First Lesson: Genesis 12: 1-4a
Responsive Reading: Psalm 121
Second Lesson: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Gospel Lesson: John 3: 1-17
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
There once was a man named Erik. Erik was like the type of guy that you might meet in Silver Bay. One day Erik dies and is standing in the presence of Saint Peter. Saint Peter and Erik start to discuss Erik’s potential acceptance into heaven. Saint Peter informs Erik that he’s been tested his whole life and he needs 100 points to make it in. Saint Peter then gives Erik the opportunity to plead his case. First, Erik describes how he was married to his wife for fifty years, how he never cheated on her once, how they raised three children together who all turned out alright. Saint Peter nods his head at Erik proclaiming “Ok, that’s three points.” Three points, Erik couldn’t believe it, he thought that alone should make a compelling case. Erik started brainstorming then thinking of his work at the local Saint Martin’s Lutheran. Erik describes being in church every Sunday, serving on the church council, and being a generous giver. Saint Peter says “That’s wonderful let me give you a point for that.” Erik is starting to get worried at this point. Erik then thought of something else to plead his case. Erik then says “Well every Friday night for over thirty years; I volunteered at the local homeless shelter.” A big smile gets upon Saint Peter’s face. Erik is finally hopeful. Saint Peter says “That’s great, I’ll give you two points for all that.” Erik is getting frustrated, he throws his hands in the air, and in a bout of frustration cries out “At this rate, the only way that I’ll ever get into heaven is by the grace of God.” Saint Peter starts to clap as he says “Bingo, 100 points for you!” “Erik, Welcome to Heaven!”
Now keep a picture of Erik in your head. Today’s Gospel lesson centers on a similar man in Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a respected elder in his community. Nicodemus was well-versed when it came to scripture and religious traditions. Like Erik, Nicodemus probably was a dedicated husband and father. Nicodemus had earned all his power through the noble ways of learning and character. Nicodemus would seemingly be the type to ace Heaven’s entrance exam, yet deep down he felt a little bit off.
Nicodemus hears about Jesus. Nicodemus hears about all the signs that Jesus is performing. Nicodemus wishes to meet with Jesus. Nicodemus arranges the meeting be at night, so their meeting can be in secret.
So Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus goes like this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Jesus' words stump Nicodemus. Nicodemus says “How can one be born from above?”
Nicodemus had two problems with what Jesus is saying about “being born from above”.
Problem One: Nicodemus was probably too smart. Nicodemus probably knew too much religious ritual. Nicodemus couldn’t imagine God not working in a way that he hadn’t heard of before. “Born from Above.” Doesn’t make sense to me, so it can’t be so.
I was reading a book this week called The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Lewis described based on psychological research “Why Doctors make wrong diagnoses in medicine?” The issues have nothing to do with lack of education or even experience.
The issue has to do with Doctors like all people having a tendency to jump to the easiest and neatest conclusion.
For example, when a patient comes in with pneumonia and a normal heart rate; doctors will often ignore normal heart rate as being insignificant. The doctors focus on the pneumonia. Focusing on the pneumonia makes logical sense, just like it makes sense that a great guy like Nicodemus or Erik would be perfect applicants for the Kingdom of God.
Here’s the thing though normal heart rates can be misleading. A normal heart rate when your body is fighting an ailment such as pneumonia can be a bad thing because one’s heart should be working harder to heal one’s body. “Pneumonia kills because of its power to spread infection.” The heart rate appearing normal can mislead Doctors to fail to see below the surface of what’s going on.
Pneumonia/heart rate conundrum is an example of how too much knowledge can often lead to tunnel vision. Nicodemus could easily identify and possess the traits of a good religious person. What Nicodemus failed to account for is that God can and will work in ways beyond how we think it should be so.
Problem Two: Nicodemus probably fell into an even worse error though in that he might have been too successful in life. Nicodemus as great as he sounds seems like the type of guy who would give a boring testimony at church. Nicodemus never had any substance abuse issues. He probably rarely got in trouble at either school, home, or with the authorities. Nicodemus was probably disciplined with his tongue. Nicodemus probably didn’t have any real exciting vices. As great as this sounds this can be a problem.
I came across a quote by Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder earlier this week who described this passage well when he said “From my own experience across the years, it is much easier for those languishing in prison or those who are addicted or those prodigals who find themselves waking up in a pigpen in a far country to understand what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus than it is for those of us who have reduced life to what we can control. It’s easier for them to believe in being born anew from above than we who think we have it all together.”
