GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR LORD AND SAVIOUR … JESUS THE CHRIST.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Judeans. This man came to Jesus by night … Nicodemus’ Pharisaic life was built on a Pharisaic faith rooted in God’s Law and the Pharisee’s perceived ability to totally show his love for God by fulfilling perfectly every requirement of his Pharisaic interpretation of God’s Law.
This Pharisee ruler of the Judeans was part of a small minority in the governance of Jerusalem and the temple. Judea was a conquered land offended even by the stanchions and banners carried by their conquerors and forbidden by God’s Word.
The highest ranking religious and secular Judean authority was Caiaphas — the high priest who, through agreement with Rome, presided over the temple and Sanhedrin. His political party, whose majority members controlled the temple and Sanhedrin, was the Sadducees — a party composed of priests who rejected all belief in an eternal relationship with God – unbelievers appointed by Rome to govern the faithful in church and state.
The Judean people were as secular as their church and government. Synagogue attendance was down though most people expressed inactive belief in God. The faith and moral climate of the nation was totally secular. Sounds all too familiar!
The religious Pharisees sought to earn their Salvation through perfectly fulfilling every requirement of their Pharisaic interpretation of God’s Law. Even that Pharisaic attempt at Salvation and relationship with God was no solution for Nicodemus.
He continued to struggle to find the Truth and used every moment he could studying the Scriptures and seeking enlightenment from the rabbis he knew. Then Nicodemus heard Jesus Who taught with Authority, Enlightenment, and Wisdom that went far beyond the teachings of all the Pharisaic rabbis.
Late at night, when no one was around to see him, Nicodemus went to see Jesus privately. Wasting not a moment, he went right to the heart of his concern - “How can I totally and completely love God and show God that love by fulfilling perfectly every requirement of God’s Law and, thereby, earn an eternal relationship with God? It seems such an impossible task. How can I do it?”
Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus who came because he knew he was truly incapable of earning eternal Salvation by fulfilling perfectly every requirement of God’s Law – now was told he must be born again. How can that impossible feat be accomplished?
Well, obviously, unlike human beings, with God, all things are possible. Whatever God wants to do, God can and does do without regard to human evaluation.
GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD AND SAVIOR – JESUS THE CHRIST.
The Passover of the Judeans was at hand… and Passover was the most important of all the Old Testament holy days. Every follower of The One True God dreamed of that Passover he or she could actually celebrate in the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem. Each year that dream came true for many of the faithful and the streets leading to and through the holy city were jammed with people.
Many of them went early to purchase their lambs in the temple porticoes where there was more livestock for sale than a village of barns. All purchases had to be paid with temple currency and the temple agents at their tables set the exchange rate for each of the world’s currencies.
Once purchased the lambs were taken outside the southern portico and north to be bathed and inspected by the priests in sheep pools. Those found acceptable were taken into the Court of the priests to be sacrificed – their blood sprinkled on the sacrificial altars in front of the Sanctuary which housed the Holy and Holy of Holies.
Jesus and His disciples went up to Jerusalem – beginning with an inspiring walk up the east side of the Mount of Olives where many traveled in groups and sang Psalms befitting the Passover Season. Others spoke of the dreams being fulfilled by their pilgrimage to Jerusalem or merely stood at the top of the Mount and drank in the splendor of the temple across the valley.
Down the west slope and across the Kidron Valley, they moved ever closer to the huge stone steps that would take them to the portico entrances.
Appearing more like entrances to a Cleveland Indians game than the entryway to the holiest spot on earth, their path was cluttered with merchants at makeshift tables or carrying their wares in baskets - miniature temple models to use as a reminder of this visit to the holy city – prayer shawls with temple labels – the newest spices and incense for sale in Jerusalem before becoming available elsewhere. Today we would call it a tourist trap. It was.
Lining the valley, there was a score of pagan temples offering miracle cures for all manner of illnesses to those willing to make the proper contribution.
GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD AND SAVIOUR JESUS THE CHRIST.
Throughout all of human history he has been here – invisibly or as the serpent or the kind appearing old man – in the Garden of Eden - in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus ... in the crowd as Jesus moved through the streets of Jerusalem to the cross ... in the trials and in the barracks and while Jesus was on the cross. The tempter’s face is a mingling of evil and false compassion that says "I feel your pain. I know what you are going through and what lies ahead. I can help if you'll only follow where I lead."
We know how the tempter rejoiced when Adam and Eve ate the fruit and brought sin, separation from God, guilt, fatigue, illness, and death into paradise – things from which only God Himself can save us.
