It was a joy to be with the good people of Grace Lutheran Church in Lexington, Nebraska today (Sunday March 8, 2020). Thank you Pastor Erin Dunlavy for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from, based especially on John 3:1-17 and Genesis 12:1-4a, two of the readings appointed for the Second Sunday in Lent (Year A).
Grace and peace from our crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus- who is with you, for you, and loves you always. Amen.
Good morning Grace. It’s a joy to be with you today with Lisa Kramme, and our friend Peter Hansen from Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry- Sullivan Hills and Camp Carol Joy Holling. Thank you, Pastor Erin for the invitation, and to all of you for the warm welcome. We bring greetings today especially from Bishop Brian Maas, and your Assistant to the Bishop, Pastor Steve Meysing, as well as from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ, who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I’m excited to be with you, as we dwell in God’s word for us today and listen for what God might be calling us to see and hear, to think some about how we respond to God’s saving work and promises for us, and about how we do some of God’s work in the world through our stewardship and through being part of the church together.
Dwelling with John
We find ourselves this week back in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee comes and finds Jesus. Whether those with him recognize Jesus as a Rabbi or not, Nicodemus seems to. And he comes with questions of faith that are on his mind. I take him at his word when he says, “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.” It’s not like some leaders of the faith who will come and try and trick and trap Jesus in his words. No, Nicodemus is well meaning and genuine in trying to learn and understand. He goes to Jesus earnestly trying to have a conversation with someone of deep wisdom about God. He’s trying to learn and grow in his own understanding of God’s presence. He’s got questions! In this way, we’re not so different.
As we are all on our Lenten journeys, walking with God, listening, praying, hoping, and yet also having eyes on the cross and the events of the passion to come, we’re not so dislike Nicodemus. We come to see. We come to know. We come and follow Christ’s own call, to “come and see that the Lord is good.”
So Nicodemus and Jesus have this long and perhaps deeply philosophical conversation. They talk about being born, and born from above. They talk about age. They talk about the wind and the spirit. And they even talk about the kingdom of God. As Jesus surmises, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The water we are washed in, in baptism, just as Mavick was a few moments ago.
The Spirit who through the Word enlivens that water, and through God’s work claims us, seals us, and calls us each beloved Child of God, once and for all. The Spirit who then fills us in our baptisms, guides us and leads us on our journeys and through our vocations of life. A Spirit or wind that isn’t always predictable, nor easy to follow. After all, as Jesus says, “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.”
Living in Nebraska now for more than three years has given me a greater appreciation for what this might mean. You all know what I mean. Lisa, Peter, and I, and all of you take our lives into our hands-on I-80 driving across the state, passing semis each day with our crazy cross-winds. The wind in our state can change direction at a moment’s notice. It’s not uncommon for the wind to blow in every direction in any given afternoon. It might be 70 or 80 degrees this time of the year one day with a strong wind out of the south, and snowing the next with a blizzard causing wind out of the north.
Perhaps this is an illustration of God at work? Jesus is unpacking these challenging notions for Nicodemus in a way that he’s trying to help him understand that God’s work and ways are so beyond our own comprehension sometimes. And when we try to understand and fit God into a box that we can grasp or be able to clearly explain to others, we’re bound to come up short. Part of being in relationship with God, is admitting there is a mystery here. In inviting us into this relationship, Jesus calls us to be open to the mystery. To wander and wonder. To again come and see, follow, and taste that the Lord is good. And point to God’s presence.
God’s Work and Promises for Us!
The story continues with Nicodemus’ confusion or frustration. They have some back and forth, and Jesus moves on to talking about ascending, descending, heaven, and the Son of Man. Getting to the point ultimately that, “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.” The point is becoming clearer here. As much as Nicodemus has been trying to understand, Jesus is trying to help Nicodemus see the big picture. That is, what God is really up to, and why it matters so deeply. Salvation is at hand. Life and death are at hand. God’s covenantal promises are being borne out. The promise of blessing that God gave to Abram has always had this at its climax. That the blessing and promise bestowed to Abraham was not a one time event, or a limited blessing to a few. No. It was a blessing to the generations. It was a blessing to be as numerous as the stars in the sky. It was a blessing bestowed to Abraham and all after him, to be blessing upon blessing. To be blessed so that all others might be too.
