I’m going to start this sermon with an understatement: It’s been a crazy year. One year ago this week, we were having our last in-person worship service before that first big shut-down because of the new corona virus that had just been declared a pandemic. Some of you were with us online that day, already being careful to avoid the virus. It had already been suggested that we not meet, but we did. It was an odd day. It felt a bit like a funeral. We had no idea what we were in for, but already had an ominous feeling about the days ahead.
It’s been a crazy year, so it’s not surprising that the Bible websites report that the most searched-for verse of 2020 was Isaiah 41:10:
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”Isaiah 41:10
We needed that righteous right hand of God holding us up in a bunch of new ways this past year. God is good, and God brought us through to this day. Life has changed, we have changed, and we may have done some lamenting to God about how hard this year has been, but we can also give thanks to God that we are here today. Some of us have already been vaccinated, some are in process, and it won’t be too long before it’s available to everyone. Praise God!
Isaiah 41:10 is a great verse for turning to God in difficult times, but John 3:16 is still the best known verse in the Bible. Do people still hold up posters at football games that say John 3:16? (When we had crowds at games before COVID.) It’s so well-known that the poster didn’t need the words of the verse, just citation – book, chapter and verse number. Many of you can probably say it with me….
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”John 3:16 NKJV
In our reading today, this verse comes in the middle of a conversation that Jesus is having with a man named Nicodemus, who might have been the shortest person in the Bible. Yes, the shortest. How do we know that? He was a ruler.
Actually, he was one of the pharisees. No doubt he’d heard about Jesus’ dramatic encounter with the temple leadership that we talked about last week, when Jesus flipped over the tables of the money changers, and drove out the people selling animals. Maybe Nicodemus even saw it happen. So one night, he came to see Jesus.
“Rabbi,” he said, “we all know that God has sent you to teach us. Your miraculous signs are evidence that God is with you.”
Jesus replied, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.” (John 3:3 MSG)
Jesus goes on to explain that being born from above is not a physical thing, but a spiritual rebirth in which we are renewed through faith and by the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a baptism into a new life, a life guided by the Holy Spirit, and it can be hard to understand, so Jesus compares it to a story Nicodemus would know from the book of Numbers.
When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, they started complaining. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (Numbers 21:5) They were tired of manna.
Do you know who first said they were sick of manna? The womana.
God got angry and sent poisonous snakes among them, so the people repented and asked Moses to plead with God on their behalf to take away the snakes. Moses did.
“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”Numbers 21:8-9
In our reading from John, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Just like Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. (John 3:14-16)
This is how much God loves us and how much God’s love matters.
What does God do? God loves us. Every one of us. And wants to spend eternity with us.
But it’s not just about eternity. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve got that covered. We can trust in God’s love, and we also need to trust enough to put that love into action. Jesus explains:
“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” (John 3:19,21)
What do we do? Just that. Trust Jesus enough to do what is right, live in the light, and do what God wants.
How do we know what God wants? We’ve got a Bible full of clues about that, but Jesus summed it up for us – love God and love one another.
What do we do? Love. Sounds easy. But it isn’t.
Which is why I wanted to tell you about Ann Atwater. Our small group learned about her last week. She is a Black woman who lived in Durham, North Carolina. Back in the 1970’s, when their schools were still segregated, Ann was appointed to be co-chair of a task force on integrating their schools. She was co-chair with the president of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, CP Ellis. Neither of them were happy about this. CP could barely even speak to Ann.
But Ann discovers that CP has a son in the local mental hospital that is having severe anxiety being around other patients. He needed to be in a private room, but CP is unable to get the hospital to move him. Ann offers to help but CP turns her down because he won’t accept help from a Black woman. Ann goes to the hospital anyway and gets CP’s son moved. Later, when asked why she would do that, CP was surprised to hear her answer. She said, “It’s what I do.”
She helps people. It’s what she does.
What do we do? We love people, and we love them enough to care about what they care about, even if they are our enemies. Ann and CP were enemies. So were Jesus and Judas. When Jesus laid down his life, he was doing it for everyone God loves, and that means everyone. Even Judas, even though Judas is the one who betrayed Jesus, the very act that led to Jesus being arrested and killed.
Jesus cared enough about Judas to die for him.
If we want to be like Jesus, what do we do? We care.
Last week I talked about Charles Sheldon, the Topeka pastor from a hundred years ago who wrote the book that coined the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” I found the book on Kindle and started reading it this week. The full title of the book is “In His Steps, What Would Jesus Do?” Inspired by a verse from 1 Peter 2:
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”1 Peter 2:21 NIV
The book tells the story of Rev. Maxwell, a pastor in a fictional town called Raymond. Maxell is at home in his study working on his sermon one day when he is interrupted by a knock on his front door. The pastor opens the door to find a shabbily-dressed young man asking for help to find a job. This was a common occurrence in those days, and the pastor doesn’t have any work to offer, so he sends the man on his way, anxious to get back to work on his sermon.
