In the second of a series of sermons exploring discipleship and what it means to receive from Jesus, Karen, our Ministry Leader for Discipleship, invited us to consider how we are looked after by God
Before Easter we considered how we are loved by God - the first part of our discipleship series on what we receive from Jesus . In the Parable of the Two Sons (Luke 15 v11-32), the wayward younger son and morally superior elder son were both lost in different ways and needed to know the Father's love. Now we move on to consider how God looks after our deepest need.
1. PARALLELS WITH THE NHS
The NHS has been called "the closest thing the British have to a national religion". Our hospitals were nationalised in 1948 in line with Beveridge’s report which argued that universal health care access should provide us all with social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’. If we fell ill, the NHS would look after us. My Gran told tales from the days before the NHS. Her family agonised over whether to call a doctor when her father fell ill because of the cost. Last summer my husband received amazing emergency eye surgery at Inverness hospital while we were on holiday. I believe in the NHS. I'd hate to imagine life without it. But I also know it has limitations. We can't always see our favourite GPs, we wait for tests, test results and appointments and some drugs are too expensive to prescribe. The NHS doesn't look after all our needs.
It's interesting to consider the parallels between our old testament (Numbers 21 v4-9) and new testament (John 3 v1-21) readings and medical care. The Israelites grumbled on their journey from Egypt to the promised land and were bitten by poisonous snakes. God told Moses to lift a bronze snake on a pole and those who looked on it were healed. The medical profession still uses the snake as a symbol today, for example on Western Region ambulances. When Jesus meets the respected Pharisee Nicodemus, he uses this old testament story to challenge him about his condition. Nicodemus isn't bitten by a snake but there are key parallels.
2. NICODEMUS "DIAGNOSES" JESUS
What do we know about Nicodemus? He's a free, Jewish male which immediatley gives him a certain status in his society. He's also a Pharisee but not just a Pharisee - Nicodemus is a top Pharisee. He's a Jewish leader. A man at the top of his field. Respected in his society, much as we respect NHS consultants today. There was a hierarchy and Nicodemus was at the top. People were interested in his opinions. He advised others. He shared his wisdom. When we go to an NHS Consultant they ask us questions and then give their diagnosis. We don't start discussing their problems. There's a convention associated with the status differential. That's how it was with Nicodemus.
So when Jesus appears in Galilee and Judea causing a stir with his amazing healings and radical stories, it's not surprising that Nicodemus ways him up. He analyses this new phenomenon as he analyses everything else. When he reaches his conclusion, Nicodemus visits Jesus at night to share his insights.
"Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God. No one could perform the miracles you are doing unless God were with him." v2
Nicodemus "diagnoses" Jesus as a teacher and a miracle-worker. That's his conclusion. What do you think, with the benefit of two thousand years hindsight? We might want to commend Nicodemus on his wise analysis, especially as some Pharisees thought Jesus worked for Satan. Nicodemus has done well, hasn't he? Jesus doesn't think so. He immediately refutes Nicodemus' labels and starts "diagnosing" Nicodemus instead.
3. JESUS "DIAGNOSES" NICODEMUS
These verses from John 3 can be so familiar that we miss their radical nature. Remember, we don't diagnose NHS consultants. Jesus is breaking the norms of his day.
Jesus says to Nicodemus...
"I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again" v3
Nicodemus, you may be an established, respected Jewish teacher, but you've got it all wrong. You've got to start again from scratch like a new born baby. You're used to weighing up ideas and situations independently without need to defer to any higher authority but you've got to re-learn what it means to be dependent again - dependent on God just as a new-born baby is dependent on its parents.
Jesus continues ...
"Do not be surprised because I tell you that you must all be born again. The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone born of the Spirit." v7-8
Nicodemus, you're an intelligent, respected man but you're relying on your own logic and its severely limited. There is a deeper, more mysterious wisdom that you've missed completely - Spirit-wisdom. God's Spirit is like the wind. You'll never completely understand it and you'll never control it. Even with our 21st century weather stations and computer modelling, meteorologists can't predict the weather accurately. Nicodemus doesn't understand all the mysteries of God.
