Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pay It Forward

John 3: 1-17
3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Genesis 12: 1-4
12 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.

My basic point this morning is found in the title. God blesses us both for our own sake, and for the sake of those around us. We are part of a much bigger story than our own lives. We play our part, in order to bring about God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to himself. So when God calls you and blesses you, he expects you to become a blessing to others—to pay what you have received forward to others around you.

We’ll look briefly at the passage in John, a little more at Abram’s call in Genesis, and then ask what that has to do with us today. 

In John 3 Jesus has begun his ministry. Chapter 2 gives two incidents—one from the beginning of his ministry: changing the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, and one from the end of his ministry: clearing the temple during the preparation for the Passover. The former begins to reveal who he is; the latter notes that many people saw the signs he did and believed. Jesus himself remained free from whatever others did, “for he knew all people…, he knew what was in each person.”

So in the passage we read, one of the Pharisees (his chief opponents) came to learn more about him. Nicodemus shows us that the Pharisees were not simply bad people; they were also truly searching for God’s work in Israel. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, many Pharisees were among those who followed the risen Christ (Acts 15: 5). So with Nicodemus: he wanted to know if Jesus was really the Messiah.

Jesus began Nicodemus’ education in a new way to see the world. Those who are born into their place in this world know what is going on in this world, but that’s all they know. If you want to know about the world that is real and full and complete, you have to be born into this new world: “You must be born again.” This new birth comes only by God’s Spirit, acting in the person who comes to God. “New Birth” is a metaphor to describe the incredible change that takes place in a person’s life when he/she re-orients their life around God, something that is possible only as a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

In the final two verses, the gospel in a nutshell (as it is sometimes called), John gives his own commentary on Jesus’ words. Truly these two verses describe what God is doing in our world—what he was doing when Jesus lived on earth, and what he is doing now:
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Our first point this morning is to recognize that this new life is what God wants in everyone’s life here. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in a Christian family or came to faith when you were 30 years old. It doesn’t matter if you know the Bible from back to front, or have trouble finding the Scripture reference without a page number. It doesn’t matter if you have been a really good person (as our society thinks of it) or a drug dealer. God wants the same thing for everyone of you, just as God wants it for me: God wants each of us to have the new life that he gives by the Holy Spirit.

Abram (and Sarai)
Genesis 12 has sometimes been called the first or foundational missionary text. In chapter 11 we see the people try to “save the world” through their own efforts. In chapter 12 we see God’s work to save the nations. Millard Lind (my OT professor at AMBS) used to call chapter 11, “the Canaanite city-state” and chapter 12, “God’s community of faith”. Note the differences through parallel construction.
Chapter 11                                            Chapter 12
2: they found a plain in the land                     1: Go  ...  to the land I will show you
3: let us make bricks                                           2: I will make of you
4: let us build
5: let us make a name for ourselves                 2: I will  ...  make your name great

You see the difference. The people of chapter 11 tried to build a city that would make them invincible, and they failed. God then took one family from all the people scattered in chapter 11 and built them into a people who would live forever. In their own way the Pharisees from whom Nicodemus came repeated the mistakes of Genesis 11. They tried to build a system of laws that would make them fit for God’s presence. Jesus told Nicodemus there is only one way to be ready for God: You must be born again.

Look again at what God called Abram and Sarai to do.
·         Leave your home and family and go to a new land—God will tell you when you get there.
·         Implied: Rely on God to keep you and protect you as you travel and when you get to this new land.
Observe what God said he would do for them.
·         I will establish you.
·         I will bless you.
·         I will make your name great.
And note what God said this process would do for others.
·         People around them will relate to God based on how they relate to Abram and his family. The words that follow sound a lot like the way that Jesus tells the disciples that what they bind and loose on earth is bound and loosed in Heaven.
·         Good relationships will lead to blessings; bad relationships will lead to curses.
·         This process will eventually encompass the whole world.
Abram and Sarai and some of their extended family followed God’s call and began the trek to what we call the Promised Land.

You see the basic truth that God called Abram for the sake of the world. At one level this gives us the overarching storyline of the Bible—God used the children of Abraham, the Jews, to be the means by which God himself entered the world in the person of Jesus. At another level this truth gives a pattern that applies in all of life. When God blesses you and me, the blessing is always for more than just us. God seeks to bless the world through us. We live in Christ for the sake of the world.

Paying It Forward
I am reading a book by Alan and Eleanor Kreider called Worship and Mission. Alan and Eleanor were Mennonite missionaries at the London Mennonite Centre. Now they are part of the faculty at AMBS. In this book they explore the relationship between worship and mission.

If you think about our times of worship as times we experience God’s blessing, you begin to see how this pattern applies to us. When we meet God here on a Sunday morning, at least two things are always true: 1) God blesses us for our own benefit; and 2) God blesses us for the benefit of those around us.

