Hope Against Hope

Re-posting from this date in 2014. These words are even more resonant today than they were when I originally wrote them three years ago.

already & not yet

It was a Saturday. We were planning to go to Nashville that day to see her. She’d been hospitalized there for several days and we’d planned for me to finish up the school week and then go see her on Saturday. I had just finished getting ready when my sister and brother-in-law arrived at the house. We were supposed to ride to the hospital together.

But one look at my sister’s bloodshot eyes and I knew that it was too late.

The date was March 26, 1994. It was the day my mother passed away.


Myrna Little JasonIn the 20 years since her passing, I’ve written quite a bit about my mother’s impact on my life. I’ve written about her compassionate spirit that compelled her to a 20-year career teaching inner-city students. I wrote about my embarrassment when, as a 15-year-old, a church member told me I looked just like her

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Creation Care

Today our family drove through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s our first visit to the park since the wildfires ravaged the area last fall, claiming the lives of more than a dozen people and causing property damage and destruction in the hundreds of millions. As we approached the Chimney Tops Trail, we passed several areas of fire damage. A hush fell over our whole family as we observed, intrinsically aware of what we were seeing.

After a while, we began to talk a bit about what had happened, particularly that the fire was intentionally started by humans. That led to a much broader discussion, one we’ve had a few times over the years, about the importance of human stewardship and creation care.

I’ve written about this before, particularly from a theological perspective, and received pushback from some of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I remember one snarky exchange where a commenter quipped, “The words ‘creation care’ aren’t in my Bible!” While the phrase itself may not be found in the Scriptures, the concept is deeply ingrained in the biblical narrative. And it pains me that so many of us have missed this.

With all of this fresh on my mind, I’ll be making a series of posts this week on the Christian call to care for creation derived from our status as God’s image bearers. If you’re interested, you might like to peruse this post from 2008 as a primer for my thoughts.

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Daring Faith: Believing is Seeing

Game 1 of the 1988 World Series pitted the Oakland A’s vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers. The A’s were heavy favorites to win the Series, having won 104 games in the regular season followed by a sweep of the Red Sox in the League Championship Series. But the key moment in the World Series occurred in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1. Trailing 4-3, the Dodgers had a runner on base with two outs when they sent Kirk Gibson to the plate as a pinch hitter.

Gibson was the Dodgers’ best offensive threat, having led the team in home runs that season. But Gibson had been hobbled with leg injuries that limited him to pinch-hitting duty in the Series. So with his team down to their last at-bat, manager Tommy LaSorda sent Gibson to the plate to face the A’s relief ace, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. And in storybook fashion, on a 3-2 backdoor slider, Gibson had perhaps the most memorable moment in World Series history as he homered to give the Dodgers a Game 1 victory.

As Gibson rounded third headed for home, Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully commented, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!” In fact, a wider-angle replay shows the stream of cars in the parking lot exiting the stadium, no doubt Dodger fans who hoped to beat the traffic and left the game early! Every little boy dreams of this scenario in the backyard – hitting a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. But for Gibson, the dream became reality. By the time he made it back to the clubhouse, one of the Dodger coaches had tape over Gibson’s locker with the name “Roy Hobbs” written in Sharpie. Jack Buck’s call of Gibson’s home run summarizes the moment well: “Unbelievable! I don’t believe what I just saw!”

As we continue our study on Daring Faith from the Gospel of John, we’ll be exploring the connection between believing and seeing. We’re talking about the kind of faith that has eyes to see not just the improbable, but the impossible. And in our passage today from John 9, some will echo Jack Buck’s words to tragic effect: “I don’t believe what I just saw!” But I want to draw your attention to the words of a nameless figure whose testimony about Jesus could serve as an epitaph for the faithful throughout history: I was blind but now I see (John 9:25). The real question: what will we choose to see and believe?

Read John 9:1-5 

Jesus and his disciples come across a man blind from birth. And the text says that Jesus sees him, which is an important detail. We live in a world where it’s easy to overlook people like this blind man; it’s all too easy to look past individuals who are disabled or hurting. But that’s not the case with Jesus. The text begins with this essential affirmation: Jesus sees the blind man, because Jesus always sees the overlooked and forgotten.

