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Faithlife

Come from the night into the light

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Feb. 28, 1999

ORGAN PRELUDE

ANNOUNCEMENTS                        Psalm 121 (C) -- "My help comes from the Lord" (v. 20).

CALL TO WORSHIP

*OPENING HYMN                               Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah                    # 442

*INVOCATION AND LORD'S PRAYER                        O God of our birth, our baptism and all our beginnings, empower us to fully submit our lives to you, that we might experience the joy of being born anew.    Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  And, lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. 

*GLORIA PATRI

PASSING THE PEACE

SCRIPTURE READING                   Genesis 12:1-4a(NRSV)  "Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. {2} 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. {3} I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." {4} So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran."    READER   Foster

MISSION MOMENT

OFFERING                      (Rev 22:14 NKJV)  "Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city."

*DOXOLOGY

*PRAYER OF DEDICATION Our Father, you have created us; you have watched over us with love all of our days; you have opened to us the gates of new and abundant life.  Grant that in our living and in our giving we may be guided not by law but by love.

CHILDREN'S STORY TIME  Sue Foster        "Seeing God"

CHORAL ANTHEM

PRAYER            O God, to us it seems so long ago that You first called to Abraham, yet Your word is eternal and you call us as well. Give us the strength, Lord, to build the life of faith we see in Abraham.  //  Lord, so often we have begun our walk of faith only to allow the world to interfere and before we realize it our witness has been very limited. Forgive us, Lord, and help us set the matters of the world aside that we might become the faithful followers You had always intended and created us to be.    //    O God, the wonder of Your salvation challenges all that the world would teach is reasonable.  It was Your love that came and offered us new hope and salvation  We praise You.  //  Lord, so often we see only our sins and failures and not Your mercy and grace.  So often we focus on the destruction and damage in life, feeling hopelessness and despair rather than choosing to accept the healing and hope in life you would give to us.  Forgive us, Lord, and help us accept Your new life for us that our lives might praise You.    //    O God, You have always been faithful to Your covenants and have blessed those who have been faithful in return. Keep us mindful, O Lord, of the faith to which we are committed.  //  Lord, so often we have heard the good news of the New Covenant yet when it has come time to keep our part we have been unfaithful. Forgive us, Lord, and begin to build in us a new strength that will give a clear witness before the world of Your redeeming power and handiwork. And lead us to new levels of faithfulness, so all will know You are real. In Christ we pray. Amen.

*PREPARATIONAL HYMN             Beneath The Cross Of Jesus                 # 239

SCRIPTURE TEXT     John 3: 1-17

Leader: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him,

Congregation: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."

Leader: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

Congregation: "How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

Leader: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Congregation: "How can these things be?"

Leader: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."

SERMON                    Come from the night into the light

   A debate of sorts was taking place. Not a formal exercise in a debating team, but a rather intense discussion in a religion class. It was in a small Baptist college in North Carolina. The professor had been teaching religion there for a decade and he enjoyed his teaching most when students challenged him. At the beginning of each semester he emphasized to his students that he didn't want them merely to soak up the official "party line" -- as he called it -- of Christian teachings, but that they would much more appreciate the teachings of the church if they struggled with them and challenged them. He had a term for it. "Run it through your own meat grinder," he often encouraged them, "so it isn't just a matter of getting the right answers."

   Hence, the discussion and challenges taking place on this day resulted from such encouragement on his part. They were discussing the dual nature of Christ. "How could Jesus be both God and man?" one student wanted to know. "It doesn't make sense."

   Before he could continue another student said, "It's just not logical."

   "You're both right," the professor admitted. "One important thing we have to bear in mind is that our Christian faith isn't necessarily logical and it often doesn't make sense. But you see, religion doesn't have to make sense."

   One of the students offered, "I can relate to the hard sciences -- physics, math -- because they follow logical sequences; you can move logically from step to step without causing mental disruption." The class chuckled a bit at that one.

   "I fully agree that you can do that in the hard sciences," the professor responded. "But one point you might be overlooking is that religion -- and particularly Christianity -- doesn't claim to be logical. It operates in a different level of our being. And, by the way, don't make the mistake of thinking the hard sciences are more legitimate and credible just because of logic. Logic isn't the final judge of all things either."

   "But let's get back to the subject of Jesus being both God and human," a student suggested. "How can that be?"

   "How can anything be?" another asked.

