"The Mystery Of A Changed Heart"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - June 11, 2006
Psalm 29; John 3:1-7
As we turn to our Gospel lesson, who was Nicodemus and what was Jesus teaching about the need for people to be “Born Again”? Perhaps by understanding what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus, we might gain better insight into how we could apply this process to ourselves. First, who was Nicodemus?
Nicodemus had most of the things for which people strive. He was a very wealthy, powerful and deeply respected person. When Jesus died, for example, it was Nicodemus who purchased a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to anoint Jesus’ body. Only an extremely wealthy individual could have done that.
Nicodemus was also a Pharisee. There were only about 6,000 of them in existence at the time of Jesus and they were known as a chaburah or the brotherhood. They observed every detail of the scribal law.
Finally, Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, a court of seventy members. This body was the supreme court among the Jews. They had jurisdiction over every Jew in the world. One of the duties of this group was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.
It was highly unusual for a person of Nicodemus’ stature to consult with Jesus privately. No doubt it was the pressure of being discovered by a member of his select group that caused him to meet with Jesus under the cover of darkness. He resonated with Jesus’ teachings, even though much that Jesus taught was beyond traditional Judaism.
This is who Nicodemus was. Now let us turn our attention to what it means to be “Born Again.” Jesus taught, “No one can understand the Kingdom of God without being born again.” The Greek word, anothen has three meanings. It can mean from the beginning. It can mean literally being born a second time. Finally, it means having a person’s perception radically transformed from above or from God.
The most difficult challenge for any human being is this third definition, a definition that was known throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., Ezekiel 18:31, 36:26. Jesus was saying to Nicodemus, “You cannot understand much that I teach until you stop taking your cues for your responses strictly from the material world.” When Nicodemus appeared confused, Jesus said, “You do not believe me when I tell you things about this world, how will you ever believe me when I tell you things about heaven?”
Think now how challenging such a change in perception is for each of us. Most of us cannot calculate how much our identities are controlled by what our senses tell us. After all, this is how people understand their experiences. Jesus, however, was saying that listeners would never understand his message until they are able to rise above this world with all its cross currents, its diverse values, its compromises and its mixed messages.
The disciples did not understand; even they were not “Born Again.” Last week we briefly considered how they argued about who was the greatest among the group during their last supper together. There was a time when James and John wanted to rain fire down on a Samaritan village. Peter drew his sword in the garden ready to fight. What Jesus was teaching Nicodemus who was a brilliant teacher in Israel, his own disciples did not grasp. Where are we with respect to being “Born Again”?
Think about which world exacts the most loyalty from us. Your spouse comes home and tells you that the marriage is over because he or she has found someone else who really cares, who does not take them for granted and who really knows how to communicate. Your child totals your new car at 4:00 a.m. when you thought he was in bed. Someone who has far less skill than you, and yet is highly networked with your boss, gets the promotion that you deserved. A loved one is killed because of someone else’s choice to drive while intoxicated.
Most of us will encounter some form of injustice by being the target of some form of gossip or misinformation, developing a rare illness with which only a few physicians are familiar, be caught in a reduction of force when we are 57 years old, or having some dream for which we have worked all our life crumble before our eyes. Where are we with what Jesus was teaching Nicodemus? Are we “Born Again”? This radical change of how we perceive is the greatest challenge to master in our lives.
Let me read for you a paragraph from the conclusion of a book entitled, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. It was published in 1994.
Forty years after the Chinese occupation of Tibet, the world is still ignorant of what has happened, ignorant of the extent of the terror, destruction and systematic genocide that the Tibetan people have endured and are still enduring. Over 1 million people out of a population of 6 million have died at the hands of the Chinese; Tibet’s vast forests, as indispensable as those of the Amazon to the ecology of the world, have been cut down; its wildlife has been almost totally massacred; its plateaus and rivers have been polluted with nuclear waste; the vast majority of its six-and-a-half thousand monasteries lie gutted or destroyed; the Tibetan people face extinction, and the glory of their own culture in their homeland has been almost entirely obliterated.
The author goes on to say that spiritual masters, monks and nuns were the first targets because the Chinese Communists wanted to break the spirit of the people by destroying all vestiges of their religious life. It was this occupation that drove the Dalai Lama to find sanctuary in another country. However, the Chinese failed because the Communist leadership did not understand Buddhism.
What is absolutely remarkable and astounding about the Tibetan spiritual leadership that was left is that no unkind words have been written or spoken about what the Chinese did and are still doing to their people. The reason that the Tibetans have not responded with hostility is that they have learned that pain and suffering are part of the sojourn in the physical world. Had they not been “Born Again,” if they had not developed this orientation, this consciousness toward life – their thoughts would have destroyed them with anger, resentment, hatred and bitterness. Or much worse, they could have gone to war and been totally destroyed by the Chinese military.
