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Worship Theme: The Savior in conflict with unbelief

Sermon Theme: This Is Why I’m a Christian

A 2018-19 national survey found that sixty-five percent of American adults describe themselves as Christians, down twelve points over the previous decade. Meanwhile, those who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “none” are at twenty-six percent, up from seventeen percent from a decade ago. “So what?” I muttered under my breath. “Tough luck to them.” But you know what? That was me being selfish. If we believe that there’s only one way to be connected with God and that our eternal destiny is at stake, then being a Christian matters, and somehow, some way, someday, I’m going to be asked, and so will you, “Why are you a Christian?” Today’s Gospel account from John’s Gospel chapter three lays out the answer: “this is why I’m a Christian.”

 I look to God’s uplifted Son

“Rumors have been flying like T-shirts from a cannon at a Bucks game. This Jesus from that backwoods village up north is not a run-of-the-mill rabbi. One of our Pharisee friends got an invitation to a wedding in a town near Nazareth. He told us that this Jesus changed water to wine, and I heard it was a pretty good vintage. Now he has come here to Jerusalem and disrupted our economy, purging the temple courts of the money lenders and sacrifice vendors. I’ve just got to check him out.” Did Nicodemus whisper those words to a buddy or merely mull them in his mind? He was a prominent leader among the Israelites, a member of the elitist Pharisee group. “Could this Jesus be the Messiah? Will he be the one to set up a Messianic kingdom? And if he is the one to do that, how can I get in on the excitement and fun?” Either out of curiosity or to fill some inner emptiness, Nicodemus tip-toed down a dark alley late at night, knocked on the back door of a house where Jesus was staying, got invited in, and sat at the kitchen table with this son of a carpenter.

To answer Nicodemus’ questions about the Messiah and a Messianic kingdom, Jesus winged him back to an event that took place one thousand four hundred forty years earlier. Nicodemus’ ancestors were being led by God through the wilderness to the land of promise. Study the story, and you will see the pity-party pattern. “We don’t like it here. There’s not enough food. There’s not enough water. We’d rather die in slavery in Egypt than die of thirst in this desert!” Finally, God had it up to here. He pulled his cloud off to the side of the road and said, “OK! That’s enough!” and sent poisonous snakes into their tents, under the tables, around the chairs, in their sleeping bags. Yuck! People got bit and started dropping like flies. They came crawling on their knees, “Moses! Moses! Ask God to spare us!” Moses prayed. God answered, “Make a fake snake. Put it on a pole. Those who look at the bronze snake will be healed.” It worked!

You and I know that the bronze snake itself had no power. God could have said, “Look at a cactus, and be healed” or “Stand on your head for three hours, and be healed” or “Run around in circles, and be healed.” If he said any one of those things, it would have worked. But he didn’t. He said, “Make a fake snake, look at it, and be healed.” The point is this. Whatever God says will help, will help! God’s rescue efforts work!

That’s the point Jesus pressed on Nicodemus’ heart, “The real problem people have is not the venom of snakes but the venom of sin. The Israelites of old were infected with it. Nicodemus, you have been infected with it. So has everyone else who has ever or who will ever live. You can search in your medicine cabinet, call your pharmacist, or go to the trauma center. There is no cure unless God gives one. But I have news you need to hear. The cure is God’s own Son who has come down from heaven and hidden himself in human form. Nicodemus, that is I. Just like the bronze snake in the wilderness, I, too, will be lifted up on a pole. The Son of Man must be lifted up.” Why “must”? What’s the necessity? So that whoever believes in him shall not perish. There’s no other way. There’s no other cure. The Founder of the universe took a look at this broken, dying, poisoned world and did something to change our situation. He didn’t have to. He had plenty of reasons to summon the world into his courtroom and sentence the lot to eternal banishment from his presence. But God loved the world so much and in this way that he sent his unique and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

There are lots of people who long for a cure for COVID or heart disease or cancer and would be willing to pay big bucks to get it. They’ll go to great lengths to get a cure because without it they’d be ill, dying, or dead, ending up separate from friends and family and kids and fun. But far worse would be separation from God. Why am I a Christian? Why are you? Because God’s Son was lifted up on the pole of the cross so we won’t be separated from God.

