but I was thinking of something a bit different. I think, probably for all of us, the best gift we've ever received is life itself. You were born! You didn't deserve it, or earn it (maybe your parents didn't even plan it!). That's part of the definition of what it means to receive a gift - it wasn't deserved, earned, or planned. You simply received your life. But the gift of life is a peculiar one - it's a gift you receive that automatically places you in the most vulnerable of situations. The only way you can receive the gift of life is to also be placed into the situation of infancy. To be gifted with life is to become completely helpless, defenceless, weak, entirely needy  - a baby. Perhaps the only other time we become this needy/vulnerable/dependent is in the process of growing very old and in the process of dying.

I think the example of the gift of life & infancy is helpful in understanding how God meets us in our blessings. In our blessings, God meets us as one who draws us into a place of need, a place of dependence, and profound trust. In other words, you know God is blessing you with something, or with a situation, if it is drawing you to your knees in prayer; if it is throwing you into the pages of scripture, looking for answers. You know something's a blessing from God if it causes you to search Him out and lean on God for survival. The "blessings" that make you more independent, self-reliant, distracted from your faith - these are not blessings at all - and certainly not something you should thank God for! The blessings of prosperity, and the blessings of health, that have you leaning less and less on God, and more on yourself - these are perhaps the blessings preached in some churches; but not in this one! If your health is gonna make you pray less; if your wealth is going to numb your trust in God - then I wish you sick and poor! But if your blessing and prosperity is going to put you in a place of complete dependence on God - then I say "bring it on!"

Let's look at Abraham. I think he might clear things up for us. Abraham and his parents weren't all that well off to begin with. They were on a journey to Canaan, but they didn't reach their goal. It doesn't say why they didn't finish their journey. But usually, when you have all the resources you need, you get to where you're going. Terah and his family only made it to Haran - they didn't get very far. When God encountered Abram, and spoke the words of covenant and promise, How did Abram hear them? When you're stuck in a place not of your choosing, what are you needing to hear? When you're unable to move on to where you want to go, what good news are you hungry for?

We can't be sure what exactly went through Abram's mind as God made his offer. When God promised to lead Abram and give him land in the region of Canaan, what was he thinking? Was Abraham confident, "ha, now finally we'll finish our journey!" Did Abram think he would use God to get his way? Did Abram think God would just clear a path to Canaan and then he'd be on his own to do his own thing? Maybe. Perhaps there was a bit of a voice in the back of his mind - a selfish whisper of what this blessing could do for him.

Many who have read this promise to Abraham have read into it a selfish longing to have God on our side, approving all of our agenda, giving us the big green light to accomplish our own will. Many who have read this promise have seen this blessing as a purely selfish one - a blessing that empowers us to be a chosen people, super-powerful, independent, strong, and conquering all our foes. This passage is the proof-text for those who want a God who gives a thumbs up to our selfish aspirations. Part of this might have been in Abram's mind. We don't know. But it was not the reality of what would come of this covenant with Abraham.

When God led Abraham and his family into the land of Canaan, it was the beginning of a journey into deeper dependence between Creator and creature. Abraham would learn to pray... and pray hard. When him and Sarah experienced infertility, they knew that their blessing could only go on if God would act; and when they tried to figure it out on their own with Hagar, it backfired on them. Abraham learned trust in God, dependence on God, when his only son Isaac was to be sacrificed on the mountain. And when his son looked him in the eye and asked where the lamb was for the burnt offering, you can hear Abraham's faith & trust in God drip from every syllable, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son."

No, the blessings of the covenant with Abraham are similar to the ones we receive at birth - Abraham was like an infant, helpless to secure his own future - after all, he and Sarah were childless. And when Sarai and Hagar came into conflict, Abraham was once again unable to secure a way forward for his son Ishmael. Again, Abraham needed prayer, needed God to protect and watch over his son, and his mother. The blessings he received from God were blessings of prosperity, wealth, and health; but in each case, these blessings were drawing him into a deeper dependence on God.

Consider the blessings you named earlier - do they draw you into a deeper dependence on God? One of the things I've been blessed with is the opportunity to study my favorite subject. I love to learn. Lately I've been reading a book by John Yoder on Missions; it's an edited transcript from a course he taught for over twenty years; it's entitled A Theology of Missions: a Believer's Church Perspective. So far, it's great! I love reading. I love taking courses. And with this book I get the best of both. I consider it a blessing that I can afford to buy most of the books I want to read. Three years ago, I got the whole set of Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics for 90% off the usual price. (You don't look as excited as I thought you would) But as I was preparing my sermon this week, and thinking about the blessings in my life, I began to wonder whether these books on theology were a blessing or not. Do they make me depend on God more, or on myself more? Do they awaken in me a need for God, or do I end up leaning on my own understanding? What about the blessings in your life? Do they draw you into a deeper dependence on God? Nicodemus' story posed this problem for me in a sharp way.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, which meant that he was a very well trained Jew; he knew his stuff. His library would have put mine to shame. His studies in the Torah would make my bachelor's and master's degrees look like origami paper - to be folded up and played with. He was very well blessed with knowledge. He was a recipient of that great blessing given to Abraham - Nicodemus was part of the covenant people of God; but did he have the same faith as Abraham? No, I don't mean to ask if he shared the same doctrine. I mean, did Nicodemus trust God in the same way that Abraham did? For Abraham, the covenant with God required a level of faith and trust - all or nothing - because he left his home behind and went out with nothing but a few belongings and his wife Sarai, who was barren. Is this what faith in God meant for Nicodemus? Is this what life in the covenant meant for this well-trained theologian?

