“Reset” – Sermon for March 12, 2017

Categories: Sermons

"Nicodemus", JESUS MAFA, 1973

“Nicodemus”, JESUS MAFA, 1973

“Boot Camp for the Soul:  Reset”

A Sermon on John 3:1-17 (with Genesis 12:1-4a) for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year A; preached March 12, 2017, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister


Back while I was in college at Michigan State—a computer science major, as many of you know—I spent my summers working for the IT tech support department at the local county government offices near where I grew up.  Such places tend to be a mishmash of different technologies, what with all the different types of systems needed by the various departments—which not only included the sorts of departments like you’d find at the town offices here in Mansfield, but also had three different judicial courts in addition.  Anyway, the point is, with the wide variety of systems in use there, the reality is that we in the tech support office didn’t always know a whole lot more about any one of them than did the end-user we were trying to help.  Aside from occasionally knowing an extra trick or two to try, sometimes the biggest advantage we had was a bit more courage to try them.  And I know this may sound rather cliché, but honestly, sometimes the trick simply is—lo and behold—just to restart the thing… the program, the computer, the printer, the computer and the printer, whatever.  Any of you who have cable modems or WiFi routers in your house probably know this plenty well, too—sometimes you just have to restart the thing.

There would be these times when I’d end up doing that, and sure enough, whatever hadn’t been working was now working.  So I’d say, ‘well, Sue, I’ve got it working now’… and often I’d get the question back, ‘well, what was wrong?’  ‘I don’t know’—an honest reply.  ‘Well, what did you do?’  ‘I restarted it.’  ‘Well I could’ve done that myself.’

And it’s true.  Sue could have done that herself.  But she did not.  And, in some cases, depending on who Sue (or Jan or Brian) was, they would not.  Something like just restarting the thing—a simple reset—that can seem too much.

This morning, we have caught glimpses into the lives of two people who, in their different ways, were invited by God to press the reset button on all that was before.  Perhaps this is easiest to see in Abram’s case, in the brief snippet we heard from the book of Genesis, the start of the much longer story of the man that Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike would come to know as “father” Abraham.  “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” the Lord says to Abram.  And so, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him[.]”  With basically nothing to go on other than God’s command—at least as far as the scripture tells it—Abram picks up and leaves behind everything he has known.  Jewish bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman reflects on the fact that the ordering here—which he has as “your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house”—that ultimately it’s not geographic, but emotional.  “[I]f he has left his land, then of course he has left his birthplace and his father’s house. … The three steps are arranged in ascending order of difficulty for Abraham.  It is hard to leave one’s land, harder if it is where one was born, and harder still to leave one’s family.”[1]

Many, if not most, of us in this congregation are familiar with moving, with leaving behind hometowns and homesteads, whether temporarily or permanently.  While there are some of you who are natives to Mansfield or elsewhere nearby, we’re largely a congregation of immigrants:  from Massachusetts and Michigan, Granby and Greenwich, Kansas and California.  And while our setting here next to the university definitely contributes to that, such mixed geographic heritage is not entirely unusual in modern times…  although, interestingly enough, I just this week heard an interviewee on public radio[2] saying that here in the United States, our mobility and migration rates have actually gone down in recent years.  In past generations, people moved to where the jobs were, whether that was farmers moving from Connecticut to Ohio in the 1800s, or rural folk moving into cities as industrialization increased, or southern blacks moving to northern cities in the Great Migration, or people of many types moving to the boom areas of the “Sun Belt” in the late 20th century.  Apparently that has slowed down, though, one of the factors contributing to the working class unemployment crisis we face now.  People don’t so much move to follow where the jobs are anymore; instead, whether because of family or spousal employment or any other number of things, they stay put and lament that jobs have disappeared.

Anyway… whether slowing down nor not, the moves we make today—or those we’ve made in the past few generations—they are nothing compared to the sort of trek God commanded of Abram, nearly 4,000 years ago.[3]  Even before social media, Skype, and email, we had telephone calls and letters in the mail.  We can fly or drive or take the train between distant locations with relative ease.  But in the pasture lands and deserts of the ancient Middle East, going away meant truly going away.  For Abram, following this command from God meant not just a renewal, but a total reset, a complete restart.  And Abram was not exactly a spring chicken by this point:  seventy-five years old, the scriptures tell us, when he got up and went forth.

