If You Can Get Past the Special Effects, It’s Just Another Call Story (Isaiah 6:1-8)

You probably know the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.”  It’s emotive melody and lyrics adapted from Isaiah 6 make it an ideal song for reflecting on God’s call in our life.

Who will bear my light to them?

Whom shall I send?  Here I am Lord.

Is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go Lord, if you lead me, I will hold your people in my heart.

The idea of being called and sent is centered on one line, “Whom shall I send?  Here I am Lord.”  Those words, as we heard a moment ago, come from the prophet Isaiah.  In one of the most dramatic call scenes of the entire Bible, the 6th chapter tells the story of how Isaiah came to understand his role as a prophet.  Isaiah shares an intensely personal experience which is difficult to describe. Instead, it’s Isaiah’s story to tell and ours to try and understand.  If these verses sound like science fiction or fantasy, you’d be right.  Isaiah is trying to describe a vision.  Visions, in the Bible, aren’t bound by the rules of reality.

The chapter begins with a frame of reference. Isaiah wants to tell us when his vision happened.  It was when King Uzziah died, and his son Jotham inherited the throne.  You all know when King Uzziah died, don’t you?  This is Isaiah’s way of saying, “it was just after JFK was shot and Johnson became president.”  The reign of the king is a frame of reference everyone knew.  In this case, he’s telling us around 750 BC.

Seven hundred and fifty years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah experienced a vision of God sitting on a throne in heaven.  Like lots of these visions, at one instant he is observing events and then all of a sudden, he’s part of the action.  That’s how these prophetic visions flow.  Isaiah’s understanding of God is rooted in the image of a king.  God’s palace in heaven is depicted as the most opulent home on Earth to an exponential level.

The Lord is seated on a throne.  His robe is so immense that it fills the temple.  Heavenly creatures with six wings each, angel-like beings, are flying overhead.  There is no space which is not occupied by God.  Because they’re in the presence of God, their feet and heads are veiled.  Not only are they flying, but these winged beasts are also shouting:  “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!”  Their roar is so fierce that the whole building shakes and smoke billows from all directions.

Isaiah realizes he’s seeing things no mortal has ever witnessed.  This is more than a glimpse of heaven.  He is experiencing a vision of God’s totality.  This is overwhelming beyond description. His reaction is simple, “this is too much.  I am not able to comprehend everything I’ve been seen.  I am too messed up to be standing in the presence of something so holy.”  Isaiah defines this apprehension as “sin.”  Sin doesn’t mean he’s an evil person.  Instead, he is acknowledging his humanity.  Question:  what does God want us to do in the first place?  God wants us to be who God created us to be.  God knows us inside and out.  Isaiah is in a place where he can be (or start to realize) the best version of himself, the whole person God created.  God wants you to be you, not as you compare yourself to others or your circumstances.  We are called to be the person God formed us to be.  Isaiah is finally becoming Isaiah.  When we take steps toward fully becoming the people God created us to be, we’re then in a place to partner with God and live in conjunction with God’s will like never before.

Here’s where it gets really strange. As if seeing God on his throne isn’t enough; one of the winged creatures approaches and speaks to Isaiah.  It’s one thing to behold this grand vision of heaven.  It’s another thing to be drawn into a conversation with a heavenly being.  Doesn’t it raise all sorts of questions?  What language did they speak?

The heavenly being responds to Isaiah’s concerns.  Before Isaiah goes any further, the story tells us, God makes an effort to reassure Isaiah.  His spiritual, emotional, and mental health are as important to God as the grand displays of smoke and opulence. The angel takes a lump of hot coal and symbolically touches it to Isaiah’s lips.  Remember, everything is symbolic.   This is still a vision, a representation of something beyond reality.  The angel says, “See, this has touched your lips.  Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”  My question is this:  was it ever there in the first place?  Like many of us, does Isaiah carry baggage; weight we inherited, trauma passed down, bags we choose, and accept that whatever’s in our hands must be our sin and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Who knows?

Isaiah’s liberation from what he thought prevented him from serving God occurs in an instance.  He is still Isaiah.  What changed, because of the creature’s actions, was his perspective.  Sin wasn’t a permanent obstacle to serving God.  If that were true, the church could close up shop, and we’d all go home.   Isaiah needed to hear that guilt isn’t something which permanently defines us.  The angel helped him make a choice:  life or sin.

Remember, Isaiah is much more than a passive observer.  Isaiah is not watching God’s grand design unfold.  He is an active participant in his own redemption story.   Are we?  That is the Good News, the Gospel on display in this chapter.  Why do I say this?  Listen to the Lord’s question.  It takes us back to the beginning of the message.  This is the first time the Lord speaks directly.  “Whom should I send and who will go for us?”  That’s when Isaiah steps up to the plate.  He wants in the game he wants to be part and parcel of God’s ongoing love story with humanity.  What does he say?  “I am here, send me.”

Put me in the game, coach.  I will go, speak, and do what you need me to do and where you want me to go.  There’s no need for an elaborate monologue, it’s merely “Yes God, It’s me, I’ll do it.”  Why can he respond so quickly and effectively?  What’s the difference between verse 8 and verse 1?  It’s our baggage, guilt, and sin.  What he thought he couldn’t bear, the load too heavy to lug any further, through one gesture, Isaiah realized he might be his own worst enemy.  He also saw that God was providing help, freedom, and perspective he never considered.  Does that sound like anyone you know?