   The prof allowed the questioning to go on for a few moments, then asked, "How can baptism bring us into God's family? How could God create the universe? But let's follow that question 'How can anything be?' a bit further."

   "How can it?" a student asked.

   "It can because God wants it to be ..." he began.

   "Oh brother!" the student sighed. /////

The scripture account says that Nicodemus came to Jesus from the cover of the night. He didn't want to be embarrassed by being seen socializing with Jesus by his friends in the Sanhedrin. / Night or darkness also describes the condition of his soul. Yet he was beginning to perceive some glimmers of light through the miracles of Jesus. There were things he didn't understand, which didn't fit in with his theological framework, and that is why he came to the Lord. The entire conversation with Jesus revealed a profound confusion of mind and soul. He was looking for intellectual enlightenment but what he received was a challenge to put aside all the baggage and enter into a relationship of profound trust with God, to become as a child. Nicodemus came for a discussion but Christ called for a commitment, inviting Nicodemus to enter the light rather than merely analyzing the light from afar. He came to discover who Jesus was but ended up finding out who he needed to become -- a new man, born from above. The enlightenment of the mind would issue from a new spiritual birth from on high and not the other way around.//

When Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (anew, from above), he is not telling him that there is something that he must do in order to be born again. Quite the contrary, the image of birth preludes the idea of works-righteousness. We don't decide to be born; birth is given to us. There is a heresy prevalent in our culture, which says that we are acceptable because of what we accomplish. This is the basis of workaholicism and perfectionism. Nicodemus was an accomplished and respected member of his community, at the pinnacle of power and piety. It's this knowledge that makes Jesus' words so radical and offensive. Jesus was telling this righteous, accomplished man that he needed a new spiritual center. He must abandon his prideful notion of self-righteousness and let God start from scratch with him. It was a hard pill to swallow. No wonder he didn't get it.

   Those experienced in Christian life know that we are not only born again, but again and again and again. The most excellent movie, Shadowlands, illustrates this point from the life of the English writer and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. The movie tells of the story of Lewis' brief love affair and marriage to an American woman by the name of Joy. Joy was a fan of Lewis' writings, which led to written correspondence and, eventually, to their meeting. They became friends but the relationship was not equal. Joy became attached to Lewis emotionally but he kept himself aloof from intimacy, ensconced in the safe shelter of books and ideas. Joy boldly confronted Lewis, just like Christ confronted Nicodemus, with his need to abandon his no-risk mode of relating to persons.

   Joy moved to England with her son to be near Lewis. One day, she asked him for a favor. Would he marry her so that she could remain in the country? Lewis agreed to a secret marriage of convenience. They continued to live apart. Lewis hoped to live his life as before, untouched by human intimacy and commitment, but Joy becomes terminally ill with bone cancer. Lewis sees the shallowness of his soul and begins to look at Joy through different eyes. He proposes and they marry before God and the whole world. Love is born of sorrow and during Joy's brief remission from cancer their life becomes a love-feast. Unfortunately, their joy is tinged with the knowledge that their relationship must be so brief. Joy dies and Lewis is plunged into despair and doubt. He used to teach concerning the meaning of pain and sorrow, acting as if he had all the answers. Now, in his grief, he knows that he doesn't. The old aloof Lewis, loath to lose himself in love because he feared the pain of love lost, dies and is reborn.

   "How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asks. Good question. // As we get older, there can be a tendency to get set in our ways.  All the more argument for the need to be born anew. Look at our first lesson: Abraham was born anew at the age of 75, when God took him aside and promised that he was going to make a great nation of him. When he showed his faith in God through obedience, God's Spirit entered him and gave him a new life. From his being born anew, a new nation, God's own people, were born. Believe God, trust in his promises, follow in faith and you will be born anew no matter what your age. //////// About 1800 B.C. God appears to a man by the name of Abram in what today would be Iraq, and orders him to leave his homeland and travel to a land that God would show him. God promises to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. In fact, God's promises make Abraham a means of blessing or curse for others. The amazing aspect of this is that Abram was already 75 years of age. Humanly speaking, it didn't seem likely he would see the fulfillment of God's promise but Abraham was a man of faith. // God told Abram to leave his home, his family and his country for a land that God would show him. We characterize this move as a faith journey because, as yet, the destination was known only to God./ /In a sense, we are all called to engage in a faith journey. None of us have seen the promised land, nor are we cognizant of the exact course that we must take to get there. This journey only requires that we stay close to the Lord and follow his leading.