We see the tempter in our Gospel text this morning. Where he met Adam and Eve in paradise, he met Jesus in the wilderness at the end of a forty day fast and totally vulnerable - as Jesus was led up by The Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
Thirty-five miles long and fifteen miles wide, they call it "Jeshimmon" - "Devastation". Such an accurate name! "The hills are like dust heaps. The limestone looks blistered and peeling. The rocks are bare and jagged. At times the ground glows like a vast furnace. It is a lifeless wasteland with no shade to guard against the merciless rays of the sun - no place to rest - no food or water.
And the tempter came - "I feel your pain. You are fasting ... cleansing Your body and mind to enrich Your spirit - to put You in total communion with Your Heavenly Father. How hungry You must be - is it really necessary to deny Yourself. If You are The Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” How the tempter would have rejoiced to see Jesus command the stones to become loaves of bread for His defiant meal.
Jesus answered the tempter with The Word of God - a weapon which is available to every single human being - “It is written, ‘Man can not live by bread alone., but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”.
Jesus spoke the words which God gave Moses to speak when the people of God were in the final days of their forty years in the wilderness — “God made you feel the need of God, God let you hunger and then fed you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, that God might make you know that man cannot live on bread alone but lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (DEUTERONOMY 8:3)
GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR LORD AND SAVIOR – JESUS THE CHRIST.
I have often thought – and even publicly expressed – my envy of those original twelve disciples who were with Jesus throughout those years when God Himself as the vulnerable flesh and blood Christ ministered, preached and taught throughout the Holy Land.
Those twelve saw Jesus give sight to the blind, healing to the deaf and lame, speech to the mute and health to the ill. They saw Him calm the stormy sea, feed 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish and even cast out demons.
Day after day, those twelve heard Jesus explain the meaning of life and God’s Will for us. They experienced first-hand Jesus’ perfect Power, Love and forgiveness in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.
In the verses immediately preceding our Gospel sermon text this morning, Jesus’ disciples were gathered around Him at Caesarea Philippi– in the midst of the symbols of pagan idol worship in its most dramatic and bountiful expressions – in the midst of the symbols of what the world recognized as the greatest of all political power and of those earthly treasures and material possessions which the world values most highly – then and there, through the Enlightenment and Empowerment of The Holy Spirit, Peter confessed, “You are The Christ, The Son of The Living God.”
In that wonderful moment of Divine Communication and Inspiration, God revealed to Peter what it meant – Jesus giving sight to the blind, healing to the deaf and lame, speech to the mute and health to the ill, calming the stormy sea, feeding 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish, casting out demons and even raising the dead – it was all pointing to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah – The Christ, The Son of The Living God. In that wonderful moment of Divine Communication and Inspiration – with that clear vision only God can give – Peter recognized and confessed Jesus as truly The Christ, The Son of The Living God.
What a heady experience it must have been! How the disciples must have wished that moment of Enlightenment could last forever! How their deepest thoughts and desires must have echoed Washington Gladden’s popular hymn “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” - “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee now and forever. Let me journey with You and follow You every step of the way You go.”
How bright the Enlightenment must have been – how great their new level of understanding! But wait there was more to be revealed.
GRACE BE UNTO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD THE FATHER AND FROM OUR CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD AND SAVIOR – JESUS THE CHRIST.
I will lift up my eyes to the hills…
My help comes from The Lord
Who made heaven and earth.
God shows His Love for us
In that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
It had been a long and busy day for Guenther’s Aunt Sara and she wanted nothing more than sleep – but her neighbors had left their two dogs out in the yard and they kept barking throughout the night. Finally, Sara had had enough. Jumping out of bed and grabbing her robe, she raced out the bedroom door, shouting to her husband, “Enough is enough. I’ll take care of this.” Several minutes later she returned – quite satisfied with her efforts – but the dogs seemed louder than ever. “What did you do?” her husband asked. “I showed them. I moved the dogs over into our yard. Now, we’ll see how they like it.”
It’s all about location.
In our Psalmody this morning, David called us to “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at His holy hill.” Throughout our Biblical history people of God erected altars up toward the heavens seeking spiritual mountaintop experiences as they worshiped God. No high place experience so over-powering it has a Sunday named after it and its text is one of the few texts read every year.
And after six days – six days after Peter, at Caesarea Philippi, confessed that Jesus is The Christ, The son of The Living God – Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. We all know that these three disciples were among Jesus’ original disciples – a disciple being someone who is totally committed to studying all they can from one brilliant teacher.
This past week I was thinking about how few youth we have – and then I heard that among those few we have three – Emily, Brooke and Arleigh – who were initiated into the honor society last week. Quite impressive.