In this sense then, Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. And he is trying to make that clear to Nicodemus, well, at least in as clear a way as the Gospel of John is about anything.
Though Nicodemus doesn’t quite understand it, he is willing to listen. And this is not the last time that Nicodemus will show up in Jesus’ story. In a few chapters he will defend Jesus to his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, arguing that Jesus has a right to a hearing. And later in the story, on the other side of the crucifixion, Nicodemus will again show up bringing spices to assist Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’ burial. There’s an on-going relationship that forms here between this Pharisee and Jesus, one where in the long run it would seem would lead to Nicodemus being an early convert and disciple. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves and today’s story.
In this conversation in our story today between Jesus and Nicodemus, God is showing up. God in Christ is showing up to bring life and salvation. God is showing up offering the hope and promise of abundant, resurrection, and eternal life. Because this is what God has been about since the very beginning of creation. To restore and reconcile. To bring life out of death. To bring hope, peace, and light, out of brokenness, fear, and darkness. To say to a world which is both so broken and hurting, yet also beloved and blessed, that, “‘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.”
We know John 3:16 well, but friends, I would argue John 3:17 is even better and more important. God has come out of love, offering love for the world that God so dearly loves. God offers that hope, abundant, and eternal life. God does this not out condemnation or division. God does this not out of anxiety, fear, and exclusion. This isn’t something scarce. No. God does this with arms outstretched wide on a cross, for one and for all. It’s abundance. So that “the world might be saved through him.” Not condemned, but saved.
That’s pure grace and gift. That’s good news. And that is the heart of not only our Lenten story and our own story as Christians and Children of God, it’s why in fact we are disciples and stewards. To cling hold of this good news, and to share it widely because we can’t help but be freed in joy and gratitude through it and for it. And we can’t help but be moved that we want to share this Good News with all the world through all that we do and say as the stewards and disciples God has called, created, and sent us all to be.
Blessed to be a Blessing
This is where stewardship comes in. When God’s work and promises move us, we can’t help but give thanks and praise. God does all of this, the work to and through the cross, for us. We could never earn or deserve it, nor do it ourselves. But God offers it, and we give thanks and praise.
And when we do, we get swept up in joy and gratitude that we then live into God’s call to Abram to “be a blessing.” When we do, we are turned outward to the world and our neighbors, near and far. And we not only see our neighbors, we grow into relationship with them as God calls us into. Through us, and through these relationships then some of God’s work is done- in and for the world.
We too, like Father Abraham are blessed to be a blessing. That’s largely why God entrusts us with all that we have and all that we are. Like the psalmist reminds in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” Or put another way, all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s. Through this entrusting, God blesses us with the hope and means to live a full and abundant life taking hold of the life that really is life. But also through this, God calls us into meaningful work as stewards and disciples- to use what we have been entrusted with, to do some of God’s work in the world.
So think about it? Of all the things that God has entrusted to us, and it’s a long list, how might God’s work be being done through you?
If you want to count, go ahead, here’s a starting list, God entrusts you with: your health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; your time, talents, strengths, passions, ideas, dreams, questions like Nicodemus brings to Jesus today, and your stories of who you are and whose you are; God entrusts you with your treasure, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and all of creation that surrounds you and that we’re all a part of. All of this and so much more, God entrusts to our care. That’s quite a lot isn’t it. And God does this entrusting really, so that we might not only be a blessing to others, but that through us, they may feel and see God- God’s love, God’s presence, and God’s desire to be in relationship with them too. This is holy work we’re all called to as disciples and stewards. It matters. And most importantly, we do so together, never alone. We do so with God with us, with the Holy Spirit’s presence blowing through us and in us, and God’s promises and love holding us fast.
I don’t know about you, but this all seems extra real and important being the parent of an almost 2-year old. Our daughter Caroline is full of energy and wonder. She asks questions like Nicodemus, but then seems to grasp the big stuff way better than her pastor mom and deacon dad do sometimes. A couple months ago, she said her first complete sentence, “I’m gonna let it shine.” O man. Maybe she’s doomed being a pastor’s kid? Or maybe God is showing up through her? I think it might be a little of both. But it definitely means I’m glad I’m not alone in this and I’m grateful that all of us, aren’t alone as disciples and stewards.
