Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “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. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. “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."
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Second Sunday in Lent (March 8, 2020) on John 3:1-17. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
One of skills I’ve never really developed is learning another language. And I consider that a problem because there are words in other languages that better describe certain experiences. For example, if you’ve ever dreamed up a comeback long after the other person has walked away and it’s no longer helpful - in German, that’s called, “Treppenwitz.” Or if you woke up this morning feeling completely unmotivated - in German, “Blaumachen.” The German language has a habit of having these kinds of great words that capture a moment in our life and I wish I could pronounce them correctly. Because there’s another German word that I first discovered two days ago that seems to fit our current moment here in Northern New Jersey as we face the reality of the coronavirus. And that “Hamsterkäufe” (Hams-ter-käu-fe).
“Hamsterkäufe” is literally a hamster with so much food in its mouth, its cheeks are bulging. But the word isn’t really about hamsters - it’s about people. It describes how, when faced with uncertainty, we try to soothe ourselves by buying more and more things. “Hamsterkäufe” is what happens when we use retail therapy to deal with the uncertainty of a pandemic. And this came to life for me two days ago when I went to Costco for my weekly shopping trip. At exactly 3 minutes after it opened, the store was in complete chaos. Gigantic lines snaked through the store, trying to buy bottles of water. And everyone grabbed anything that looked like it could be used as a disinfectant. People were buying anything they could to lower their fears - but I could tell that people didn’t really know what they should buy in the first place. We don’t really have a protocol or a default check-list of what to buy when facing an unknown virus. So instead, we default to what we do know: which is buying for a snowstorm or a hurricane. I wasn’t planning to buy any cleaning supplies on Friday but I found myself getting caught up in the moment and ended up a little “Hamsterkäufe” myself. When it comes to the coronavirus, there’s a lot we don’t know and that’s scary. It feels like we have to figure out, on the fly, how we make living through a pandemic part of our new normal.
Last week, I introduced our Lenten focus on learning how to tell your faith story. You, I truly believe, have a story worth telling but I know telling stories isn’t always easy. Over the next few weeks, we’re using Pixar’s storytelling process as a way to help tell our own story. We began last week by thinking about a moment when Jesus was real to us - and we set the stage for our story by finishing the sentence: Once upon a time there was . . . If you remember what you thought about last week, great. We’re going to build on that today. But if you need help, let’s use as an example our current coronavirus story. We should keep it personal - and so if I was sharing my story, I could begin with our worship committee working to make today’s worship safer for all of us. But I might want to start my story with what I saw at Costco. So my opening would be: Once upon a time there was. . . me - shopping on my weekly trip to Costco. That kind of start is simple, short, and introduces you to the person in the story that’s going to experience something. We might imagine that our faith story should start large and with something that seems important. But since it's our story, it’s okay to start with the person who’s going to experience Jesus in the first place.
So now that our storytelling has started, what’s next? Well - today’s sermon title can help. We can use the phrase, “And then…” or something like “And every day…” as a way to share with others what’s our everyday reality. For example, In my coronavirus story, I could make the next part read: “And then...I tried to do my usual thing of getting whole milk out of the cooler.” There’s nothing big about that statement. But it does point to a moment in my life that looks like a thousand other moments that I’ve had. And that, I think, is the point. Because when we tell our faith story - we’re not just talking about Jesus. We’re also revealing a bit about who we are - and how Jesus, somehow, changed our everyday way of being in the world.
And we see this conversation about a new normal in our reading today from the gospel according to John. In a very Pixar kind of way, the story basically began with: “Once upon a time there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus.” Now Nicodemus was a leader in his Jewish community. He had, over the years, devoted himself to the study of the gifts of God - which includes the Torah, the law - and how that describes a way of being in the world. Nicodemus took seriously God’s call to love his neighbors and we should assume, I think, that Nicodemus kept God involved in all the parts of his story. If we were telling his story the Pixar way, we might next the part read: “And every day Nicodemus kept close to the promises of God.” And I think that’s exactly who Nicodemus was because when he heard Jesus was nearby, Nicodemus went to see him. He recognized that Jesus’ actions were signs of what life with God was all about. And those signs already matched Nicodemus’ experience of leaning into the promises of God. But when Jesus started talking about being “born from above,” Nicodemus was thrown for a loop. Nicodemus had grown old and had lived a life full of God and God’s promises. Jesus’ words were not working to replace Nicodemus’ Jewish identity. Rather, Jesus was laying out a vision of another gift from God - one rooted in the relationship Jesus was choosing to have with Nicodemus. This part of the story ends a few verses after John 3:17 and we never hear Nicodemus’ response. Instead, as Jesus’ story plays out - Nicodemus sort of fades into the background. Yet his story continues to grow - and we see him two more times in John. In chapter 7, he is with a gathering of the Jewish Sanhedrin - a leadership council - reminding others that a person must be heard before being judged. And then, near the end of the story, he pops up in the middle of chapter 19, helping Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus a proper burial. There’s actually a lot of Nicodemus’ story that we don’t know. We have no idea what his thoughts were after he heard verse 3:17 nor do we get the reason why he came back to Jesus in chapter 19. But what we do see is how the promise of God never left Nicodemus and that his connection to Jesus didn’t fade even when they were apart. Instead, it took time for Nicodemus to discover the new everyday way of being in the world Jesus already gave to him the moment they first met.
The German word “Hamsterkäufe” is a good word for how we try to make peace when we’re facing uncertainty. But there’s another word - an English word - that we can turn to when we’re unsure of what comes next: and that’s loved. We are, through Jesus, loved. And the love Jesus gives is not a one-time thing. It’s a love designed to last, helping to carry us through the trials we’re going through. It's a love that is in the background, working on you even when you don’t know it's there. And it’s a love that will always be of your story. In the face of uncertainty, like the coronavirus, we’re not sure what our story will look like. But we do know that, through Christ, we already have God’s love as our new normal. Our call is to lean into “Hamsterkäufe” as a way to find peace. Rather, we’re invited to lean into that love that Jesus has already given us. Like Nicodemus, it might take years before we realize what this love has done for us. But when we do, we will discover how love is the sign of who God - and you - really are. So as you keep writing the faith story you’re going to share - take a moment to think about what’s next. Go ahead and finish this sentence: “And every day . . .”
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