I think it reminds me of each of us.  We’re all carrying around more sin than we should.  It is as if we haul so much guilt about we buy luggage just for malformed spiritual lives.  Much of it is baggage we choose to lug through our lives.  When God shows up on the scene, we’re blown away.  How could God be with us in such a place as this?  Doesn’t God know what we carry and who we are?  Yes, and with the touch of a finger and being told “it’s going to be OK,” we can make the same transition as Isaiah.  We can go from gawking observers to participants in the Good News.  Will we listen?  Are you on the lookout for God’s presence?  I hope so; because your “here I am moment” is closer than you realize.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Do You Remember The Time Jesus Said No To Helping A Bunch of Drunks? (Sort of) John 2:1-11

What’s the one commonality between most (if not all) superheroes?  They can’t say no.  If someone is in danger, the superhero doesn’t have a choice about responding.  It’s part of the “superhero code.”  Let’s take Superman, for instance.  When Superman sees a plane full of people about to crash, with its engines on fire, spiraling toward the ground; he doesn’t look skyward and debate the ethics of saving each individual life.  Superman doesn’t do a cost-benefit analysis weighing the economic risks to the airline, the families impacted by the loss of a primary breadwinner and possible property damage on the ground.  No, he does none of those things.  If Superman did do them, they would be done so fast that none of us would notice.  Remember, he’s Superman.  Superman doesn’t do risk assessments.  When he sees a need, what does he do?  Clark Kent finds a phone booth (or other suitable location) and changes from his mild-mannered alter-ego into Superman.  This usually happens in the blink of an eye.  He doesn’t ask questions about who is on the plane, are they behind on their taxes, is the airline good to the employees, or is on time record into Chicago on par with Delta or American?  Clark, or should I say, Superman, doesn’t care.   In our hypothetical Superman scenario, the plane and everyone onboard is saved.  To Superman, it doesn’t matter who they are but “that” they are.  That they were human beings, people, and lives in peril and unable to save themselves; this is what mattered most.

The critical thing to remember is this:  Superman always says yes.  There is nothing too mundane or ordinary for a superhero.

This is what bothers me about the story of Jesus and his disciples attending the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. I’ve been thinking about this all week.  It is a wedding reception.  It’s nothing to write home about.  We’ve all been to receptions.  Some are fancy some are on a budget. No matter how much money you spend on a wedding reception, it’s still a wedding reception.  As civilization goes, they are ordinary affairs.   Yet, Jesus, the superhero of our story, refuses to get involved.  Do you realize how rare it is for Jesus to turn down getting involved in anything, mundane or not?  It never happens.  It would be like Superman walking away from a kitten stuck in a tree.

We know Jesus eventually comes around and decides to get involved.  Nonetheless, his reluctance and the reasoning behind it run through the entirety of this story.  Why was Jesus so reluctant to save a wedding?  Doesn’t it seem like a wedding he didn’t really want to attend in the first place? I picture their conversation in the run-up to the wedding went something like this:

Mary:  You know she’s getting married next week.

Jesus:  I haven’t seen her since middle school.

Mary:  Her husband is really nice.  He has a boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus: Who doesn’t have a boat?  Simon Peter has a skiff.

Mary:  Peter. Is he your new little friend?  You can bring him and the others.

Jesus:  Mom, he prefers to be called Simon.

John is the only one who tells this story.  So it’s unique.  His mother is there, probably helping with the wedding.  There might be other family members there.  John tells us Jesus was invited.  He is not a wedding crashing, a moocher, or any form of an uninvited guest.  The disciples are also present.  Their invitation seems to be included under Jesus’.  I think this is important and we’ll come back to it in a moment.  They are not caterers.  They are official guests of the wedding party.

The action moves very quickly.  As with the crisis in a comic book or graphic novel, something has gone wrong.  The wine “gave out.”  Wine drinkers “give out.”  Wine goes dry because the drinkers pour it out.  I never cease to be amazed by the vagaries of translation.  Whatever will we do?  Will Jesus rip off his glasses and duck into a phone booth?  No, he most certainly will not.  The wine drinking mooches need to be taught a lesson.  Jesus refuses to help.

This was his first response.   Two people do not say no, Jesus and Superman.  Its part of the deal, when you wear the sandals or the long red cape, you say “yes.”  I think this bothers me so much because I know some of the other situations Jesus said “yes” too.  There was a woman, caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned to death.  He said, “Yes” to this very messy and awkward situation.  He’s healed every blind man between here and Jericho.  Yet the overindulgence of wedding guests and empty wine vats is not something worth Jesus’ time.  It bothers me.

Jesus has a reason.  While this may look and sound arbitrary, it’s not.  Jesus tells his mother, “Woman, what concern is this to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  He comes right out and says.  Is this really any of our business?  We didn’t drink the wine dry.  It’s not our party.  Then the second half of verse four takes his reason up a notch.  “My hour has not yet come,” says Jesus.  What does that mean?

Is he saying, “I don’t officially go on the clock as Jesus until next Tuesday, so I can’t do any miracles until then.”?  No.  Jesus doesn’t have an on/off switch.  There is never a time when Jesus is not Jesus.  The word “hour” is a little bit of a clue.  That’s the same word Jesus uses when he’s praying in the garden of Gethsemane.

I hear in Jesus’ reluctance a bit of what Jesus says on the night before his crucifixion.  Jesus says, “May this cup pass from me.”  In other words, “Does this have to be my time?” Here Jesus looks at the emptied vats and says, “Is this really my time?” In both moments, Jesus is overwhelmed.  I know what that feels like.  We all do.  It’s comforting to me to know that Jesus feels swamped and sometimes even he doesn’t seem to know where to start.

