Morning Service

Morning Service led by our Minister

Sermon

This sermon is taken from John 3, verses 1-7

THE BIBLE AND ME: does the Bible make sense or nonsense of my life?

Years ago there was a cartoon in Punch magazine of an elderly couple sitting side by side and the man is saying thoughtfully, “If I had my time over again, I would do the same…. Only I would do it with Myrtle Higgins.”

Jesus said “you must be born again” and most of us at times think “if only.”

Would it not be good if we could literally be born again and this time get life right?

Remember the film “Back to the Future” where Marty Mcfly, goes back to the time when his parents hardly knew each other and by, shifting a few things around, he arrives back in the present to find his home looking a whole lot more upmarket, his brother and sister obviously far more successful in their professional and social lives, and his parents transformed from the unhappy, pathetic couple they had been into the most dynamic,  confident, attractive man and woman you could imagine. Outside on the drive the former school bully who had made Marty’s father’s life a misery is meekly putting the second coat of wax onto the family’s new BMW.

Yes. Could not we just do with some of that? A chance to put right the mistakes that have blighted our lives; a chance to do everything so much better; a chance to get the upper hand in relationships that have undermined our confidence; a chance to be a better partner, better parent, better friend; even a chance to be more committed to our faith. 

If only we could go back and be born all over again. But how can we? Nicodemus certainly could not get his head round the idea. “How can you return to your mother’s womb and be born for a second time? Crazy!”

We need to be quite clear that Jesus is not talking about going back anywhere. In the first place he has too much respect for life. Life is something that perpetually moves forward. Our lives today are the result not only of our own choices but of billions upon billions of  decisions, relationships, actions of all the other people whose lives have somehow connected, if only for a spilt second, with our own.

Add to that the natural conditions in which we were born, in which we grew up: the summer heat and winter cold; the rain and thunder storms; the quality and availability of food and water- the things we should have eaten and did not eat; those things we ate which we should not have eaten. To go even one hour back in time would set up a huge worldwide catastrophe in which everything would have to change in relation to everything else. It would bring the world as it is to an end. In the Hebrew Scriptures there was the ancient story of the great flood, told in such a way, that it suggested the flood was God’s way of getting rid of a world that had become evil. Wipe it out. Go back and start again. But at the end of the story God says, “No. This is not the way. The way for life and for humanity is forward and I commit myself to moving forward with them.

Second, Jesus had respect for people. He was living in a world where there were a lot of deeply unhappy men and women. People who had made huge mistakes; people who were being eaten up inside by destructive attitudes; people who had been born into an environment that was unhealthy and fallen prey to serious illness; people who had had their lives blighted by the cruelty of others. Jesus said that he had come to save the world, so something radical needed to happen. But turning back the clock was not the way.

There is another, more recently made film about time travel, called “About Time.” A young man learns that he has the gift to be able to go back to any point in his life that he chooses. A bad day at the office? He can go back to the moment when he first got out of bed and live it again better. What’s the harm in that? He is happily married with a baby girl whom he adores but he is worried about his sister whose life has been on a downward spiral for years. He thinks he can pinpoint the moment when her life started going wrong and goes back to that point in order to change the sequence of events and save her from all that misery. He makes the change, gets back to the present, rushes happily into his house to greet his wife and child; goes to pick up his little girl and finds himself staring at a little boy.  In changing the sequence of events for his sister, he has somehow subtly changed the sequence of events in his own life. As we know, a child’s gender, colouring, whole genetic make-up is determined at conception. The slightest alteration in the time of a child’s conception will result in a totally different child. In trying to turn the clock back he has wiped his child out of existence.

We are who we are and what we become through the whole process of living. We are not created static, like a Lego model. We have been shaped by our own decisions, by our environment and by the people who inhabit this environment with us. Again, to turn the clock back even by one hour would be to wipe ourselves, the people we are now, out of existence. And whilst we might be having such a bad day that we think that sounds like a good idea, Jesus never thought it a good idea. He placed the highest possible value on each person as they were, standing before him right here, right now.

So being born again was never about going back, never about trying to wipe out the person you were or the life you had lived; behave as though they never existed. Being born again is about taking what we are and moving forward.

Jesus referred Nicodemus to the story of Moses and the serpent of brass. In the Old Testament, the serpent had become a symbol of everything evil and destructive in life.

