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Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (2020)

    Mar 08, 2020

    Passage: John 3:1-17

    Preacher: Rob Donehue

    Series: Sermons for Year A (2019-2020)

    Category: Lent


    Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (Year A - 2020)
    March 8th, 2020
    St. Anne’s, Conway SC (Lackey Chapel)

    Genesis 12:1-4a Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 John 3:1-17

    So I want to talk with you all this morning about fear. It’s a subject with which I think we are all normally familiar, but perhaps even more so with the outbreak and spread of the coronavirus. Because I am fairly certain that everyone here has some concerns about it and how we, as a community of faith, should respond to it. And I dare say that even if we are confident that we are doing everything we can to be prepared, we still might have some fear. And I actually think that’s normal - perhaps even healthy. Because I think there’s an important distinction between fear that leads to precaution and compassionate mindfulness, and fear that leads to panic and paralysis. 

    Fear that leads to panic and paralysis is, I think, ultimately grounded in selfishness, and as such it is not good. That kind of fear, if it completely takes hold of us, can make us look at everyone and everything as a potential threat. So I think that kind of fear, when taken to an extreme, is more deadly than any virus - at least, if our aim is to build up each other in community. 

    But there’s another kind of fear that I think can actually be constructive and helpful for us. Some of you are familiar with the line from Proverbs: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That particular line from scripture does not mean that we ought to be afraid of God in the sense of thinking that God is a threat to us. It’s more about being mindful of God in everything that you say and do so that your words and actions are in line with your belief in a God who expects you to speak and act in a certain way. In other words, there’s a kind of fear that is about being seriously mindful of the gravity of one’s situation. That kind of fear does not lead to paralysis; instead, it invites us to proceed, yes with caution and awareness, but also with trust. 

    The story of Abram and the story of Nicodemus I think provide windows onto the kinds of fear I’m talking about. 

    In the story from Genesis, God tells Abram to leave his home and go to a foreign land that God will show to him. Now think about that for a moment, and try to place yourself in Abram’s shoes. You get a command from God to leave behind the safety of your tribe - your extended family network - and to go to an undisclosed location where you have no bonds of kinship and therefore no guarantee of protection. I think that might cause you to have some fear. And if Genesis presents an accurate telling of the story, I think we can see that Abram had some fear as well. Certainly we can see that he obeyed God’s command to leave his homeland, but he doesn’t just up and leave. As the story goes, he takes his nephew, Lot with him. And he takes all of his possessions, and he takes his wife, and he takes a small group of people - slaves, really. I read these details as Abram being mindful of God’s command but still taking precautions against being totally alone in a foreign land. And if you keep reading the story, Abram spends a great deal of time and energy taking precautions - sometimes really weird precautions - to ensure his safety so that he can eventually reach the land that God will show him. So I look at the story of Abram as the story of someone who is very much aware of his own fear, but who still acts in faith and trust. 

    What about Nicodemus? Nicodemus, it seems to me, reacts to Jesus with the kind of fear that leads to paralysis. If you recall, the story of Nicodemus’ visit begins in fear. He comes at night because he doesn’t want it to be known. He has a reputation to uphold. And on this visit, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “you cannot see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or “born again”).” And Nicodemus balks at Jesus’ words. And he basically says, “You can’t be serious. No way you can do that.” We tend to write off Nicodemus’ response as him not understanding that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, but I’d invite us to consider what it might mean if we go with Nicodemus’ understanding of being “born” again. He’s afraid of starting from scratch. Starting from nothing. Wiping out your memory and going back to the beginning. It’s scary.  And he’s paralyzed by the thought. He can’t see a way out; can’t think of any alternative other than to say, “How is this even possible?” And y’all, I get it. 

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what my infant son must be going through and how scary it must be. Because he’s only 3 months along in a totally unknown world. He sometimes cries for reasons we cannot always figure out. But even when we know why he’s crying, it still must be scary for him. Because he doesn’t know any better, it probably IS scary to be feeling gas, or growing pains, or hunger, when you really don’t really know what those things are. And I don’t think I’d like to have to go back to that stage of development. Being born again? Not so much if that’s what it means. So I do understand Nicodemus reluctance to accept what Jesus is saying. I’d be afraid too. 

    But I think the key for us is in trusting that God will be with us even in the midst of our fear. And that can help us to keep moving forward. With my son, the best I can do is to be there to help him keep growing, and to discover that this world is a good place and that he can trust his mother and me to protect and care for him and help him grow beyond the things that scare him. God does the same for each of us. 

    As this all relates to the current fear that we all might have around the coronavirus, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the fear is there and not to downplay it. It’s what we do with that fear that matters. Fear can paralyze us and cause us to cut ourselves off from each other completely. Or it can cause us to be more compassionate and mindful of how we interact with each other. My hope for us here in this community is that we will choose to embrace mindful and compassionate precaution and never lose faith that, no matter what our fear may be, God is still with us.