There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “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.”
When tucking young children into bed, they may share many ways to stall having to go to sleep. They need a drink of water, another hug, one more book read or another stuffed animal tucked under the covers. But many kids are also afraid of the dark. When when they grow up, the fear usually abates. But night and darkness still have a sense of mystery as compared to a day of sunshine and blue skies where you can see every detail all around you.
It’s no coincidence that Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night, is my guess. The symbolism of a nighttime inquiry of Jesus from a religious leader adds to the drama and alludes to the darkness that comes before the enlightenment of learning and new knowledge. I picture Nicodemus stealthily moving in the cover of night to find Jesus to get first hand clarification on the new teachings that are spreading around the area. Questioning the religious leadership was not a common or allowable circumstance. But Nicodemus must have had a thousand questions about the gospel of love and acceptance being taught by Jesus, throwing all the rules the Jewish people held as sacred, right out on their ear. And the fear of the unknown must have been overwhelming as Nicodemus worked to get a better understanding of how his life as a Pharisee would be changing. What a brave move to confront his fears and seek deeper understanding of Jesus!
Jesus’ words in this week’s Gospel reading from John are some of the most famous words of the Christian faith shared throughout the world. “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.” I remember seeing a colorfully wigged man at nationally televised NFL games with a big poster with John 3:16 painted boldly on it (some pretty persistent evangelism if you ask me!) and we used to hear the verse every Sunday at church from the Priest just before the passing of the Peace. It is one of the greatest summaries of our faith. Through love, we are promised eternal life; our earthly lives are not all there is to our existence. Another mystery really, as our human brains can’t even understand what that really means for us.
But as we read the Word, spend time in prayer and listening to God and do his Kingdom work with love in our daily lives, the darkness of our limited imagination begins to be illuminated with the wisdom that comes from a deeper relationship with Christ. Nicodemus knew how to be religious leader before Jesus came along and cast doubts on his way of living. He was brave and went looking for answers. He heard radical things that most likely felt contradictory to what he might have always believed. This reading doesn’t share what Nicodemus did with this new-found knowledge and command for living; but we Christians have access to Jesus’ teaching. We have to keep learning about and practicing our faith to stay out of darkness. Do not be afraid of stepping out in faith; be more afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
God of light, push away our darkness and our fear and show us the way to live faithfully in your love. Teach us your ways and help us walk with you every day in the light of your gifts of grace and mercy. We are not worthy but gratefully accept the gift of eternal life and perfect healing in you, O Great Redeemer! AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Necessity for Watchfulness
36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
I love the season of Advent. In this crazy, consumerized time of year, it is a refreshing take on preparing for the Christmas season. Many folks don’t celebrate a time of preparation like Advent; from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (Click here), the definition is the period beginning four Sundays before Christmas and observed by some Christians as a season of prayer and fasting. The second definition is the coming of Christ at the Incarnation. In our Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we labor to stay focused on Advent for the full four Sundays before we “green” the church and switch our focus to the Christmas celebration which carries us all the way to Epiphany (See definition here). In our home, we have an advent wreath that we put out each year with the traditional four candles (three purple or blue, and one pink/red, depending on tradition) that we light each Sunday. Our almost adult daughter also has a wall Advent Calendar which builds the pieces of a felt and velcro Nativity. Somehow, the craziness of the holidays stays at bay when we take the time to prepare for the coming of Christ.
Another kind of event that I love is a good old fashioned surprise party! When everyone does all this activity to prepare behind the scenes and the honoree carries on throughout all the preparation without a clue of what is to come at the moment we all jump out with a loud shout of “SURPRISE!!!!” – I just love it! So what’s the connection between a surprise party and Advent? Go with me here…
The season of Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of our Lord. Christmas is a day to remember his birth and the season of Christmas actually starts on Christmas Day, but Advent goes way beyond that. The birth of Jesus is truly a remarkable event – from the virgin, teenage mother, her betrothed taking on a potentially scandalous situation, to a long ride in less than comfortable conditions with a very pregnant mom-to-be; only to be turned away as they seemed to desperately seek shelter for the obvious and inevitable birth. The very unlikely setting for the Son of God’s rather unceremonious birth and then all the special signs, guests/visitors and heralding angel chorus – remarkable details of Jesus’ birth indeed. But Advent doesn’t just have us focusing on the birth of Christ as a singular event. As Resurrection people, we go beyond the birth to thirty some odd years later and the crucifixion, and then to the second definition referenced by Merriam-Webster – the second coming of Christ. Jesus tells his disciples there will be no warning – a literal surprise – as to when He will come again. And tells them, and through them tells us all, to be ready. Not like the honored guest at a surprise party who never sees it coming, but like the host who plans all the details except the biggest details of all – the time and place of the surprise itself.
