Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Curiosity is not faith. . .

Sermon preached for Lent 2A, on Sunday, March 12, 2017.

Nicodemus was a modern man.  He had no idea if Jesus were the Messiah but he was curious about Jesus.  He did not know much of the Kingdom that Jesus was about, but he was curious.  He was not ready to risk anything and so he came to the Lord under the cover of darkness, but he was curious.  Maybe he was Lutheran as well.  “What does this mean?”  We get Nicodemus because he is one of us.  We are curious, too.  We have all kinds of questions about the Bible.  Who did Adam’s sons and Noah’s grandsons marry? Just how did creation come to be in 7 days?  What kind of kid was Jesus growing up?  We are curious, too.  But curiosity is not faith.

Faith is not curiosity.  Faith is trust.  The truth is we do not have to find Christ interesting or engaging in order to believe in Him.  Believing in Jesus is not answering all our curious questions. Faith is about answers but not the ones that appeal to our reason or our senses. To believe in Jesus is not to unpack the mystery or crack the miracles.  In fact, it is just the opposite. Faith means believing what our eyes do not see, our minds do not comprehend, and we find completely unreasonable.  Faith does not make sense of things nor does it render God comprehendible.  Faith trusts where reason ends, where curiosity is left unfulfilled, and where wonder is left unanswered.  Nicodemus was not sure he was ready to risk faith; are you?

Nicodemus began by looking for a way to crack the Bible as if it were written in code.  The law appealed to him just as it appeals to us because it seems so very sensible.  You get what you deserve.  Do bad and you will be punished; do good and you will be rewarded.  Screw up and you have to fix it. But Jesus did not come to bolster the old law but to fulfill it, not to give us a new one but to transform us.  He came as the Messiah who fulfills the old covenant and establishes a new one by His blood.  This covenant we meet on the ground of faith.

Faith trusts the Word of the Lord.  So it is not about how you are born anew but where this birth is given, not about when it fits your interest or schedule but now, when this new birth is offered, by water and the Word.  Faith is not curiosity but trust that meets God where God has chosen to be found.  Faith trusts the Word of Christ.  It is not about where the Spirit is but trusting that where the Word and Sacraments are, the Spirit is at work for you and in you, bringing you the gifts and promise embedded in water, the Word, and bread and wine.

Faith trusts the Word of Christ.  Faith is not about understanding God so that you can predict Him or work Him for your own ends or control Him so that He does what you want.  Faith believes what our minds will never understand and what our reason finds scandalous and offensive.  What does Jesus say?  Blessed are those who are not offended by Me.  Nicodemus was curious but he was not ready to risk everything on something he did not get.  “How can this be?”  He was not yet ready to receive the testimony of Jesus.

The shock is not that Nicodemus was embarrassed by his curiosity so that he came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, or that he wanted to understand Jesus before believing in Him.  No, the shock is that Jesus has time for Nicodemus at all, that Jesus did not write him off – or us.  We seek a reasonable faith that we can understand but the Gospel meets us on the plain of faith – it is a mystery not to be unpacked but simply to be believed.  The Spirit leads us to see and believe what remain a conundrum to eyes and reason.

Jesus is in the water.  Life is in the water.  The Spirit is in the water.  The Kingdom of God is in the water.  By water and the Word, Jesus is in me and I am in Him.  In the water I died and now a new person was born from that death to rise up in Christ and live not the same old life but a new life, a deathless life, a holy life, a life of good works the Law could not make us do but Christ does in us and through us.

For God so loved the world. . . for God so loved YOU. . . This is not some truth proposition framed for our minds to digest but where the wise of this world must lay aside their wisdom, the curious make the big jump into the unknown of faith, the sinner finds forgiveness, and the dead are given new and everlasting life.  It happens not because we get it but because He has gotten us, by His blood, claimed in baptism, formed us to faith by the Spirit, and made us confident in what we cannot see.

Luther put it this way:  “If I now seek the forgiveness of sin, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I remember the sufferings of Christ, for I will not find forgiveness there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which is won on the cross. . .”  It is not water only or mere human words or simple bread and wine.  These are the means of grace.

Where the Spirit works, He leads you to the place where forgiveness is given, where new life is imparted, where there is food for the journey, where death comes to an end, and where hope lives eternal.  That is where the Word is placed in water, where the Word enters our ears and our sins fall away, and where the Word meets bread that is Christ’s body and wine that is His blood.

For God so loved the world. . . how could God love a world so far from Him and far from the life He created us for and how wicked and evil?  Who cares how!  We are not saved by a curiosity satisfied by a reasonable explanation but by the Christ who suffers and dies for our sins and is raised for our eternal life. And where this Christ is, there is the Spirit, there is forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The Spirit is constantly pointing our hearts and minds to Christ – not in a memory or an imagination but the Christ hidden in water, present in bread and wine, and who speaks through the voice of the Pastor forgiving our sins.

Do not marvel at how this happens, says Jesus.  Believe it.  Those who are born of the Spirit are not the curious seeking explanation but the sinners seeking forgiveness, not the wise seeking more wisdom but the wicked seeking righteousness, not the holy seeking holiness but the unclean who seek to be washed clean inside and out.  Risk it all.  Believe.  And believing, live the new life He has given.

And to all who believe. . . He gives power to become the children of God. This is how radical the Kingdom of God is.  We meet it not in lofty explanations but in the promise hidden in water, Word, bread and wine, and trusted by faith.  The curious will find Jesus wanting but the sinner will find Him all that they need and more than they desire.  Come, believe and live.  Amen.


Anonymous said...

