March 21, 2011

Sermon for Lent 2A - Why do you love me?

You can listen to the sermon here, or read it below.

Have you ever asked a loved one why they loved you? Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend it. It can be really, really awkward. The most uncomfortable time is that moment of hesitation while their eyes betray the panic in their soul as the answer they think you want to hear gets compiled in their head. Often, those unhelpful members of your family and friend group can make things even worse. “I’m your uncle, I have to love you.” “I love you just because.” “I love you cuz Mom says I have to.” Can you feel the warm fuzzies? There was a great Miller Lite commercial last year that portrayed this very sort of thing. A couple is sitting in the park having a picnic when the boyfriend says, “I love this Miller Lite aluminum pint.” His girlfriend is quick to respond, “really, why do you love it?” “I love its wide mouth. I love its resealable cap. I love that it’s a pint. I love that great pilsner taste.” “OK, then,” she responds, “why do you love me?” “Um… b… We go out… I like what you are doing with this [as he points to her hair]… y’know… I love all your teeth. Why do you love me?” Without hesitation she responds, “You’re my soul mate.” And all he can say is, “ditto.” Isn’t love grand?
Have you ever wondered why God loves you? Have you ever ventured to ask God why he loves you? This might be an even worse idea. In the silence that follows, you will undoubtedly start thinking about all the bad stuff you’ve ever done: I lied about breaking that picture frame when I was five, I didn’t go back and pay for that extra piece of candy when I was 12, I made fun of that person in High School, I thought lustful thoughts, I thought angry thoughts, I held a grudge… the list goes on and on. How on earth could God possibly love me? Oh, dear God, why do you love me?
Every morning someone, somewhere tweets a thought under the twitter name, cslewisdaily. On Thursday morning that tweet read, "Christians don't think that God will love us because we are good, but God makes us good because he loves us.” What a beautiful sentiment, now if only we belived it with the same conviction of C.S. Lewis' ghost twitterer. Which brings me to the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Supreme Court. He is a good man. A righteous man. A Godly man. Nicodemus follows the law to the letter, and expects the rest of Israel to do the same. He has been blessed richly. His family lives in relative luxury. He eats well, his children are well educated, his stock portfolio is diverse and consistently out performs the S&P 500. And yet, Nicodemus is in search of something more. There is something about the life the Nicodemus is living that doesn't quite ring true with him. The problem, it seems, is that Nicodemus lives in a world that said, “God loves you because you are good.” And, at least according to John, that world was one that was very, very dark.
And so, under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus. By this time, Jesus was a rather well known person in and around Jerusalem. In the passage just before this one, Jesus turned the courtyard of the Temple into his own personal demolition derby. He flipped tables, threw down change purses, released captive animals, and cried out “Stop making my Father's house a market place.” The money changers were angry. The Pharisees were angry. And Jesus was now well known.
As Nicodemus enters the room, he has to sense Jesus' tension. The whole group staying with Jesus must have jumped to their feet as the Pharisee entered, cloak covering his head, in the shadows of the night. And so he begins with words of comfort for Jesus and words of safety for himself, “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.” But Jesus sees right through the politics and praise. He is not fearful of Nicodemus nor is he flattered by his words; instead, he sees what Nicodemus is searching for, and offers it to him straight away.
“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born again.” To see the kingdom of God, that is, quite simply what Nicodemus wanted all along. In the midst of all of his pious actions, all of his rule following, all of his arguing over the letter of the law, what Nicodemus truly longed for was to see the kingdom of God. He was sick and tired of the love of God being dependent upon his goodness. Jesus offers him a better way. Jesus says, “God will make you good because he loves you. God himself is reaching out to you right now and asking, do you want to be born again? Do you want to start over with grace? Do you want to have light and life and love?”
Poor Nicodemus. He can't see the forest for the trees. He can't see how God could love him no matter what. He can't fathom a system in which God's love is freely poured out, like the rain, on the righteous and unrighteous alike. Jesus does his very best to sum it all up, “For God so loved that world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world through him might be saved.”
Nicodemus disappears from the scene somewhere during Jesus' brief speech in verses 16-21. At some point it all becomes too much to bear: being born again, God's unfathomable love, God's amazing grace – it is all too much, and so Nicodemus goes away, head covered, under the veil of darkness, seemingly gone forever, but the story doesn't end there. We will hear of Nicodemus again, on Good Friday...
But I digress. Back to the question at hand for us this morning, why does God love you? Does he love you because you are good enough to be loved? Even if you are, that's not why. Does he love you because you deserve it somehow? Even if you did, that's not why. God loves you because he is God and God is love. God loves you and you and you and me so much that even as we sit in darkness and sin, he sent his only Son to live and die as one of us. He loves the world even when it chooses to love darkness instead.
The real question that daunts us this morning isn't “why does God love me,” but rather “what am I going to do with God's unending love for me?” In the course of history, some have decided, “I'm going to tell God that I don't want or need or understand or desire his unending love.” And that is their prerogative, and they receive exactly what they desire. Others have decided, “I'm going to sit fat and happy knowing that God loves me because that is all that matters.” And that too is their prerogative, though I have to think that these are the ones God finds it hardest to love. Still others have decided, “God's love has changed me, and so I'm going to change the world, one person at a time, because of it.” It is this group of folks that have decided to live fully in the light. Their deeds, good and bad; their intentions, good and bad; their thoughts, good and bad are out there, in the open, for God to see. They trust in his love and forgiveness to strengthen and empower them. They rejoice in God's gift of grace and share it freely with the world around them: their families, friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and beyond.
What are you going to do with God's unending love? The choices are seemingly limitless, but the consequences for choosing poorly are severe. Will you share his love with others? Will you trust in him, even when what he's asking makes no sense? Will you give up that silly thought that you have to do something to earn God's love and instead focus on what you are able to do because he loves you. “Christians do not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” Let God make you good, be born again, receive his Spirit, and rejoice in his gift of grace. Amen.

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