Traditionally, Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike have lauded Abram as a shining exemplar of what it means to have faith.  God said “go,” and Abram went.  “No distrust made [Abram] waver concerning the promise of God,” the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament’s letter to the Romans, “but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what [God] had promised.  Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[4]

Nicodemus, on the other hand, is a much more complicated guy to try to pin down.  We have not usually seen him as a shining example of faith.  Across the centuries of Christian interpretation, we have tended to question his motives in coming to see Jesus, and criticized him and his responses as close-minded and hard-headed.  In fact, the section heading given to this passage by one of the study bibles I have refers to Nicodemus as one who “listens but does not hear.”[5]  About Nicodemus, one of the Protestant Reformers who was a contemporary of Martin Luther writes, “it is not enough to know Christ superficially, to have a historical faith concerning Christ, to confess the Word, to know that Christ has come from God, to commend the power of the Word because of external miracles, to possess civic justice.”[6]

Even though Christian tradition has tended to be relatively hard on Nicodemus, it’s not hard for us to sympathize or even identify with him.  All of us come to a place like this one having heard some things about Jesus, perhaps having witnessed some sign that seems to point to the power and presence of God at work, and still yet full of questions or even doubts.  A famous physicist reportedly once said, “Anyone who says that they understand quantum mechanics does not understand quantum mechanics.”[7]  Faith is not all that different.  When we grasp too tightly to it, we are liable to squeeze all the life out of it.  Questions and doubt are part of the journey.  As one pastor puts it, “[Nicodemus’s] uncertainty and struggle are part and parcel of our Yes to God’s promises in Jesus Christ.  [Our] struggle to understand and accept God’s grace is, in and of itself, necessary to the experience of God’s love.  There can be no true Yes to God’s promises if there is not a simultaneous experience of doubt and uncertainty.”[8]

Here’s the thing, though.  God does not leave us simply to dwell in the place of doubt and uncertainty.  We are met ever and ever again with the invitation to reach down and press the reset button—not that we will necessarily figure it all out, but that we will be able to keep going, keep working, keep living nevertheless.

While the scriptures do not tell us whether Abram had his doubts, we do know from the whole of his story that, as one preacher puts it, “You don’t have to be a goody-goody to function as an instrument of God.  Like all of us, [Abram] is a flawed human being.  But he receives a call from God, and he responds to that call, even though the response is imperfect.”[9]  The call and promises of God given to Abram “come like a bolt from the blue, an act of God’s grace alone; no indication has been given as to why or even whether Abram merits them.”[10]  Likewise, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, as enigmatic as it seems, invites Nicodemus to see beyond his present understandings and journey into a yet deeper relationship with the living God in his midst.  Nicodemus believes that the presence of God dwells with Jesus because of the signs that Jesus is able to perform.  Jesus invites him to see deeper into the reality that it’s not simply that the presence of God dwells with Jesus, but that in Jesus, the presence of God has come to dwell with him and all the world.

These invitations themselves, they are grace.  They are the grace of One who bears us to new birth ever and ever again, in the midst of our doubts and our broken realities.  They are the grace of One who loves nothing short of the whole world, the whole cosmos, even.  They are the grace of the One who comes not to condemn, but to save.


Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto God, now and forever.  Amen.


[1] Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah: with a New English Translation (San Francisco:  HarperOne, 2001), 49; emphasis added.

[2] Unfortunately, I cannot remember which public radio program I was listening to at the time…

[3] Scholars are unable to identify dates for the life of Abram/Abraham with any precision.  Best estimates place him perhaps in the vicinity of 1800 bce, but even longer ago is certainly possible.

[4] Romans 4:20-22, nrsv.

[5] New Oxford Annotated Bible, 4th ed.

[6] Erasmus Sarcerius, commentary on John 3:3, in In Ioannem Evangelistam, 95; cited in Craig S. Farmer, ed., John 1-12, Reformation Commentary on Scripture, New Testament vol. 4 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 90-91.

[7] Cited in Daniel Ruen, “From a Preacher” commentary for 12 March 2017, in Sundays and Seasons: Preaching, Year A 2017 (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2016), 107.  Emphasis added.

[8] Ibid., 108.

[9] Eugene Rivers III, quoted in Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation (New York:  Doubleday, 1996), 157.

[10] The Jewish Study Bible, 2nd ed., ed. Adele Berlin & Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford University Press, 2014), 29.

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