New Born- Again!

Rev. Rick MixonA sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Text: John 3:1-21

Remember the children’s song about “Michael Finnegan”? It’s one of those songs for which you could make up endless verses, dragging it out to the point of driving adults like your parents crazy? Every stanza ends with the instruction to “begin again.” That could mean start a new verse or it could mean repeat the same one over and over ad nauseum. One version that seems particularly appropriate for Pentecost goes like this:

There was an old man
named Michael Finnegan.
He had whiskers
on his chin-ne-gan.
The wind blew them off
and blew them on again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin Again.

There’s that pesky, tricky wind, blowing where it chooses and doing the most unlikely things. Imagine blowing whiskers on and off. It obviously caused consternation for poor old Michael Finnegan. This song came to mind because of that key word “again.” I was planning to use the traditional text from Acts for today’s service, but then Jan suggested we sing the spiritual, “New Born Again,” and Brian McLaren suggested we look to John 3 as a text. Was the Spirit at work, conspiring to move us from something more traditional to a new way of thinking about Pentecost? Who knows, but here we are…again.

“Born again” is a familiar phrase in our vernacular. It does not always carry the best connotations for those of a more progressive persuasion. Alyce McKenzie tells this little tale about being evangelized:

I was in the waiting area at our local Discount Tire store last week waiting for my new tires to be put on my car. I picked up a women’s magazine and was intently reading an article called, ‘How to supercharge your metabolism.’ I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I’m waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: ‘How to be born again’ and I heard a man’s voice ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to read    something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?’

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn’t reply immediately, he asked, ‘Well, have you?’ I said, ‘I’m glad you asked that question. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don’t think Jesus means ‘born again’ as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it’s over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that’s done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it’s a lifelong process.’ At that the man shook his head as if to say ‘Geez, lady, it’s a yes or no question. How   hard is that?’ He took his tract back and moved on” (Alyce M. McKenzie, “Nicodemus’s Non-Decision,” Edgy Exegesis, 3-14-2011, patheos.com).

I guess that’s what you get when you try to buttonhole a preaching professor with a tract and a slogan. “Born again” is not a once and for all “emotional lightning strike.” It is a “lifelong process” that “calls for our participation.” When Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, he may be looking for some simple, easy answers. However, he does not walk away when Jesus challenges him to dig deeper and look beyond what he is already so certain of. It is a little like poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again. Go over it one more time. See if you can’t enter more fully into God’s will and God’s way for your life. Find the freedom. Find the grace. Be new born…again.

If Nicodemus truly believed he had everything all worked out, would he would have come knocking on Jesus’ door under cover of darkness? Nicodemus had an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. He’d heard these remarkable stories about Jesus and he was just curious enough to come check him out. Maybe he could learn something from this young, upstart rabbi. Maybe he just meant to check his credentials.

He starts boldly enough, speaking with his customary tone of authority. “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.” The question is implied but he can’t quite ask it. “Are you the One or should we look for another?” You know there must have been a current of excitement running beneath that neatly manicured, richly appointed exterior. If there hadn’t been, why would he be there at all? Like the rest of the faithful in his tradition, he longed for the coming of the Messiah, the one from God who would put all things right, bringing in God’s righteous reign on earth.

The response is swift and challenging. It catches the powerful Pharisee off guard. “In truth I tell you no one will see God’s reign without being born again.” It seems that Jesus never tells us exactly what we want to hear. That is, there is always a challenge to stretch us, inviting us to grow beyond our narrow religious views into something that is more spiritually risky and fulfilling.

In his attenuated, literalistic reply, Nicodemus sounds rather foolish. (That may, in fact, be characteristic of those who take a boxed in, literalist perspective.) I wonder if Nicodemus realized how silly he sounded before he even finished his question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In the rich tradition of John’s gospel, this is exactly the sort of question that sets Jesus off and running.

What the great “teacher of Israel” has missed is the word play. The word that Jesus uses for rebirth can be interpreted as “again” or “from above.” There is a newness of life that comes from following Jesus. The reign of God asks for and offers more than we can ever fully grasp. The challenge to live into the Beloved Community of God goes against all religious stereotyping and undermines every idolatry, whether or not we recognize such in our own lives.

There’s another verse I discovered from “Michael Finnegan” that goes like this:

There once was a man named Michael Finnegan.
He kicked up an awful dinnegan
because they said he must not sin again.
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again.

Sin, that which separates us from God, that which blocks the way, that which keeps us stuck. Rather than making the road by walking, we find ourselves going around in familiar circles or stuck on a treadmill. It may be good for losing few pounds, but in the end does it get us anywhere?

