March 12, 2017 2nd Sunday in Lent
Gen 12:1–4a Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 John 3:1–17
People really like rules. I know sometimes we say we don’t, but actually people are really good at making up rules for themselves and other people to live by. It’s not really a bad thing because it’s how we live together and get things done effectively. But sometimes rules can get sticky, especially when we deal with things that we aren’t sure of, like what happens after we die.
In the first century there were several schools of life, death, and life after death, and they all had their own rules. One school said that we are born, live, and die, but that we don’t live on in an afterlife. Instead, God rewards you if you are a good person in this life. You can see that this would be a huge motivation for someone to live a righteous life because it meant that you were going to have your reward during your life. However, even if someone lived a righteous life but they were unlucky and had their house burn down, or got a deadly disease, it meant that in reality they were a bad person because God must be punishing them.
Another school stipulated that there was an afterlife for really righteous people. If you kept as many of the Hebrew laws as you could, didn’t commit any horrible sins, and followed the rituals of sacrifice for whatever sins you committed, then you would go and live with God and the prophets in heaven. The problem was no one could really decide when good enough was good enough. I can imagine that the Pharisees, who were some of the main followers of this philosophy, must have been very stressed at times trying to get everything right and never knowing if it was right enough. And most poor people couldn’t follow all the rules perfectly – so where did that leave them?
Yet another school said that if you were a good person and you really tried to do the best you could, that when you died your soul would sort hang out in a stasis mode, and when God remade the world into a more perfect place, then you would be reborn and live again. This was more inclusive but a bit discouraging because no one knew when the world was going to be remade.
The debate was raging in the 1st century: Is there life after death, and if there is – what are the qualifications to get to it, and how does it happen?
Then in the middle of all of this comes Jesus and starts to preach about God’s Kingdom and our connection to God. After a while the religious authorities start hearing about him, and I am sure that Nicodemus might have been sent to check out Jesus and his theology. It’s interesting that Nicodemus kind of eases himself into the conversation 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.”
But Jesus just cuts to the chase and right away talks about being born again. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Jesus is definitely in the rebirth camp – but he’s quantifying it as being born from above, so that the presence of God is involved. And although Nicodemus tries to qualify being born as only happening as a flesh and blood event, Jesus puts the rebirth of the spirit as a pre-requisite for participating in the kingdom of God. “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.”
Jesus is putting in a new step into the process of a person being able to participate in heaven, the event of having their Spirit being reborn. And he connects the process to believing and accepting the Messiah: 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.
This pretty radical if you consider that all the other philosophies centered on people obeying the Hebrew Laws for the soul to have eternal life. Jesus is saying that it is the conscious waking of the person’s soul into the awareness of their condition with God that is the beginning of their new life into eternity.
Jesus put an emphasis on this awakening for the same reason that the traditionalists put their emphasis on following the Hebrew Laws: The fact that we are separated from God and that somehow we must repair that relationship and get back to a fuller relationship with God. The traditionalists felt that if we could only act correctly then we would be rewarded by God, and maintain our connection to Him, maybe to the point of obtaining eternal life. But Jesus says that we connect to God by becoming aware of our own soul that resides in God’s Spirit. Following the Law helps as a road map, but to travel the road to eternal life you need to be aware of your soul’s relationship to God. Once you have your relationship with God you begin to step into eternal life.
The problem main problem with our soul connection to God is that it can be broken. But what does brokenness mean? If I take a pencil and break it in half, or I break a dish or a glass, I separate different parts of it from each other so that it is no longer whole and functioning.
And our spirit, or our souls, can be broken or separated from God in many ways.
First of all we live in a material existence and it’s sometimes really hard to break out of the material and be aware of the spiritual of any situation that we are in. We are after all flesh and blood beings subject to the demands of our bodies. Often tiredness, for example, makes us short tempered and we say or do things that are hurtful to others. Or perhaps our tiredness is created by us pushing ourselves too hard and causing us to get sick in the process.
But often our physical being is tied to our emotions. We desire to feel good and avoid pain both physically and mentally. When we have been hurt it isn’t unusual for us to want to spend money, or do something that will make us feel good. But if we hurt ourselves or others instead of nurturing ourselves and others, or cause or participate in destruction rather than building up and renewal, then we have to live with the pain of knowing that we have caused heartache to others.
The brokenness of a person’s soul is often not a complete break, but many of us walk around with gaps or slashes in our souls of past hurts done to us, or guilt of pain that we have caused others. How do we mend those broken pieces or tears so that we feel repaired and we can get back into a healthier relationship with ourselves and God?
Well, first of all recognize that you ARE in a relationship with God. You might feel that you have a couple of pieces missing in your soul, but your soul, battered though it is, is still in that relationship with the divine. Look, if I get mad at my friend we are still in a relationship. It might be off the rails, we might need repair, but we are still in a relationship, and we can still affect repairs. It’s the same with God.
There is nothing wrong with going to God and saying: Excuse me Jesus, but I have a really nasty gash in my soul that needs repairing. This is what has happened and I need some soul repairing. Please show me how I can be repaired and help me through this. I am giving all my pain up to you so that you can help me heal and I can feel whole again.
Praying and giving your soul’s pain to God is the first step to repair. The second step is listening to what He tells you to do and then doing it. I remember personally carrying around a lot of resentment about my Japanese husband when our marriage fell apart. I couldn’t think about him without resentment, which didn’t help because we had two kids so we had to communicate. Finally, I decided that I needed to repair this nasty part of my soul. I prayed about it and the message I got, from various points of the universe, was that I had to forgive him. I didn’t want to do that, but the next Sunday I went to church and the scripture was the one that says you have to forgive someone seven times seventy times, or 490 times. (Ouch! Talk about God wacking you right between the eyes.) I bit the bullet and wrote down 49 times all the things that I was willing to forgive him for. Do you know what? I forgave him and all the resentment went away.
I’ve got other injuries that I’m working on but at least that part is mended. Is my soul completely mended and functioning? Nope, but I know that I’m connected to God, and working on being aware of God and what He’s doing in my life.
And that’s all Jesus and God really require us to do – work on our souls with them. They know that we are not perfect, they know that our souls have pieces of pain, frustration, and agony. But Jesus came here to help us mend all that. And as we work on the mending we will keep on with the process of being born into a new life. A life that’s eternal because it is always connected with God.
So give to God and Jesus the brokenness of your Spirit and let them work in you their Holy Spirit of Grace. Let them work in you, and show you, how you can touch eternity.