Sunday, May 5, 2002

Jesus, the Hero (John 3.1-17)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
May 5, 2002

Text: John 3:1-17
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? 11 “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. 12 “If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. 14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; 15 so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  [NASB95]

In the early 70s, schools were being integrated in the state of Virginia.  One such school, T.C. Williams, had a championship football team.  Parents, coaches, students, and players faced the integration of their school, and football team, with fear and mistrust.  What particularly upset the apple cart was the naming of a North Carolina black coach, Herman Boone, as head coach over the successful coach of many seasons, Coach Bill Yoast.  A recent movie, "Remember the Titans," chronicles the amazing story of how Coach Boone led the team and community not only to the state championship, but also to respect and trust of one another across racial lines.

The story and the movie are marvelous!  And tucked away in this true story is a picture of what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus in today's lesson.  In fact, were Jesus here today and talking to us about being "born again," he may well have said, "If I speak to you of earthly things and you do not understand, how will you understand when I speak of heavenly things?  … Remember the Titans?

Lifted Up as Savior


To Nicodemus, Jesus said, "Remember the Bronze Serpent in the Desert?"  That event was a part of the history of Nicodemus much as the story of the Titans is for us as Americans. 
Whether out of human wisdom or divine providence, the school board in Alexandria, Virginia decided to name Herman Boone as head coach of the Titans.  Maybe they just did it for show, or maybe so that he could fail… but what they did was lift up what was feared and perceived as a threat - a black coach from North Carolina - and put him in a place where he could save a team and community from tearing each other apart.  Coach Boone was held up (even if out of impure motives) as THE head coach, with the authority to bind up or break apart a team of young athletes.

As it turned out, the team learned to trust and respect Coach Boone.  And in doing so, they learned to trust and respect each other.  What Coach Boone did for his team then spread to Assistant Coach Yoast, the student body, and eventually to the community.

In many ways, the story of Coach Boone and the Titans illustrates the reference Jesus made to the bronze serpent on the pole.  After a serious bout of complaining, mistrust, and arguing, God sent poisonous snakes to afflict the people of Israel.  In response to Moses' prayer for the people, God instructed him to put a bronze snake on a pole and lift it up.  Anyone who was bitten by a snake and looked up at the bronze snake then lived.  What happened, both with the Titans and with the Israelites, is that in looking up in trust, they were saved from their affliction.

Jesus told Nicodemus that the Son of Man would be lifted up in the same way, as a Savior to those who would look in faith and trust upon him.  And in a much deeper and permanent sense, the Son of Man - Jesus - brought salvation and life.  Coach Boone saved his team and the town from hatred and fighting.  God used the bronze snake to save his people from death and to restore faith and hope within them.  And, Jesus tells us, God sent his only Son, to save the world from condemnation and death, out of his love.

Lifted Up as Beloved


Right at the top of the list of familiar Bible passages is John 3:16.  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."  What a wonderful verse -- God sent his son because he loved us so much!  This verse and the one that follows it say that because God loved the world, he sent his Son, Jesus, to be its Savior.

God's Son, Jesus Christ, is the same "Son of Man" that Jesus is talking to Nicodemus about.  Jesus is the one who God not only sends into the world, but also lifts up that the people might believe in him and be saved.  Jesus was lifted up, literally lifted up onto the cross, not only as Savior, but also as Beloved Son of God.

John 3:16 and the verses that follow are straightforward.  God sent and lifted up Jesus so that the world might be saved from sin and death.  God did not send and lift up Jesus to condemn the world, but to save it.  God's desire - his love expressed through Jesus - is that we look upon Jesus in faith and BE SAVED.

But what about condemnation?  What about guilt and punishment and consequences?  Jesus said that it is in not believing that we are condemned already.  Not because God sent Jesus to judge us, but because our own unbelief judges us.  That's the punishment - that's the consequence of sin and unbelief.  God, in love, says, "Here's life!"  And if we turn away, we have chosen death.

There is a brief explanation of why some people choose death.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that the light has come into the world and those who do evil are prone to hate it because that light exposes their evil.  That is the paradox of trusting in Jesus.  When the Israelites looked at the bronze snake, they had to admit to their sinfulness.  When the student body cheered Coach Boone, they had to face their own prejudices and fears first.  When we believe in Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross, we must face the sin in our life that put him there.