    Abram embarked on his faith journey at the age of 75. He might have thought that his life was nearly over but God had other ideas. The best was yet to come. We sometimes fail to forge ahead because of human limitations, such as age, but God loves to use people that don't seem to fit the mold. God's power is manifest in our limitations and weaknesses. This passage has much to say to a society such as ours, where the age pyramid is increasingly becoming inverted. God calls senior citizens as well as younger folks to embark on a faith journey. God has something more significant for them to do than shuffleboard or SkipBo. They are now free to follow the Lord into a new avenue of service. One elderly woman spends a good deal of her time tutoring elementary school youngsters and serves as a foster-grandmother for kids from broken homes. Serving need not be related to age, as this passage makes clear.

    God called Abram, a specific person, at a particular time and place, to embark on a mission. Yet, God has something much greater in mind than showering his favor on one man or nation. God wanted to bless all the peoples of the earth through him. God works from the small to the large, the particular to the universal, from the single scene to the big picture. If life were compared to a movie, God would be the director and each person an actor playing out parts great and small. It's our responsibility to learn our script and perform our role to the best of our ability. It is God's role to bring all the parts together in such a way that the plot is powerfully coherent and delivers a blessing to the entire cast.  Let us play out our parts with passion until that day when we behold the Big Picture. ///////

   Nicodemus couldn't see the big picture, just as we can't today, so Jesus illustrates his saving mission with the story of the bronze serpent. The Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents, sent as a punishment for rebellion, were instructed to look up to the bronze serpent, which was set on a pole in the midst of the camp. The snake on the pole served as an antidote for the snakes in the grass, neutralizing their deadly poison. Similarly, those who were to look up to the One elevated on the cross would secure release from the effect of sin's deadly fangs. Of course, this point would have been lost on Nicodemus, for he had not yet witnessed the Christ crucified, but it makes perfect sense to those of us who look to Christ for salvation.

Personal salvation is not the goal of Christianity. God desires to save the whole world   "For God so loved the world ...". Much the same point was made in the Genesis lesson, the call of Abram. God planned to bless all the peoples of the world through him. We must always keep two great truths in balance -- God loves me but he also loves the neighbor. The personal realization of the momentous truth that "God loves me" is the prerequisite for the new birth, but that new birth can become aborted (a stillbirth) if we don't embrace the truth that God loves the world through me and people like me.                    Prayer:

God, who so loves the world that you sent your beloved Son,

   God, who rewards simple belief with eternal life,

   God, who allows your Son to be lifted onto the cross for us,

   God, who gives new birth from above,

   God, who opens the kingdom to Spirit-born children below:

Know that we come joyfully in the full light of day,

   we do not come secretly in the dark night like Nicodemus.

We come wanting all the world to see our love for you,

   we come wanting everyone to hear our praise lifted up to you,

   we come praying that others will be drawn to you,

   we come trusting that others will believe and receive new life,

   we come with them, full of delight and the Spirit's vigor,

   tasting the eternal kingdom in your powerful love,

   now and always.  Amen.

*INVITATIONAL HYMN                 Alleluia!                                                            # 460

   He forgives me.

   We are made new.

   Spirit born now.

   His kingdom comes.

   I will live there.

   I will serve him.

   I will love him.

   I adore him.

   (Finish with alleluia.)

*BENEDICTION        God so loved the world that he sent his only Son.  Now, God sends you to the world because of that same love.  Let your lives point the way to believing in God's Son,   so that all those you meet will find in you eternal life.  And may the Spirit who gives new birth from above   fill you with love from God our Creator and Christ our Savior.  Amen.

ORGAN POSTLUDE


SCRIPTURE TEXT     John 3: 1 - 17

Leader: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader

of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night and said to him,

Congregation: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has

come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart

from the presence of God."

Leader: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom

of God without being born from above."

Congregation: "How can anyone be born after having grown

old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb

and be born?"

Leader: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom

of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born

of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born

from above.'  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear

the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or

where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Congregation: "How can these things be?"

Leader: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not

understand these things?  Very truly, I tell you, we speak of

what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do

not receive our testimony.  If I have told you about earthly

things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you

about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven

except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in

him may have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that he

gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not

perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the

Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the

world might be saved through him."


___ Offer an old fashioned altar call.  Invite those who have never been "born from above" to come forward to receive this new birth.

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