And the disciples ask, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” This kind of binary thinking is rooted in a belief that suffering results from sin. The disciples assume that the man’s illness is the result of some sin, either his own (in the womb?) or his parents. But Jesus dismisses this idea, saying that this man’s blindness has occurred in order that the work of God might be displayed in his life. He goes on to say, we must do the work of him who sent me. Just as the Father sent Jesus, those who follow Jesus participate in the same work for which Jesus was sent. As a demonstration that he is the light of the world, Jesus miraculously heals the blind man. Let’s read about the healing.

Read John 9:6-9 

Jesus rubs mud on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, which means “sent.” This is significant: Jesus is doing the work of the one who sent him; and he sends the blind man to wash in the “Pool of the Sent.” And when this man goes back home (sent back home?) fully healed, his neighbors say, “Wait a minute? Isn’t this the blind man who used to beg for money?” And some of the people reply, “No, he just looks like that guy.”

And the whole time, the formerly blind man is saying, “No, I’m the guy! That’s me!” But his problems continue, even after he has been healed.

Read John 9:10-16

The blind man testifies that Jesus has healed him. But his neighbors determine to bring him before the Pharisees. The big problem here is that Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath. And according to the Pharisees, this proves that Jesus is NOT from God.

Some of the Jewish people of that time believed that if every Jewish person kept the Sabbath perfectly just one time, the end of the world would come. The Kingdom of God would be ushered in fully. This is helpful for us to keep in mind as we read about these “Sabbath controversies” in the Gospels. The Pharisees had good reasons for being so concerned over Sabbath observance.

But all of this is not to make excuses for the Pharisees. Their obsession with Sabbath practice that aligns with their interpretive view blinds them to what is right in front of them. When it comes to Jesus, blind people see and people who think they see are actually blind.

Read John 9:17-34 

Note the contrast between the daring faith of the healed man and the lack of faith demonstrated by his parents. The healed man consistently dares to speak up about Jesus. V25, Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see! He says “I don’t know” repeatedly in this text. Where is Jesus? I don’t know. Is Jesus a sinner? I don’t know. Daring faith isn’t about having all of the answers to every question. Often times, it’s simply living with the reality that there are certain questions we can’t answer. But he says, “Here’s what I do know: I couldn’t see and now I can!” Our man here has no choice but to speak boldly about what has happened to him.

But it’s different with his parents. They are gripped with fear, not faith. They’re quick to give the “right” answer because they are afraid of being cast out of the synagogue. Literally, the word used here is “de-synagogued.” In Judaism, there were degrees of synagogue excommunication. The lightest could be declared by one person and normally lasted seven days. The next usually required three people to declare and lasted thirty days, and people were required to stay four cubits (six feet) from the banished person. The most severe form was a ban of indefinite duration; persons under this ban were to be treated as if they were dead. Because the synagogue was central to every aspect of Jewish life, to be excommunicated like this was to suffer the most severe form of isolation.

Their fear makes these parents weak, for when they are pressed, they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge Jesus as the source of their son’s healing. Imagine all the prayers they must’ve prayed for that child, praying and hoping that one day his sight would be restored. And then, when the prayer is finally answered…they can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge the one through whom the miracle came. They’re more worried about their social position than about their son. It’s as if John is saying, “Is getting kicked out of the synagogue really that awful? Wouldn’t it be worth getting kicked out of the synagogue to confess the truth that God healed your son?”

Daring faith is the counter to our fears. We see this illustrated in the contrast between the healed man and his parents.

Another point of contrast is the sight of the healed man over against the blindness of the Pharisees. The healed man repeats his story over and over. His neighbors say, “Isn’t this the man who was born blind?” And the blind man says, “Yes, that’s me! But Jesus put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I can see!” In front of the Pharisees, he says the same thing: “Jesus put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I can see.” All he can do is declare what Jesus has done for him – “Jesus has restored my sight!”

On the other hand, the Pharisees simply refuse to see the miraculous sign right in front of them. And this is another key theme in John’s Gospel: miracles are only signs to people who are ready to see them. Last week, we talked about the crowd that Jesus miraculously fed in the wilderness. They’ve witnessed something miraculous, yet when Jesus teaches them that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, many of them turned away. They chose not to see the truth about Jesus.

