First Lesson: Numbers 21: 4-9
Responsive Reading: Psalm 107: 1-3, 17-22
Second Lesson: Ephesians 2: 1-10
Gospel Lesson: John 3: 14-21
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
This morning I want to begin by telling you the stories of three unique individuals, who would seem to have nothing in common. There is ultimately a common bond tying them together with Nicodemus the lead character from Today’s Gospel Lesson from John 3.
R.J. Palacio tells the story of Augie Pullman a ten-year-old boy born with a craniofacial disorder. Things like swallowing and breathing that we take for granted were challenges for Augie as a young child. Growing up Augie had numerous surgeries to live a normal life hopefully. Augie because of his medical condition was never going to look normal. Kids would make fun of him at the local park growing up. Augie as a self-defense mechanism proceeded to wear a space helmet over his head in public for two years. Augie was asked if his face was a result of being in a “fire.” Augie was home-schooled because both kids and adults can be continually cruel. Augie was quite bright and loved Star Wars. The insults would sting Augie every time he’d be compared to zombies or various hideous looking Star Wars characters on account of his face. Augie had grown up being left out by other kids. Augie expected to be picked on when he started going to school. Augie saw all the ways in this life he seemingly didn’t measure up, so he knew what exactly it felt like to be lonely and unloved.
The second character I want to tell you about is one of the most remarkable men in American history. John Quincy Adams was born in Quincy, Massachusetts in 1767 the son of Abigail Adams and future president John Adams. At the age of 26, the Ambassador to the Netherlands. At the age of 36, he would be elected to the United States Senate. He served as a Professor at multiple Ivy League schools in Harvard and Brown. His later career would see him serve as Ambassador to Russia, Secretary of State, he served as the sixth President of the United States, and afterward went on to serve an additional nine terms in the U.S. Congress until his death in 1848. Perhaps no person in American history has served in more varied and important offices than John Quincy Adams. In the years before his death, Adams sat down reflecting on his life with the following observation “My whole life has been a succession of disappointments. I can scarcely recollect a single instance of success in anything that I ever undertook. “
The third character is remarkable in some ways, unremarkable in many others. There was no finer Christian at Saint Martin’s Lutheran Church than Mildred. Mildred would be the first person to let you know of this. Mildred could quote her Bible better than many a minister. Mildred had never smoked, nor ever touched alcohol. Mildred would skip “Hollywood” movies because they glamorized sin. Mildred wouldn’t even touch a deck of playing cards. No one had ever heard Mildred utter a cuss word. Mildred’s family life though was a mess. Mildred’s son didn’t speak to her over her continual shaming of his sinful, hedonist ways. Mildred barely talked to her daughter after her interference ruined her marriage. Mildred’s husband had not felt joy the last thirty years of their marriage. Mildred’s gossip had wounded people far and wide within her community. Here’s the thing about Mildred she was good at avoiding sins in which she didn’t have much interest, Mildred though was unable to recognize the true nature of sin within her life.
So what do Augie Pullman, John Quincy Adams, and Mildred have in common? They all struggled in their unique ways with perfectionism. They all see their world as ruled by harsh judges, demanding taskmasters, and rules over how they’re supposed to look, succeed, and behave.
Into their stories comes a similar story in our Gospel lesson for Today from John 3. Nicodemus was one of the biggest religious big-shots in Jesus’ day. He was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin or the religious ruling council that would eventually sentence Jesus to death. But Nicodemus was also curious about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night because it wasn’t safe to be seen talking with Jesus because of building tensions between Nicodemus’ fellow Pharisees and Jesus.
Nicodemus was pious like Mildred with the power of John Quincy Adams. The Pharisees took how they lived seriously; they weren’t satisfied with Ten Commandments, so they expanded them by 613. They prayed at every meal, and never worked under any circumstances on the Sabbath day.
So Nicodemus needed to know how Jesus’ differed from all this. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus his famous words “Unless a man is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus can’t initially make sense of Jesus’ words. How exactly do you choose to get born?
So Jesus sums it all up to Nicodemus in our lesson for Today: “For God so loved the world,[i] that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
When you consider Nicodemus’ background until meeting Jesus, he is a highly unlikely convert much like Saul who became Paul. What Nicodemus hears about being “born from above” presents him with a new understanding of grace then he had previously ever heard.