How does Jesus move beyond this impasse?  What changes his mind?  Is it the guilty looks from his mother?  I think he realizes something we see time and time again in the text:  miracles do not happen in isolation.  It takes a community to make a miracle a reality.  Whether you’re feeding 5000 people or turning water into wine, it’s never a one person job.  We need a community to make miracles come to life.  We do not build the kingdom of God by ourselves.  Superman works alone.  Jesus always reaches out to others.  Look at how the rest of the story unfolds.

The people who he grabs, those who are in his line of sight, become part of the miracle.  There is his mother, a coterie of servants, the chief steward, the groom, and I’m confident the disciples were involved.  Probably 20 people and that’s a rough estimate, helped make this miracle happen.  Here’s the point I want you to remember:  the body of Christ is intimately involved in the miracles that Jesus performs.   This is true in the 1st century, and it’s true today.

What we need to ensure that we’re keeping the path clear and doing everything we can to facilitate miracles both big and small.  As this story shows, it is always a good time to be involved with a miracle.  There is some way for us to plug into the larger plan which Jesus is doing.  We must heed Mary’s words, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Jesus will give us something to do.  We get to be the miracle.  We help make the miracles.  To me, that’s more amazing than turning water into wine.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Who Wants To Sit At The Head Table? (Mark 10:35-45)

Does anyone still eat together?  We (I mean my family)try to.  Who do you eat with when you eat together as a family?  Remember, I’m talking about times other than Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.  It could be a Tuesday or a Thursday.  Who is there around the table?   Do you have a favorite place to sit when it comes to such dinner times?  Are you always across from somebody?  Maybe you’re to someone’s left?  Or do you get shoved to a table in the other room?  Did your place just become your place because that’s where you were told, a long time ago, to “sit there”?

From where you’re sitting things have always been a little different.  By the time the butter for the potatoes gets passed to you, it’s all but gone.   Salt and pepper are hard to come by.  You might as well launch an expedition to the kitchen rather than ask someone at the next table to pass them on over.  Yes, it’s on days like this that you’ve dreamed about moving on up to the head table, somewhere close to Mom and Dad, to a seat where the ketchup bottle is full, and everyone has a fork.  You want a seat at the big table, where manners might be required, and seconds are only “seconds” away.  What must one do take their place at this most important place of family eating?  Maybe you’d like to call “shotgun” when it comes to sitting around the table?

This is the kind of day some of the disciples were having.  They felt neglected, rejected, dejected, and just plain down!  It was just like the one I’ve described.  In at (or had any Jesus family gathering) they decided to ask Jesus for a promotion. Eventually, after a long time of working and practicing their speeches, they approached Jesus to say:  could we move up?  They wanted to sit at the big table but not at just any old big table.  Two of them, named James and John, were so tired of sitting at the kid’s table.  So they asked, whenever Jesus did whatever big thing he was going to do next they wanted a guarantee they would get the chance to sit at the big table.  We’ll gladly sit at the back with Matthew and Thomas for now.  But when the time comes and you do that big thing in Jerusalem, whatever it is, the one you keep talking about, can we sit right beside you?

Can you imagine how this sounded to Jesus?  I’ve tried to think, “What must Jesus have thought?”  I guess Jesus was pretty confused.  Did James and John not understand what Jesus was doing?   Did all they care about was getting a good seat?

Jesus tries to tell them.  “You don’t know what you’re asking!”  “Are you able to do all the things I’m asked to do?”  They said yes, which meant they still didn’t understand Jesus’ question.  Sitting at the big table comes with a lot of responsibility.  First, you buy the food, cook the food, clean up the meal, host the dinner, and provide for all who attend.  It’s a great deal of love and care.  The guests only see a small portion of the work, no matter the table.  Jesus is trying to say to them:  you can’t fully grasp, right now, all the things I’m asked to do or will be asked to do.  Because some of those things, Jesus is trying to say, will get much harder down the road.  I need you right here and at the table where you are.  Don’t worry about where you’re sitting.  Focus on the small things and the big things will work themselves out.

Do you know what happened next?  The one predictable thing you can always count on in these situations.  Someone got on their Instagram and did a story which said: “OMG can you believe what James and John did?  They had the nerve to go straight to Jesus and asked to be moved to the big table once Jesus brings glory about and totally restores the Kingdom of God.  Can you believe it?  They are such backstabbers.”  In case you need me to translate that means the other 10 disciples were angry.  Everybody wanted the head table.  What gave those two dunderheads the right to ask for special treatment in God’s kingdom where everyone was supposed to be treated fairly?

After this one simple question rooted in better access to ketchup and mashed potatoes, look at the chaos.  Jesus ministry appears to be on the verge of falling apart.  James and John asked if they could move up, Jesus handled it well, word leaked up on social media (complete with pictures of the asking), and now the remaining 10 disciples are angry with James and John.  What’s the solution?  Everyone has to go to the principal’s office.  Jesus has to clean this up before the whole thing collapses.

He starts to tell them a little story about how they should see the world around them.  He asks them to think about the people in their lives who are great and important?  Who are the ones with all the power and control? Who sits at the big tables?  So they sit there for a second and think.  Who do you think of?  Is it people on television?  Maybe you picture people with money?  Could it that star with a certain look?

What if it is none of those things?  Jesus tells them this most crucial point:  “But that’s not the way it is with you.”  What does that mean?  For Jesus’ disciples, it’s never about where you sit but are you sitting with someone who needs to be served.  Serve those people.  If you are a follower of Christ, greatness is not measured by location (sitting at the big table, where we live), whether people think we’re cool, and our choice of fashion, owning newest phones, but by how we serve other people.

Do you ever wonder why United Methodists put so much emphasis on helping people after storms or merely doing stuff in the community?  It’s because it’s the right thing to do and verses like this give us a great deal of encouragement.    Here’s how Jesus puts it, “For the Human One (that’s Jesus) didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and give his life to liberate many people.”  Like Jesus, we didn’t come to be served.  Everything we do is a form of serving others.  Worship is service.  That’s one reason we refer to worship as a “Worship Service.”  Sunday School is service.  Music serves and blesses.  Service is everywhere.

Service is at the heart of everything we do.  We, like James and John, sometimes want to be a little closer to the action.  It would be nice to know how all of this is going to pay off when Jesus accomplishes the big win.  To that question, Jesus tells us to have faith.  When we get a little ahead of ourselves we take a moment to remember; being a disciple is about serving and giving.   The best way to remember is to step into this place.  Stand outside and look at the steeple.  There’s something about being here, in the presence of God, which pushes us toward others and reminds of needs which are calling out to be met, service to be done at the table near the back of the room.

Richard Lowell Bryant

He Had Become Well-Known (Mark 6:14-29)

What happens when Jesus becomes known?  Notice how I’m asking this question.  It has nothing to do with us knowing Jesus.  I’m not asking if you know Jesus.  Instead, I want to look at the verse:  Jesus had become well-known.  When Jesus becomes well-known, what happens to the world?

I remain convinced that it is impossible to be indifferent about Jesus.  I realize some will argue with me on this point but frankly, I don’t care.  To quote C.S. Lewis, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”

Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all formed an idea about who Jesus is and live our lives accordingly. For some, Jesus is who he says he is.  For others, they’ve made the gamble and rolled the dice; Jesus isn’t all that important.  Regardless of the decision we’ve reached, we’re at this point in our lives, because Jesus became well-known.  His stories, ideas, and reputation reached beyond Bethlehem, Judea, Nazareth, and Jerusalem.

Here’s the problem we face, one that is not new to us:  there is a difference between being “well-known” and “understood”.  Jesus was and is extremely well-known.  King Herod knew of Jesus’ reputation.  There is a chaplain in congress who prays for members of the House and Senate each morning.  Blue collar fishermen were his disciples.  Everyone knew Jesus.  His name was talked about it houses and synagogues up and down the country.  It is another matter altogether to understand what he’s doing.

When we confuse knowledge and understanding, we start to get into trouble.  Making decisions on what we’ve heard (rumors vs. fact, context vs. no context) instead of what we’ve seen or witnessed, distorts what people know and understand about Jesus.  It’s much like playing a game of telephone.    The message which shared at the beginning is rarely what’s received at the end.

Following the death of John the Baptist, Jesus is caught between the conundrum of knowledge and understanding.  This push and pull is essential to the Christian life.  It’s where Mark places us this morning.

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and partner in ministry is dead.  Herod’s decision to marry his wife’s brother was more than John could stomach.   Arrested for questioning Herod’s ethics, it wasn’t long before his daughter helped Herod’s new wife gain the one gift not her registry:  John’s head.

John wasn’t Jesus.  At this time, John was the famous one.  Jesus was on the way up but he wasn’t John.  Now with John gone, what did people know about Jesus?  Who was this Jesus?

Herod seems to be confused.  “Didn’t I kill John?”  “You mean they’re related?”  “Are they same person?”  What did they think they know about Jesus?

Herod and his cronies knew “recycled news”.  Jesus couldn’t be someone new, different, or unique.   Jesus must be a figure from the ancient Israelite past returned to judge the iniquities of the present.  First of all, let’s say he’s the guy who just died, come back from the dead as a different person.  In other words, “we think we know Jesus is John the Baptist.”  If that can’t explain his teaching, preaching, or healing, let’s go back a little further.  Maybe Jesus is Elijah.  The think they know that he is the prophet Elijah who lived nine hundred years before the events Mark is describing in the 6th chapter.  If Jesus isn’t’ Elijah, he’s probably one of the ancient prophets.  The Old Testament is full of so many prophets, both major and minor, surely this Jesus, with his cryptic language of life, death, and healing must be one of those prophets.  Jesus is Hosea, Micah, Amos, or even Jeremiah.  Do you see the trend here?  Jesus must be anyone but Jesus.  We know what we’ve always known about religious matters, people, and ideas.  Jesus fits into none of our preconceptions.  A recycled faith, reapplied to the same concerns, has left what?  People like Herod; people know about religion (words, terms, history, and people) but understand nothing about being faithful to the God who made them.

Knowing Jesus is more than having the ability to point out similarities between Jesus and other religious figures in the Bible (or history).  You’re responding to your own religious past or your conscience.  If that’s all you know, you’re fighting the urge to remain indifferent to what’s happening in your soul.  Putting who or what you think Jesus is into boxes you can manage the same as knowing Jesus is uniquely Jesus.  I’m not a big fan of the excuse people use to not go to church that is, “I’m spiritual but not religious”.  There other kinds of people who are the exact opposite, “religious but not spiritual”.  I think both perspectives miss the uniqueness of Jesus.  If anything, now is the time that we need to be reminded God came to us from the bottom, the margins of society, in places forgotten and ignored by those who claimed religious traditions and self-serving spirituality as a way life.

