Monday, March 17, 2014

Like it or Not

John 3:1-17, Lent 2 A, March 16, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Here is a story from David Lose: 
Tom's six year-old son Benjamin protested his bedtime. Frustrated by his father's refusal to budge, Benjamin finally became so frustrated that he said, "Daddy, I hate you!" Tom…replied, "I'm sorry you feel that way, Ben, but I love you."
To which Benjamin replied, "Don't say that!" Surprised, Tom continued, "Ben, but it's true -- I love you." "Don't say that, Daddy." "But I love you, Ben." "Stop saying that, Daddy! Stop saying it right now!" And then it came: "Benjamin, now listen to me: I love it or not!”
Even at six years old, you see, Benjamin realized that in the face of unconditional love he was powerless. If Tom had been willing to negotiate -- "I'll love you if you go to bed nicely" -- then Benjamin would be a player: "Okay, this time, but I'm not eating my vegetables at dinner tomorrow." But once Tom refused to negotiate, refused to make his love for his son conditional on something Benjamin did, then Ben couldn't do anything but accept or flee that love.

We often desperately want this power over our lives, to determine who loves us and who doesn’t. We yearn for control in our lives, but the control isn’t in our hands. God’s love for us isn’t conditional. Consider Abram, for example. 
Abram is a regular guy in Genesis. He owns some land and has a sizable household. He is married to Sarai. They are good people, but they aren’t exceptional. They don’t go out of their way to be faithful. So, when the Lord suddenly talks directly to Abram, we know that something marvelous is going to happen. 
The Lord tells Abram to leave everything and everyone he knows. He is to leave the land that he inherited from his father and blindly go wherever the Lord is sending him. The Lord promises to bless him and his family so that they will become a great nation - even though Abram and Sarai have no children yet. Their family will have generations to come, and those generations will be blessed. 
All of these blessings that The Lord shares with Abram are not conditional. The Lord doesn’t say, “If you follow my commandments, I will bless you.” Nor does the Lord say, “Because you are an excellent believer, I will bless you.” No, there is nothing conditional about this. Abram did not earn this blessing in any way. The Lord chose Abram, like it or not. 
Then Abram did as the Lord told him. He packed up all of his household, his livestock, and his stuff. He sold his land and abandoned his previous life. He, Sarai, and his household went off into the sunset not knowing where they would end up. They started a faithful adventure that day.

Nicodemus, from our gospel lesson today, went on a very different faith adventure. Unlike his peers, he thought that Jesus had an important message, and he wanted to tell Jesus that to his face. Under the dark cover of night, Nicodemus approached Jesus. He told Jesus that he must be from God because nobody else could do the things that Jesus did. Jesus pushed Nicodemus a little further by cryptically responding, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is confused and thinks that Jesus is talking about a literal birth, which is a little outrageous to think of. So Jesus has to clarify that this is a baptism of water and Spirit, not a literal physical birth. Then he cryptically 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.” Jesus often speaks in cryptic language like this, explaining the complexities of the world in ways that only further complicate the situation. 
Yet, then Jesus concludes in quite basic language, “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.” In these words, Jesus shows that God loves Nicodemus unconditionally, like it or not. 
Nicodemus must take this to heart because later on in the gospel of John, he shows up again, defending Jesus to his own people in chapter 7 and bringing myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial in chapter 19. Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ love and returned the love in beautiful ways.
Just like Abram and Nicodemus, God loves us unconditionally. This love may make us feel awkward and uncomfortable. We might even want to shout out, "Stop saying that, God! Stop saying that right now!"

David Lose concludes his story: If God makes God's great love for the world and us conditional, then we, suddenly, have tremendous power. We can negotiate. We can threaten to reject God's love. We can even tell God to take a hike if we don't care for God's terms. But when God just loves us -- completely and unconditionally -- and when God just goes and dies for us, well then the jig is up, there's just nothing we can do to influence God.

In the story we heard from David Lose, Tom the father approaches Ben his son and says, “I love you…like it or not!” So also, in so many ways, God comes to us through scripture and through our lives and says, “I love the whole world…like it or not!” Indeed, God has already saved us through Jesus dying and being resurrected. 
Whether we like it or not, our God loves us and will never abandon us. No matter whether we respond at all, God will continue to forgive us our sins and encourage us along the way. Maybe we can even follow the Spirit as it blows like the wind. Amen.

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