No condemnation now

Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 8 March 2020

Readings were Genesis 12: 1-4a and John 3: 1-17

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If you have recently bought more toilet paper then you usually do, I want you to know there is no condemnation here. This is a safe place.

But if you have bought lots of toilet paper (or hand sanitiser) I want you to pay special attention to God‘s Word today!

In the shadows of the night, Jesus has a hushed theological conversation with a religious leader, who felt he had lots to lose if found ‘guilty by association’. Nicodemus struggled to understand what Jesus was talking about when Jesus shifted the topic to how people needed to be ‘born again’.

And I think we can empathise with Nicodemus. If the words of Jesus are familiar to us, let us spare a thought for those who heard them first. We can sometimes feel those who saw and spoke with Jesus have the advantage of proximity.

But think for a moment of their disadvantage of trying to interpret some of what he said without ‘Zondervan Bible commentaries’ – and how Jesus’ radical teaching fitted into the big picture of his mission, God’s identity and the Big Story of the Bible. What would it have been like to hear for the first time those others words of Jesus in today’s passage?

you will not perish but have eternal life

Taken literally, how confusing is this? How would people hear these words? We don’t know for sure, but by the time the Gospels were written, the first Christians knew Jesus was not announcing the end of human biological death. People still died. We will still die one day. Although, we live in denial about that fact a lot of the time. Stanley Hauerwas observes many people think that, with the help of science and modern medicine, I might get out of life alive!

These words of Jesus “you will not perish but have eternal life” may be familiar, but we need to hear them again, for what they say to us in a time of fear and uncertainty. What does it mean to have eternal life? What does it mean to be saved? What is it that Jesus is promising?

Jesus is not promising that we will not get corona-virus. Jesus is not promising that we will not die. But what Christians have always believed and trusted their lives on, is that Jesus shows us God is committed to us – really committed to us.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way:

The good news of the cross is that through Christ’s cross and resurrection, we have been baptized into his death and resurrection, making Christians a people capable of staring down death by refusing to let death determine our living.

Our faith is a faith that makes a difference in lives that are future-focused.

Don’t we see this with Abram and Sarai?  God promises a future. Who here is 75 years old…? You’re the same age as Abram when God called Abram:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (Gen 12:1)

As an aside, we see here a familiar pattern in the Bible. God calls people and makes a promise.

Go from your country… and I will make of you a great nation…

It’s the same pattern we hear just before Jesus ascends to heaven:

Go and make disciples of all nations … And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.  (Matthew 28:19-20)

We are reminded again of the ‘Big story of the Bible’.

The point is, that part of what we hear today from God’s word (both in the Gospel, and at the start of the story of the Hebrew people) is: our faith opens us to a promised future. God is not interested in condemnation and destruction. God promises redemption and reconstruction.

(Isaiah 43:1-2a)
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

‘Passing through the waters’ was a historical  reference to what…? The Exodus – where God led Israel out of Egypt through the waters to freedom. What God has done in the past focuses our faith to what God will do in the future.

Here at St John’s we have been planning for the future. We are nearing completion of a massive project to strengthen this building to withstand earthquakes, so this worship space we’ve received from others can be passed on to future generations – to continue the witness of the Gospel in the middle of Wellington city.

Our faith is lived now, AND has a future focus.

And this future-focus is desperately needed now – as the world is gripped by fear because of the spreading corona-virus. Just as this future-focus is needed for addressing the environmental crises.

Our faith motivates us not to simply accept what’s happening around us, but work for the future God calls us to.

Once a year I attend a retreat for Ministers over the hill in the Wairarapa. And I love to walk the Remutaka Incline – the old train line that hugs the mountain range. There are a number of train tunnels on that walk, and as I walk through the only reference is the light at the far end of the tunnel. Keeping my eye on that light keeps me heading in the right direction. Whatever surrounds me – the darkness, the water running down the walls, the giant wetas! – I can see there is a way forward.

Whatever happens to us, whatever we are surrounded by, whatever we do ourselvesnothing can take us away from God’s enduring love shown to us Jesus.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (v16)

If these words are so familiar that they almost seem cliché, then let us hear in them that God’s commitment to us is greater than anything else. The Reformer Martin Luther summarised this beautiful verse:

For the world has me; I am it’s God

Jesus shows us that God is love. Jesus shows us that God is with us; God is not distant but stands with us in solidarity. God is found where Jesus is found – and he is someone who meets secretly at night with ‘Nervous Nick’ the religious leader; just as he meets in the noonday sun with a Samaritan woman, a forgotten nobody.

Nothing less than the whole world is the focus of God’s unlimited, inclusive love. God is not on a rejection mission, but a rescue mission.

I’m reminded of the words of the old hymn:

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!

Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

(‘And Can It Be’ by Charles Wesley)

God does not condemn, but promises us a future. Let us hear the promise of life for all who are perishing – when we face what is fearful; when we face death – our hope is our trust in the One who came to show us God loves the world, [and] you will not perish but have eternal life.

We have God. (and some of us now have LOTS of toilet paper).

So, as those baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection – can we please spread hope? God does not condemn – neither should we. Rather we can proclaim Christ is with us, and remains with us forever.

To God be all glory!  Amen.

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