One of the reasons we affirm our faith each Sunday is to remind us Jesus’ uniqueness.  The Apostles’ Creed is one of the ways we know Jesus.  Its words acknowledge the prophetic tradition of Old Testament while setting Jesus in his own story.   We know that he was unlike any other figure in human history.  That’s why we say together that he was, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate”.  He wasn’t, as much as Herod wants to believe, John the Baptist.  I think, it’s difficult, to be indifferent to Jesus’ unique story.  It’s hard to shrug your shoulders when told someone suffered on your behalf.  Saying “whatever” is difficult to do when you see children, taken from their parents and you hear Jesus’ words, “In so much that you have done this to the least of these, you have done it for me.”  You may disagree with Jesus.  He may make you angry.  You may hear him, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” and say he’s right.  Church, let’s go and do.

My point is this:  you can’t ride the fence with Jesus.  He deserves a response.  See him for who he is, what he says, and what he does.  Agree or disagree but don’t ignore him.  There’s too much good Jesus, embodied in his followers, can do in a fragile world.  Ignoring what we know about Jesus is a statement in its own right.  To embrace indifference toward Jesus, for most people, is a tacit admission that we believe in nothing more than a convenient idol we use to explain the mysteries of life.

Acknowledging Jesus’ uniqueness doesn’t hurt, it only helps.  Nothing that Jesus touches leaves his presence worse off.    Everything is better for being in and around Jesus.  You know the saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

For whatever reason, what you’ve heard of Jesus or understand about God isn’t moving you one way or the other.  It may be that Christianity has gotten in the way.  Sometimes in our zeal, we turn people off from the thing we’re supposed to love most.

That’s OK.  I want to apologize, on behalf of the church, for making the well-known Jesus less knowable, angry, judgmental, or rude.  I’m sorry.  For the moment, let the church, allow me, and those around you respond anew.  We will sing for you.  We will pray with and for you.  We will say the Creed.

Indeed, Jesus is well-known.  He is who he is.  Let’s point people toward what we know; the unique nature of the loving Son of God who dwells in the least known and overlooked corners of our world.    Let’s talk about the Good News for all people. Where the darkness, may we bring light.  Where there fear, may we carry hope.  Where there is hurtful indifference, may we share Christ made real.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Born, Again (John 3:16)

We’ve all been here before.  This isn’t your first John 3:1-17 rodeo.  I know it’s not.  If you tell it me it is, you are lying to be pedantic and difficult. As such, we’re going avoid scriptural foreplay and witty banter which usually leads to the John 3:16 climax I know you’re waiting on.  That’s not how we’re going to do this.  In the famous and unpublished words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “I’m going to invade Waterloo from Sweden”.  What the hell does that mean?  I don’t know.  I think it means I’m going to try something different with this passage we think we all know so well.

Nicodemus wants to know, “How do these circular answers relate to the story of my birth let alone being born for a second time?”  He’s looking for a clear, black and white answer.  I don’t get the feeling Nicodemus was looking to invest much time, energy, and thought into this process.  He’d come to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  A deep philosophical and theological discussion about the nature of life and rebirth wasn’t fitting into his ever diminishing timetable.  Nicodemus needed an answer, “what does any of this have to do with being born again?”

Nicodemus is actively listening.  Contrary to countless sermons and dramatic presentations, he is not a dumb man. Nor is Nicodemus intellectually shallow.  He is a Pharisee. This should count for something.  He is seeking to understand God.  Jesus tries to help him understand by using “birth” as a metaphor.  Metaphors are important.  Jesus uses them often.  A woman creating, carrying, and giving life over a nine month period constitutes his primary image of the idea of “birth”.  Being born “again”, as it has been presented, isn’t within his intellectual wheelhouse.  How is this central to, relate back, and tie into seeing God’s kingdom?  What is it about the act of birth; nurturing life for nine months and then at the right time delivering a human being into the world that reveals something he’s not getting about how God functions?

To really understand what’s happening, we need to be Nicodemus.  We must put ourselves in his shoes.  His limitations are ours. The pressures and constraints he experiences are those we feel:  give me what I need to make me feel whole, happy, and healthy and give it to me now.  Nicodemus doesn’t want to want to work too hard, too long, to reach what the Buddhists call Nirvana and Jesus is going to call eternal life.

There are layers of tension we don’t regularly talk about or acknowledge when we approach John 3:16.  They’re self-evident, staring us in the face, but we ignore them at our own peril.  We talk around them.  You can’t miss obvious tension in that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and Jesus is Jesus.  These two men are from two different sides of the social and economic tracks.  The Pharisees, as a whole, are opposed to Jesus’ message.  That’s why Nicodemus is visiting Jesus under the cover of darkness, seems a little shady, and is ready to ask his questions and get back to his side of town.  He doesn’t want to be caught hanging around Jesus’ house.  Economically and religiously they are as different as they come.  The worlds they inhabit are polarized.  As representatives of their distinct groups, they stand out.  Jesus looks like the forgotten people and Nicodemus stands in for the religious and political bureaucracy who left them behind.   My point is this:  there is a huge gap, full of tension (on multiple levels) between Jesus and Nicodemus.

What does Jesus mean by being “born again”?  Hasn’t it all be said?  Probably, but let’s take one more try.  Birth is a slow, deliberative, creative, and formative process.  Notice I said creative.  It is like creation.  It is creating life, think about Genesis.  Life is coming into world, one more time, just as it has for billions of years.  Being born is a Genesis moment.  Birth is not a big bang moment.  Instead, it is deliberate life giving moment that follows.  Jesus is talking about birth in these grand, Genesis like terms while also thinking about the beauty of birth which keeps the spark of creation alive.  Nicodemus is not on that level.  Jesus wants him to think a little larger.

