Saturday, March 19, 2011

Come and see the kingdom/reign of God through new eyes

John 3:1-17

For the next several weeks, we will read stories from the gospel of John. These stories are about Jesus’ encounters with different people, and about ourselves and the way we understand and approach Jesus. First, we’ll read about Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus by night with his expectations and his opinions. Next, we’ll read about the Samaritan woman at the well; then we’ll read about the man who was born blind; and last, we’ll read about the raising of Lazarus from death and Martha’s profession of faith in Jesus.
I hope to use the common theme of “come and see” in the sermons on these stories, though each will be expressed in different ways. Today, Jesus invites Nicodemus to see the kingdom/reign of God through new eyes.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, full of questions. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, which means he is very knowledgeable about scripture. He knows the rules for living a righteous life, and works hard to obey them. He suspects that Jesus has been sent by God, but he can’t figure out how Jesus fits into the divine plan as he, Nicodemus, understands those plans.
Nicodemus and Jesus have a conversation that hinges on the double meaning of the Greek word anothen. Depending on context, anothen means again or from above. Nicodemus takes the word literally, as meaning he had to be born again from his mother’s womb. But Jesus meant the word spiritually, as meaning Nicodemus had to be born from God who is above. Once one is born – or reborn – from God, one is able to see the kingdom/reign of God.
Like Nicodemus, we often like life to be black and white: this is good, that is bad; if you do this, you get a reward, and if you do that, you get punished. But life with God, life in God’s reign, God’s kingdom, isn’t nearly so simple.
You may have heard of the uproar over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. Rob Bell is a 39-year-old pastor with a positive, uplifting approach to faith. Many people love what he says; many others label what he says “heresy.”
Bell’s book is based on John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that God gave the only Son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In this book, Bell highlights the contrast between an understanding of God as full of grace, love, and forgiveness, and an understanding of God as full of hatred for people who don’t “obey the rules.”
[A caveat: I have not read the book, and I am not recommending it nor condemning it. It might make for an interesting discussion group topic, if anyone is interested.]
The point I want to make is this: The dialog about the book causes us to ask some questions. How do we, sitting here this morning, envision God: as loving or as judging? How do we imagine life after death? What do we suppose happens at judgment? Perhaps the biggest question is this: How can a loving God send some people into the torment of hell, and others into heaven?
The way we think about heaven and hell and the kingdom/reign of God says much about the way we imagine God. This is essentially what Jesus is asking Nicodemus to do: think with an open mind about what God is like, what God asks of us, and how God judges us. “See God with new eyes!” Jesus says.
And, “Jesus says, “See the reign/kingdom of God as a present reality.” This is an important element of John’s Gospel: the reign of God is both an event to come and a present reality. As a present reality, wherever Jesus is, there is the reign of God.
Jesus goes on, then, with a sermon about what the reign of God looks like. God loves the whole world enough to send God’s only Son so that everyone might have eternal life – which is also both a present reality and a future event. In this life, we have eternal life when we have a relationship with Jesus. We have hope of eternal life after we die, promised to us by Jesus.
There is also a cosmic aspect to eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him. The word for “world” in Greek is “kosmos,” which refers to the whole world, not just us Christian humans, not just all people, but all of creation: plants, animals, rivers, mountains, oceans. With the presence of Jesus, all of creation will have a new kind of life in relationship with God. Nothing and no one is to be condemned. All of creation is to be brought into eternal life by Jesus.
Nicodemus knows because of the signs he and the other Pharisees have seen or heard about – the healings, turning water into wine, and other events – that Jesus has been sent by God. No one could do what Jesus does unless he was sent by God and had God’s power. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “You can’t see what is right in front of you, because you haven’t been born spiritually.”
Since we have been born from above, from the Spirit, we can see eternal life and the reign of God all around us.
We can see the reign of God in nature: in the beauty of trees and flowers; in the majestic size of oceans and mountains; in the tiny perfection of insects; in the power of lions and elephants; in the way plants and animals adapt to their environment; in the drama of a sunset; in the might of earthquakes, blizzards, and hurricanes.      
We can see the reign of God in all sorts of acts of kindness and mercy. We see the reign of God in the food we share with the hungry; in the cash donated for disaster relief; in the families who adopt special needs children; in the offers for a ride for those who can no longer drive; in the visits made to those who are in hospitals, care centers, or not able to leave home; in the quilts and kits and shoeboxes made with love and sent overseas to those who have so much less. In all these actions, and many more, the reign of God is made visible to those who give, and to those who receive.
We can see the reign of God in the naming and challenging of oppression. We can see the reign of God when nations around the world cry out against the oppression and violence in Libya; in the outcry against the lack of health care for so many Americans; in the demand for fairer banking and stock market procedures; in the concern for the homeless; in the increasing awareness of prejudice against people who are different from us.
As we who believe in Jesus become more aware of God’s presence and God’s reign in our lives, there is less prejudice – less judgment – of those who are different; we are seeing through God’s eyes when we view all people as blessed by God. We are more aware of God’s purposes and God’s reign when we refuse to allow one person or group to oppress another person or group. We can see the reign of God when we care as God would for all of creation.
This week, I encourage you to remember you are baptized, and filled with God’s Holy Spirit. You have been born from above, and able to see the reign of God if you are looking for it. I encourage you to be aware of God’s reign this week. How many times and places and instances of God’s reign will we see this week?
Please pray with me. Jesus, you invite us to come and see you and your reign in all the world. Help us be more aware of your presence within us and all around us. Amen