“We must have faith and we must be good.” That is the theme of perhaps a thousand sermons I have heard over the 80 years of my life. But fewer than those I can count on the fingers of one hand gave me any hint on how to do that. This one is no different. Will whoever reads this sermon ask himself, “Do I have real faith?” After all, I have so many doubts and I fall victim to temptation so many times. You have done a great job pointing that out. Maybe I am not a Christian, not a child of God after all? Maybe I am destined for hell?

Why is it that Lutheran pastors cannot make themselves tell their parishioners, “Faith is a gift from God to you in Baptism. It is given when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in you.” Once we are convinced by that Holy Spirit, enabling us to understand His infallible Word, that faith is not the product of our achievement, that it is not affected by doubt or sin, that it is wholly a gift from God, then we will have the confidence in our salvation that our Father in heaven wants us to have. Then we will be able to turn from concerns for our own salvation to serving our neighbor, which is, after all, our calling.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

George, if all you got from that sermon is “We must have faith and we must be good,” I guess I am a terrible communicator. I just do not see it. The sermon was about the great temptation to substitute curiosity (how can this be) for faith that trust what neither eyes nor reason can see or comprehend. Curiosity is not faith. Faith meets God where God has chosen to be known, where He has made His gifts accessible. Faith is not an attempt to make sense of God or of the world but to rejoice in the ultimate conundrum -- for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. . . George, are you sure you are not reading your own bias into my words?

Anonymous said...

Just what do you suppose is my bias?

“Nicodemus was not sure he was ready to risk faith; are you?” Could Nicodemus have decided to “risk faith”? Only if faith were something he worked himself up to. If we then are in the same boat, we have obviously not done enough to obtain faith. Those “are you” questions proliferate in so many sermons. They are designed to use guilt to make us behave better. Hebrews 9:14, “…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Not feeling guilt, because it has been forgiven, is what turns us to “serve the living God.”

”And to all who believe. . . He gives power to become the children of God. This is how radical the Kingdom of God is. We meet it not in lofty explanations but in the promise hidden in water, Word, bread and wine, and trusted by faith. The curious will find Jesus wanting but the sinner will find Him all that they need and more than they desire. Come, believe and live. Amen.” You don’t suppose that the person in the pew hearing the admonition to “believe and live” would understand that he is not one of “all who believe”? Otherwise, why urge him to “believe and live”? Just have to try harder. You say this to a congregation of baptized people to whom God has given the gift of faith as if they were unbelievers. They have already been rescued from the death Adam died in the Garden and made alive in Christ. What else do they need to do? Make a decision for Christ?

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Pastor Peters said...

They are designed to use guilt to make us behave better.

Not in my sermons, George. That question was designed for folks to ask themselves if they desired neat, tidy, answers and explanations of the Lord or whether they were content to trust the good and gracious will of God. Christians have these temptations all the time -- or so many terrible books would not be written presuming to have all the answers or to explain away everything that happens to a person and how to get what you want from God. George, have you ever lived in the South? Are you daily surrounded by a theology that presumes faith as answers and explanations for what is going on in your life and how to make that life better? That is why me and my people face day in and day out. You are reading this sermon from where you are at but it was preached to a particular people. I am sorry if that is not what you got out of it but it is what I put into it. I am sorry that I am not as good a communicator as I should be but part of this is a risk -- reading a sermon without knowing to whom it was preached means you may read something into it differently than it was proclaimed and heard live.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rev. Peters: I live in Keller, TX, 20 minutes away from DFW. Even so, my disagreement with you is of a fundamental nature. In this case, arguing about the specifics is not going to help if we do not agree on the fundamentals.

The twin pillars of our lives are the Cross and the Kingdom. The Cross stands for what God did to save us, even though it involves the entire perfect life of our Savior, His preaching, His suffering, and death. The Kingdom is where God has placed us after He has saved us in Baptism, has forgiven our sins, and has begun to dwell in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. A British pastor and theologian probably put it best, “Certainly we must never conceive ‘salvation’ in purely negative terms, as if it consisted only of our rescue from sin, guilt, wrath and death. We thank God that it is all these things. But it also includes the positive blessing of the Holy Spirit to regenerate, indwell, liberate and transform us.” (John R. W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness. The Work of the Holy Spirit today. Inter Varsity Press, P. 25, 26.) About the Kingdom, we also have this testimony from our Lord, Luke 4: 43, … “but He said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”

We Lutherans, because of our Theology of the Cross, frequently ignore the Theology of the Kingdom, even though that is the place where each one of God’s children now lives, until in heaven we are given the inheritance earned for us by our Savior.

With this as background, I suggest avoiding the type of question you asked, because it inevitably leads to doubt among God’s people in the Kingdom. As our Lord did, and as St. Paul certainly did, I would point to the chasm between “the world” and “the Kingdom.” Those in the world look for “neat, tidy answers and explanations.” They do so, because that is their nature, from which they need to be rescued. We, on the other hand, as members of the Kingdom, having the Holy Spirit dwell in us, are “content to trust the good and gracious will of God.” Because we are not yet perfect, and never will be in this world, our flesh sometimes yearns for the things that are outside of the Kingdom, just as the People of Israel yearned for the flesh pots of Egypt in the desert. Even so, God cares for us in His Kingdom through the intervention of parents, family members, teachers, friends, reading of His holy Word, participation in the Eucharist, and pastors to keep us safely in His Kingdom, and gladly forgives our wrongdoing, and safeguards us until He brings us safely into His Heavenly Kingdom.

You see, the emphasis must always be on what God does for us. That is the essence of the Gospel We must assert it even though we cannot see it, even as we do each time we recited the words of the Creed about the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We should not appeal to God’s children to “come, believe, and live.” We should assure them that because of what God has done for them, they have “believed and lived” from the moment they were Baptized.

Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

ginnie said...

I must be a real dummy because I thought this sermon was excellent and I got a lot out of it for my faith life.