Let’s go back to the original question.  What does Jesus mean by “born again”?  There’s one fundamental reality about birth; none of us had any choice in the matter. We have nothing to do with the circumstances of our own birth.  Birth isn’t a choice.

Jesus seems to be indicating:  to be born again means arriving at a place where we have no choice but to arrive.  Being born again points to a certain level of inevitability.  We will end up in some kind of positive relationship with God.  Does this happen because we make it happen?  No it doesn’t.  Our efforts are guaranteed to fail. God presence is the only guarantee of life’s success.  If birth works, whether the first time (or the “again” time), it’s because God is moving toward us faster than we can run away.  God has everything to do with being born again.  Since we’re all living testaments to the miracle of birth, being born again is both God’s call and God’s prerogative.  We choose who we marry, live, and work.  We don’t choose life.  Life chose us, again.

Life, birth, whether new or “again” unifies us.  If you’re a carpenter or a Pharisee, Republican or a Democrat, a NRA member or opposed to the Second Amendment, polarized or could care less; life brings people together when they appear to share no commonalities.

Look at Nicodemus’ question in verse 10.  He asks, “How are these things possible?”  How can this one story which seems to be common ground for all Christians work?  How can life and life, again bring polarized people together (people like Nicodemus and Jesus)?  I think it can.  Stories like this, the ones we’ve heard thousands of times before, have resonance though we swear there’s nothing we can learn.

Let’s go back to his original question:  how is it possible to be born, again?  Given, there’s no choice in the matter, someone external to you (mother or God) does all the work, you’re totally dependent on food and safety from this external source, and you have no control over the timetable.  Now, you’re starting to really feel Nicodemus’ confusion and you really do want to know, “how is this possible?”

Do you want the good news or the bad news?  Jesus answers the question.  However, he doesn’t give an answer Nicodemus likes or expects.

We are born, again because our lives our worth saving.  Our birth makes us alive.  Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus that being “born, again” makes us human.  And God, for no better way to put it, is interested in saving and redeeming the worst parts of our humanity.  Everyone’s life has an intrinsic worth, value, and meaning.  As I said a moment ago, life is what we everyone holds in common.  When we stop seeing value in the lives of others, our humanity as our common denominator, we stop seeing God.  Dehumanization is the first step to genocide.  Saving humanity is the first step toward salvation.  The contrast couldn’t be any clearer.

God, in ways we will never imagine or understand, loved us enough give us Jesus.  Through remembering Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the Eucharist, we are given a means listening to world, forgiving others, and looking for God at work in the lives of those who surround us.  The Eucharist levels the playing field so we can see each other not as animals or clumps of carbon or groups of atoms.  When we come to the table, we see each other as those who are born, again, alive in Christ, and loved children of God.

Richard Lowell Bryant

No One Has Ever Seen God (1 John 4:12)

I wish someone would write a book about not seeing God in scripture.  Perhaps someone’s already done it.  I’m not talking about blindness or feeling the absence of God.  There are plenty of those reflections, stories, and sermons.  There are blind beggars, blind preachers like Saul, and leaders blind to God’s purposes (like Pharaoh or King David).  At other times we encounter people who can’t see God they also feel God is absent.  I am thinking of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his execution, Job, or Jonah in the belly of the whale.  The God they believe they know and should be able to find or reach has vanished.  As outside observers, we know this isn’t the case.

God is still there.  God hasn’t changed.  Perhaps, they’re looking for the wrong kind of God or worse yet, a God who doesn’t exist.  They are worshipping a God who’s not there.  As such, they’re not seeing the real God.  We can call it idolatry or create your own God.  The point is, we’re looking for something meaningful and this supposed God-like other thing isn’t delivering, even though we’ve attached all sorts of God-like powers, qualities, and ideas to its being.  Yet this thing we think is God or God like isn’t God.  God remains unseen and hidden, waiting to be acknowledged in other ways.

This is why I think we need to think about the places in the Bible where we don’t see God.  Yes, I mean not seeing God.  I’m thinking of passages like Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  God was not seen.  In Acts 9:4, Saul was riding with his companion to Damascus.  Intent on arresting and bringing some early Christians back to Jerusalem for trial, he was knocked from his horse.  “He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?’”  He fell to the ground and heard a voice.  He did not see a soul nor did the people with him hear the voice.  Saul did not see Jesus or God.  God was unseen.  In fact, after this encounter, Paul was physically blinded.  There is something about going onward with God, totally sight unseen, that we regularly miss, when reading our Bibles.  In our visual, image driven culture, we are not hearing God.

I’m also thinking about today’s verse from the epistle reading in 1 John.  1 John 4:12 states, “No one has ever seen God”.  John, the beloved disciple and purveyor of “I am” statements, communicator of who sees who through the son, tell us “No one has seen God”.  Yes, I think there’s something to be said for these passages saying God has not been seen.

At one level, encountering (seeing) God would appear to be the defining feature of Christianity.  Whether figuratively, literally, metaphorically, or spiritually, we shape or faith around seeing the risen Christ in the world around us.  Easter begins with Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus in the garden.  There are subsequent resurrection encounters where the disciples see Jesus and the physically touch the wounds on his body.  Others, like Paul have metaphorical or more spiritual encounters with Jesus.  Thanks to John’s language we group these under the broad heading of “seeing God”.  We understand Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.  From John we learned if we’ve seen Jesus we’ve seen God.  These ideas are passed down to us.  We see God at work in people and in the world around.  The disciples saw one way and now we see another.  Yet, this is hallmark of our belief for two thousand years.  We see God or the evidence of God’s presence in people and their actions.  When I was a child, I was convinced that the diffusion of sunlight around a cloud was what God looked like. That was evidence of God’s presence above my backyard.

