Monday, March 13, 2017

Why I Believe in Jesus

March 12, 2017 – The 2nd Sunday in Lent
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

I believe in lots of things. I believe that there is intelligent life on other planets. Given the vast expanse of the universe, I feel certain that at some point in time on some distant planet in some faraway solar system there has been or will be intelligent life out there. But what do I do about it? How does that change my life? Not one bit. Because the universe is so tremendously huge, the statistical probability that evidence of that life will ever reach the earth while we are still around to see it is astronomically small. So I believe it, but it doesn’t matter to me.

I believe that one day all human life on this planet will cease to exist, and I believe that human beings will be the cause of that. I don’t know whether it will be climate change or antibiotic-resistant diseases or chemical or nuclear warfare or something else I haven’t imagined yet, but I feel sure that, one of these days, the last person on this planet will die and, when she takes her last breath, she’ll know that human beings are the reason. And what do I do about it? How does that affect my daily life? Hardly at all. I may care about my carbon footprint and preach about the importance of non-violence in all circumstances, but I don’t expect that I will live to see the end, and I don’t think my children or children’s children or even their great-great-great-grandchildren will live to see it either, so I don’t lose even a second of sleep over it. I just brush it aside with the luxury of naïveté.

I believe that I would be a happier, healthier person if I ate less and exercised more. I don’t need a doctor or a nutritionist to tell me that. I believe it. I know it. I would have more energy, sleep better, and be a better role model for my children. But will I do anything about it? Will I let that belief change my life? Apparently not, since I’m still pretty much the same size and shape that I have been for years. I believe it, but it doesn’t seem to matter to me all that much.

I also believe in Jesus, but what does that mean? Do I believe in the virgin birth? Do I believe that he walked on water and stilled the storm? Do I believe that he healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead? Do I believe that he died on the cross? Do I believe that he was raised on the third day? And, if I do believe those things, do I believe them deeply enough to let them make a difference in my life? Or am I merely going through the motions, reciting the creed, and saying the Lord’s Prayer without allowing any of them to penetrate my heart and mind and soul in any meaningful way?

I think it’s time for us to change the vocabulary that we use in church. I don’t mean that it’s time to get rid of the Rite One language that we use in the early service or use gender-neutral names for God in the later service. I mean that it’s time for us to find a way to talk about believing in Jesus as more than just agreeing with what the bible and the creeds and the church teach about him. We need a way to talk about belief that points us not to a list of doctrines to which we are willing to give our intellectual assent but to a life like the one that Abraham lived—a life that shows us what it really means to believe in God.

I don’t know how well you remember the Book of Genesis, but it might be worth recalling how we get to today’s Old Testament lesson in Genesis 12. Genesis 1-3 are the stories about creation and Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden. Genesis 4 is the story of Cain and Abel. Genesis 5 recalls the genealogy from Adam to Noah. And then, in Genesis 6, God decides that it’s time to flood the earth. Noah and the ark take up Genesis 6, 7, 8, and 9. Genesis 10 is another genealogy that explains how the descendants of Noah spread across the world. Genesis 11 is the story of the Tower of Babel.

And then we get to Genesis 12, which is to say that the story of Abraham comes out of nowhere. God doesn’t introduce himself to Abram. God doesn’t have a record of interacting with him and his ancestors. God simply shows up one day and says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing.” And what did Abram do? He went. He believed God. He took God at his word, and, when God said, “Go,” Abram went. He left everything he knew behind—his land, his father, his kinfolk—and he set out for a new country because he believed that his future with God was better than anything he might leave behind. Would that all of God’s people had faith like Abraham! But where does faith like that come from?

Thousands of years later, a leader among God’s people came by night to a controversial rabbi and said, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God because no one could do the signs that you do if God were not with him.” Nicodemus came to Jesus looking for something to believe in, but Jesus knew that the sort of faith that Nicodemus sought could not be found that easily, so he told him, “You must be born from above…You must be born again—not from flesh and blood but from water and Spirit.” Confused, Nicodemus said, “But how can this be?” And Jesus said to him, “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.” All you have to do is believe, Jesus said, but be careful because belief like that will change your life. Belief like that requires being born again.

How did the most famous verse in the bible become a bumper sticker and a slogan for a t-shirt? God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that all who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life? Sure. That’s right. And all you have to do is believe it, but what the bumper sticker doesn’t tell you is that believing means more than just saying, “Ok, I’ll go along with that.” Believing means having faith like Abraham. It means leaving everything behind and setting out for a new life because you trust with all your heart that God’s plan for you is better than what you will leave behind. Belief like that means being born again.

What would happen if we all had faith like Abraham? What would happen if we took God at his word and lived as if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus were real? What would happen to our families if we truly believed that death were not the end? What would happen to our church if we all decided to sell all that we have and give it to the poor? What would happen to this community if all of us were willing to lay down our life and take up our cross because we believed Jesus really was worth following? What would happen to this nation and the world if we believed that the poor in spirit really are the blessed ones, that the meek really will inherit the earth, that the right thing to do is to turn the other cheek? Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all believed that God sent his son to die not for righteous people but for the ungodly? Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t just say those things but we meant them, too?

I believe in Jesus. I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God came down and lived as one of us. I believe that he died on the cross and on the third day was raised from the dead. And I believe that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is evidence that God’s love has no limits—that we are loved by God exactly the same regardless of what we have thought or said or done. And what difference does that make in my life? What have I done about that? Every day I pray that God will give me the wisdom and the courage I need to make that belief a transformative reality in my life. Each day, I ask for God’s help in committing my whole life to that gospel because I believe that unconditional love has the power to make a difference in my life, in my community, and throughout the world. That limitless love is the source of my true hope. I pursue it with my whole heart. And I invite you to do the same. Believe in the power of limitless love. Believe in Jesus. And believe in him with your whole heart and mind and soul. Believe in him until you are born again.

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