"How will you ever believe me when I tell you about the things of heaven? And no one has ever gone up to heaven except the Son of Man who came down from heaven." v12
Nicodemus may be a great teacher and Jewish leader but he know so little compared with Jesus - the Son of Man who has come down from heaven. Nicodemus is used to dispensing his own wisdom to others but now he's got to learn from Jesus instead.
How can we summarise Jesus "diagnosis" of Nicodemus? What could we write in Nicodemus' notes? Nicodemus has the same perilous condition as ever other human being on the planet. He is self-centred, self-inflating, self-elevating rather than God-elevating. He's like the Israelites in the desert who stopped trusting God and did things their own way. He's like Adam and Eve who took instructions from another talking snake rather than God, in an attempt to gain God levels of knowledge. It's the human condition - we all suffer from it. Nicodemus needs saving from himself just like all of us.
4. GOD PROVIDES THE "CURE"
God provided a cure for the Israelites in the desert. Moses lifted up the snake and everyone who turned to look at it was saved from death . Jesus says that he will be lifted up on the cross in a similar way to provide a "cure" for the human condition.
"As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God so loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour." v14-17
Famous verses. The heart of the gospel. The good news. God provides the "cure" for self-centred, self-elevating human hearts because he loves us - Nicodemus and everyone else in the world. Human beings misunderstand their place in the world. Jesus comes down from heaven and saves us from ourselves.
What does Jesus say about the "cure"?
"No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again." v3
Those who start afresh pass from this world - the part of creation separated from God's ways - to the Kingdom - the part of creation where God's ways holds sway.
"Everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life." v16
God is the source of life - life in all its fullness, abundant love, eternal life. After rebelling against God, Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life and experience death for the first time. Separated from God, death is at work in us rather than life. Those who turn to the cross pass from death to life.
"The light has come into the world but people love the darkness more than the light ... " v20
Those who turn to the cross pass from darkness to light. We are reminded of this each Christmas when we read John 1.
Kingdom, life, light - quick words to say but the cost of our "cure" far out ways any NHS drug. There was an enormous cost. Our "cure" cost Jesus his life. He dies our death that we may live his life. We are forgiven. We start afresh. We pass from darkness to light. Jesus bears the cost
The Bible and Christians use different metaphors to try to explain how the cross works - the doctrine of atonement
From the Temple - Jesus is a sacrifice
The battlefield - Jesus is the victor conquering death
The market place - he buys us like one would buy a slave
Kidnapping - he pays the ransom to set us free
Courtroom - he serves our sentence
They are each helpful in different ways but also have limitations. Key here is to remember Jesus words to Nicodemus about the wind. I don't believe we will ever fully understand how the cross provides our "cure". It remains a Spirit mystery. However, the Hebrew word translated "atonement" in English bibles can also be translated more simply as "covered". It's the word used for snow covering the land and for covering the cost of a bill. The key fact for us as we focus on discipleship at Highbury isn't HOW the "cure" works but WHO provides it. God covers us. He "looks after us" our gravest need.
Different members of my family run the Great South Run each year. After the race the runners, spectators and other family members gather for a meal together to celebrate afterwards. One year our son brought two fellow university students and they joined us at Frankie & Benny's. As they looked down the menu and saw the prices their faces changed. They wanted to be part of the celebration but couldn't afford the food. What a relief when the older adults said they'd cover the cost.
That's how we have to accept God's providence. The NHS is there for when we fall ill but God looks after us in a deeper way, saving us from our underlying problem - the self-centredness of the human heart - if we turn his way.
In one way we pass instantly from one side of the cross to the other when we turn to the cross but in another way it takes the rest of our lives for these to bed into us and melt and mould our hearts.
5. WHICH SIDE OF THE CROSS?
How much are we still trying to maintain our independence and rely on our own logic and wisdom? Please use the diagram on the service sheet to reflect over the coming week. Which side of the cross are you on? God offers us the "cure" at enormous cost but we each need to respond. Some people are reluctant to go to the doctor when we're ill. Are you like that with the cross? Are you accepting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour today? Love so amazing so divine demands my life, my soul, my all.