Wednesday, March 19, 2008


(Expanded version: excerpts are preached relevant to the context).

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3: 1-17.

We were living in Canada when Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled hit the best-seller lists. His thesis: life is risky; it’s not trouble-free. We’ve done a better job in modern Western cultures of ensuring that life is less trouble-free than any previous generations. But the degree to which trouble surprises us, says Peck, will be the degree of our vulnerability to various neuroses... The riskiest option is to try to live without risk….

Life itself is inherently risky – especially if you did not choose your parents well! When you marry you take a huge risk. Having children is risky. Mothers giving birth – especially if they’re teenage girls in places like Ethiopia – face awesome risks. Being a politician is risky: and as we witnessed this ‘Sorry’ week, being PM or leader of the Opposition is risky.

When a few of us began a ministry to ex-pastors on April Fools’ Day 1991, without the promise of a dollar’s support from anyone, that was risky!

Social and Management Scientists (who tell us ‘what everyone knows in language no one can understand’) say that what we do in every significant action is actually ‘risk assessment’ – we do a ‘costs/benefits analysis’ to judge whether the costs of taking a certain course of action are justified by the expected benefits.

When I ‘speak the truth in love’ to conservative Christian groups, I generally have to encourage them to move beyond legalism and/or dogma: these risk-avoidance stances are inherently inhibiting their growth in faith, hope and love.

But some live with too much risk. Last week at a friend’s 80th birthday ‘bash’ I was talking with someone about a mutual friend who’d died recently. She’d moved interstate, and would phone me every couple of months when she was drunk. She’d had nine major operations, including a double mastectomy; was physically abused by her husband and sons: the boys, when they’d been drinking, sometimes swung her by the hair around the room. I conducted the funeral of one of them, who’d shot himself through the mouth... But she stayed with her family: I was with her when her husband died, and buried him too... This humble, abused woman kept her faith until the end. How do you get that kind of courage?

Our friend Dawn Rowan took huge risks in challenging two governments: she took them to court and won. But even though she’s innocent, she’s likely to lose everything she owns. (Look up her name in Google to read her amazing story).

You can say three things about all the biblical leaders: they took risks, they all failed at some point, and they all spent a disproportionate amount of their lives in deserts... You can put the heading ‘Risk-taking’ over just about every page of the Bible. In the lectionary readings for today we heard about two ‘risk-takers’ – Abraham and Nicodemus.

About 4,000 years ago a family of Semitic nomads left the country we call Iraq and settled in Haran, (now Turkey, on the Syrian border). There Abraham, 75, who was enjoying retirement – ‘in his slippers and growing geraniums’ - received a divine command: ‘Leave your country, your people… and go to the land I will show you’ (Genesis 12:1). So ‘Abram left, as the Lord had told him’ (Genesis 12:4), and journeyed south-west towards the land of Canaan.

His epitaph, in Hebrews 11: ‘By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called… and he set out, not knowing where he was going’. The Hebrew risk-taker par excellence!

The encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus in John 3 is one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the Gospels. How many of you learned to recite John 3:16 when you were young? Our grandmothers used to crochet John 3:16. Martin Luther called this text ‘the Gospel in miniature’. There’s a guy who travels the world’s major sporting and other events holding up a John 3:16 sign for the TV cameras; the spectators at the Super Bowl saw it on a banner pulled by a small plane. (Actually Jesus’ words to Nicodemus probably end at 3:15, and the writer of the Fourth Gospel tacks on another discourse from verse 16.)

Only John of the four Gospels tells us about Nicodemus – in chapters 3, 7, and 19. Nicodemus had a good education and position, power and wealth as a Pharisee. He always got the best seats at the synagogues. He had considerable authority as a member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin: something like Archbishop Peter Hollingworth who became Australia’s Governor-General for a while. (Only in two modern countries, I think, are religious leaders ex-officio in the legislature – the British House of Lords, and the Islamic Republic of Iran.)