The Hebrew slaves were travelling across the desert and first life became hard for them: the road was rough, the dangers were great, the food and water were limited, plus their strength was already undermined by years of slave labour. Then second, perhaps understandably, they gave in to gloom and doom; resentment and anger. They turned on Moses who had saved their lives and accused him of wanting to kill them. And so, either literally or figuratively, they had fallen prey to the serpent. Either they did actually find their camp infested by poisonous snakes or the story is about the pain and destruction that evil can wreak in human lives. As their cries for help came to God, God told Moses to make a serpent out of brass, set it high on a pole and all those who looked to this serpent of brass would be healed. What was that all about?

To get the better of sin and evil, we first have to acknowledge it. This is a destructive force in my life.  This is what is dragging me down. This is what is causing me pain. Know your enemy. Recognise the serpent in your life.

The second thing we need to do is to admit that we cannot handle this evil alone. We need help. If we had been able to handle it ourselves, we would not have got into the mess we are in…..

The third thing we need is to believe in redemption: that it is possible for the sin and the pain and the evil in our life to be overcome. And for me, looking at all the horrors that have gone on and still go on in human lives, it is not possible to believe in redemption unless you believe in God. There has to be someone greater than we are to save the world.  And this is where Jesus came in- the Son of Man coming to save the world.

Daniel’s vision- of this Son of Man appearing before the throne of God and being given power and authority- was taken by many to mean that the world as they knew it would be wiped out completely by this person so that he could rule and get the world right this time.

But that is not what Jesus came to do. When he was “lifted up,” he was lifted up on a cross, one of the cruellest ways possible for one person to kill another. And people today ask us “why do you wear a cross? It is an instrument of torture for goodness’ sake.”

As with the brass serpent, we look at the cross and see the depths to which human sin and cruelty will go. We see how human power-struggles, human greed, human weakness, human corruption can reduce our race to something lower than the lowest of wild beasts.

On that cross we see the millions of innocent victims of wars and terrorism, hunger and neglect, abuse and disease. We recognise and acknowledge the sin.

And then we have two choices: either we can look at Christ, an innocent man, on the cross and despair; losing all hope in the world and in ourselves. Or we can look at Christ, Son of Man, Son of God on the cross and see our hope of redemption. If God himself can take on the sin and the pain of the world, bear it and overcome it through love and forgiveness and new life, then there is hope for us. The Son of Man can save and will save, not through destroying the world but through redeeming it, moving us forward into new life, born again as children of God.

As human children we are born as creatures of free-will, able to make choices about our lives but the teaching that therefore “I can become anything I want to be”  simply is not true. We find out sooner or later that we do not always have the gifts to be what we would like to be. We do not always have the physical or mental or emotional strength to be what we believe we should be. Our circumstances may make it hard for us to realise our dreams. And other people can either deliberately or unintentionally thwart us. We do not have total freedom.

Which is why many writers and dramatists have portrayed human beings as being in the iron grip of either malicious gods or the bullies in Government and school playgrounds or the malign influence of misguided parents or just our own fatal weaknesses. We are trapped and our lives, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth declared, are no more than a tale told by an idiot.

“Not true,” said Jesus. “Your lives may be held in the grip of sin but you can be born again; born as a child of God; born by the water of baptism, which is your choice and born through the power of the Holy Spirit which is God choosing and empowering you. You are you and your life is your life but as a child of God, you are held in a powerful love that will never let you go. Being born again is about moving forward only this time you have placed your hand is in the hand of God. For God so loved the world that he sent his Son so that all who believe in him might not perish but have everlasting life.”

A world filled with people who are walking with God will be a world of justice, peace, healing and joy. Hallelujah…..

The Bible and Me: does the Bible make sense or nonsense of my life? The Bible is a book of stories written down by people whose lives were easily as messed up, if not more messed up than ours and they learned what it meant to be born again, not by turning back the clock in a state of total self-rejection and starting again but by looking to God, discovering a sense of self-worth and finding hope of redemption. The Bible, if you take the trouble to read it thoroughly, gives everyone a voice and everyone the space to tell their own story. It offers new birth, new life to all. To me, that sounds like sense. You have to decide for yourselves.

But on Trinity Sunday, take a moment to look back and ask yourselves what you have come to know and to understand about God.

Take a moment to recognise where the serpent has been at work in your life.

Take a moment to look at the cross and ask for healing

Take a moment to receive the gift of new birth in the power of the Spirit.

And may this Trinity Sunday leaving you singing Hallelujah.

Amen.