And in much the same fashion, the Pharisees refuse to see this miraculous sign: a man, blind from birth, whose sight has been fully restored. The blind man continues to say, “I was blind but now I see!” And all the while, the Pharisee is saying, “I don’t believe what I’m seeing!” The blind man’s parents are blinded by their fear of the Pharisees, fear of excommunication. The Pharisees are blinded by their fear of losing control, their fear that Jesus doesn’t play by their interpretation of “keeping the Sabbath.” But the blind man is the only one who truly sees, because as we’ll see at the end of this story, he’s the only one willing to dare faith.

When it comes to Daring Faith, seeing isn’t always believing. But believing is always seeing.

The Pharisees have the blind man thrown out of the synagogue. His crime? Telling the truth about Jesus. But there’s a final scene in the story that’s crucial.

Read John 9:35-38 

Jesus finds this man who is once again an outcast. Whereas he was formerly an outcast because of his lack of vision, he is now an outcast precisely because he sees. But Jesus asks him a question, the question upon which all else rests: Do you believe in the Son of Man? Do you believe in the Messiah? The man replies earnestly, “Tell me about him so that I may believe in him.”

And Jesus replies, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” The words “you have now seen him” have double impact – the man physically sees Jesus because of his healed eyes, but more importantly, he sees spiritually because he understands Jesus as the Messiah sent from God.

The man responds in the only way he knows. He says, “Lord, I believe,” and he worships Jesus. He may have been excommunicated from the synagogue, but he has found true worship. And his life will never be the same.

When Jesus healed this man, he sent him to the Pool of Siloam, which means “sent.” This man is later sent out of the synagogue by the Pharisees, but that’s not the real sending this text points toward. No, this blind man is sent out into the world to testify to the one who restored his sight. He’s sent into the same world we’re sent into, sent with the same message of sight and belief.

To see is to be sent.

And this man’s message has become a beloved expression of the Good News in the most popular hymn in the world. May the message of the blind man be our message as well: “I was blind but now I see.”

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Daring Faith: Christian Consumerism

In a recent study included in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children were shown to overwhelmingly prefer the taste of food that comes in McDonald’s wrappers. In the study, preschool children sampled identical foods in packaging from McDonald’s and in matched but unbranded packaging. The children were then asked if the food tasted the same or if one tasted better. The unmarked foods lost the taste test every time. Even apple juice, carrots, and milk tasted better to the kids when taken from the familiar wrappings of the Golden Arches. One physician from Yale’s School of Medicine remarked, “This study demonstrates…that advertising literally brainwashes young children into a baseless preference for certain food products. Children, it seems, literally do judge a food by its cover. And they prefer the cover they know.”

Judging a food by its cover.” Our culture is proficient in teaching our children to think of themselves as consumers. But we should ask ourselves, “What exactly are we consuming?” Not just products, it seems, but brands themselves. It’s what’s on the outside – the wrapper – that sells, more so than what’s on the inside. It would seem that we’re often more interested in the external wrapper rather than true sustenance.

John 6 begins with the feeding of the 5,000. V2 indicates that the crowd followed him because he was healing the sick – not out of a deep faith commitment, the “trusting obedience” we’ve been talking about. But Jesus performs a miracle in their sight – he feeds the crowd with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. And the people declare in v14, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world,” alluding to the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18.

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Daring Faith: The Heart of Worship

A ballet company based in Providence, Rhode Island, has been putting on performances of the Christmas classic The Nutcracker for almost 40 years. Last November, however, they experienced a major setback when thieves took more than 50 costumes and headpieces — including the title character’s iconic mask and costume — worth a total of $30,000. In all, 52 items were reportedly stolen from the ballet company.

But there was some good news in this story: after hearing about this, more than a dozen dance companies nationwide offered to lend their own Nutcracker costumes to the Providence production. As the news spread about the theft, the Providence director began fielding phone calls left and right from other dance companies eager to help. As the director explained, “The ballet world is an incredibly tight-knit community and we are so grateful for the outpouring of support that we have already seen from so many ballet companies.”

This story warmed quite a few hearts this holiday season, demonstrating the depth of human kindness as people with similar interests and passions band together to help each other. But Jesus calls us to a deeper level of love – loving those who are not like us, loving the outsider, even loving our enemies. This is the transformative love that Jesus demonstrates in John 4.