In today’s Words of Preparation, Brian McLaren tells us, “At the core of Jesus’ life and message, then, was this good news: the Spirit of God, the Spirit of aliveness, the Wind-breath-fire-cloud-water-wine-dove Spirit who filled Jesus is on the move in our world. And that gives us a choice: do we dig in our heels, clench our fists, and live for our own agenda, or do we let go, let be, and let come…and so be taken up into the Spirit’s movement” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 205). To be taken up into the Spirit’s movement is to be born again, to be born into the Beloved Community of God. It is to enter a community unlike any we have ever known. It is beyond our wildest dreams. It is all we have hoped for, longed for, prayed for and so much more. It is God loving the world, the whole wonderful creation, in ways that restore, redeem, rebirth.

We have to be clear, though, that this road Jesus asks us to walk with him is not an easy one. The Beloved Community is surely coming but we know “it don’t come easy.” John Dear reminds us some of the challenges when he writes of our present reality that “Following Jesus today in a land of nuclear weapons, rampant racism, and widespread economic injustice means actively going against our culture of violence.  As the culture promotes violence, we promote Jesus’ nonviolence.  As the culture calls for war, we call for Jesus’ peace.  As the culture supports racism, sexism and classism, we demand Jesus’ vision of equality, community and reconciliation. As the culture insists on vengeance and execution, we pray with Jesus for forgiveness and compassion” (John Dear, Jesus the Rebel, p. 29).

This was the same sort of challenge Jesus gave Nicodemus 2000 years ago. The circumstances may have been somewhat different, but the way of the world was in constant conflict with the coming Community of God. Jesus confronts us with the same sort of mission he offered Nicodemus – to be new born…again. “The way I walk, the ministry I offer, the coming of the Beloved Community is profoundly counter-culture in any sense of hanging on to static traditions and narrow views that have outlived their usefulness. You may have to let go of some of your power and prestige and the trappings that go with your high position, Nicodemus. You may need to let be a sense of uncertainty and trust the road you walk with me, even when you can’t see that far ahead. You may find that you must let the Spirit come to you and blow you around a bit and take you to unexpected places. You may find yourself buried with Christ in a baptism of water and Spirit, then rising to walk in newness of life.

As we walk that road with Jesus, we sing

“We’ve found free grace and dyin’ love, we’re new born again.
We know the Lord has set us free, we’re new born again.
God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,
that all who will believe in Him will be new born again!
Free grace, free grace, free grace, sinner.
Free grace, free grace, we’re new born…again!”

Prophets of Peace (June 29, 2014)

sermonsPROPHETS OF PEACE

A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Texts: Jeremiah 28: (1-6) 5-9 (10-17)

 

If you find yourselves wondering about this morning’s text, I will say that I have similar thoughts. What is going on here and how is it relevant for us? I must confess that I chose this text and title in a scramble to provide overdue worship themes for the Spire. As I quickly read through the texts, the phrase “prophets of peace” stood out to me. I thought I ought to be able to pull together a serviceable sermon on this topic. The problem is, I was taken in by the prophecy of Hananiah in much the same way those who first heard his words must have been.

I can’t put all the blame on the creators of the lectionary, but this does seem like one of those times when they have taken a passage out of its context and set it out in a confusing way. What’s going on here? Do you know? Neither did I until did some further research. Today’s text comes in the middle of what one commentator calls a “prophetic throw down” between Jeremiah and Hananiah. There is a setting and an outcome to this confrontation.

To begin with, we need to understand that Jeremiah is a gloomy prophet. His word from God is about destruction and exile. He is not a popular preacher. No one wants to hear what he has to say, and even those who accept his word wince at the language and tone of his proclamation. Remember that the people to whom he brought his prophetic word were covenant people. That is, they had a strong faith claim that God would be their God and they would be God’s people. But what Jeremiah and other prophets insisted on saying to them was that this covenant was conditional. They would be God’s people as long as they kept the covenant. And though God was characterized as being faithful and merciful, gracious in loving kindness, there were also limits to God’s patience.

I think we struggle with this notion whenever we are confronted with these texts from Hebrew scriptures. We want to believe in a God of infinite grace and unconditional love. What are we to do with a God who also judges and punishes? One way to look at the phenomena that is helpful to me is to say that we are either in relationship or we are not. The more we are centered in God, the more likely we are to know infinite grace and unconditional love. The further we wander from the relationship, the less likely we are to know those qualities. There are consequences to being out of relationship, not punishment as much as the absence of grace and love in our lives.

