If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?
Our gospel today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is perhaps the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation, about water, being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
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?
There is a word that is used to describe Christians, a word that sets them apart from others and captures the essence of who and what they are. It is a word that has been with us from the very beginnings of the Church, when those who identified themselves as followers of Jesus began to gather together to worship and to share their lives with one another. The word is “believers.”
Christians became known as “believers” because they believed and trusted
that Jesus was the Son of God,
that he had come into the world to reveal to us the true nature of God,
that after his death on a Cross he had been raised from the dead,
and that he was with us still, and would be to the end of time.
“Believing” is one of the principle themes of the Gospel of John, from which our gospel lesson today is taken. John begins his telling of the Good News by revealing to us, his readers, who Jesus is and why he came into the world. It is as if he is drawing aside the curtain, letting us in on the secret, true identity of this humble teacher from Galilee, letting us glimpse what he and others have come to know over time. John begins his account by telling us that Jesus is “the Word” who was “with God” and who “was God” from the very beginning of time (John 1:1). He tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), bringing “light” and “life,” in order to reveal to us the nature and purposes of God. “No one has ever seen God,” he tells us, “it is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). And “to all who receivedhim, who believedin his name,” he proclaims, “he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).
Preached at Yale Divinity School
…If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched… (Mark 9:42-50)
Don’t do this. Don’t take Jesus literally – plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand. You take this literally, you won’t finish the term. But do take Jesus seriously. This is hyperbole. My little sister used to say this same thing to me when I was acting out, when I had tried her patience to the extreme. She would say, “Curtis, cut it out!” She got my attention.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2
Almighty God, in the midst of your people Israel you raised up many saints who through faith in your eternal covenant conquered kingdoms,did justice, and won strength out of weakness. Grant us to hold in glad remembrance their holy lives and fearless witness, that by your grace we may press on towards the goal for the prize of our heavenly calling;through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Studying history is both illuminating and humbling: illuminating because of the great benefit of perspective. Life in-the-present can leave us quite myopic. What’s going on in-the-now is very close to us – it’s “in our face” – so much so that we often can’t see around it. Our perspective is inevitably blocked in some ways. We could take, for example, the political campaign rhetoric during this past year. Without the benefit of an historical perspective, the long view, we could simply react to various campaign statements just for their “face value,” but miss the wisdom gleaned from history. Studying history can also be quite humbling. It can put us in our place as individuals and as a nation in a very long line as life unfolds down through the centuries. Today’s celebration of the Saints, the holy ones, of the Old Testament takes the long view, and that’s important for several reasons[i]: