Lent 4

Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 – Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

First of all, you need to know that it’s Jesus who’s talking in today’s gospel. The lectionary people omitted some important context when they separated the eight verses that we just heard from the preceding 13.

This passage from John captures only the latter part of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nevertheless, you may be familiar with how the conversation begins. It’s nighttime when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “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.”

Some commentators are critical of Nicodemus’ assertion. By emphasizing the words “we know that you are…” they cast Nicodemus in the role of a self-assured expert who flaunts his status as a “teacher of Israel.” Others suspect that Nicodemus meets Jesus under the cover of darkness in order to avoid being seen with him.

It’s true that we can glean from the text that Nicodemus is an educated man, a “pillar of the community,” we might say. Likewise, themes of darkness and light play a role in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. But I don’t think that these details are meant to throw shade (pun intended) on the Pharisee.

Furthermore, if we immediately cast Nicodemus in such a negative light, we might be tempted to hear the remainder of his conversation with Jesus as an adversarial one when, actually, I think the opposite is true.

In fact, as Becky Wright noted in Bible Study earlier this week, Nicodemus shows honor to Jesus by coming at night, on his own time, after a full day’s work, which may indicate that he is motivated by a genuine desire to learn more, rather than a selfish need to impress Jesus with what he already knows.

If we understand their encounter this way, then the Nicodemus we encounter in this story is less a self-righteous teacher preparing to go head-to-head with a colleague and more an eager student visiting his teacher during office hours in order to clarify his understanding.

And so, in search of clarity he says, “It seems to me that we know that you come from God because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you do.” However, Jesus’ response is anything but clear. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

If I’m honest, I’d prefer Jesus was a bit more affirming of Nicodemus. If you’ve ever been in a class with me, you’re probably familiar with my tendency to quickly affirm participation. “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right . . . Great point! Very well put!”

Couldn’t Jesus say something like, “Yes, Nicodemus. I think that’s a great way to begin to think about who I am, but there’s more to it than that.”? Alas, that’s not really Jesus’ style. Another example immediately follows.

Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Again, we could read Nicodemus as adversarial or sarcastic, but I hear the question as an example of honest curiosity. Still, Jesus doesn’t exactly simplify things.

“Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “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.”

Jesus’ response may sound confusing to Nicodemus, and to us, but maybe that’s the point. Jesus is doing what a lot of good teachers do. Instead of providing a simple explanation or answer, he challenges his student to think more about it for himself. 

Perhaps you can remember a teacher in your life who didn’t answer your questions directly or simply so much as they helped you to develop the skills necessary to answer them for yourself.   

“Teach a man to fish,” right? That’s exactly what Jesus is doing for Nicodemus here, and the result is a first-class theological discourse.

Yes, like all theological discussions, it’s confusing. Jesus is attempting to reframe Nicodemus’ understanding of his relationship with God, and that’s not something that he can explain to him in simple terms. Jesus needs Nicodemus to be able to make sense of it for himself, and so he uses another tried and true teaching—and preaching—tactic: a real-life example.

You can’t see the wind, but you know it’s there because you can hear it rustling the leaves of the trees and see the branches bend and sway. Where does the wind start? Where does it go? I don’t know. It’s intangible, abstract. 

It’s the same with “being born from above.” How does that work exactly? It cannot be explained with a piece of chalk or an overhead projector. (Or a dry erase marker or “smart board,” for that matter.)

You can’t always see God working in your life or the world around you, transforming hearts, changing minds. But, if you begin to pay attention, every once in a while, you will realize that it’s happening.

This is precisely what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to do: start paying attention to the presence of God in his life. This is especially important because Jesus won’t always be with Nicodemus, at least, not in the same sense that he is on this night. 

Jesus hints at this very reality in the first verse of today’s passage. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

As 21st Century Christians, we hear Jesus’ words (which are an allusion to this morning’s reading from Numbers) in full knowledge of his death and resurrection. We can easily draw a parallel between the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross.

Nicodemus obviously doesn’t know what’s going to happen to Jesus, but he will find out. And when he does, he will learn for the first time the answer to his question, “How can somebody be born from above?” Because Jesus died and rose again. 

Jesus himself is the answer to Nicodemus’ question. That’s what Jesus is trying to teach him. But Nicodemus will not–and cannot–completely understand this until he develops a relationship with Jesus. For that matter, neither can we. 

Developing a relationship with Jesus doesn’t happen overnight. There is no simple how-to guide for the process, no matter what anyone says. It requires taking time to pay attention to Jesus the Risen Christ’s presence in our lives. That, my friends, is a central task of the Lenten season. 

Remember the words (from our prayer book) that we heard on Ash Wednesday. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” 

We tend to focus a lot on self-denial, but the rest is important, too. If we use the remaining days of Lent to lean into a period of self-examination, prayer, and scriptural meditation, then we will be walking with Nicodemus into a deeper relationship with the Risen and Living Lord. 

If you read through the rest of John’s gospel account, you will get a sense of Nicodemus’s own journey with Jesus. In chapter seven, he speaks in Jesus’ defense, even after several have turned against him. And in chapter 19, he joins Joseph of Arimathea, this time in broad daylight, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. 

Remember, when he helped lay Jesus in the tomb, Nicodemus didn’t know what would happen in just two days’ time. We do. That’s all the more reason for us to be on the lookout for Jesus’ presence in our lives. If we do that, we will, right alongside Nicodemus, experience the joy of that beautiful Sunday morning all over again, even as if for the very first time. 

Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 29, 2020 – Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; John 11:1-45 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer (via Zoom)

At this point in the season of Lent, the lectionary makes it ever clearer that we are inching our way toward that glorious day of resurrection.

Our collect this morning will have us praying, even among the swift and varied changes of the world, for hearts fixed where true joys are to be found. In other words, for hearts fixed on Jesus.

As Christians, we certainly hear echoes of the resurrection life in this morning’s reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. 

“. . . Suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together . . . there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them . . . the Lord God [said,] ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live’. . . and the breath came into them, and they lived.”

Here we have Ezekiel witnessing the work of God, which is the restoration of God’s chosen people. But, more important than Ezekiel’s witnessing of God’s work is his participation in it.

God does not simply restore these dry bones in the presence of Ezekiel. God leads Ezekiel to the valley where the bones lay, and God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones on God’s behalf. Make no mistake—the work is God’s—but God invites Ezekiel to participate in it.

Likewise, God invites you to participate in God’s work this day and all days, even in the midst of your own dry and desolate valleys. Even in valleys of sickness, or grief, or isolation, God enjoins you and empowers you to participate in the work of creation and re-creation which never, ever stops.

I bet you do it all the time; maybe without even noticing. 

Did you support—in a safe and appropriate way—a struggling small business this week? Did you send a text, or make a phone call, or leave a message for a friend? Did you pray for someone less fortunate than you, someone who you thought really needed it? Or did you pray for someone a lot better off than you? Someone who doesn’t think they need your prayers at all?

God empowers you to do all these things and more, even when—especially when—you’re caught in the doldrums of life. 

It’s ironic that sometimes in the worst of situations we realize the greatest of blessings. It is actually quite miraculous how God can change your perspective in an instant.

Earlier this week I heard someone say, “My family is talking more. We’re staying in touch regularly. We’re checking in on each other every day. Sometimes it’s hard to get off the phone. We cannot physically be together, but it is as if we have grown closer in spite of—or perhaps because of—our distance.”

Perhaps you are comforted to know that you do not walk through these low and lonely places alone. You are joined, not only by the faithful assembled here and across the virtual scope of Christendom this day, but by the people of God in every age.

God’s people have been walking through dry and desolate valleys for a long, long time. Some have even written about it, prayed about it. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” You may have heard it before.

This morning’s psalm puts it a bit differently. “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.”

Whatever words are used to convey the message, the fact remains that the people of God have been here before. And now, not only in our Lenten season but in this time of physical isolation, we find ourselves waiting for the Lord once again. Waiting for the Lord, as Psalm 130 says, “more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.”

For Christians, this time of waiting is not passive. It is no time for boredom and complacency. Christian waiting is active waiting; it is expectant waiting.

It is the kind of waiting we experience each year during Advent and Lent. As Dr. Wright said during last Tuesday’s Bible study, this is “waiting in a particular direction.” We know what’s coming next.

God’s people know that things are going to get better. God’s people know that they will be recalled from exile and set back upon their own soil.

God’s people know that the scattered bones will once again be wrapped in flesh and filled with the breath of God. God’s people know that, as soon as Jesus finishes crying, the newly-resuscitated Lazarus is going to walk out of the tomb.

God’s people know that the pandemic will end, that the economy will begin to recover, that they will see their friends and family members again and be able to hug them up close.

We know these things, not because we cling to a naïve faith that ignores the suffering of the present time, not because we deny the desolate nature of this period of waiting.

On the contrary, we know these things because we see reminders of the resurrection all around us, every day. People re-build after storms. Volunteers travel thousands of miles to lend a hand. Leaves grow back on trees. Babies are born. New crops take root. Retirement accounts slowly begin to grow again. New jobs are created, obtained, learned.

Yes, crucifixion is evident as well. People get sick, and some die. Jobs and businesses may be lost. Communities will be changed in ways no one could ever have imagined.

But no matter how hard the crucifixions may be, they never have the last word. The last word is reserved for the Word which renews us in the wake of every obstacle. That Word to us is Love.

And so it is in Love we wait. Yes, we grieve, we work, we watch, we weep. But most of all we love because we have been through this before, and we know exactly what awaits us on the other side.

First, follow

Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018 – Mark 8:31-38

I had the privilege of preaching at St. Mark’s in Little Rock, AR a few weeks ago. I was honored to receive the Anne Kumpuris scholarship from the parish, and I am thrilled that the parish hosted me. You can watch the sermon here. 

Let’s take a moment to set the stage for today’s gospel. In the scene immediately preceding today’s Gospel, as Jesus and his disciples enter Caesarea Philippi, it becomes clear that there is confusion about who Jesus actually is.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They reply, “A prophet. John the Baptist, Elijah.”

“And what about you? What do you think?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

“That’s correct,” Jesus says to Peter, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Don’t tell anyone.

At that point, today’s Gospel begins. Jesus immediately tells his disciples that he will undergo extreme suffering and rejection.

That’s right. Immediately after Jesus affirms that he is indeed the Messiah, he tells his followers that he will suffer and die.

“I am the Messiah, and I will die.”  Those two things do not fit. Jesus’ followers have just confessed that they believe him to be the Messiah, and then he tells them that he is going to be attacked and killed.

We get it, but for Peter, this is shocking news. It just does not add up. Peter pulls Jesus aside and scolds him—“Don’t say that, Jesus! It doesn’t look good! “The Messiah doesn’t come to die! He comes to reign!”

Peter’s confusion is understandable. Jesus is not the type of Messiah that Peter, or any of the rest of Jesus’ disciples, have been expecting. The Messiah they are expecting and the Jesus who stands before them do not match.

The Messiah their ancestors died waiting on would never forecast his own death. The Messiah they expect is a warrior who will destroy their enemies before their very eyes, not someone who will submit to Roman imperial authority. The Messiah they are looking for will come in a triumphant blaze of glory to usher in the new age, not to die a criminal’s death outside the city walls.

Jesus needs to get his disciples to understand their tradition in a new way. They have long-expected a Messiah, but this Jesus before them doesn’t exactly match their expectations.

Jesus has made some progress with them so far. After all, Peter was able to identify him as the Messiah. Even though Peter got the answer right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he understood the question.

We have all been there. If you have studied a language or taken a math class you might know that just because you answer correctly doesn’t necessarily mean you really “get it.”

Just because you fill in the blank with the appropriate verb conjugation, or write the correct number on the line, doesn’t mean you really understand why those answers are correct.

Likewise, just because Peter answers that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, that doesn’t mean that he understands all that it entails.

Peter and the others still have some learning to do.

That’s fine. We all do.

John and Debra have been married for 18 years. They have two children. John is a very successful accountant, a partner in his firm. Other than at church on Sunday, the family doesn’t get much time together. But John always tells them that he loves them. That’s sort of his thing. He always tells his wife and children that he loves them.

When he wakes up he says, “I love you.” Before he heads out the door he says, “I love you.” He works late nearly every day. On Saturdays when he inevitably misses soccer games and dance recitals he texts, “Good luck today, I love you!” On Valentine’s Day he sends his wife flowers and a card with this message. “I’m sorry I can’t make the reservation. I love you.”

John is very sweet, and it is clear that he knows the importance of telling his loved ones how he feels, but his wife and kids cannot help but think, does he really get it?

Just because you tell someone all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you really know what it means to love someone. Just because you write a sweet note, draw a perfectly shaped heart, and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” with the biggest smile ever doesn’t mean you really know all that love entails.

Just because you confess Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t mean you really understand what it means.

I remember as kid listening to my father talking to a traveling salesman who was selling a cleaning product—some sort of polishing solvent. This was the best product on the market, you understand.

This product could clean anything! This product was second to none!

“Well, what does it do.”

“This is the premier product on the market.”

“How does it work?”

“You won’t find a product as good as this one.”

“Yes, but what is it exactly?”

Just because you know something is the best, doesn’t mean you really understand all that it has to offer.

“You are the Messiah, Lord!” says Peter. “Don’t tell people you’re going to die!”

“No!” says Jesus, “You don’t get it yet, Peter.”

He even says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We tend to focus a lot on the “Satan” part of that phrase and not as much on the “get behind me” part. Satan means “accuser.”

Let’s not be more dramatic than we have to be. Focus on the “get behind me” part.

Jesus says, “Get behind me. You don’t get it yet. I’m in charge here. You need to get behind me and start paying attention.”

Well, behind Jesus is a pretty good place to be. It’s from there that we follow him.

“Peter, you don’t quite get this yet, so get in line. Get behind me. Let me be the leader now. You just keep following. There will come a time when I will be gone and you will have to lead, but right now, it’s my turn.”

Follow me, Peter, so that you can see difference between the one who you expect and the one who I am. The difference between the Messiah so long expected and the one who I embody.

Follow me and I’ll show the difference between the things you expect, and the things that God has in store. “For now, you don’t need to tell anyone who I am; you just need to follow me, Peter.”

That, brothers and sisters, is the gospel’s call to all of us. Follow.

Lent can be a disorienting season. Even in the midst of the challenges, Jesus calls us to follow him.

When you don’t understand why bad things happen, what are you to think?

When you want to throw up our hands after 17 kids get murdered, what are you to do?

When you lose a loved one, what are you to know from that experience?

Those questions, and so many more, can be answered first by following Jesus.

When bad things happen, we grasp at answers, we seek out solutions. We think if we can identify an answer, then we can solve the problem.

The truth is, having the right answers is not enough.

But Jesus does not call us to right answers, he calls us to follow.

Understanding and finding answers is good, but it is not where we start. Jesus calls us to discover why his way is the way. How do we do that? We follow.

We follow him all the way to Easter.

Follow Jesus.

Follow him into Jerusalem and learn what a parade for real king looks like. Follow him to the Mount of Olives and learn a lesson from a fig tree.

Follow him to Gethsemane and learn what it means to sweat blood. Follow him all the way to the cross and learn what it means to weep and wail and cry.

Even when you don’t know why.

Stand there. Behold the blackened sky.

Stand there. Watch him die.

Stand there. For three days. Wait on the Lord. And early one morning, it will be clear enough.

The rhythm of prayer

Thursday in the First Week of Lent – February 22, 2018 – Matthew 7:7-12

It is a joy to be asked to preach for the students, faculty, staff, and families of my alma mater. Thank you to the recording crew at the Chapel of the Apostles for this audio.

Ask. Search. Knock.

Ask— and it will be given you; search— and you will find; knock— and the door will be opened for you. 

Everyone who asks receives, everyone who searches finds, and everyone who knocks finds an open door.

Ask. Search. Knock. — Receive. Find. Open.

Jesus’ words sound out for us the rhythm of prayer like the beat—beat—beat of a drum. [1]

Ask. Search. Knock.

This is the pattern of our prayer.

In prayer we ask God for things. We know—or think we know—what we want from God so we name our needs and our desires. We ask. [2]

Bless us, O Lord. Deliver us, O Lord. Save us, O Lord.

“Dear God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Dear God, Give me a little brother for Christmas.”

“Dear God, Keep my little brother safe.”

“Dear God, Make my little brother disappear.”

When we don’t know what to ask, we search. We randomly name our thoughts before God. [3] Like in the space between the light switch and the bed, we grope around in the dark—having forgotten where even the most familiar things are.

As seekers we go to prayer not knowing what we want but relying on God to point it out.

“I’m unhappy, in a bad mood, I don’t know what I want. Mad at myself, Mad at you. Show me the way, Jesus. Show me the way.”

And sometimes no words come. All we find is a door. In that case, we can only knock. Sometimes we knock softly and patiently, opening the prayer book and reciting its well-worn words. Other times we pound erratically, shouting so loud that we expect our sorrow to separate the clouds and God to reach down and pick us up.

Sometimes all we can do is knock. “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Ask. Search. Knock.—These are the beats in the rhythm of our prayer.

In drought we pray for rain. In war we pray for peace. In frustration we pray for guidance. In turmoil we cry out.

Jesus taught us the rhythm of prayer. But he didn’t just use his words; he also used his life.

“And he withdrew to a quiet place to pray.”

“And he withdrew to a mountain to pray.”

“And he left them there and went up to pray.”

Jesus shows us constantly to punctuate our life with prayer. We are not strangers to this rhythm.

Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline. And that’s just a minimum!

For centuries there have been monastic prayer offices: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline. Such is the rhythm of Christian life.

The daily office offers time to sink into the psalms, whisper familiar collects, and bid our personal petitions to God.

“We pray for Michael our Presiding Bishop, John our Chancellor, and for all our bishops.”

This is what we do as Christians. We pray.

Even right now we are engaged common prayer. The red book gives us the slow and steady beat of our lives. Even the prayers within the rites of the Prayer Book have standard rhythms.

The the collects, for example. They are fashioned—mostly—according to a pattern:

Address. Attribution. Petition. Reason. Doxology.

Address—Dear God

Attribution—Almighty and ever-living father

Petition—Give us strength

Reason—So that we may more perfectly serve you

Doxology—In the name of your son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

The rhythm pulsates inside of us; it becomes part of who we are. We pray when we are thankful—before meals and when we gather with old friends.

When we are nervous—while the professor is passing out the midterm or just before we meet our beloved’s parents for the first time. When we have work to do—at board meetings and bible studies. When we are at the bedside—for healing or for a peaceful death.

Jesus taught us to pattern our lives with prayer. And so we do.

It’s a simple concept, easy to understand. But you don’t always do it very well. And I don’t always do it very well. I doubt, I wander, I fidget.

If you’re like me, sometimes the rhythm of your prayer is interrupted because you get distracted. What is appropriate to include? [4]

The things I need? The things I want? The things I think others need?

No matter what I have to offer, it seems inadequate. “Please God, I need to pass this exam.” Nope, too self-serving.

“I pray that I am not like them, Lord.” Hmmm…seems judgmental.

“Please God, Cure my flu.” But other people have it, too.

“I thank you Lord, that the sermon was a success.” Way too self-congratulatory!

In the silence at the daily office I list names of friends and family rapid fire, only to find myself worrying about who I did not name.

“Oh no! I prayed for Susan this morning, but I just talked to her. Nanette probably needed it more. And then there’s Diego. And my grandma! How could I forget her again??”

Do you do that? Edit your prayers?

“No, I won’t ask God for anything this evening. I’ve been asking for too much lately.”

I sure do.

Do your prayers feel inadequate sometimes?

“How many more child must die?”

“How many more women must be groped?”

I cannot stand the feeling of failing in prayer. But here’s the conclusion I’ve come to: There’s no reason to censor your prayer. I think a lot of us spend a great deal of time and energy trying to perfect the rhythm of our prayers, but that is not the point.

Jesus tells us to pray to God however we need to—by asking or searching or knocking. Maybe it’s all those things at once.

As long as you are praying you are participating in God’s rhythm for your life.

We pray to communicate with God. We do not have to be in touch with God. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, but we talk to God because we have a relationship with God, and that’s what you do when you’re in a relationship—you talk.

You talk to each other. It’s not always perfect, but it’s part of the rhythm of life together.

“Hi, Honey, how was your day?”

“Oh fine, and yours?”

“Not bad.”

“That’s all?

Why don’t you ever tell me anything anymore?”

“I’m not telling you every detail of every day.

I’m tired!

I just got home from work!”

What we say is rarely perfect, but we have the conversations because they are important to us, and they are important to God.

God understands when you don’t understand. God handles the onslaught of your disorganized thoughts even better than our professors!

God doesn’t require you to cite any sources or tag any friends. God just wants to hear from you.

I think it must be a most pleasing sound—the rhythm of God’s people in prayer. There is no better time than Lent to settle into a new discipline—a new rhythm—of prayer.

If you do, you might be surprised by what happens.

You will not be surprised because your attitude changes, or because you feel peaceful, or because you are more connected, or because you’re called to action.

No—I think you can anticipate all of that.

But if you settle into a rhythm of prayer I think you will be surprised to find that you are not the one in control. [5]

And that’s okay.

You didn’t start the beat; it belongs to the one from whom all blessings flow.

So…feel the divine rhythm.

Snap you fingers, clap your hands, tap your toes…

And pray.


[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 79.

[2] Ibid, 80.

[3] Ibid.

[4] cf. Long, 80.

[5] Ibid.

Everything To God In Prayer

La quinta semana en Cuaresma 4 de abril, 2017 – Numbers 21:4-9, John 8:21-30

I preached this sermon at one of our biweekly Spanish Eucharists. What an honor to be asked! I’m grateful for the seminary’s pastoral Spanish program. (See both Spanish and English versions below.)

Frecuentemente nos volvemos insatisfechos con Dios; no creemos que, en nuestras circunstancias actuales, le importemos a él. Vemos ejemplos de nuestra inclinación a la insatisfacción reflejada de vuelta a nosotros en ambas escrituras de hoy del Antiguo y del Nuevo Testamento.

Los israelitas eran impacientes, no confiaban en Dios, y empezaron a quejarse (algo que no resultó muy bien).  En su impaciencia y desconfianza Dios les mandó serpientes para que les mordieran y muchos murieron.  Solamente ante su muerte inminente admitieron su pecado y le pidieron piedad a Dios.

Del mismo modo, los judíos, como fueron representados en el evangelio de Juan, no aceptaron lo que Jesús les dijo. Muchos no lo tomaron en su palabra. Ellos también sufrieron una muerte, pero no una literal como la de los antiguos israelitas.  Más bien es en su confusión y en su descuido que perecen.  Es en sus pecados, en la seducción de este mundo.

Jesús les dice que no es hasta que el Hijo del hombre sea levantado – en la cruz, de la tumba, al cielo – que se darán cuenta de quién es. No es hasta que la serpiente de bronce es erigida en el desierto que vuelven a temer de nuevo a Dios.

Tenemos que admitir que, como nuestros antiguos antepasados, hay veces en nuestras vidas cuando estamos insatisfechos con Dios.  La Cuaresma es un tiempo que puede traer insatisfacción al frente de nuestras mentes.  Puede ser particularmente difícil de ver las maneras por la cual Dios trabaja en nuestras vidas al caminar por el desierto de Cuaresma y al prepararnos para recomprometernos a Jesucristo. 

Cuando nosotros, como nuestros espirituales antepasados, nos volvemos impacientes, cuando no logramos entender lo que está haciendo Dios, cuando Dios parece estar lejos de nosotros, entonces tenemos que ser honestos sobre esto al orar.

Es en esta manera que somos llamados a observar una Santa Cuaresma.  Somos llamados a orar, especialmente en horas de profundo aislamiento.  Orar no es algo simplemente relacionado con agradecimiento o con júbilo.  No es aún algo relacionado con enfermedad o muerte.  Como me dijo un amigo hace varios años, somos llamados a orar el entero espectro de la experiencia humana.  Cuando nos sentimos abandonados, somos llamados a orar una oración de los abandonados.  Cuando nos sentimos olvidados, oramos una oración de los olvidados. Cuando estamos sin esperanza, oramos una oración de los sin esperanza.

No podemos simplemente apaciguar nuestras insatisfacciones recordándonos que “Dios está siempre con nosotros”.  Ese tipo de respuesta trillada es inútil para nosotros cuando afrontamos una angustia profunda.  Más bien, Dios nos llama a abrazar nuestros sentimientos de aislamiento, a ser honestos sobre como nos sentimos con nosotros mismos y con Dios, y asentarnos profundamente en una vida de oración a medida que nos preparemos para la mañana cuando podamos gritar, “¡Él vive!”.


Often we become dissatisfied with God; we don’t believe that he cares about us in our current circumstances. We see examples of our propensity for dissatisfaction reflected back at us in both today’s Old and New Testament scriptures.

The Israelites were impatient; they did not trust God, and they began to complain (which didn’t turn out so well). In their impatience and distrust God sent snakes to bite them, and many died. Only in the face of their impending death did they admit their sin and ask God for mercy.

Likewise, the Jews as portrayed in John’s gospel, did not accept what Jesus told them. Many did not take him at his word. They too experienced a death, though not a literal one like that of the ancient Israelites. Rather it is in their confusion and neglect that they perish. It is in their sins, in the seduction of this world.

Jesus tells them that it is not until the Son of Man has been lifted up—on the cross, from the tomb, up to heaven—that they will realize who he is. It is not until the bronze serpent is erected in the wilderness that they come to fear God again.

We must admit that, like our ancient predecessors, there are times in our own lives when we are dissatisfied with God. Lent is a time that can bring dissatisfaction to the forefront of our minds. It can be especially hard to see the ways God works in our lives as we walk through Lent’s wilderness and make preparations to recommit ourselves to Christ.

When we, like our ancient spiritual ancestors, grow impatient, when we fail to understand what God is doing, when God seems distant from us, then we must be honest about it in prayer.

It is in this way we are called to observe a Holy Lent. We are called to prayer especially in times of deep isolation. Prayer isn’t just about thanksgiving or joy. It’s not even just about sickness or death. As a friend told me some years ago, we are called to pray the whole spectrum of the human experience. When we feel forsaken, we are called to pray a prayer of the forsaken. When we feel forgotten, we pray a prayer of the forgotten. When we feel hopeless, we pray the prayer of the hopeless.

We cannot simply placate our dissatisfactions by reminding each other that, “God is always with us.” That kind of trite response is useless to us when we face deep anguish. Rather, God calls us to embrace our feelings of isolation, to be honest about our feelings with ourselves and with God, and to settle deep into a life of prayer as we prepare ourselves for the morning we can cry, “He lives!”

Born From Above

B1DBA3A1-2D13-4894-83A4-18D8B1D7FDAFLent II—March 12, 2017—John 3:1-17

I preached this sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Decatur, Alabama where I am doing my field education. I am blessed in having the opportunity to spend time with and learn from them every week. I am especially grateful for them recording my sermon which can be found by clicking here

         It’s fitting that Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. The image of darkness creates a mysterious atmosphere, especially in our Lenten setting, one that hints at a time of uncertainty, a search for meaning, and further discernment.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus for a reason. Maybe because Jesus recently took the Passover festivities by surprise, angrily driving out the moneychangers from the temple with a whip and performing miracles.

Nicodemus says, “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.”

Jesus responds, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

That kind of language is familiar to us; we’ve heard it all our lives. There’s a type of American revivalistic Christianity that attaches itself staunchly to this image as a way to describe the personal commitment of the believer. You have to be born again.

For many Christians, this statement implies a kind of conscious choice. “Are you saved?” is a question that implies that any Christian could make that decision for themselves.

But to Nicodemus it just sounds like a bad joke.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

As Nicodemus becomes overly involved pondering the physical implications of Jesus’ statement (“one cannot enter a second time his mother’s womb”) Jesus begins to reassure him.

“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.”

All of the sudden Nicodemus’ whole theological worldview has been completely upended, his spiritual world shaken.

To be born “from above” or of the “Spirit”…It’s not tangible.

It’s elusive—think of the wind in the trees.

You can’t see a gust of air, you know it only by the results of its presence. So it is with being born from the Spirit. You can’t see the Spirit itself, but if you pay attention you can see evidence of its work over time.

Jesus helps us identify the Spirit, not by giving us a strait-forward glimpse of it, but by offering an invitation for us to discern how it is at work in our lives.

Often, unless we pay really close attention, we don’t notice changes in ourselves or in the world around us until we look back and find the evidence.

We don’t see those changes occurring in ourselves each day, we only notice them when we reach for a photo album.

“Did my stomach really used to be that flat?!”

God’s creation might be evaporating right in front of our eyes. Our bodies might be subtly changing everyday. But we don’t recognize the change until we take time to look for the evidence.

Jesus invites us to see an unexpected perspective.

During this season of self-denial and repentance we are called to accept Jesus’s invitation to discern the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives.

We are called to examine ourselves and our lives so that we too might recognize the moments of grace that open our eyes to Jesus—God’s saving gift to us—sent not to condemn us but to reveal in our likeness the promise of new birth.

It’s time to take stock of that grace.

Some people are really good at it, including my friend Pam. Each time I hear from her she tells me about how God has been working in her life.

It’s almost instinctive.

She tells me about her deliverance from health struggles. She talks to me about her daughter’s new job. It really is a spiritual gift I think, to be able to recognize God at work in your life like that.

Everyone should be so lucky as to have the ability to reflect in that way.

Nicodemus first visited Jesus because he was curious about Jesus’ teachings, and his spiritual outlook ended up drastically changing from a set of well-organized beliefs once he learned about this mysterious birth by the “Spirit.”

But it didn’t stop there.

He appears again a few months later (in chapter seven of John’s gospel) during the Jewish Festival of Booths.

The chief priests and pharisees are plotting to arrest Jesus, and as they argue with the temple police about the best method for doing so, Nicodemus speaks in Jesus’ defense.

“Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”

He stands up for Jesus.

Give the man a fair hearing. It’s our custom. He at least deserves that.

And then several months later we meet Nicodemus again.

He accompanies Joseph of Arimathea to embalm Jesus’s body after it has been taken off the cross.

The scripture says, “Nicodemus came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.”

He arrives to tend to the limp and broken body of the Lord.

Give the man a proper burial. It’s our custom. He at least deserves that.

Is this the same skeptical pharisee that appeared in the middle of the night? It would seem that his first visit to Jesus had quite an affect—a lot’s happened to Nicodemus since then.

I wonder if, the day Nicodemus laid Jesus in the tomb, he thought back on that first time he met with him.

I wonder if he’d recognize himself?

I wonder if he’d recognize the Spirit’s work in his life.

I wonder if, as he laid Jesus in the tomb that day, he’d hear the wind rustle the treetops and think of a birth, his birth, from above.