Sunday, March 20, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.

Have you ever known someone for whom it could be said, ďShe (or he) really deserves to have something good happen for them? Take, for instance, the television show starring David Tutera, ďMy Fair Wedding.Ē On this show, David enters the life of a bride who is just weeks away from her wedding. She usually has some odd concept and limited finances. So, sheís approaching the concept of her wedding with the attitude of ďIíll do the best with what I have.Ē Most of the preparations end up being Dollar store items, often very tacky and confused. David privately talks to the camera after their initial meeting with thoughts about the absurdity of her plans. He then her ideas and transforms everything sheís done into the wedding of her dreams.

As he gets to know the bride and her family, the same idea is voiced by everyone, including David. ďShe really deserves this. We hear stories of her kindness, of her joy, of her humility. We hear about the nice things sheís done at work and for her friends. We see her amazement with every step of the process. Sometimes she is sad because she really liked something about her plans, but her sadness is always turned into joy when she sees Davidís vision of her concept. He is able, due to his resources, to do things which she is unable to do. He can use the finest lines, hire the best entertainment, and cater the most incredible food. He can take the work out of the day for her and treat her like a princess. By the end of the show we are in tears because we have seen this bride get everything she deserves, thanks to David.

The question we ask this week, with these scriptures, however, is ďDoes she really deserve this amazing wedding?Ē Does she really deserve it any more than another bride who is unable to produce a similar event because she doesnít have the resources or contacts? Why?

When we say someone deserves it, it means that they have earned it. What did she do to earn it? She earned an incredible wedding because she has done good things for others? She deserves it because she is a sweet girl or because she is humble enough to accept it? The word ďdeserveĒ is defined on as ďto merit, be qualified for, or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities, or situation.Ē

Iím not sure how they make the selection for the brides who appear on the show. They audition like they might audition for any other part on a reality television show. Iím sure the process includes questions about their lives and the things they have done. I imagine that part of the selection process is much the same as it is for college scholarships or other awards. For those scholarships, they look at each applicantís resume, read their essays, consider the numbers and then choose one above the rest to receive the money. With the television show, they probably also look at physical attributes, such as how they appear on camera and if they can speak well. The selection process is about choosing a person who has a history of good works, right attitude and proper qualifications.

At the end of the show, the bride and groom always take the microphone and give a speech in which they thank David for the incredible gift. He receives the praise and thanksgiving he so richly deserves for all he did to make their day special. She trusted him, and he gave her more than she could have imagined.

In the end it might be right that the bride deserves the wedding or the college student deserves the money, but can it then be called a gift? I donít know how much work goes into the audition for ďMy Fair Wedding,Ē but I can speak from experience on the scholarships. Iíve been through it with my daughter and Iím going through it with my son. Not only did they work hard throughout their school careers, but they also spent hours filling out applications, writing essays and seeking letters of recommendation from adults.

When it comes to earthly things like weddings and scholarships, there might be a fuzzy line between what is deserved and what is gifted. The same cannot be said about the gifts of grace from God. The bride trusted David and humbly accepted the changes he made to her wedding, including the changes she did not expect or even want so in some ways we can look at this television show from the faith perspective. She had to have faith that he would do what is right. But can we have faith in God the way a bride has faith in a wedding planner?

Paul tells us that we donít receive the gracious gifts of God because we deserve them. We canít trust enough, believe enough, work enough to deserve Godís blessing. We donít deserve heaven. We donít deserve the gifts that God gives. If we deserved these things, if we have done something to earn them, then they arenít gifts. But we receive heaven and Godís blessings because He has offered them to us and we believe Him. Thatís righteousness; we arenít righteous because weíve done something or because we are somebody who deserves what God has given. We are righteous because we trust in God and believe what He has said.

I like to watch ďMy Fair WeddingĒ because the brides usually do act in a way that gives me a sense that they deserve the good things they are receiving. They donít act like the brides on some of those other wedding shows that consider themselves much more highly than they ought: the bridezillas who act like the world should revolve around them and that the wedding is their moment to shine. They usually discount even the groom in their decisions, throw fits if people do not do everything they say and they spend money like the only thing that matters in all the world is their moment of glory. They are demanding and self-centered, and compared to them, Davidís brides really do deserve a nice wedding. God never said weíd be blessed for our works. We are blessed because of faith. Abraham was given an incredible promise, one that is beyond anything we might expect. He was promised that his name would be great and that his offspring would become a great nation. To see the fulfillment of this promise, Abram would have to leave everything he knew and loved behind and trust in Godís Word. He did not deserve what would come. As a matter of fact, he did not even see the fulfillment himself. But his offspring did. They received the promise because God was faithful. And we receive the same promise because God is faithful.