Christians may be able to learn something from our Buddhist friends. Many Tibetans may be much closer to the Kingdom of God than some of us. So many of us are still trapped in the idea that if we rally enough people to our side or to our particular cause, we can defeat the reign of terror in the world.
We celebrate the death of Zarqawi as though his demise means something. We thought the death of Hitler, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot meant something too. A new terrorist network has always picked up where the last one left off. Such has been true during the many cycles of history.
What about us – the individual? Many of us are fairly resilient, flexible and economically stable. Nicodemus had everything – wealth, notoriety, power – what else is there for people to acquire? What he missed was his connection to God.
We have to consider the ways of the world for what they are. We frequently become snagged or embroiled in the little things that can destroy the fabric of our lives. This happens because we continue to identify ourselves with the temporary world of our physical senses.
In a science magazine I picked up while waiting for an appointment, I read a brief article about a gigantic tree in Colorado that had died. It had been a seedling when Columbus discovered the Americas. It was only half grown when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. A close study revealed that the tree had been struck by lighting 14 times. It had survived centuries of Colorado’s worst winters. Age did not destroy it. The tree withstood countless avalanches. Fire did not bring it down. According to the author, beetles, half the size of our notorious Japanese beetle, overcame this colossal tree. It was little things that stressed the tree until its life force gave out.
When we are overwhelmed by life, we need to ask ourselves – which world is controlling us? What is it that we feel we deserve that we are not getting? Jesus taught, “A person is born physically of human parents, but that person must also be born or awakened spiritually of the Spirit.”
We can only identify with the Buddhists of Tibet when we recognize that violence, terror and destruction are as much a part of creation as are peaceful communities, sacred temples and pilgrimages to holy places. We cannot experience one part of the equation of life without the other. Jesus loved children and teaching audiences eager to hear every word that he spoke. When he went to the cross, he understood that the destruction of innocence is also a part of what it means to be alive in this world.
Being “Born Again” should not give anyone bragging rights. In fact, those who have awakened their spiritual perception in the manner Jesus taught would much rather allow their behavior and attitudes to do the communicating, not words that suggest they have a particular pedigree.
John Wesley, who was among the first to be made fun of by the name Methodist, was not a perfect man. He made a lot of mistakes during his life but even a brief summary of his activities should give all of us pause. Notice in which direction his spiritual energy flowed.
Wesley traveled 250,000 miles on horseback, averaging twenty miles a day for forty years; preached over 4,000 sermons; authored 400 books and knew ten languages. At 83 he was annoyed that he could not write more than 15 hours a day without hurting his eyes. At 87 he was ashamed that he could not preach more than twice a day. He complained in his diary that there was an increasing tendency for him to say in bed past 5:30 a.m.
Being “Born Again” is an orientation toward life that firmly roots our identity with God, not in the physical world that is constantly changing. It is not a collection of beliefs as many Christians presume. Jesus was teaching this understanding to Nicodemus long before Jesus himself became the cornerstone of our theology, and place given to him much later by his followers.
The mystery of a changed heart has to do with a specific lifestyle and attitudes. When our loving energy is flowing away from us, even toward our enemies, we will carry ourselves with the peace and confidence that acknowledges that we are with God. Always there will be crusaders in our midst who want to slay their dragons. They too are part of our fabric of faith; only they have defined their faithfulness differently.
The path that few find, however, is learning how to let go of the things of this world while experiencing navigational training for the world to come. We cannot master peace, kindness, and forgiveness while still attacking others with our swords, in spite of how righteous the cause. Jesus said, “Peter, put away your sword.”
When we find this narrow gate, the spirit by which we live will teach and guide others. This is the essence of discipleship. This is how the spirit of one person inspired the growth of a spiritual path called Christianity.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful and always inspiring God, we thank you that you have taught us the healing power that comes from laughter and joy. You have shown us how praise and gratitude inspire others. We have learned how listening without judgment creates a secure confidence that allows others to be who they are. We have discovered the transforming quality of sharing our values when we confront values far different from our own. We have sensed how immediate freedom comes, when we let go of hurts, surrender our need to get even and celebrate life’s countless blessings. Continue to allow your light to shine through our eyes and smiles. Most of us have difficult days from time to time, yet we have chosen to define ourselves as your sons and daughters. That thought reminds us that we are yours and that thought restores our confidence. Amen.