I want to focus on this pattern. First in our services here in the church: We come together in worship and praise. Often we ask: What do I get out of our services? It’s a fair question. We praise and worship the Creator of the universe. We can expect that this worship should change us somehow. I suspect that we take worship too casually sometimes. We may not really think that God is here, or we may be so burdened by the weight of daily life that we can’t sense anything beyond our own need. But you came here to meet God this morning. Abram didn’t seem to be expecting anything in Genesis 12, but he met God. Nicodemus came looking for Jesus in John 3, and he met God. This is the first and most basic aspect of our worship together. We are here to meet God.

And God is here too.  As the hymn has it:
God is here among us; let us all adore him, and with awe appear before him.
God is here within us; soul, in silence fear him, humbly, fervently draw near him.
Now his own who have known God in worship lowly yield their spirits wholly.
Come, abide within me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.
Come, indwelling Spirit, with transfigured splendor; love and honor will I render.
Where I go here below, let me bow before thee, know thee, and adore thee. 

Gladly we surrender earth's deceitful treasures, pride of life, and sinful pleasures.
Gladly, Lord, we offer thine to be forever, soul and life and each endeavor.
Thou alone shalt be known Lord of all our being, life’s true way decreeing. 
If you don’t come to church with that expectation, you need to! Come expecting to meet God and receive God’s blessing. That blessing may take shapes you don’t expect, as it did for Abram; but you can’t live without it!

Now when God blesses you in your Christian walk, whether in worship here, or in a care group, or in your own prayer time, or when you’re walking down Main Street, God expects that blessing to have an effect in the lives of people around you. You know, your friends are watching you. If God heals you of some deep hurt, they will see it. If you love God more than anything else in life, they will see it. If you talk a good story, but you don’t actually walk with God, they will see that too! 

Over time the blessing you receive in following God will leak over into your friends’ lives, and they too will want to follow God. When we say that we are a missional church, the first and most important way that is true is in what your friends see of God in you. If God blesses you, they will know, and they will seek God’s blessing too. 

God’s blessings also come to us outside the church. The events of our lives also become God’s blessing with which we bring blessing to others. I think of what happened to my own parents many years ago when they first went overseas. They went to Zambia in 1946 with a one-year old daughter, my older sister. In 1948 they had a second daughter, who my sister, Dorothy. When she was eight months old, Dorothy contracted malaria and died. This was devastating to my parents, as you would expect. The missionary family and the Zambian Christians gathered around them to comfort and strengthen them. 

Some months later my parents got word that a family living in a nearby village had just lost their child. My parents went to the village, where the bereaved mother was wailing, inconsolable. My mother went to her and embraced her, and the two mothers sat and grieved together. In the process, mother was able to give the Zambian woman comfort where others could not. Because they shared the same grief, she could also pass on the comfort and strength she had received. God blesses us—even with strength in times of trouble—so that we can pass that blessing on to others. 

In 2003 Lois and I and our sons were back Sikalongo, where my sister Dorothy is buried. We had visited many people in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and they all identified me by my family—my grandparents, and my Uncle and Aunt, and my own parents. But when we got to Sikalongo it was different. We met the headmaster of the school there, and when I said our names, he replied: “Your parents are David and Dorcas. Your sister is buried there” (pointing at the cemetery). One of the teachers took us to his house for tea and biscuits. As we visited, he told us that his family also had lost a child the year before, and they had used the verse on Dorothy’s grave for their own funeral: “Suffer the little children to come to me.” 

The blessing of God’s grace present in our grief had continued to bless others in that place even 55 years after the event. I don’t understand how these things work, but it is clear that we are bound together in relationship as a human family. God normally uses people to bless people, so that when you experience God’s goodness and grace—even in times of great sadness—that experience is meant for you and for everyone you know. 

I used the well-known phrase “pay it forward” to express the way we are to live. The same idea is found in the old hymn “Make me a blessing to someone today.” Not in a pushy way, where we decide we’re going to help this person or that person. You may know some people who are so ready to bless you that you run for your life! 

But I’m talking about something more organic, more natural. God calls you, just as God called to Abram and to Nicodemus; and you respond to God’s call. Don’t hide it. Don’t pretend that nothing happened. Be natural. Be open. Share what God is doing with you. God is working in you for your good, and for the good of everyone around you. 

I wonder what our church could look like if we learned to expect God to touch us as we’re gathered together in worship, as well as when we’re living our lives the rest of the week. I wonder what our church could look like if we learned to share God’s goodness to us as naturally as we share our delight when the Jets win a game. I wonder what would happen if we allowed God’s blessings to flow into us and through us into all the people around us. 

The potential is here for us to be a sacred place where we laugh and love and discover God’s presence from the cradle to the grave. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, although it may be sometimes. It doesn’t need to be worth putting on the front page of the Carillon, although it may be sometimes. But it does need to be real. 

Only God can make it real. Only God can make you born of the water and of the Spirit. Only God can call you to leave everything and follow him. When God calls you, do like Abram and Sarai and Lot. Follow God! When God calls you, do like Nicodemus. Go to Jesus and let him sort you out. And as you discover the blessing of God’s new life, share the blessing with everyone in your life. Pay it forward for eternity.

No comments: