FIRST LESSON Exodus 20:1-17 and Matthew 22:34-40
SECOND LESSON John 3:1-21
TIME FOR CHILDREN Luke 2:41-51
April 17, 2016
We have a guest in worship with us today and he has asked me to read the story he has written for you.
My name is Nicodemus and I am a Jew. I am a Jewish lawyer, in fact. I am a very good Jewish lawyer, in fact. I sit on the Jewish Supreme Court, in fact. We call ourselves Pharisees and you may have heard of us. You might know that we are the legal scholars. We know the laws. We know the pickiest parts of the laws. We recite the laws, and obey the laws, even the pickiest parts of the laws, and we teach other Jews the laws. And we make sure that they obey the laws. We know the proper way to wash our cups and plates and bowls and that’s how we wash them. We know precisely what we should and should not eat. We know how far we are allowed to walk on the Sabbath, and we don’t walk a single step farther. We have spelled out very properly what we are allowed to do on the Sabbath (which isn’t very much.) We know the laws that God gave to the people in the book of Exodus. And we make sure we enforce those laws. We are the ones who are preserving our pathway to God. For the entire Jewish nation.
Because here’s how it is. We are a very small nation. We are controlled by Romans and we are surrounded by other countries and we might very well be swallowed up by the Romans and our neighbors. We could very well lose our identity as a nation. Except that we know our God, and we remember the laws that God gave us, and we worship God in our temple in Jerusalem. Our God gave us our laws more than a thousand years ago at Mount Sinai in the Arabian dessert. Our great King Solomon built a beautiful shimmering shining golden temple to God a thousand years ago in Jerusalem. We know we are Jews – and we are proudly Jews – because we keep the Jewish laws. We know we’re Jews because we worship our God in our beautiful, sacred temple here in Jerusalem. We know we’re Jews because we know our God and our history and our laws and we honor them.
We have a box right near the door of our temple for our offerings and if we don’t have the right change for our offering that day we have men sitting at the door making change. Our laws tell us very clearly that we are not to associate with people who have skin diseases like leprosy and we don’t. We make lepers live outside our cities and they wear rags and if they absolutely have to come into the cities we make them shout “unclean,” “unclean” as they walk along so we won’t come near them by accident. That was the law that God gave us in the book of Leviticus a very long time ago. That has been our way. Always.
But lately this young man named Jesus has been walking and talking in our streets and he has gathered quite following. He’s associating with all kinds of people who are sick and dirty and he’s talking with prostitutes and he’s actually touching lepers. He’s telling people it doesn’t matter how we wash our cups and plates and bowls. He made a huge scene the other day at the temple and drove away our money changers. We would call him a sinner. We would call him the worst of sinners. And in fact we lawyers have confronted him and we have tried to prove him wrong. Some of my colleagues are even beginning to hatch plans for how to kill him. They think they are doing their job. They think they are getting rid of a person who is doing wrong and who is teaching others to do wrong.
BUT. BUT. He’s healing all kinds of people with all kinds of diseases and he’s bringing people back to life again who have died. And the other day at a wedding reception he turned ordinary water into wine. So he must be some sort of supernatural person – some sort of person from God. I was puzzled by him. I was intrigued by him. I was drawn to him. I wanted to hear more about him. But I knew I had to do it secretly.
So I scheduled a very private meeting with this Jesus at midnight. At first he talked in riddles and I didn’t understand a word. He talked about being born again. He talked about light and dark and how we love the dark and we hate the light because it exposes the evil things we are doing. He talked about eternal life which I certainly did not understand. I had no idea why he was talking with me like that in the middle of the night at our secret meeting.
But then it dawned me. With the moon shining on us in the darkness I saw the light. This man Jesus is talking about a loving God. Not the kind of God who counts how many steps we walk or how we wash our cups and bowls. Or what we eat or don’t eat. Or if we happen to touch a leper. Jesus’ God loves people whom we have always avoided. His God could care less about all those laws we have about not associating with people who have skin diseases like leprosy. In fact, those are the very people whom Jesus’ God cares about. This God loves it when people are healed, even if it is on the Sabbath day (maybe especially if it’s on the Sabbath day.) And this man named Jesus came to show us this God. Jesus helped me to see that God doesn’t judge people who don’t keep our picky little laws. And God doesn’t condemn them or punish them. It’s not about the laws. It’s about love. It’s about a God who loves us. Who loved us all so much that that God sent a son to die in our dark and evil world.
I began to see how very radical this new idea was. And that it requires me to have a complete change of heart and mind. I understand now that I need to see newly and think newly and act newly. It’s like being a new born all over again. And walking in the light instead of the darkness.
That night I became his secret follower. I kept my seat on our Supreme Court. I continued to know the law and teach the law and counsel people about the law. But secretly, I believed this man Jesus and his talk of a loving God.
And I was there a couple of years later. My colleagues, the others on our Supreme Court, had demanded his death, and he was executed. On a cross. But my friend Joseph and I came to take his bloody, mangled body off the cross. I brought spices, and we wrapped him in a linen cloth and we tucked in sweet smelling spices around his body. And we buried him in Joseph’s grave.
And I am here today to speak to you – here in Michigan in the twenty-first century.
Learn to know the God who loves you. Learn to believe the unbelievable love that God has for you. God is not a God who picks at you and hovers around waiting for you to disobey some picky little law. And watching how you wash your cups and bowls. God loved you so lavishly that he did what nobody else has ever done for you - offered a son to die in your dark, evil, messy world. To show that goodness is stronger than evil and light is stronger than darkness and love is stronger than hate.
Remember what Jesus said to me, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”
Now it’s not that the Ten Commandments are bad. Those laws help you to live as people of God. They show you who you are with God. Just as they showed us how to live as God’s people. But they are only half the story. They don’t begin to tell you the forgiveness that Jesus talked about, and the great gift that God has given you.
And then, when you have that firmly in your mind, then love each other. Don’t pick at each other. Don’t find fault. Don’t be judgmental. Don’t condemn each other. Don’t dwell on your differences. Don’t live by rules and laws. Live in love. Let the love of God soak through your resistance and seep out of you to others. Love as lavishly and as unselfishly as you are loved. Love God and love each other. Accept the grace of God in your life and offer that grace in return. Make a real effort to reach out to people you may have avoided. Replace cruelty with kindness. Pattern your life after Jesus and do what he did.
Remember what Jesus said to all of us, “I have a new commandment for you: Love one another as I have loved you. By this all will know that we are the Lord’s if we have love for one another.”
That may require some changes in your life. That may require thinking newly and acting newly and maybe it will even mean that you are born again. Born into God’s outrageous love for you. Born into the outrageous, all-sacrificing love of Jesus for you. And born again to love others as outrageously as you have been loved.
Thank you for inviting me here today.