That Sunday, as the pastor finished delivering his sermon, he heard a voice in the back and saw the very man who had been at his house the day before. The man walked to the front of the church and proceeded to tell them that he looked this way because he had been going from town to town since he lost his job six months ago as a printer. Linotype machines had recently been invented, and this new automated technology had put many people like this man out of work.
He said he’d been in town for a few days looking for work but had found none, and he wasn’t complaining, but since the pastor had been talking about following Jesus, he wondered what that really meant? Especially since the only person who had expressed any sympathy to him was the pastor who said, “I’m sorry for your trouble.”
“I’m not complaining, am I? Just stating facts. But I was wondering, as I sat there . . ., if what you call following Jesus is the same thing as what He taught. What did He mean when He said, ‘Follow Me!’? The minister said . . . that it is necessary for the disciple of Jesus to follow in His steps, and he said the steps are ‘obedience, faith, love, and imitation.’ But I did not hear him tell you just what he defined that to mean, especially the last step. What do you Christians mean by following in the steps of Jesus?”
It turns out that the man was ill, and as he finished his speech he fell over the communion table and passed out. A doctor ran up to help. They took the man to the pastor’s house where they cared for him for several days, but the man died. It was distress over the man’s death and the impact of the man’s words that inspired the pastor to challenge the congregation the next Sunday to make a commitment for one year not to do anything without first asking the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and to do this as they best knew how, no matter what the result may be.”
In our passage from Ephesians that we read earlier, we see what God did. Verses 4 and 5 tell us that “…God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much,that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead.”
God gave us life – new life in Christ. Why did he do it? Because God loves us. God gave us the gift of faith, and life, and so it matters, then, how we live that life.
Verse 10 of Ephesians 2 says “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
As I was reading over this passage this week, those last few words of verse 10 struck me. “To be our way of life.” In our small group discussion last week, Carla Davison told us about a movie about Ann Atwater and CP Ellis called “Best of Enemies.” It’s about how Ann and CP became friends. In the movie, there’s a scene in which CP is leading a Ku Klux Klan meeting. As part of their meeting, they pledge to “preserve their way of life.” It sounds so close to what Ephesians 2:10 says, but what those men in the movie are pledging is to preserve white supremacy. But Ephesians tells us that our way of life is to be doing good works. It’s what we were created for. To love another.
The Ku Klux Klan pledges to be kind as well, according to the movie, but only to other Klan members. In reality, they spent most of their time being hateful to people of color and to any white person who is kind to people of color. Despite that, Ann Atwater helped CP Ellis’s son. “It’s what I do,” she said.
What do we do? Love one another, even our enemies. That’s what Ann did. And be kind to one another, even when it’s hard.
There’s another book I’ve been reading a bit at a time. It’s called Practicing, it’s by a pastor named Kathy Escobar. To practice is “to participate in an activity or implement a skill repeatedly to develop greater proficiency.” In her chapter about love she gives examples of some ways the church has missed the mark in this regard. One is whenever we say we “love the sinner but hate the sin.” It sounds kind of alright when we say it, but it’s hurtful to hear it, because it’s a statement of hate more than a statement of unconditional love. So Kathy encourages us to correct this and to help heal these hurts by practicing being truly loving without conditions. To practice being people who truly care.
Years ago there was a store that had a catchy motto:
At Savon, you can count on people who care.
Wouldn’t that be a great motto for the church, too?
At United, you can count on people who care.
Let’s be those people.
Loving God, you hold nothing back from us in your generous gift of grace. You love us unconditionally, and through your Holy Spirit, you pour your love into our hearts.
But God, we struggle to love like you love. Forgive us for all the ways we fall short with this. Help us to keep on turning to you and asking for your guidance and wisdom and strength.
Renew us. Renew our energy and imagination for serving you and serving one another. Help us to truly be people who care about what’s happening with the people around us, and about our impact on people we never see. Thank you for those people, God, who do all the work that brings us the things we buy, the electricity that keeps everything going, and the safety comfort that we take for granted. Bless those people and help us to do all we can to live together in peace, the best way we know how.
Thank you for forgiving us through your son Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonathan. The Awakening of Hope (p. 167). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 Sheldon, Charles M. (2018-05-28T23:58:59). In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?. Gilead Classics. Kindle Edition.
 Escobar, Kathy. Practicing (p. 1). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.