John wants to change the rules.  He says, “Let’s go back a step”.  Is it possible to alter the working assumption?  What if no one sees God?  What if no one has ever seen God?  How does that change our faith experience?  Is our faith stronger or weaker? If God isn’t seen, where do we find God now?

If God’s not a visual thing, confirmable by our eyes and rational senses (because that’s what sight means, particularly in the ancient world), where (and how) do we affirm the divinity around us?

Here is what I know.  The Christian faith is a shaped by hearing, listening, and feeling.  If we cannot trust those truths, those senses other than sight, then we cannot trust the very idea of God.  Paul didn’t see God, nor did Moses, Job, or Jesus.  Yet each person heard, listened, felt, and encountered the living God.  Visual appearance did not matter.

If we don’t see God, what happens?  Is it possible to be Christian, especially Christian as we’ve come to know and define “Christian” in the early 21st century? If Jesus isn’t on a billboard or bumper sticker, how do we make God tangible?  How do we talk about God with turning God into an idol or a watered down version of our own personalities and priorities?

Here’s what 1 John 4 is telling us:  God can be anyone.  God can be black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, or Middle Eastern; it doesn’t matter.  If God can be seen, God will likely resemble a template we’ve created.  Our God will be white, middle class, and be more like Santa Claus than the actual God John’s describing.  When God is unseen, it’s much harder to create a God in our own image.  The ability to create visual stereotype is removed.  Hearing, listening, and feeling God changes our faith in unspeakable ways.  We are listening for who God to speak and act; not who we expect to see.  Remember what John says, “No one has ever seen God”.  We see idols and things we shape into our own versions of Gods.

It is helpful to remember that God is an emotional response.  God is felt, confirmed, and observed in emotion.  You probably think that sounds like psychological double talk.  Try this on, “God is Love”.  Is that hard to grasp?  God is an emotion.  In fact, John says if we loved each other the way God loved us, our problems would be solved.  We can’t.  Our ability to love is hampered by our humanity.  In the paper rock scissors game of life, our flawed humanity beats God’s gracious love every time.

John acknowledges the difficulty of living a love infused life to the level God loves us.  However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for God’s love made manifest in lives we can see.  Our limited ability to love doesn’t absolve us from participation in God’s kingdom.  We are not off the hook.  Or we will find ourselves like the Apostle Paul, knocked to ground level, and forced to listen to God’s penetrating questions.  So often, we come to God with petitions and requests. When we’re listening to God, there are probably going to be questions posed to us.  What is God asking you?

Richard Lowell  Bryant

My Big Fat Greek Discipleship Test (John 12:20-33)

“Sir, we want to see Jesus.”  It’s not a question.  These visiting Greeks make a statement.  They don’t ask questions.  Why not?  They’re Greeks.  Think about who the Greeks were and their reputation in the ancient world.  The best philosophers, writers, soldiers, historians, and writers were all Greek.  Homer, Alexander the Great, Sparta, Athens, the traditions of ancient Greece.  We like to think UNC Basketball or Duke Athletics have long traditions of winning and ego; imagine what it would have been like to be a Greek from Sparta or Athens!  It’s like having gone to Harvard, Yale, or Oxford become a Navy SEAL, and then conquered the known world.  When John tells us “some Greeks” came to speak to a group of disciples he wants us to be aware of the baggage (both good and bad) they bring with them.  This is a group of people Jesus hasn’t encountered before.  It means Jesus’ message is going to places no one expected it to travel.

It’s also significant that John tells us that Philip and Andrew are from Bethsaida in Galilee.  He wants us to know that Jesus disciples are definitely NOT Greek.  John sets up the contrast.  If you read too fast you miss this and this may be one of the most important points in the passage.  These are Greeks: Ivy League educated, multilingual, worldly, well traveled, elite Special Forces types seeking Jesus.  They’ve just presented themselves to Philip from Galilee.  Philip is from Galilee.  Galilee is not Greece.  Galilee is the backwoods of the backwoods.  To get to Galilee, go to nowhere and take a left.  Galilee is 1st century hillbilly moonshine country.  They talk funny in Galilee.  They’re not going to college in Galilee.  Are you starting to get the point John is trying to make?  This is a clash of cultures.

These carpet bagging no good Yankee types (remember Greece is north of Judea) have come to the festival and demanded to see Jesus.  This is what’s going through Philip’s mind.  Those people didn’t even have the common courtesy to ask, “Was he busy?”  “Excuse me, do you know Jesus?”  “Or, can you help me find Jesus?”  Who do these fancy Greeks with their Greek language think they are with their slow, loud talking?  “Sir, wee waant too see Jee SUS.”

It’s easy to follow what happens next.  But don’t breeze by the simple stuff.  We do this.  We want to hurry by this dialogue to get to the point where Jesus starts his mystical teaching about light, darkness, and who truly understands the coming of the Son of Man.  It’s all important.  However, John is the most complex and esoteric of the four gospels.  If we’re not careful, we can become bogged down in John’s weeds.  If we pay attention on the way into the jungle (with conversations like this) it’s much easier not to get lost and keep our bearings when we’re in the thick of it.

The Greeks tell Philip.  That’s the first jump.  Then Philip tells Andrew.  This is the second jump.  How do you think it sounded when Philip told Andrew?

