St. Matthew’s Sermon 03-12-2017

St. Matthew’s Sermon 03-12-2017

Starting Over

Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that bit of wisdom before. My father used a similar saying, his own, when he watched me struggle to learn something new. Whether it was learning to hit a ball with a bat or learning to lay stone into a wall he would always tell me, “keep trying, you’ll get it”.

Unfortunately, both my father’s words and the former saying are not bits of wisdom, they are idiotic insanity!

One definition of “insanity” that clarifies my point is this, insanity: “trying the same thing over and over while expecting a different result”. You see, both sayings leave out the ever important command to try something different!

Now think about this in the context of Christianity where we follow the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was, (and still is), the teacher of a radically different approach to life; radically different than the teachings of the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees of his earthly time and radically different than the social teachings of our time. That comes through clearly in all the Gospels and it comes early in John’s Gospel as heard in today’s reading.

John introduces us to Nicodemus for the first time right here in the beginning of only his third chapter. He tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a “leader of the Jews”. Now, be mindful that this is early in John’s Gospel; we have only heard mention of the Pharisees once before where they sent some representatives to ask John who he was and why he was baptizing people. We have not yet seen the conflicts between them and Jesus that arise later.

With that, we cannot assume that Nicodemus had an ulterior motive for coming to talk to Jesus. The fact that he came in the dark might lead us to think that he was being sneaky; maybe not wanting his Pharisee friends to know he was going there. But, in the context, the dark parallels his sense of separation from God; and his seeking Jesus, in contrast, his search for the “light” of God.

Interestingly, Nicodemus doesn’t ask Jesus a question; he makes a statement, “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.” But, as if reading his mind, Jesus gives him an answer, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

As an aside; I’ve mentioned before that there is a major translation problem here. That word  “again” or “from above” is the same word in the original Greek; ‘anothen’ can mean ‘again’ or ‘from above’.

Jesus is using some word-play with Nicodemus; he uses the word ‘anothen’ knowing that Nicodemus would automatically interpret it as the earthly ‘again’. “How can I be born again” is his response. Jesus, then, continues the mind twister saying, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit”.

Another aside; the word read as “Spirit” is the Greek “neuma” which means breath, wind, or spirit; this adding more confusion for Nicodemus.

By now I imagine smoke coming out of Nicodemus’s ears! Born again… of water and wind? What is this man talking about?!

And, seeing Nicodemus’ mind spinning, just once more Jesus makes him dig even deeper; “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above…”

At this point Nicodemus is probably in fear of his brain exploding! Born again… of water and breath… from above… Oh good Lord what are you talking about?!


The encounter began with Nicodemus making a statement and Jesus giving an answer. Now Nicodemus does ask a question but Jesus responds with, not an answer, but a statement leaving Nicodemus, and us, to figure it out.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus’ understanding of God was in the Law of God. His thinking was that everything is messed up now because of the people who weren’t following God’s Law; and if we could change that, getting everyone to follow the law to the letter, God would come back and make everything right again. The only trouble was (and is) it wasn’t working.

Jesus tells him to try something different; so radically different that he couldn’t understand it; couldn’t even imagine it in his mind.

Jesus tells him to start over as if being ‘born again’, but this time let the water of Baptism wash away all evidence of what he believed to be truth before and let the ‘Spirit’ of God, ‘from above’, move him into new understanding.

One more aside; my definition of neuma is; “that which cannot be seen but is known to exist by feeling its movement or by witnessing its influence on inanimate objects; breath, wind, or Spirit!

Nicodemus did, eventually, figure it out but it took some time. After this encounter with Jesus he is left dumbfounded. Later, he appears again, still among the Pharisees, but this time he comes to Jesus’ defense. When the Temple authority wanted to arrest Jesus Nicodemus says to them “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” Then, still later, after Jesus was crucified Nicodemus appears again, bringing a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, with Joseph of Arimathea; together they retrieve, prepare, and bury the body of the Lord.

Nicodemus did finally get it figured out. But it didn’t happen all at once and it didn’t happen on the first try. He had to keep at it, he had to try, try again; he had to try something different each time, washing away the old, starting over as if newly born and allowing himself to be influenced by the Spirit until everything came together. And so it is for us!

When we do what we know to do but are left without the desired result we must try again, starting over clean and opening ourselves to the movement of the Spirit from above. This applies to our spiritual life and our temporal life!

A few examples…

In your spiritual life: if you’re not seeing or feeling the movement of the spirit in your life, try a different practice to regain your focus. If your prayers aren’t being answered try praying differently. If outside influences in life are getting you down, rather than trying to change them, try changing how you are affected by them.

In your temporal life: if you feel overwhelmed with busyness, try rearranging your priorities. If you’re not finding happiness, try a different approach. If you’re not finding wealth, try redefining wealth.

Try, try again; keep trying but for God’s sake, if it’s not working, try something different, and you will get it.



John 3:1-17
3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
3:2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”
3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
3:4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.
3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
3:8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
3:11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.
3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
3:17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.


Genesis 12:1-4a
12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
12:2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
12:4a So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

Psalm 121
121:1 I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?
121:2 My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
121:3 He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
121:4 He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
121:5 The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
121:6 The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
121:7 The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
121:8 The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
4:1 What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?
4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
4:3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
4:4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.
4:5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.
4:13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.
4:14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
4:15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
4:16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us,
4:17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.