John 4 is another story unique to John’s Gospel. It is Christ’s encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria, an outsider in every meaningful way.

Read John 4:1-4

“Now he had to go through Samaria.” Samaria was the territory immediately north of Judea. Geographically, it’s true that the most direct path from Judea to Galilee would lead through Samaria. But pious Jews in Jesus’ day made it a point to avoid Samaria. In fact, they would usually travel around Samaria rather than traveling through. Why? Because the Jews considered the Samaritans to be ethnically and spiritually inferior.

A little OT history as we begin. In 722 BC, Assyria conquered the Northern Kingdom and deported many of its people who belonged to the 10 northern tribes, replacing them with other ethnic groups. These people intermarried with the remaining Jews and their descendants were known as “the Samaritans.” By and large, these descendants were not idolaters, but they acknowledged only the Pentateuch as inspired by God. They also denied Jerusalem as the religious center, instead recognizing Mt. Gerazim as the place of worship. This is why they opposed Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem in Nehemiah 2&4.

The Jews of Jesus’ day considered the Samaritans to be “outsiders” in every meaningful way. So when John notes that Jesus had to go through Samaria, he’s speaking of a theological necessity, not a geographic one. Jesus had to go through Samaria because Jesus was on a mission from God.

Read John 4:5-6

Another important detail: the sixth hour was midday. Jesus arrives at this well at high noon. Most people would go to the well to draw water early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the midday heat. Socially, most people would have every reason to join their neighbors in the ritual of gathering water for the day’s chores. It was a time of talking and laughing, a communal act.

Unless you happened to be an outsider.

Read John 4:7-18

A nameless Samaritan woman arrives to draw her water. She’s alone; no friends accompanying her, no conversations about her husband or children, no sharing in the neighborhood gossip. This woman has avoided the crowded morning and evening routine. She’s come to draw her water when she expects the well to be desolate. But Jesus is waiting for her.

And Jesus initiates a conversation with her, a conversation about water. By now we know that in John’s Gospel, things are rarely as they seem. At one level, yes, the conversation is about H20; after all, Jesus has likely walked a dozen or more miles and he’s legitimately thirsty. But in John’s Gospel, there is always a deeper meaning. This conversation about water is an entrée to a deeper reality, a sign pointing toward the living water from on high.

As modern readers, it is easy for us to overlook the scandalous nature of this interaction. Pious Jewish males didn’t speak to women in public, particularly Jewish rabbis, particularly unmarried Jewish rabbis. In the ancient literature, one Jewish rabbi is considered especially pious because he refused to even speak to his mother in public, going so far as to cross over to the other side rather than shame himself by speaking to her.

But Jesus isn’t beholden to such customs. He initiates a conversation with this Samaritan woman by asking her for a drink…and she is as shocked as anyone by this! She reminds Jesus that Jews and Samaritans do not associate with one another. An alternate translation is, “Jews and Samaritans do not share utensils.” It’s as if she’s saying, “You want to use my Camelbak? Don’t you realize that it’s already contaminated by my cooties?”

But Jesus does something amazing here: by asking her for a drink, Jesus is actually verbalizing the question the Samaritan woman is asking. He asks her for a drink because this woman thirsts deeply, longing for something more than what she’s found so far. They go back and forth talking about water and John winks at us because we’re in the know: our Samaritan woman speaks of water from the ground while Jesus is talking about water from above; she’s talking about H20 while Jesus speaks of a spring of water welling up to eternal life. At this, the woman’s interest is piqued. She replies, Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus uncovers the area of her greatest thirst when he says, Go, call your husband and come back. I picture her eyes dropping; she stares at the ground and stammers, I have no husband. And Jesus, as the Word of truth, pierces her heart. He points out the ugly truth of her circumstances: she’s been married five times and she’s not even married to the man she’s living with currently. Every culture has words for a woman like this, and few of them are appropriate for our setting here this morning.

Now we understand why our Samaritan woman comes to draw her water at high noon. Now we understand why she comes to the well alone. We may not know her name from the text, but rest assured, her name was well known in her little village. This is the kind of woman who, when she walked down the street, mothers pulled their daughters close and whispered, “Take a good look, honey. That’s the kind of woman you don’t want to become.” She is an outsider among outsiders. Even among the outsiders of Samaria, she’s an outcast.