So Advent gives us a purpose just as the upcoming season of Lent does prior to Easter. Advent slows us down and attempts to keep us focused on preparing the way for the Lord. One of my favorite hymns during this time is from the Taize music tradition:
Prepare the way of the Lord.
Prepare the way of the Lord,
and all people will see the salvation of our God.
We don’t know the time or the place, and being ready doesn’t mean we need to pay any attention to those details. The only requirement from Jesus was to be ready any time. Knowing when and how won’t make us more ready and will distract us from our job at hand: to prepare the way of the Lord. To study the Word, to pray without ceasing and to go out and do the work we are called to do in the world. The celebration of Advent makes us take the time to be mindful of our job in this Christian relationship – to invite Jesus into our hearts, minds and actions; to be thankful for our blessings and grateful for our challenges that bring us closer to him. Don’t skip over the preparation to jump straight into celebration just yet. Be watchful and prepare for perfect healing through Christ.
Giver of Life, I come to you humbly as I prepare for your coming. Your gift of your Son to live and die for me is more generous a gift than I could ever give. The hope of Advent and the coming of Christ to save us all brings all the joy I need to help me focus on preparing my sinful self for seeing you. Thank you for giving us time to prepare. In your gracious name I pray. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Jesus and Zacchaeus
19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
A different perspective:
“I don’t really know what all the fuss is, but I heard Jesus was coming to Jericho. I’ve heard stories from travelers passing through that he has healed some really sick people, forgiven and accepted some people that don’t normally have any stature in the community and welcomed with love tax collectors like me. I don’t really like taking money from the people in my community, but Rome wants the taxes and I need to feed my family so that is the job I have to do and most of the jobs out there require a physique I just don’t have. I had heard that tons of people would be coming to see him as he passed through town just like other places he has been and I thoughtthe only shot I would have to get a glimpse of this guy Jesus would be to run ahead and find somewhere on high ground. So I headed up in front of the crowd, but I was still having a hard time seeing with so many folks standing in front of me. I spotted the sycamore tree and thought that climbing up a bit would help me get a better view, and that’s where I was perched as Jesus came down the road. I waited with great anticipation and out of the way of the crowd.
Just as Jesus reached the spot in the road under my tree, he looked up directly into my eyes. He called me by name. By MY name. I was shocked; how did he know who I was? Then, again, just talking to me, he told me to come down because he was going to stay at my house. Well, when Jesus says he needs you, you better “hop to!” I couldn’t believe my ears! Why me? A Tax Collector even! But I scrambled down and started walking with Jesus to my home. As we turned to walk away together, I could hear the not so quiet grumblings of the religious leaders and others in the crowd – I’ve become used to the way folks look at me and talk badly about me and my family. That’s the risk you take when you are the Chief Tax Collector. But it still stings to have people speak about you like you aren’t as good as they are.
So I stopped with Jesus right there. I felt like I needed to justify myself to Jesus and those who were watching, so I pledged to give away half of everything I owned to the members of our community who lived in deep poverty. I’ve always prided myself on being honest – I collected taxes to send to the Roman government and only kept enough for myself to take care of my family, but I assured Jesus that I would make amends to any who felt like I had taken more than necessary; I promised that and so much more if needed. But Jesus said the most unexpected thing: He welcomed me into the Body of Christ with open arms and no strings attached. As his eyes burned into mine, he told me he was there for me. My life had been just lived for me until that day, when he gave me and my family the gift of salvation. I will forever be changed by this intimate encounter with Jesus and commit to sharing the Good News of Christ to all I meet.”