As a Pharisee, he was a leader among the Jews. In charge. In a place of power; a place of headship. And yet Nicodemus came to Jesus by night - in the evening when it was dark. He was a leader for a people who faced down Goliath, who chased away the Philistines, who cleared the land of Canaan, with heroes like Joshua, David, Samson, and Gideon. And yet here he was, sneaking around at night. What kind of faith did he have? Where did he put his trust?

Nicodemus started with a question: "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." (Joh 3:2 NRS) This is all that got out of his mouth before Jesus took the conversation in a whole new direction. But let's analyze where Nicodemus was trying to go with the chat. He was setting up a problem. We know that you are a teacher. We know that you have come from God. How? Because no one can do these signs that you do without God's help. Stop. That's as far as Jesus let him go.

What was Nicodemus going to ask? To me, it seems like he's building Jesus up to some kind of problem. We know you're from God - because you're powerful - but then why? We know this one thing about you, but it raises this other problem! They want to figure Jesus out. They want to put Jesus in his place. They want to put handles on Jesus so that they can set him aside without having their world shaken up. This is one of the first things that theologians do. If you've read any theology or philosophy - can you see this happen? You read the author, and then you try and find some way of putting handles on their argument or theology. You find some way of coming to grips with their argument so that it doesn't really cause you to change your position. So it doesn't cause you theological discomfort. Or you try to categorize them in some way so that it makes your own position that much stronger. Nicodemus wants to come to grips with Jesus' ministry; and from his position of power and blessing, as leader of the Jewish community, he has sought Jesus out to do just that!

But Jesus will have none of it! Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above... no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit... The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." The One who encountered Abraham and called him to follow is the same God who met Nicodemus that night. And if Abraham's journey would lead him into an ever deeper dependence on God; then the journey before Nicodemus was no less so. If you want to enter into God's blessing, into God's Kingdom - you have to forsake it all - be born completely anew. You have to give up your desire to have a grip on everything - especially on God. You have to become an infant again - completely dependent on God. You drop your privileged position as Pharisee, your independence, your desire to put handles on every situation and remain in control - you drop these things so you can join Abraham on this journey after God's Spirit. To follow God's Spirit who blows where it chooses!

Nicodemus comes to Jesus with the intention of placing Jesus at his disposal - to understand him so that Jesus won't threaten him and the other Pharisees. How often do we come at God with a Nicodemus attitude? With a desire to put handles on God? How much of our prayer life is a matter of coming to God as Nicodemus - in the theological driver's seat? "God, your word promises such and such... THEREFORE do this and do that! We come at God in such a way that we are not in the position of dependence - but rather in the position of control, commandeering God according to his promises. We come at God as though we need nothing from God but for God to do our will. Don't get me wrong - God's promises are true; but their truth, at no point, places us in the driver's seat!

The Prosperity gospel that's so popular among Christians throughout the world claims this very thing - that God is the cosmic vending machine; we throw in the right prayers over here, and here you pick up your desired outcomes. Although we know enough not to be fooled by this kind of teaching, much of our spiritual life is about maintaining control, managing anxieties. Much of our theologizing is about shoring up a position of intellectual strength. If Jesus was in the pew beside us, many of us would ask him to tidy up some of our theology so that it would be even stronger... that's precisely what Nicodemus was doing. And like that night, Jesus' response to our grasping at controls is this: come and be born again! Become an infant, once again, and trust me - trust God. Come and follow the Holy Spirit! Die to yourself, and find new life in me!

Earlier I asked you to name the best gift you've ever received. I want to ask the same question, in a different way. "In what situation have you needed God the most?" "When did you pray as though your life depended on it?" Can you think of a time? Maybe you're there now. It's in our times of deepest need for God that we find ourselves faced with our greatest blessing - the greatest gift of all. God's love for you!

 Wherever you're at, this morning, draw near to Jesus - who is God's love for you, in the flesh. Lean on that love - and come to depend on it; it is always there! It never wavers. Trust him more. Confess your anxieties, and your need to be in control; and just let Jesus teach you to pray:

Our Father, who art in heaven:
May YOUR name be made famous, not mine.
May YOUR kingdom come, and not my power, not my controlling grasp.
May YOUR will be done, and not mine
Instead, teach me to be satisfied with the daily bread of YOUR LOVE that comes from the hand of the Father!

This Lent, open your hands to God's blessings; to God's love for you. Seek Jesus in the new birth of Water and Spirit. In fact, if there's anyone here interested in responding to God's love in baptism, I've already had two people come talk to me. I'm thinking of getting a Catechism class started again after Easter. If you sense Jesus' claim on your life - then let's talk about it.

Please join me in closing with the Lord's prayer:  Our Father...