In a culture that continues to demean women to this day, Jesus is counter-cultural. Though our culture would judge her by the cut of her hair and the curve of her hip, Jesus sees so much more in our Samaritan woman. Even though she has made plenty of bad choices in her life, Jesus refuses to treat her with anything less than the dignity she deserves as one made in the image of God. In spite of all her baggage, Jesus does not consider her unworthy of redemption.

But our Samaritan woman has another trick up her sleeve. When Jesus pushes on the bruise, uncovering the area of hurt in her heart, she responds with a ninja move, a theological roundhouse: she poses a question about worship!

Read John 4:19-26 

Our Samaritan woman knows what we know: discussions about worship can be divisive. She poses a worship question that’s hundreds of years old: Who has it right, the Jews or the Samaritans? Is the proper place of worship Jerusalem or Mt. Gerazim? When things get a little too personal, it’s easy to toss out a question like this in hopes that the ensuing “worship wars” will provide an easy smokescreen, shifting the conversation away from the personal into more abstract territory. And I’ve long believed that’s why the Samaritan woman poses this question to Jesus. It’s a ninja move to get out of the messy conversation about her checkered past and present. But our Samaritan woman doesn’t realize that Jesus is a theological black belt himself.

Jesus swats away the question of “where” and redirects her to the more pressing question, the “who” question. God desires worship conducted in spirit and in truth. With a shrug of the shoulders, our Samaritan woman says, Well, I guess when the Messiah comes, he’ll straighten all of this out for us.

And that’s when Jesus does something He never does: He reveals His identity fully and completely to this Samaritan woman. I who speak to you am he. I’m the Messiah! I’m the One you’ve been looking for! The heart of worship is not a place; it’s a person. It’s Jesus. And this truth – just as it does for all of us – transforms her life.

Read John 4:28-30, 39-42

We could think of John 3 as the Gospel to “insiders.” As we noted last week, Nicodemus is a pious Jewish male, a Bible-believing “religious” person. He’s a respected community leader, a Pharisee. Yet he comes to Jesus under cloak of darkness. He’s something of an admirer of Jesus, but it takes some time for him to come to faith. Nicodemus seeks out Jesus, asking questions, puzzling over the answers Jesus provides. In every meaningful way, Nicodemus is an “insider.”

And in contrast to all of this, we could think of John 4 as the Gospel to “outsiders.” Our Samaritan woman is the antithesis of Nicodemus. He is male; she is female. He is Jewish; she’s a Samaritan. He is known for his piety; her claim to fame is her string of broken relationships and her current live-in boyfriend. Whereas Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night, Jesus initiates dialogue with the Samaritan woman in broad daylight, at high noon. The name of Nicodemus was well known; he was revered as THE teacher in Israel, but our Samaritan woman isn’t even given a name in the text! In every meaningful way, the Samaritan woman is an “outsider.”

As different as these two figures might be, they are united by a common thread: Jesus. If John 3 is the Gospel to “insiders” and John 4 is the Gospel to “outsiders”, it should come as no surprise to find the most beloved verse in the Bible centrally located between the two. John 3:16, the Gospel to the world.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. As we said last week, this eternal life is a present reality. It is a possibility NOW, just as it was possible for Nicodemus, just as it was possible for the Samaritan woman.

The Good News about Jesus is for both the Nicodemuses and the Samaritan women. The Good News is Good News for both “insiders” and “outsiders” alike. According to the Word of God, it is Good News because it is Good News for the entire world.

The heart of worship is not a place; it is a person. It’s Jesus.

And Jesus welcomes the outsider. Because, let’s be honest…we’re all outsiders. We might clean up well, but we’re all broken by sin. Yet Jesus invites us in, welcomes us, tends to our hearts. Jesus has a word of Good News for both “insiders” and “outsiders” alike. And when we receive this Good News, there are no more “outsiders.” Instead, there are only broken, sinful people saved by the grace of a loving Savior. And this is the heart of worship.

The heart of worship is not a place; it is a person. It’s Jesus.

And this is Good News.

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Daring Faith: Born Again

In August of 2010, Judy Rivers of Logan, Alabama went to her local bank to open a new account. As the clerk input Rivers’ personal information, everything seemed to be going smoothly, but then the woman behind the desk stopped abruptly and frowned.

“That’s odd,” she said. “There seems to be an issue regarding your Social Security number.” With a skeptical glance, the employee rose and disappeared in the back room. Several minutes later, Rivers was greeted by the bank’s branch manager. With a folded sheet of paper in hand, the manager said, “Ma’am, your Social Security number was deactivated in 2008…due to your death.”

It turns out that Judy Rivers is just one of approximately 12,000 U.S. citizens per year who are accidentally declared dead by the Social Security Administration due to “keystroke errors.” In 2011, the Office of the Inspector General conducted an audit of the Death Master File, a computer database file made available by the Social Security Administration. The audit revealed that from May 2007 to April 2010, over 36,000 people had been erroneously added to the master file, making them legally dead. Without an active Social Security number, these individuals found that they were unable to make financial transactions, secure jobs, file taxes, or even visit the doctor. Worst of all, individuals like Judy Rivers had to endure the nightmare of trying to convince the U.S. government that they were NOT, in fact, deceased.

Judy Rivers needed to be “born again” — at least in the eyes of the United States Government. Today, as we continue our Daring Faith series, we will be looking at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, an exchange centered on the idea of being “born again” – but not in the Judy Rivers sense of the term. When Jesus speaks of being born again, He’s talking about being “born from above.”

Read John 3:1-21

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness, at night. This is no insignificant detail, for as with much of John’s Gospel, this encounter points to the conflict between light and darkness, truth and evil. Darkness bookends this teaching: Nicodemus comes to Jesus under cloak of darkness and John closes this section by saying, Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)

We often have a hard time leaving the darkness and stepping out into the light. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the darkness provides anonymity, an element of secrecy. What is revealed in the light is easier to conceal in darkness. I suspect this is the reason Nicodemus, a Pharisee, approaches Jesus at night for a clandestine Bible study. It’s easy to imagine that Nicodemus’s fellow Pharisees might not look too favorably on this particular meeting.

In John’s Gospel, there’s usually a deeper meaning. In this Gospel, darkness is equated with spiritual blindness. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would’ve been considered one of the religious elite. He has spiritual credentials in spades. He’s steeped in the world of book, chapter, and verse. If there’s a travel ball team for Bible bowl, he’s on it. But in this encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus comes across as one with spiritual blindness.

Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” And Nicodemus scratches his head. He doesn’t get it. Because he’s a literalist, he struggles to understand the mechanics of this teaching. He says, How can a man be born when he is old? And Jesus needles him a little: You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? Literally, the Greek reads, You are the teacher of Israel, further evidence of Nicodemus’s spiritual pedigree…but also an indictment re: his blindness!

This is really a pretty provocative story. Jesus implies that Nicodemus – a Pharisee and THE teacher of Israel – is spiritually blind. Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born again, he won’t see the kingdom of God. And if you’re not seeing the kingdom of God, you’re not really seeing at all. For all of his religious pedigree, for all of his knowledge of the scriptures, and despite his status as THE teacher in Israel, Nicodemus is still spiritually blind.

I’m sympathetic toward Nicodemus; I’m a recovering Nicodemus myself. At times I find it difficult to leave the darkness and step out into the light. I know firsthand that it’s possible to be steeped in the world of book, chapter, and verse and still miss the point. I was captain of the Bible Bowl team, too – but there are plenty of times when, like Nicodemus, I’m spiritually blind as well.

We can relate to Nicodemus because we all need the same thing: we need to be born again.

In this text, the phrase “born again” can also be translated as “born from above.” According to biblical language experts, both translations are valid. And both phrases help with our understanding. To be born again is to be born above, to receive the new birth that only God can provide.

In January, we spoke at length about what it means for us to be a new creation. And all of that comes to bear here in John 3. Jesus says, I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. The initial moment of rebirth – baptism – is a birth of both water and Spirit. Water is a central theme in John’s Gospel; this is one of 20 references to water in the story John is telling. Do you think it’s possible that all of those references are somehow interrelated? In the waters of baptism, the Spirit breathes new life into our bodies as our old self is crucified with Christ. Baptism is not just a death; it is a place of new life. In baptism, we are born above. So the daring question for the unbaptized is, “Would you be born again, born from above, born of water and Spirit?”