Jesus said something quite startling to him: ‘You must be born again.’ There’s a word-play here which is difficult to translate into English. Jesus could either mean ‘born again’ or ‘born from above’: certainly both. Nicodemus latched on to the first meaning. Actually Ezekiel had said something similar: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you… A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you… I will put my spirit within you…’ Jesus too talked to Nicodemus about the ‘Spirit’ being God’s agent in this process. Later Paul and others taught about ‘regeneration’ – roughly the same idea.

Jesus said Nicodemus must be born of water and of the Spirit. The Church through the centuries has taken this to refer to baptism – the outward sign of the new birth. For Nicodemus, as for many Christian believers in many parts of the world, to be publicly baptized would have been a huge risk. Nicodemus might have thought of John the Baptist out there in the desert, baptizing people, among them some of Nicodemus’s priest-friends. As we think back to our baptism – maybe it was a risk committing ourselves to a life of obedience to Christ, and some of us might have been persecuted for that.

Indeed, the act of baptism by immersion is itself a risky venture. I sometimes say to candidates who are ‘baptized backwards’: ‘I’m going to lower you right under the water, and after a second or two I’ll lift you up. You are utterly dependant on my physical strength for that to happen. I could hold you under – a kind of death – and in a sense that’s what baptism is all about…’

In the U.S. the phrase ‘born again’ has entered the common religious and political language . The Southern Baptist republican candidate Mike Huckabee, I heard on the news last week, will appeal to ‘born againers’, evangelical Christians.

Jesus in the Gospels said only to one person – Nicodemus – ‘you must be born again, if you want to see the kingdom of God’. To another who asked how he could gain eternal life, Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give them to the poor, ‘and you will have treasure in heaven.’ It’s interesting that we’ve universalized the ‘born again’ idea – everyone has to experience it if they want to get to heaven - but we’ve relativized the other: apparently not everyone has to sell up everything. Phew!

But there’s something else here: In the clause ‘You must be born again’ “you” is plural. In English we have one pronoun which can be both singular and plural. Jesus said to him ‘You – plural – you Pharisees; you the religious establishment must be renewed from above’.

What was wrong with the Pharisees, and why did they hate Jesus? The word ‘Pharisee’ means ‘separated one’: they separated themselves from the rest of humanity to keep the Law of Moses – and all the other laws the Scribes had added over the centuries - in every detail. The Sabbath laws are the best known. Here’s the problem: Moses said the Sabbath was to be kept holy, and no work was to be done on that day. The Jews over many generations defined and redefined what exactly ‘work’ meant, and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day had it all tied down. For example, Jeremiah (17:21-24) said you weren’t to carry burdens on the Sabbath day. Now what’s a ‘burden’? How heavy is a ‘burden’? They asked ‘If a woman wears jewelry is that a burden? Or if a man has a wooden leg? Or if you lift a child?’ and so on ad infinitum.

Jesus cut across all this religious nonsense, and said the Sabbath was made for the well-being of people, and not the other way around. The Pharisees were actually very ‘good’ people, but ‘good in the worst sense of the word.’ They were guilty of the ‘neurosis of scrupulosity’ as some of my Catholic friends put it. So laws are codified into ‘constitutions’ and the doctrines organized into ‘systematic theology’. I’ve met people and groups like that: haven’t you? And when they become ‘thought police’ like the Pharisees, they’re quite obnoxious…

I read this in an online sermon: ‘If anyone could be trusted to know what the Bible had to say about anything, it was the Pharisees. Nicodemus’s opening line, when he meets Jesus is, ‘Rabbi, we know ... blah, blah, blah.’ ‘We Pharisees, we know...’ And although what he is claiming to know is quite positive and affirming of Jesus, his certainty that they already know who he is and what he is about has already got Jesus challenging him. Jesus doesn’t quite say, “You don’t know nothing,” but he might as well have.’