“You’re not going to believe this?”

“What am I not going to believe?” asks Andrew.

There is a group of Greeks who just walked up to me of the clear blue and asked, get this, “We want to see Jesus.”  Can you believe that?  No questions, no courtesy.

“You got to be kidding me?”

“No.  I’m not kidding you.  What do you think we ought to do?” asked Philip

“I guess we ought to tell Jesus”, says Andrew.  So both of them go and tell Jesus.  There’s your third jump.  After starting with the Greek, three hoops later, the request the Greeks made finally lands on Jesus’ desk.  How long did this take?  Was it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or maybe longer?  Who knows?

It doesn’t really matter.  We know it didn’t happen instantly.  There wasn’t a text message exchange between Phillip, Andrew, and Jesus.  We can’t read the emails.  We do know this:  someone asked to see Jesus and the disciples allowed culture, language, stereotypes, doubt, and other hoops to get in the way.  Someone wanted to see Jesus and they made it harder than it needed to be.

What gets in the way of people seeing Jesus?  We could name hundreds of obstructions which prevent people from encountering Christ.  You might say drugs, alcohol, power, corruption, or any number of manifestations of sin.  However, that’s not the question this passage poses:  what are the things that stop people (hinder or slow down) an encounter with Jesus that are wittingly (and unwittingly) used by disciples of Jesus?

Disciples of Jesus:  people who ought to be greasing the wheels, making the calls, opening up the back channels, and doing everything possible to clear any possible obstruction to reach Jesus because they already know Jesus. In fact, I’ll go one step further:  seeing a disciple of Jesus ought to be the next best thing to meeting Jesus personally.  Think of it as a customer service representative for Jesus, what can I do, to remove any barriers between you and Jesus today?  The last thing a disciple of Jesus wants to do is erect new barriers or embrace existing obstacles to encountering Christ.  Disciples look for ways around or opportunities to remove anything which inhibits someone’s ability to see Christ.  Do we see this in Philip and Andrew?  Is this our own practice?  I think these are fair questions to ask.

We’re disciples, Christians, and followers of Jesus.  When someone comes to us; either directly or indirectly and wants to see Jesus, what are the barriers that might inhibit their ability to see Christ?

Before I go any further, I want you to understand me:  I’m preaching to me.  I’m looking myself in the mirror here as much as I’m looking at each one of you.

What comes to mind when we think of the hurdles to seeing Jesus and Jesus in our lives and actions?

I think the first clue comes from the text.  I’ve said it a couple of times already this morning. It’s the dreaded “c” word, “culture”.  What do I mean by culture?  Think back to the beginning.  John wanted to make sure he told us the Greeks were Greek and Philip was from Galilee.  That matters.  Culture, geography, language, and history all impact how we see Jesus.  How we talk, who our parents are, where were were born, and countless other things are the building blocks which make us unique people. Those cultural realities can either be something we use to shut out the world or we take them to build a bridge connecting someone outside our culture to someone who is truly beyond culture:  Jesus.

As I used to preach in Ireland:  Jesus is not a Protestant or Catholic, Jew or Greek, Methodist or Assembly of God, or anything else we may wish to label him. Jesus is Jesus.  This is why Jesus can connect in some way to all of us.

The second clue also comes from the scripture.  Doubt is an obstacle that prevents other seeing Christ in the lives of disciples.  What do I mean by doubt?  Philip had to go to Andrew.  What was this about?  He didn’t go straight to Jesus.  There was a measure of doubt and anxiety.  Are these people right for Jesus?  Should we present this people to Jesus?  He wanted to run in by Andrew before he made a fool of himself before Jesus, or so he thought.

Try this on for size:  I want to invite someone to church.  We’re a small group, I don’t know if they’ll like us.  Will people speak?  I should ask someone first.  Somehow, someway, we have come to doubt that Jesus is a good fit for everybody.  We know Jesus should be a good match but you still don’t want to let anyone and everyone get access to Jesus.  What if your own relationship to Jesus becomes marginalized?  Will Jesus like these new people better than you?

Doubt takes many strange forms.  We can rationalize doubt as being in Jesus’ best interest more than most other actions as a disciple.  Philip wanted Andrew to agree with him.  He wanted to hear Andrew say, “Yes, these snooty Greeks are not right for Jesus.  He’s in a mood and it might upset him further.  It’s best if they don’t meet him today.”  We can find a way to feel good about dragging our feet and acting on our doubt.  Doubt becomes an obstacle to seeing Jesus we often make sacred, pray over and institutionalize; especially in United Methodism.

Lastly, I think there are natural obstacles to seeing Jesus.  Time is one that jumps off the pages of this encounter.  There are some difficulties to encountering Christ that are not of our making or choosing.  What do we do then?  We find a way around them.  Money is always present in my mind.  As a former missionary, I’m cognizant of language barriers.  If someone doesn’t understand you they can’t know you.  But that same idea applies to people speaking the same language.  Even when we speak English, we can talk past each other.  Being on the same page, as I learned in Ireland, saves lives.

I believe the best way to encounter the natural barriers to seeing Jesus is to remember these two simple realizations:  our hands are God’s hands.  Our lives and words can be a reflection of Jesus’ life work and teachings.   We can talk about Jesus is clear simple language.  We can cut out middlemen like Andrew and deal with our doubts.  Through the gift of prayer, we go straight to Jesus.  What a friend, isn’t that what we sing?  Culture doesn’t have to be a burden, barrier, or baggage.  Take the bricks down and build a bridge.

Richard Lowell Bryant