Renewal and rebirth begins with baptism but it certainly doesn’t end there. Our need for renewal is constant. We are perpetually reminded that we need to refocus on the cross. In one sense, our weekly observance of communion is a “rebirth” as we experience the renewal of this covenant by partaking the Lord’s Supper. So the daring question for the baptized is, “Would you be born again again? Would you be born above yet again as you reflect on the cross, as you live out the new Spirit-filled life brought about by your baptism?”

I read about a preacher who officiated his own son’s wedding. Early on in the ceremony, he told the bride and groom, “Your parents have prayed from the moment of your birth for that right person to come along to be your husband or wife. Your parents have been trying to help you become the kind of person who would find that right person.” And then he said, “But your true identity does not have anything to do with who you were born to, or where you were born, or when you were born. Your true identity has to do with when you were born again. (As we said last week, one word makes all the difference!) When you said yes to God, that changed everything.”

To be born again is to say yes to God. And that one word – YES – makes all the difference. Just like a good marriage can be characterized as a commitment to “live out your vows” in the years and decades that follow the marriage ceremony, following Jesus can similarly be understood as a commitment to “live out your baptism” long after the baptismal clothes have dried off. To be born again is to say yes to God, both in the baptistery and in the day-in, day-out life of discipleship that follows. Let me remind you of the words of Jesus we discussed last month: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me, (Luke 9:23). Saying YES to God is that daily exercise of self-denial and cross-bearing, a process that leads us to perpetual spiritual rebirth.

The Nicodemus story is the context for the most well known verse in the Bible, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Given the context of John 3, it is fair to say that to be born again is to experience eternal life. One interesting note though: in the final phrase of the verse (have eternal life), the word “have” is a present tense verb. John doesn’t say that whoever believes will have eternal life in some future heavenly state. No, he says that eternal life is possible NOW, in the present! The verse literally reads, that whoever believes in him should not be perishing but may be having eternal life. As we said last month, new creation is a present reality.

To be born again is to experience eternal life NOW!

 

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Daring Faith: Word

One word makes all the difference.

Marketing experts preach the importance of putting the customer in the present. They say you need to help the customer imagine themselves actually using your product in the here and now. So when you’re writing copy, you don’t say, “Kids will love the fruity taste of Twizzlers!” Instead, you say, “Kids love the fruity taste of Twizzlers!” Removing that one word puts the customer in the present and automatically makes your product more appealing. According to the marketing gurus, that one word makes all the difference.

Several years ago, conversation analysts John Heritage and Jeffrey Robinson examined the impact when doctors changed just one word in their questions to their patients. They noted a dramatic difference when doctors replaced the word “anything” with the word “something.” For example, medical school training recommends that, after discussing the initial problem, doctors then ask, “Is there anything else we need to take care of today?” However, analysts have shown that questions containing the word “anything” typically receive negative responses. But the same research suggests that the question, “Is there something else we need to take care of today?” evokes a more positive response. Again, that one word apparently makes all the difference.

John’s Gospel points us to the one word that makes all the difference, the one word that makes all other words irrelevant. It is the Word of God, Jesus Christ.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

With this prologue, John echoes the creation account of Genesis. Whereas the Gospel of Mark begins with the ministry of Jesus and both Matthew and Luke take us back to the birth of Jesus, John goes back even further to the beginning of creation. Life, light, darkness, “in the beginning”…these words and phrases remind us of Genesis. John points us to the eternal nature of Jesus as the divine Word of God. When God said, “Let there be light”, the Word of God (Jesus) was the active agent to accomplish the Father’s will. We this elsewhere in the Bible – Colossians 1, for example.

Here’s the idea central to all of this from Genesis 1 and John 1: When God speaks, creation occurs. And in Jesus, God has spoken a word of new creation.

According to John, Jesus was present with God the Father in the beginning: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God. We can see here a distinction between God the Father and God the Son – they’re two distinct entities. But in the next line we see that, despite this distinction, they share an essential unity: and the Word was God. Now, John’s not trying to be confusing. He’s simply reiterating the unique status of Jesus: He is the Son of God, distinct and differentiated from God the Father and God the Spirit. Yet He also shares the same divine essence as both the Father and the Spirit. Father, Son, and Spirit together make up the entity we know as “God.”

