A Living Saviour – not second hand religion
Some time ago I offered to marry a young couple but I was told that they did not want me to do so because they said that neither of them was religious. I thought, 'What they mean is that neither of them is Christian'. So inaccurate and devalued is the meaning of language today that you can call something as wonderful as Christianity by a vague generalisation. How would we get on if we did this for everything else. A surgeon operating on a patient barks out a command, 'Hand me that shiny thing'. What does the theatre assistant do? A teacher in a class asks pupils a question. 'Do you like fruit?' The answer is likely to be 'Which fruit?' There's the wonderful anecdote about David Beckham which advises that in reply to the question 'Are you going to have your son baptised?', he replied, 'Yes – but we haven't decided what religion yet'. Imagine asking for directions to Galashiels and being told, 'Just travel south'. Suppose you were an astronaut beginning a journey back from the moon at the controls of your spaceship and you heard Houston on the radio telling you, 'Turn a wee bit to the left'.
Christianity is about a Living Saviour, our living Saviour, Jesus Christ. There's nothing vague about Him; he's not a dusty figure of history and he's not a figment of human imagination. He is present in the lives of those who wish him to be and invite Him to be and that can be you also. In today's Gospel reading we heard about Nicodemus. He was a wealthy and influential resident of Jerusalem and member of the Jewish Parliament. He belonged to the local aristocracy. He bought nearly 50 kilos of expensive myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus' body after his crucifixion. He belonged to the brotherhood of the Pharisees. They were like the Christian Brethren of today; there were only about 6000 of them in Jesus' time; they were serious, sincere and devout at best. They pledged to keep the Law of Moses and its applications into the minutest details of the conduct of daily life. It was not enough for them to say 'Keep the Sabbath as a day of rest', they had to work out what that actually meant every minute of the day.
The book with all the worked out details was called the Mishnah. It had 24 chapters. Another book called the Talmud was an explanatory commentary on the Mishnah. The entry on the keeping of the Sabbath runs to 64.5 columns. Here is an example – tying a knot was considered working on the Sabbath and therefore breaking the Sabbath commandment... “the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them”. But a woman was permitted to tie her bonnet or her dress, girdle or shoes. The limit of travel for orthodox Jews on the Sabbath is about half a mile. But you could tie a rope at the end of the half mile and that let you go further. You could make up a packed lunch; there were scholarly debates on whether a woman could wear a brooch or whether a man could wear a wooden leg or dentures. Was it a breach of the Sabbath to lift a child? They argued about that also. The Scribes referred to in the Gospels were the ones who worked out and wrote down the developed rules for each new situation. The Pharisees were the ones who put the rules and regulations into practice. They kept themselves to themselves; they never wanted to be in touch with anyone or anything that made them spiritually unclean.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and yet he came to speak to Jesus. You might say that his heart was in the right place. He had an instinct, and inkling that Jesus was doing something unprecedented; it is possible that God was speaking to him also, leading him towards Jesus. He came at night to meet Jesus for two reasons, firstly so that no-one would see him speaking to Jesus and because he wanted a private audience with Jesus when he had the time to talk to Nicodemus.
Nicodemus began with a compliment. He told Jesus that he recognised that God was with him, working in him through the healing miracles. He did not think that Jesus was mad or bad. He thought Jesus was good. But Jesus did not accept the recognition; instead he told Nicodemus that he was not really seeing the truth of Himself, the truth of what God was actually doing; he could not do so; he needed a complete new spiritual rebirth in order to really understand who God is and what God was doing. Is that not true for you? Do you not need a spiritual awakening, a new birthing, a new start to be a Christian, to know and love God and live in personal relationship to Jesus Christ our Lord? Do you not need to be born again? To be a born again Christian?
Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about? He was a bit embarrassed and perplexed. I don't suppose many or any of you will remember Tony and Cherie Blair going through a New Age re-birthing ceremony while they were in America – but they did. I think it involved swimming about in a pool and some mumbo-jumbo. American New Age re-birthing has two main definitions. One is learning how to breathe energy as well as air. The other is to unravel the birth-death cycle and to incorporate the body and mind into the conscious life of the Eternal Spirit, to become a conscious expression of the Eternal Spirit. Apparently – it also makes you very greedy for money. Christian rebirth is birth into Jesus Christ, into His presence, love, salvation and friendship and into eternal life to follow. It is to be born into this relationship and to know that you are consciously a Christian, acknowledging Jesus, following Him and witnessing to Him in your life. It is to be born into the power of the Holy Spirit and to be helped and guided through life. It is to be able to be victorious over addictions and the worship of false idols and gods of whom there are many in our culture and society today.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he was still missing the point. His religion was not a personal relationship with God. He was largely trying to please himself. He did not really know what he was doing with all his daft day to day, hour to hour rules and regulations. Jesus explained that He was not an ordinary person and that He was from heaven and that was the source of His life and power and teaching. He encapsulated everything in a single sentence that is repeated throughout the world many times every day. 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life'. That is the centrepiece claim of every evangelical sermon that was ever preached. You see it on banners held up at World Football Cup tournaments; you'll see it in Brazil on TV. You'll see it on posters and on a sign being towed by a single engine plane. It is an open invitation to you to become a Christian, to become a born again Christian. What are you going to do about it? Do you want to live a better life? Do you need forgiveness for your sins? Do you need help with your problems and addictions? 'For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life'. This is God's invitation to you, it is God's initiative of salvation. It is God's love for you and towards you, seeking you out, befriending you. It is a world wide offer of peace and reconciliation. And how the world needs it. How the world needs the love of God. But God also needs you to receive his love and live it out. Will you do that? Will you invite him into your heart and life?
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast.”
I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s Light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.”
I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my Star, my Sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk, till travelling days are done.