God's grace is that in that moment and through the lifted-up Jesus Christ, he says to us, "I know you.  I love you.  I forgive you."  Jesus is lifted up as Savior and as Beloved Son that we might be saved and named beloved children of God.

Lifted Up as Hero


Finally, Jesus is lifted up in an interesting and different way.  God lifted Jesus up as Savior and as Beloved that we might be saved and loved.  As we respond in faithfulness and obedience to be followers of Jesus, we lift him up as Hero.

Jesus concludes his conversation with Nicodemus, one who snuck to see him at night, by saying that whoever lives by the truth (that is, in obedience to God), comes into the light so it may be plainly seen that God is at work.  Two realities of being a Christian are the free gift of God's grace and forgiveness, and our thankful response of obedience and gratitude.  "Living by the truth" means being a follower of Christ, living out God's intent for our lives, and serving God in all we say and do.  That is "true" life.

And the life of truth lifts up Christ as hero - because it bears witness to the fact that it is God who saves, heals, and blesses us with life.

In football, it is often the tradition of winning teams to hoist their coach up on their shoulders and march him around the field, literally "lifting him up" for the world to see.  In that act, they are not only pointing to the coach as hero, the players are also saying, "We couldn't do this all by ourselves, and we want to honor the one who has led us here."

In love, God has lifted Jesus Christ up that we, believing, might be saved.  In gratitude, faithfulness, and obedience, we are in turn responsible for lifting up the name and person of Jesus Christ in order that the world might know just who has saved us and loved us.  We worship and share the good news of Jesus Christ because we want the world to know he is our hero and the Savior.

Lifted Up by God and Man


It is a curiosity that God has arranged the world as he has.  We could be robots, slaves, or merely decorations on a beautiful canvas of creation.  But God has made us in his image and has involved us in singing his praise.

God loves you.  If you don't know it - hear it again today and believe it.  It is the central truth of the universe. 

God has shown that love by sending his only Son to make right what is wrong in our lives.  God has lifted up his Son, Jesus, that we might face what is wrong in us, and trusting in Jesus, be saved from death into life.  If you haven't put your trust in Jesus Christ, do so today.  He is the ONLY way, the ONLY truth, and the ONLY life.

In the life-giving light of God's love, we can live in truth as God's beloved children, knowing and showing God as the source of life and love.  If you know that truth… live it, talk about it, share it, spread the word!

In doing so, you lift up Christ as Savior, Beloved, and Hero - the very salvation the world needs to know!  Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2002

The Reach of Love (Zechariah 12.10-13.2, John 13.31-38)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 28, 2002

I often think of my childhood friend, Will. I used to go over to his house all the time to play. I went so often that his mom and dad were like second parents to me. And I remember as a young teenager playing cards in his den when his baby sister came in and stepped all over the cards trying to talk to us and see what we were doing.

I was a Christian at 13, having grown up hearing about Jesus and believing in him from an early age. But all I knew of life at 13 was a safe and comfortable life with no real challenges or setbacks. Then we got a call from the prayer chain at church – Will’s little sister, Jane Wall, had been rushed to the hospital. Aspirin had caused her brain to start swelling and doctors were trying to relieve the pressure before any permanent damage or death resulted.

And everything with God was suddenly put to the test. Was God really there? Did he hear my desperate prayers for her life and health? Did he hear me wanting to trade places with her? I stayed up in the youth room at church praying most of the night. I cried, I pleaded, I made deals. And more and more time passed. Finally, we got the word… she had not died, but apparently there was serious damage to her brain – only time would tell how much. And I was terribly disappointed with God. I still believed, but I didn’t understand and could not make sense of what had happened.

In Zechariah, exiled people are finally returning to their homeland – to Jerusalem – to rebuild the city and try to resettle their great-grandparent’s country. God had finally answered all those desperate prayers and songs about going home – and the day had finally come. But Jerusalem was in ruin. And their were enemies all around. Was this really the answer to prayer? Had God really come through for them?

And then Thursday night of Passover week… Jesus had called his disciples together and taught them about true servanthood by washing their feet. And they began the Passover meal. What could be better than the great welcome the previous Sabbath, when crowds cheered their Lord, and this moment of fellowship together? Then Jesus starts talking about betrayal, and tells Peter he’s going to betray him by morning.

Is this for real?? Is this the life we signed up for?

The Problem

Here’s the problem… life is a mixed bag. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good Christian people we know and love – perhaps even we ourselves have faced devastating tragedy and sorrow. We have seen dear ones suffer, we have been let down by those we trust, we have been blindsided again and again, and we struggle to understand God’s place in our lives.