I lean on God’s unlimited love

Jacob had been all into himself, living by his wits, relying on his cunning to trip people up and get his way. He alienated his brother so much that he had to run for his life. God spent twenty years training him in the school of hard knocks. On the eve of returning home and meeting his brother, Jacob was shaking in his boots. In one of the most startling almost bazaar Bible accounts, God appeared to Jacob and engaged him in an all-star wrestling match. At the end God gave him reminders, “Don’t lean on yourself. Lean on me” by changing his name from “Trickster” (Jacob) to “He-wrestles-with-God” (Israel) and by throwing his hip out of joint so that with every limping step he got a reminder, “I need to lean on God.”

Of course, you and I don’t need to learn that, right? We’re good on our own. We’re part of the all-American, rugged individualist culture. “Pull yourself up by the boot straps.” “Suck it up!” “Big boys and girls don’t cry!” But what if we’re hurting or scared? What if we drop the “I’ve-got-my-act-together” and come face to face with our insecurities? What then?

“Nicodemus, pay attention!” said Jesus. “I did not say that God loves some people or that God loves people some of the time. No! Listen now! God loved the world. God’s love is perfect in quality and quantity. So, Nicodemus, when you are scared, and when you are worried about your relationship with God, lean on God’s unlimited love. It is meant for the whole world, and that includes you. You may see changes and disruptions in your life, but God’s love remains constant.”

I’m glad that winter is almost over. I’m always afraid that someone will slip on the ice and break a hip. Then it’s off to rehab for learning to walk with a walker. Imagine going to a physical therapist who gives you a walker made out of Kleenex! You’d be in big trouble. You’d much rather have something strong and firm to lean on. In the same way, don’t try to lean on the paper of your reputation or the straw of your own character to become special to God. Why am I a Christian? Why are you? Because when we are down or worried or hurting or scared, we don’t lean on who we are and what we have done. We lean on God’s unlimited love.

I live according to God’s unveiled truth

What if you lived near a neighborhood restaurant, and every day on your evening walk you saw the owner of the restaurant eating at another restaurant across the street. What would that owner’s choice tell you? How about, “Don’t eat at my restaurant; the food across the street is better.” People are watching us. They see how we act. They hear how we talk. They see our priorities in the things we buy. They see how we treat them and others. They know the company we keep. We are walking billboards. Does your advertisement make people think, “I’m going to another religion across the street,” or does it say, “Come, and see my Jesus”?

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was supposed to be extra bright in spiritual matters. But he had been in a dark fog when it came to his relationship with God. Jesus turned on the light. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done through God.” No wonder many Pharisees hated Jesus. He exposed their sinfulness and selfishness. Jesus looked them straight in the eye and said, “You are sinners. You need me, or you will burn in hell.” But for Nicodemus and others who trembled at the prospect of God’s anger, there was good news. Jesus shed light on the truth of how to get in with and live with God, and Nicodemus was never the same because of it. No more sneaking down back alleys in the dark, embarrassed to be connected to Jesus. Together with Joseph of Arimathea he helped in the burial process after Jesus died. He was willing to risk all, his position, his reputation, his life to live in line with God’s unveiled truth.

Why am I a Christian? Why are you? Because we are billboards, because of the “nones” in my neighborhood and family and yours, because of the five point one billion on this planet who may not yet know how much they need Jesus and how great is the love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1).

 Ashamed of Jesus? Yes, I may When I’ve no sins to wash away,

No tear to wipe, no good to crave, No fear to quell, no soul to save.

Till then – nor is my boasting vain – Till then I boast a Savior slain;

And oh, may this my glory be: That Christ is not ashamed of me. (CW 347:4,5)

This is why I’m a Christian. Amen.

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