Sermon: Is Jesus an American?

03.12.2017     Preaching Text: “[No] one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3)

The stories of Abram and Nicodemus have something in common. Both involve change as each is invited to embark upon an entirely new life.

Both stories, of course, could be read woodenly. In Abram’s case, he leaves his settled life in Ur and moves to a new land. That alone is something. It takes courage to move from one place to another without any real certainly about where one is headed.

Such a story, in and of itself, is inspiring and might serve to encourage others to make a similar life-change. Self-help books might devote whole chapters to this sort of thing, recommending decisive, forward-thinking action.

But there’s something else at work here. And it has to do with God. God is the reason Abram chooses to leave.

It may surprise you to learn that this simple, seemingly unassuming passage is one of the major turning points in the entire Bible. After the Fall (last week’s Old Testament reading), Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise, from the Garden of Eden.

Their sin is that they fall prey to the serpent’s tantalizing offer to become Gods themselves. No longer will they have to live in a world where their Creator guides and directs all things. To their surprise, however, this simple act produces unintended consequences. Just as suddenly they are cast out of the Garden into a now-fallen world, managed not by God but by human beings playing God.

This sort of self-centeredness, this attempt to impose one’s self-will over God’s creation, is ruinous. Immediately Cain slays his brother, Abel. Innocence is lost and sin abounds amid a once perfect world.

As a result, God despairs of the human beings God has created. Seeing the inhumanity and suffering caused by the misuse of human will, God sends the Flood, allowing the primordial waters of chaos to return and cover the entire earth. Only Noah and the two-of-a-kind animals on the Ark survive. The idea is that after the Flood God will begin again.

Yet before this new start happens, just after the Flood recedes, Jahweh makes a covenant with Noah to never again bring about such a calamity. God has devised an alternate plan instead: to call certain human beings to serve as agents of God’s cosmic plan to reunite all of life back unto its Creator.

This begins what scholars call “salvation history.” Here God chooses to become actively involved in human history in order to bring about a restoration of what was lost in the Garden of Eden.

So God begins with Abram, later to be renamed Abraham. Through this one individual, at the direction of Jahweh, a new nation (Israel) shall rise, its sole purpose to announce God’s promise to reverse sin, that is, to eliminate our separation from God.

Of course, Christianity is premised on the belief that in Jesus Christ this reconciliation is almost complete, himself the fulfillment of what was begun in Abraham.

Fast-forwarding to Nicodemus, we see the implications of this Christ-centered reconciliation up close and personal.

To repeat, without intimate connection to, and unity with, our Creator, history necessarily devolves, replete with brokenness, suffering, and death. Thus Jesus Christ offers an entirely new way of life, one echoing the now-lost, Edenic past.

The biblical argument is that God’s ways, spiritual and bright, have been lost in the same way we might lose touch with a lost love. Now relationally distant from our beloved, we are destined to live in separate worlds, our everyday experience of the beloved necessarily having grown distant and cold.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “[No] one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” This is variously referred in the Bible as being “born again” or being “born anew.”

Simply put, this means that the ways of God, the ways regnant of lost love reappear, offered as pure gift. This new life only feels new because it’s been lost to us for so very long.

But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. And neither do we, if we really stop and think about it. After all, we’re generally quite content with the worlds we’ve carved out for ourselves. Why change?

The season of Lent, however, as I’ve been saying, is by its very nature aspirational. It’s not intended to be punitive or condemnatory. It is instead an invitation, Christ’s invitation, to a better way of life, one more fully consonant with God’s long, lost ways.

The pain it produces, in point of fact, is only the pain of letting go of spiritually unhealthy, maladaptive attitudes and behaviors.

Giving up drinking, for example, is hard, and painful. But the reason people join AA is not to punish themselves (or give God the chance to punish them). Rather, the idea is to give up something maladaptive, something that prevents them from living a healthier and more joyous life. The goal is, again, aspirational.

I was talking this past week at a clergy meeting with one of the pastors who just returned from a Habitat for Humanity build in the Dominican Republic. Having been there myself on two similar mission trips, we compared notes.

I talked about how being a Christian there is a study in contrasts with respect to the surrounding culture. Being a Christian, in other words, denotes specific attitudes and behaviors distinct from the culture’s.

Yet in this country, the difference between the sacred and the secular is oft-times fuzzy. After a century-and-a-half of Judeo-Christian influence and that of Western Civilization, an intermingling of Christianity and the culture is pretty much standard fare.

In contrast, the divide between the sacred and the secular in the former Soviet Union was clear, almost black-and-white. In the America in which I grew up, it was close to being altogether indistinct, perhaps even gray, so intertwined was the church and the culture.

This is the basic premise of Tony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture, the book we’re studying in our new Wednesday evening adult education class.

For too long, he argues, Americans assumed there was no real difference between American culture and the gospel. Jesus was, at the very least, certainly approving of our culture. You could almost say he was an American!

But since American culture, beginning in the mid-1960s, has moved away markedly from the old Mainline Protestant establishment consensus that defined American culture since its inception, the church now finds itself rejected by that same culture, though it has been slow to recognize the change. In some sense, we still think contemporary culture honors Jesus and his works.

Of course, in some ways it does. Yet in significant ways it does not, and in some cases never did. As such, we may actually find ourselves playing the role of being modern-day Nicodemuses.

In other words, we fail to see a different or better reality, one more consonant with the ways of God. We live in denial, and content ourselves with something less than what God wishes for us, content with that which only appears to pass as Christian.

In short, God has a plan for our lives, one that promises a higher, nobler, more spiritual existence. Lent is the perfect time to shed the superficially contented, yet absent-mindedly dissatisfied life of a Nicodemus in exchange for the richer, “new” life born of Jesus Christ. Amen.