Godís promises were misunderstood by Jesusí time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. They were like the bridezillas, believing that they deserved the blessings they received from God. They boasted of their relationship with God based on who they were and what they did. They believed that they were right with God because they could point to a blood relationship with Abraham, but they lost touch with the reality of Godís grace.

Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didnít understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didnít have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed faith in Jesus, but Jesus knew that it was not complete, that it was upside down and backwards thinking.

Jesus answered his confession, ďVerily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.Ē Jesus was talking about faith. He was telling Nicodemus that his earthly birth and that faith had nothing to do with the ties that bind us to the earth. You have to be born again, in heart and in spirit.

The conversation continued as Jesus tried to explain the deeper things of God. He told Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he couldnít see these things beyond the thinking that had been conditioned by his religious and cultural point of view. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knew Jesus came from God but he couldnít understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus pointed to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.

It is still a radical revelation for many people. We still believe that weíll get the blessing of God based on our works, our attitude and our qualifications. When we say, ďShe (or he) deserves to be blessed,Ē we are thinking from the same frame of reference as those Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. We speak of our loved ones deserving heaven because we know they have lived good lives and done the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people who have done the right things. We thank God for graciously rewarding our good works but do not understand that we are seeing Godís grace from the wrong point of view. God doesnít bless us because we have been a blessing. We are blessed so that weíll be a blessing to others.

God didnít send Jesus because we deserve to be saved; the reality is quite the contrary. God gave us Jesus because He loves us. Because weíve been blessed by the saving grace of Christís blood, we are also been given to the world so that others will know Him and be saved. It is tempting to think that we deserve heaven, especially if we have done something extraordinary. But Jesus is calling us to look at it differently. We have been promised eternity in heaven not because we deserve it but so that weíll live lives of thanksgiving and praise to God, blessing others with acts that come from faith. We get to go to heaven because we trust in Godís word and His promises, faithfully living in the reality of His faithfulness.

God invited Abram on a journey to a place he did know. He would never see the fulfillment of the promises, but he trusted God and went on that journey in faith. God may not be calling us to go to a new nation or leave behind everything we know and love, but He is inviting us on a journey of faith, too. We donít know where the road will lead. We donít know who we will meet. We donít even know what weíll be expected to do. But we can travel with Him, trusting that He knows and that weíll end up in the Promised Land, just as He has promised. In faith we join in a journey with Abraham and share in his righteousness.

Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith. We have been blessed to be a blessing and so we go forth in faith to share Godís kingdom with the world. Our neighbors are much like Nicodemus, doubtful and confused. They may think that the blessings of God are earned, or deserved. But in that shallow faith is a seed that can be watered or a spark that can be fanned into an understanding of faith.

Jesus calls us into His live and blesses us with His grace and then sends us out to share our faith with others so that their faith may grow deeper. We may never see the fulfillment of our work; Abraham never experienced the fulfillment of Godís promises. It took four hundred years for his ancestors to enter into the Promised Land, yet he continued to walk in faith.

Did Nicodemus believe? We donít really know. Later in the story, when the Pharisees want to arrest Jesus and stop His ministry, Nicodemus called for calm and reminded the others that they should give Jesus the chance to speak for himself. He didnít tell them that they were wrong. He didnít stand up for Jesus. But he did want to do what is right according to the Law, to search for the truth and understand Jesus better. Later yet in the story, Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in dealing with Jesusí body. We canít see the deep faith of a believer, but we do see a seed or a spark that could grow into something spectacular.

I think that in some way we are all a little like Nicodemus. We know that Jesus is from God, but we have a hard time seeing past our understanding of grace. We think that we deserve Godís blessing because we have done something right or that we are blessed because we have been a blessing. God invites each of us on a journey to a place we donít know, a place where we have to trust in Him. He calls us on a pilgrimage to His Temple, where we will sing along with the psalmist in faith.

From where does our help come? It comes from the God who loves us and who has given His own Son to save us from our own failures. It comes not because we deserve it but because God has promised and is faithful. So, during this Lenten journey, let us be transformed by the journey, trusting in God and His amazing grace; He will keep our going out and coming in as we live in faith. Let us live as if we have been blessed to be a blessing, not the other way around, so that others will see Godís kingdom in this world and believe so that they, too, might be saved.

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