But again, one word can make all the difference here. There are some who have chosen to translate the verse this way, “and the Word was with God and the Word was a God.” One little word can change the entire meaning and, in this case, with tragic results. This mistranslation undermines the uniquely divine status of Jesus.

As the Word of God, Jesus brings life and light. And John expands on these themes in v14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Last week we noted that faith is not an abstract enterprise, but rather it is an active verb, “a word that sweats.” And right up front, John articulates the Incarnation of Christ as a translation from the abstract to the concrete. The Word of God has come among us and made his dwelling among us. I love the way Eugene Peterson translates this in The Message: The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. Literally, John says that Jesus has “tabernacled” among us. In ancient Israel, the tabernacle was the dwelling place of God among His people prior to the construction of the temple. So in Jesus, God is among His people again…he’s tabernacled among us…he’s moved back into the neighborhood! He’s done this by sending His Word into the world.

In order for God to speak to us, He has to come down to our level, using language we understand, because we have no way of getting to His level.

Last Monday, our youngest son, Jackson had an accident, cutting his leg open with a pocketknife. It could’ve been much worse, but the incision was large enough that he needed seven stitches. As the doctor was getting ready to sew him up, a child life specialist came in and talked with Jackson. She said it was her job to make sure that young patients at Women and Children’s Hospital understood what was going on. So she got down on his level and explained to him what was going to happen, using language that he could understand.

John points us to Jesus and he says, “This is a Word from God, a Word we can understand, a Word spoken in our language.” (Jackson is okay, by the way!)

And in v14, John gives us two descriptors to help us hear the Word properly: he says Jesus comes full of grace and truth.

Last week, we talked about Jesus as “The Truth” from John 14:6. And here in the prologue, John says that Jesus moves into our neighborhood “full of truth” – and John emphasizes this throughout his Gospel.

The first sign Jesus performs in John’s Gospel is turning water into wine. When you read through that story, Jesus seems a bit reluctant to perform this miracle. But his mother, Mary, is pretty insistent. Despite his objections, she turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do,” (John 2:5). That’s what you do when you recognize Jesus as the Word of God, a Word full of truth. You do what He tells you to do.

At the end of John 2, it says that Jesus didn’t need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man (2:25). He knows our condition, he knows what’s “in” us because He is Truth. And what is “in” us? Brokenness, corruption, depravity, evil…in a word, sin. The Bible says, “Your sin will find you out,” – because Jesus is Truth and you can’t run from the Truth. But the Bible also says, “The truth will set you free,” – because the Gospel truth is that Jesus came full of grace as well.

Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s grace toward us. As I was reading through John this week, I was struck by the references to John the Baptist: he was a witness, he came to bear witness, the testimony of John was to declare Jesus as the Lamb of God. And the reason this is significant is because – as John says – the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus knows what is “in” us – because He is the Word of God full of truth.

But He takes away our sin – because He is the Word of God full of grace.

So here’s this week’s dare: would you dare to speak a word about Jesus to someone this week? Would you follow the example of John the Baptist by bearing witness to Jesus this week? Last month, we talked about the fact that one conversation can have an eternal impact. This week’s dare is to seek out those conversation points, to find a way to speak a word about Jesus.

And specifically, the dare is to speak a word of truth about Jesus and a word of grace about Jesus.

Maybe someone in your life needs to hear the truthful Word of God this week:

  • Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.
  • If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.
  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…
  • Apart from me, you can do nothing…
  • If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

These are just a few of the truths that Jesus left us. Can you think of someone in your life that might need to hear these words of truth? And would you be daring enough to speak those words this week? If you’re going to be a truth-teller in someone’s life, it probably needs to be someone who really knows your heart. I’m guessing it’ll be a family member or a close friend.

Maybe someone in your life needs to hear the gracious Word of God this week:

  • It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled.
  • My grace is sufficient for you.
  • Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
  • I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.

These are just some of the gracious words Jesus left us. Can you think of someone in your life that might need to hear these words of grace? And would you be daring enough to speak those words this week?

This is our dare this week: to speak a word of truth and to speak a word of grace this week — all in the name of Jesus.

One word of truth could make all the difference

One word of grace could make all the difference

What are you daring by faith?

May the Word of God, Jesus Christ, be the word on our lips and the word on our hearts this week!

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