He comes to Jesus at night. Why? The sermons I’ve heard suggest he was fearful of being discovered talking to this radical prophet. Possibly: Pharisees were known to advocate death to infidels. Or, he simply desired a private conversation uninterrupted by the crowds; or he wanted to ‘vet’ Jesus and his teaching before he made any judgment about him. Whatever the reason, Jesus seems to have won him over: later, when the Sanhedrin was trying to arrest Jesus Nicodemus defended him: a very risky thing to do. And when they finally crucified Jesus he brought expensive spices to prepare Jesus' body for burial.

So how does the story of this risk-taking theologian Nicodemus challenge us? Let me, in closing, make five brief suggestions:

First, the most important thing about being a Christian is not slavery to a belief-system or a commitment to a codified set of laws. It’s about ‘following Jesus’. Resist any religion which is driven by dogma and legalism.

Second, don’t be afraid of a new idea: ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.’ Who was it said ‘When I resist a new idea simply because it’s new, please begin to dig my grave’?

Third, let us develop what my radical friends call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ about all ‘received’ wisdom – particularly entrenched ideas that prevent us seeing God at work, even in unlikely people and places... And let us never forget that, as sociologist Robert Merton and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and others have taught us: the evil in institutions is likely to be greater than the sum of the evil of the people within them. ‘The worst evils in the world are not committed by evil people, but by good people who do not know they’re not doing good!’ (Niebuhr). It was institutional evil, perpetrated by Nicodemus’s colleagues, that got an innocent man, Jesus, crucified.

Fourth: knowing the Bible off by heart – as many of the Pharisees proudly boasted – does not guarantee godly behaviour, or even good theology. You can know the Bible off by heart and miss the whole point.

Fifth: let’s not forget our brothers and sisters for whom being a Christian is very risky, and who suffer from institutional evil in many places in our world.. This news item landed in my inbox last week: The Eritrean government has imprisoned more than 2,000 Christians. Some of the imprisoned Christians are kept in metal shipping containers and routinely tortured. As a result there have been cases of prisoners who have died, lost their sight, and/or have been paralysed. Due to the severity of persecution, many churches have gone underground and many Christians have been forced to flee the country.

Sermons on this passage were prepared this amazing week by Australian pastors in the context of our saying Sorry to the indigenous peoples of our land. From one Baptist pastor: ‘Like many Australians, I watched and wept as our newly-elected Prime Minister delivered the long-awaited and long-overdue apology this morning. I wept in shame. Shame for the ways in which previous governments have acted and legislated so atrociously towards our indigenous sisters and brothers, on my and my parents' and grandparents' behalf; shame at the thought that many church organizations, no doubt with the best of intentions, were nonetheless part of the machinery that enabled so many children to be removed; and shame at the memory of my childhood when, as a kid who used to spend his summer holidays on my grandparents' farm in wheatbelt Western Australia, I was ushered to the 'Whites Only' swimming pool, which was separated by barbed-wire from the 'Blacks' Pool'.

‘But I wept also with joy - because as I read through the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, I was brought to John 3: the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. And in that encounter, in which Jesus so profoundly speaks about 'new birth', I realized afresh what the core of the gospel is: that our past no longer needs condemn us to a particular future; that my tomorrows are not imprisoned by my yesterdays; that in Christ, there is a new and more hopeful reality that is brought into vision. Today's apology was, for me at least, truly a Lenten miracle, and one that served to highlight powerfully the world-shaking wonder of the gospel of which John 3 speaks.’

Let us pray: Lord help us to understand grace: that the good news is about a gift: a gift of a new birth, a new life, a new relationship with the living God: a life which is eternal – here and now, and also forever. Amen.

As we go into the world to live out a risky faith, let us be challenged by the great prayer of St Ignatius:

Dearest Lord
Teach me to be generous
teach me to serve you as you deserve –
to give and not to count the cost
to fight, and not to heed the wounds
to toil, and not to seek for rest
to labour, and not to ask reward
except that of knowing
that we do your holy will. Amen.


Day by day
Dear Lord, three things we pray:
To see you more clearly,
To love you more dearly,
To follow you more nearly,
Day by day…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sirit. Amen.

Rowland Croucher
February/ March 2008.

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