Ok, I fudged a little to make a point. Imagine how Zacchaeus must have felt on that once in a lifetime day. Forget about the special event that Jesus provided by calling him by name and stating his intention to stay in his home – unthinkable based on his stature in society. Then, when Zacchaeus realizes everyone is looking at him as if he could never deserve such an honor, he tries to prove himself to Jesus. But Jesus never even acknowledges the offer to give away his possessions and pay back anyone wronged by him four times over. He just welcomes him to accept the greatest gift of salvation. No questions asked and no task required.
I’ll bet that shut up the crowd for a second…once they headed down the road the family home though, I’m sure the talk started right back up again. “Unbelievable!” “No way!” “Zacchaeus…are you kidding me?” Surely that is just a snippet of the nasty things said about him when he came down from the tree to Jesus and again when they were out of earshot.
Why do we sometimes hate it when others are blessed? Why do we look down on others based on their lot in life? Why do we always think we are better than anyone else? Why don’t we read stories like this and realize that each of us is worthy of redemption and forgiveness, as Jesus proves time and time again in our Gospel readings? All we have to do is turn to him. So ignore the negative talk (both from others and from yourself), stop judging others like we are better than them and turn to Christ. Simple, huh? Simple but not easy…that’s why we keep having to do it over and over again, every single day of our lives. And spread the Good News in the world. That is all God wants from us is to serve his Kingdom with love.
Lord of all mercies, we give you thanks for your incredible generosity and your forgiveness of all we do to drive a wedge between ourselves and our Savior. Keep us looking ahead to salvation and give us strength and courage to speak of your children with love. Thank you for the perspective of Zacchaeas and for welcoming us into eternal life. We ask all things through Jesus Christ who loves us. AMEN.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
When I was little, back in the days before cell phones, internet and scheduled playdates, the front window of the living room was my view of the world. I watched my parents leave us with a babysitter to go to a party from the yellow rocking chair by the front door and sat there waiting very impatiently for my first date to arrive to pick me up a few years later. My 9th birthday party was my first slumber party and I waited at that window for the first of my 9 friends to arrive. My sister fell over the handlebars of her bike and opened up a nice gash on her chin and we waited there on the porch for Mom to come home with a washcloth covering the wound. As a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up because I knew that being adult had to be so much better than the limits of being a kid (!!!!!!!) and I waited for the phone to ring when I got my first teaching job. We hurry to arrive at the airport in time to wait for the plane to board and we wait until winter or summer or whatever season for the weather to change from the current unbearable state. We wait a lot.
In the reading for this week from Luke, there are two messages that really stick out to me. The first message is about where we put our treasures. This is a theme from the last few weeks that continues to niggle right into my brain and shake a finger at me. We must stop collecting THINGS and start collecting our faith and trust in Jesus. Move out the stuff that is standing in the way of that perfect relationship with Christ and invest our time, talent and treasure in Kingdom work with God. Ok, ok….I think I am starting to get the picture!
The second message that I take from today’s reading is that waiting by the window for the time to be with Jesus isn’t really helpful. There is no way to be fully ready by just sitting and doing nothing as we wait for our entrance to the Kingdom of God. We must continually discern God’s will for us and be ready at any time. The other day, I had some friends coming over and needed to run to the restroom before they arrived. Wouldn’t you know that they picked that exact time to knock on the door – and I wasn’t ready! In thinking about being ready for Jesus, I don’t want to be caught unavailable, not matter the time of day/night or the circumstances. My heart needs to be ready to come face to face with that very real future. My sinful desires, my gossipy snippets, my anger and frustration with others – will those be the very moments where God is revealed to me and I miss it entirely?
Waiting for Jesus…means actively getting ready. Preparing through our thoughts, words and actions; discerning his will for us and getting back on track when we veer away. I want to be ready.
Gracious Father, help me to discern your will and serve you in all I think, say and do. May I honor your name and be alert and ready when you need me the most. I pledge to you the treasure that is in my heart. In your name I pray. AMEN.