Listen how mixed the message was to those Exiles – Zechariah prophesied to them:

God will pour out the Spirit of grace and of supplication.

Sounds great, right? Grace… access to God through prayer. But the prophet continues…

They will mourn as one mourns for an only son… the will weep like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.

What’s that mean? God was speaking to his people… and to us, to say that he will be present with us. But he was also saying that life would still be full of pain and sorrow. That is just the way it is.

Would anyone really argue to the contrary? Would anyone take an honest look at life and say that there is a rosy path through the thorns? Is there pain-free life to be had? That is simply not the testimony of scripture, nor an honest approach to life.

But God does not leave us dangling… he did not leave me helpless and hopeless as a 13 year old; he did not leave his people alone there in Jerusalem; he did not abandon the disciples to the world; and he does not leave you alone and without hope.

The Solution

The solution – God’s solution – to life is just as complex as life is. Should God just snap his fingers and make all things right? No - Zechariah spoke of God’s solution, and it is no easy fix!

The will look on Me whom they have pierced.

What in the world would that have sounded like to the Hebrew people that heard it. God was high and holy – revealed in history only as a fiery cloud or a mighty storm, and perhaps to Moses, whose face had to be covered to protect his life from the encounter. And now God is saying that his people will look on Him! And PIERCE him. The prophesy says that the outpouring of God’s Spirit would result in or accompany the wounding of God Himself. Unthinkable!! That God should suffer that we might know grace? I’m not sure how those listening to Zechariah could have interpreted that.

I do know that Zechariah’s prophesy would have rang with astounding clarity to those standing at the foot of the cross. This teacher who had claimed kinship with God was suddenly pierced through. Unthinkable!! Yet, Zechariah somehow links that unthinkable act with the outpouring of God’s grace.

The Cross

Zechariah goes on in what seems a very explicit description of Christ’s crucifixion…

A fountain will be opened… for sin and for impurity.

The fountain was the blood of Christ, the shocking tragedy right there in front of Jesus’ followers. Did any of them also remember his teaching that he was a “fountain of living water” – who would bring the outpouring of the Holy Spirit of grace?

As the choir sang last Sunday, the cross was the culmination of God’s response to the human condition. The cross was God’s answer to the problem of being human and trying to survive in this world. The cross was God’s declaration to us of his love, his identification with our suffering, and his invitation to hope.

The wounds of Christ – the water, the blood – they were God’s gifts of love to us, to do for us what we could not and cannot do. We cannot defeat death; we cannot overcome sin; we cannot beat back evil. But God can and God did – in Jesus, on the cross.

The Reach of Love

Are you hurting? Have you suffered? Are you disappointed with God? Listen to this good news – and it is good news. God loves you and knows the depths of what you have experienced. He has taken the hurt of the world into himself so that we might have hope.

Is there a magic and happy ending to Jane Wall’s story? God did not miraculously heal her, if that’s what you’re wondering. God did spare her life. God has kept her safe for 22 years now. God did move and work in her parents and in my friend to keep them together and strong in Christ in a situation that would have torn many families apart. God did teach me, through their faith, what it means to trust and hope even when disappointed. It’s no more than that, and no less than that. And my testimony is that God has been faithful and true.

God’s reach is wide and his love strong. Listen to these scriptures set to music. Listen to God’s response to our lives – as complex as it is complete. Jesus Christ has been pierced for us to show us the full reach of God’s love.

THE REACH OF LOVE
By Gerrit Dawson and Robert Austell

Savior slain, why were you rent by a spear?
"These wounds I got at the house of my friends."
As prophet told, look on him whom we pierced,
See the blood and water spilled at the end.

Water through the cruel channel of skin
Covers the earth, not with rage but with grace.
Your side the fountainhead, flowing again
The River of Life that cleanses our race.

Out of your wounds there flow dear gifts from above.
The blood and water show the full reach of Love.

The blood poured out in waste after you died
Fills the festive cup with love's gentle flood.
Babes at mother's breast, we drink from your side
The sweet forgiveness in water and blood.

Out of your wounds there flow dear gifts from above.
The blood and water show the full reach of Love.
Out of your wounds there flows… the full reach of Love.

Friday, March 22, 2002

podcast graphic

Just needed to upload a new graphic for iTunes.  :)