Anyway Jeremiah is carrying a word from God that at least spells out the consequences for the people of Judah whom he insists have broken the covenant and fallen out of relationship with God. Who knows for certain if Yahweh could have saved them from the workings of the Babylonian superpower? But it does seem that the destruction of the land and the exile are a direct result of their engagement in entangling political alliances in an effort to control their destiny.

In the 27th chapter, Jeremiah has instructed the king of Judah and his co-conspirators to give in to Babylon. He claims that it is God’s will that they live under the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar and to dramatize his point he has created a yoke to wear around his own neck. For people who have believed that they were God’s chosen it is inconceivable that the Babylonian king could be God’s servant. Jeremiah is uttering blasphemy.

“In the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord…Make yourself a yoke of straps and bars, and put them on your neck. Send word to the king of Edom, the king of Moab, the king of the Ammonites, the king of Tyre, and the king of Sidon by the hand of the envoys who have come to Jerusalem to King Zedekiah of Judah…Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomsoever I please.  Now I have given all these lands into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him even the wild animals of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him…

But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this king, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, then I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, says the Lord, until I have completed its destruction by his hand.”

For Jeremiah, God’s word, God’s intention is clear – as a religious perspective on what is surely a political reality.

But here is the crux of the conflict with Hananiah. Jeremiah continues his witness,

“You, therefore, must not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your soothsayers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ For they are prophesying a lie to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land; I will drive you out, and you will perish. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, says the Lord, to till it and live there” (From Jeremiah 27).

Now you can imagine this was not a popular word. It did not fit the political or theological mindset of his hearers. This group of kings, perhaps with the aid of Egypt, the other great superpower of the time, believed they could rebel against Nebuchadnezzar and drive him out of their lands. And, of course, each nation believed they had their own god or gods on their side. “Not so,” cries Jeremiah. “Get real or get ready for destruction and exile.”

So in the beginning of chapter 28, the prophet Hananiah calls Jeremiah out, in the temple courtyard, in front of all the people. “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. 4I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.” Take that, Jeremiah. The gauntlet is thrown.

Hananiah sounds like a prophet, carries himself like a prophet, uses all the right language. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck… To Jeremiah’s credit, he does not jump to conclusions. When he says, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied…” there may be a note of sarcasm but there also seems to be a note of longing for peace and prosperity. If only what Hananiah is saying could be true.

After Hananiah has dramatically broken the symbolic yoke around Jeremiah’s neck, Jeremiah leaves the scene, not so much in defeat as to wait for the word of God. The work of discernment is essential to knowing if a word comes from God. Jeremiah goes away to pray, to contemplate, to listen for God. I think there is wise instruction here for us in terms of how we evaluate the words, the prophecies, the promises that come to us from all angles. Will we step aside before rushing to judgment, to listen for God’s word, to look for God’s way, to center ourselves in the One whom we live and move and have our being?

The story concludes with a word from God, reiterating the desire for Nebuchadnezzar to rule and showing Hananiah’s prophecy to be false. There is no place for proclaiming peace where it is not possible. Hananiah may cry “peace” and the people and the leaders may break into thunderous applause but that will make it so.

Prophets of peace must also ensure they unveil the way of peace. It is a hard and challenging road and it may very well lead through destruction and exile. It seems Hananiah is proclaiming peace because it’s what people want to hear. It is reminiscent of a certain US president standing on the deck of a war ship proclaiming, “Mission accomplished,” or any public figure of any political persuasion referring to weapons and armies as instruments of peace and war as a a peacekeeping mission.

In the end, the way to peace is through compassion, love and justice. Peace is born of right relationship. It requires that we forgo our enmities and lay our weapons down. In the Choral Project concerts this week, we are singing Erik Johns’s words for Aaron Copeland’s great chorus from his opera, The Tender Land. The words say this, “The promise of living with hope and thanksgiving is born of our loving our friends and our labor. The promise of growing with faith and with knowing is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.” The promise of peace is always and only in right relationship, with God and neighbor – next door, nationally and globally.

As Oscar Romero writes in today’s words of preparation, “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the result of violent repression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.   It is right and duty.” Or as peace activist, John Dear, proclaims, “Being part of a community of peace is what it means to be human.” Shall we then embrace our humanity in communities of peace?

Jeremiah longed for peace but he also knew it would not come just because Hananiah said so. True prophets of peace act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Let’s give the last word to Jeremiah, a true prophet of peace, who, in the end, viewed God’s future eventually unfolding full of hope and promise. “Thus says the Lord…I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. Again I will build you, and you shall be built…Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (From Jeremiah 31).