Sermon by Pastor Tim Woodard
March 15, 2015
“Jesus is the Light”
“Open your hearts, as-well-as your ears and hear these ancient and holy words of scripture from the gospel according to John, chapter 3, verses 14-21.”
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
“Let us allow God to bless our understanding of these ancient words.”
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My first, full time, position as a pastor was back in the fall of 1994. I was invited to be the Associate or Assistant Pastor at the Church of the Palms in Delray Beach. I was ordained that November. One of my primary duties during those three years, while I was with them, was to strive to create a youth group. This is something all churches work hard to create and recreate, over and over again. The thing about the youth is they keep changing and the dynamics of their day to day lives keeps changing. What I want to tell you about is one of the activities I used to stimulate their interest in working with me and also to come up with something they might actually enjoy. I was a youthful man in my forties and they were 10 to 13 years old. Our age differences put us two generations apart.
That was the challenge!
I came up with an idea to take them to a local place in Boca Rotan. It had miniature golf and arcade machines as-well-as small bumper cars. The church paid their way into the park and gave them each ten dollars in credits to spend. It was exhausting, but worthwhile. We doubled the size of the youth group that month, from four to eight, because we told them they could invite their friends. Of course, we couldn’t fund their amusement like that every week so I had to come up with other ideas. One such idea was to take them roller skating. No, I had never been roller skating in my life. I figured, hay, no big deal I can handle that. I was wrong, it was a big deal!
I knew nothing about roller skating!
I had wrongly assumed that ice skating and roller skating where the same. They are not! I arrived at the roller skating ring and the children all brought their own skates. They were single track inline roller blades. They quickly put them on and went out onto the rink. I swiftly knew that I was in trouble. I went and got fitted for a pair of four wheeled roller skates, one for each foot. Once I had them on the challenge began and never ended. Somehow I survived the afternoon. Yet, I knew I would need to practice with a new pair of roller blades (like theirs) that I would need to purchase. One hundred ten dollars for the roller blades, then the wrist braces, the knee pads and a helmet later I appeared once again; but, not until I practiced a lot. It was a lot of work. I prayed a lot during that time period, first for my own safety and then that my efforts would help me gain their trust.
I think you get the idea. It takes practice and prayer and a lot of effort to do something new and worthwhile. Yes, the effort worked – we got a youth group up and functioning before I headed off to New York. I knew before I left however, that the next youth leader would have more success than I – because, well she was only one generation older then the children and clearly had a better connection and understanding of what kinds of activities they enjoyed and she had the skills and energy level required to keep up with them.
The important lessons I learned, while learning to roller blade with the youth, was that you need three things before you can even start such an endeavor: honesty, openness, and willingness. Youth can see right through an insincere person; you must be honest with them. Also it requires an openness that can expose your weaknesses as well as your strengths. And most importantly, you must be willing to roll up your sleeves and do what they do with enthusiasm and tenacity, and do it without complaining too much!
Once you learn how to work with youth, then you are ready to work with adults. But, the key that unlocks the door is to remember that you must keep practicing these skills. They are not learned and then you can rest. No, you need to keep practicing your communication skills just like a public speaker needs to keep giving talks and lectures. You need to continue practicing being honest and sincere. You need to stay open to their ever changing appetites for something new. Most importantly you must stay willing, willing to do what it takes to keep their attention and suffer life side by side with them.
Now, we are ready to discuss the scripture for today.
“Have you ever been in the ‘dark’ about something? What happened when a ‘light’ was thrown on the subject?” / Larry Broding/ Light and darkness are the key words here. Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit, they represent the light; IE truth, grace and love; forgiveness, charity and mercy. We all ought to be striving to be in the light, or in the circle of God‘s grace and mercy; that is, the forgiving compassionate love of Jesus. Now darkness is everything else. It lives in the shadows; darkness shuns and turns away from the light. Darkness does not offer up any hope, nor peace and tranquility. Darkness as used in this context is damnation and hell. My grandfather and his generation of preachers relished in these harsh words. Theologians of my generation seek enlightenment, understanding and atonement. Well, if you have seen the dark side then you know that none of those fancy words say it clearly. Truly, you want to be in the light, not condemned into an existence where God’s love does not flourish.
Jenny McDevitt tells us that “We are given the choice between light and darkness, between belief and unbelief.” This very well may be, yet she then goes on to question this statement and clarifies with these words: “But that choice of whether to love God, or not, is ours only because first, ‘God so loved the world.'” With these thoughts in our hearts and minds we are ready to ponder and savor the most profound and powerful of verses of scripture contained in our Bibles. As we do move forward, to delight in these words once again, I urge you to consider all that we have spoken of thus far, especially regarding our need to practice, practice and practice some more those things we hold so dear in our hearts. Also, lift up Jesus as the ‘true light’ the light that lifts us out of fear, sinfulness and all that cause us to live in the shadows of life.
The central point of our scripture today revolves around verse sixteen. “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.” /John 3:16/ If you are struggling with this still or have lost touch with its meaning, then you have slacked off on your need to practice your faith. Yup, faith is just like all these other skills, you must keep practicing. You were a good golfer when you stopped playing two years ago. If that’s you then you know it will take practice to get back into the game. “Our faith, our truth, our convictions are meant to be put into practice in our lives. But that’s not something you learn to do like riding a bike: once you learn it you’ve got it. It’s more like learning a musical instrument: we’re always learning how to practice faith in real life.” /Alan Brehm/ It is the same with faith. Indeed, faith is something we have to practice, it is not something we learn and then we are all set.
One of the old legends – lifted up in our reading today, came to be as the tribe of Israel wandered in the wilderness, after Moses had led them out from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. They had been many years in the arid waste; the desert had tortured and hardened their bodies. In the dry heat there were many poisonous snakes that attacked and plagued them; many died because of this. Moses prayed and God responded saying to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” /Numbers 21:8-9/ It is said that those that did, were. In later years the Rabbis had to explain that it was not the serpent that saved life, it was the belief that the people had in Moses when he lifted up the serpent, because they knew that God had commanded Moses to act this way. Thus the healing came when they believed in the mercy, grace and power of God.
As time moved on the Israelites would continue to need to be reminded that faith was to be ‘practiced’ in order to stay ‘vital’ and ‘useful’ in their lives and in their relationship with God.
Earlier in our scripture, just before our reading, we hear a story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, and how he secretly admired Jesus. Finally, he became honest and willing enough to put aside peer pressure and went to talk with Jesus asking what he needed to do. Jesus told him he needed to be “born again” thus putting aside his old ideas. Nicodemus struggled with this notion and it certainly seems that the majority of Modern Christians do as well. In recovery manuals for people suffering from addictions we hear that there are some who “cannot or will not” let go of old habits and ideas. They are quoted as saying: “We tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” I think Nicodemus was much like these folks who are quoted as saying: “Letting go of old ideas, letting go of the past is hard.” /Alcoholics Anonymous/ It is as if we are standing in the darkness and cannot see the pathway to move forward. (Jesus lights up the new path!) Yet, many like Nicodemus stay in the shadows, unwilling to be born anew in Christ’s saving grace.
What ties this ‘born again’ conversation into our lesson regarding ‘practicing our faith’ is our need to remember that ‘once’ God, through Moses, through Jesus, saves us and gives us a ‘second chance: it is then up to us to hold onto an attitude of ‘gratitude’ and carry it into our lives as we journey onward. Once we step into the ‘light’ of God it is up to us to stay in God’s light through our honesty, our openness and out willingness to follow God’s will for us. Once we are forgiven of sin it is up to us to work at letting go of our ways, ways that shall surely lead us back into wrong behavior.
It does not matter your circumstances, a wilderness traveler, a ‘born again’ Christian, or a youth leader that needs to roller blade in order to gain the trust of others, practice is the only way to affectively move forward and achieve the results desired. And practice is the only way to maintain yourself within the achieved outcome! If you want God to continue to rescue you, then maintain your faithfulness to God even when things are running smoothly! Be vigilant in your gratefulness that God is always with you. Turn and face into the light of God, through Christ, on the brightest of days, as-well-as on the darkest of nights! Be faithful in your trust of God’s influence in all areas of your life.