Back to Erik in the Heaven Entrance Exam, Erik thought he had the right approach to the test. Erik would be able to point to all his accomplishments as a way of procuring God’s favor. “Being born from above” is about something else though entirely. It’s a reminder that our God isn’t about extending this life with all its foibles a little longer, our God is rather about creating new life and bringing hope from the deepest of darkness.
Now let’s talk about a guy at the opposite end of the spectrum from Nicodemus in President Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon left the White House in shame. Nixon being the only President ever voluntarily to step down from the Oval Office. Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976 because people were outraged that President Gerald Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon.
Nixon had spent the next few years of his life away from the public eye, because of his actions. In 1978, Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey died. Richard Nixon decides to attend Humphrey’s funeral. Humphrey’s funeral is a big deal with every political dignitary in the world seemingly attending. What happens when these people see Richard Nixon is that they shun him, they look away, they walk the other direction. Any conversations Richard Nixon has on this day are brief. Richard Nixon’s place in the world had been made abundantly clear on this day.
Into the room though walks President Jimmy Carter. Carter would seem to be the last guy to ever reach out to Nixon. Carter was a Democrat and Nixon was a Republican. Jimmy Carter goes to find a seat when he notices standing off in the corner by himself Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter approaches Richard Nixon sticks out his hand, cracks a big smile and says: “Welcome home, Mr. President! Welcome home!”
This simple gesture of kindness would come to be a turning point in Richard Nixon’s life; his time spent living in the wilderness.
Plenty of people weren’t going to get the gesture. Jimmy Carter had everything to lose for daring to reach out to Richard Nixon. Everyone in the room believed Richard Nixon had done nothing to earn such grace. What Jesus is trying to explain to Nicodemus today is that is exactly the point.
Grace is the great equalizer for both the greatest saint and great sinner in the eyes of the world. Grace can change all our lives.
The story of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter though was not over on this day. In 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter ride over on a plane together to attend the funeral. There was tension on the plane between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter over the 1976 Election. There was one man on the plane though that believed “new birth” was possible in any relationship in Richard Nixon. By 1981, the previous dour Richard Nixon had become quite jovial in the presence of others. Nixon sought to bring Carter and Ford together. By the time the three men left the plane, the ice was melted and all these former Presidents had become friends! So even in Washington D.C. is anything possible.
Back to the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, John 19 tells the end of Nicodemus’ story. Jesus goes to the cross. Jesus is being buried by two men Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of spices to help bury Jesus’ body. Nicodemus had come to realize that just like Erik at the gates of Heaven that his life wasn’t as together as he thought that it would only be the Grace of God not any of accomplishments that would bring extended arms at the great beyond.
Here’s the thing about being born from above, we don’t do it. We are never born on our terms. We don’t choose when to be born. We certainly can’t control it. Nicodemus and Richard Nixon would seem to have nothing in common in the eyes of the world. Both men needed to encounter a whole new world of grace, hope, and forgiveness. Amen
 The following is a retelling of an analogy given by Llewellyn, Tony. “Sermon Illustrations: Grace”.Hotsermons.com. Mar.6.2017.
 Llewellyn, Tony. “Sermon Illustrations: Grace
 Descriptions of Nicodemus influenced by Markquart, Edward. “Born Again”. SermonsfromSeattle.com. Web. Mar.6.2017.
 John 3:2
 John 3:3.
 John 3:4.
 The research of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman
 Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project. W.W. Norton Companies. New York. Print. Chapter 8 (212-237).
 Lewis, Micheal. The Undoing Project. P.221.
 Lewis, Micheal. The Undoing Project. P.221-222.
 Carder, Kenneth. L. “Seeing, believing, and the new birth from above.” Faith&Leadership.com. 4.July.2011. Web. Mar.6.2017.
 Carder, Kenneth. L. “Seeing, believing, and the new birth from above.”
 Weems, Rev. Dr. Cynthia. “A Complete Makeover.” Day 1.org. 31.May.2015. Web. Mar.6.2017
 Found on Stories for Preaching website on Mar.6.2017 under “Welcome Home Mr.President taken from Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook on Living as a Christian, pp.112-113
 Stories for Preaching. “Welcome Home Mr.President”
 Stories for Preaching. “Welcome Home Mr.President.”
 Stories for Preaching. “Welcome Home Mr.President.”
 Stories for Preaching. “Welcome Home Mr.President
 CBS News Staff. “Ford and Carter: An Odd Couple?”CBSNEWS.com. 18.Feb.2000. Web. Mar.6.2017
 CBS News Staff. “Ford and Carter: An Odd Couple?”
 John 19:38-42.