You Are Bearers of Blessing
It’s important to remember that all of this life we live as stewards and disciples, isn’t just about us, alone. No, it’s about God working in, around, through, and for us.
We are each bearers of God’s blessings, not because of who we are, but because of whose we are- God’s beloved Children- called, claimed, sealed, gathered, and sent.
Friends, you are doing some of God’s work in the world here in Lexington, as God’s stewards and disciples here. For decades you have been meeting the needs of children through the work and ministry of Grace Preschool. You support the growth and development of youth and young adults through Camp Carol Joy Holling and Sullivan Hills.
You walk alongside your neighbors in supporting the ministry of Lutheran Family Services, and especially here in supporting the Welcome Center, welcoming your neighbors from near and far through the challenges of immigration alongside our serving arm partners from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. You continue to grow disciples through all of the education and faith formation activities and groups you provide. All of this is important discipleship and stewardship. And thank you for being part of it.
As your partner in ministry for stewardship, I also want to say an extra thank you, for your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that you share with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe and changes lives.
Through mission share, you help raise up new leaders of our church- new pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates, who walk with God’s people and remind them that God’s promises heard again today in John 3 are true. Through it, you help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them, in part through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry, and Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry. Through mission share, you help support all the great resources which are provided for you and your 240 partner congregations from Scottsbluff to Omaha, from Chadron to Falls City and everywhere in between- resources like Lisa can share about faith formation and me about stewardship, but also resources for congregations in transition and call processes. Through it, you too spread the Good News locally and globally through sending missionaries around the globe, and supporting new and renewing ministries at home here all across the Big Red States.
And through mission share, you see your neighbors in need, and come alongside them and walk with them. Through it, we are the church together in part through supporting the ministry of our many serving arm partners like Mosaic, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services and Lutheran Disaster Response, especially as we continue to walk with each other across this state a year after the devastating floods and blizzards. This is just a small taste of all that you do and that you are a part of as part of the Nebraska Synod and our church together.
If you hear nothing else from me today, please hear this- Thank you! Thank you for all that you do, and for responding to God’s call and work in all the ways that you do to share God’s love with the world.
Lisa and I will be back in your neck of the woods as part of the Nebraska Synod Road Show later this fall over in Eustis, and we hope to see you there. On these Road Show weekends where the staff of the synod gathers together in different areas of the synod to listen, teach, and be with the many ministry mission clusters, we have been pondering a question this year. That question is, “What’s next?”
In thinking about your ministry, about what God is up to, and what God might be calling you to next, I think it’s a great question. What might be next? Maybe that’s the question Nicodemus leaves with from his conversation with Jesus in today’s story? What’s next? What’s going to come from this Rabbi who is turning the world on its head? What’s to come in our walk with God in this new way?
We have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. The triumphant entry on a donkey to shouts of hosanna, the dinner in an upper room and being handed over, the trial and shouts of ‘crucify him,’ the cross, the tomb, and the wonderful morning of resurrection are all to come. That’s all God’s work. Done for you, and for me out of God’s deep and abundant love. Done so that the world might be saved. That’s good news indeed.
As we walk this Lenten journey, let us do so with hope. Let us do so assured of God’s promise and Christ’s presence with us. And let us do so, with new openness to the Spirit’s call and invitation, to the wind’s movement among and around us, and with a willing spirit not only to follow, but to answer Christ’s call to see our neighbor, to be in relationship with them and love them, no questions asked. To be the blessing of love, we have all been called and created to be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Citations and References:
 John 3:2, NRSV.
 John 3:5, NRSV.
 John 3:8, NRSV.
 John 3:15, NRSV.
 Genesis 12:1-4.
 Specifically in John 7:50-52, NRSV.
 As detailed in John 19:38-42, NRSV.
 John 3:16-17, NRSV.
 John 3:17, NRSV.
 Genesis 12:2, NRSV.
 The relationship with Abraham as repeated by Paul in Romans 4:13-16, NRSV.
 Psalm 24:1, NRSV.