Nicodemus appears later in the Gospels as evidenced by his new “birth from above.” In John 7, when the Council wants to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus speaks in his defense. In John 19, Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimathea helps arrange for Jesus’ burial.
Nicodemus moved on from perfectionism to grace. Nicodemus came to believe that his God was not a harsh judge nor a stern taskmaster, but rather a God of love and forgiveness who welcomes sinners like Nicodemus or Mildred into his presence. The point of our lesson is whether you’re Augie Pullman, John Quincy Adams, Mildred or Nicodemus you will not be excluded from the love of God given in Christ Jesus. Jesus’ promises are big enough to overcome your lack of perfection. Nicodemus saw how God reaches down to us in the midst of our imperfection. Nicodemus’ new conviction was the meaning of him being “born from above.”
So what does Nicodemus’ story mean for our story? Homer Simpson is a member of the First Christian Church of Springfield. Homer certainly has his share of faults: he’ll have his many moments of being both selfish and lazy. One time, Homer fell asleep in church. It wasn’t just any snooze though; it was a mouth-wide open, drool coming out of it snooze. The following Sunday: the Church puts on the bulletin a picture of Homer sleeping, big belly on display asking the question “Jesus died for this?”
Before meeting Jesus, Nicodemus would have been appalled at seeing such a picture. After meeting Jesus, Nicodemus came to believe that Jesus came into the world for failed believers no different than Homer Simpson or even himself.
The meaning of Nicodemus’ rebirth is he was never going to understand God the same after his eyes were opened to the realities of God’s grace.
Let me close with one final story for this morning, Oliver Sacks is a professor of Neurology at Columbia and a best -selling author. Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man named Virgil. Virgil had gone blind in childhood when he was fifty years old, he undergoes surgery and is given the gift of sight. New eyesight would seem to be a joyous occasion for Virgil, yet in the initial days after his surgery life was quite awkward.
Virgil had to be escorted up to the walkway to his house, be introduced to each chair. Virgil had been born-again his body was fifty, but his eyes scanned the world trying to make sense of it no different than an infant. For what we do thousands of times a day without a second thought, was seemingly next to impossible for Virgil to do.
Virgil could identify colors and movements, but figuring out patterns was next to impossible because of prior lack of experience.
Virgil eventually gets better with these tasks over time, as he grows more and more used to conditions of what he has now come to know.
Dr. Sacks concluded: “One must die as a blind person to be born again as seeing person.”
Seeing, hearing, and experiencing the world in a new way takes time to adjust.
“You don’t give yourself birth; Christ does it for you.”
Your various imperfections whether they are sleeping in your pew, a deformed face, a seeming lack of accomplishment, broken relationships with everyone around you, or being so scared of the consequences that you have to visit with Jesus in the secret of night.
God gives, we receive. God forgives, we heal. Christ dies, we are resurrected. No matter how different Augie Pullman, John Quincy Adams, Mildred, Nicodemus, or any of us might be, it is the same Gospel message that we all receive.
“For God so loved the world,that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”- Amen.
 John 3:14-21.
 R.J. Palacio’s book Wonder was published by Knopf Books in 2012.
 Kooi, Nickolas. “You Aren’t Left Out.” Sermon Central. 13.June.2017. Web. Feb.19.2018.
 “John Quincy Adams.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 16.Feb.2018. Web. Feb.19.2018.
 Sell, Charles. Unfinished Business. Multnomah Publishers. 1989. P.23 found on Sermon Illustrations website under perfectionism.
 Mildred is based on an woman described by Tim Zingale in his Feburary 19th, 2002 sermon titled “The Giving Tree.” The sermon was accessed on Sermon Central on Feburary 15th, 2012.
 Zingale, Tim. “The Giving Tree.”
 Stier, Leon. “The First Saint Nick (a.) Email Mediatations. 18. Aug.2016. Web. Feb.19.2018.
 Stier, Leon. “The First Saint Nick (b).” Email Mediatations. 19. Aug.2016. Web. Feb.19.2018.
 John 3:3.
 John 3:16.
 Stier, Leon. “The First Saint Nick (b).”
 John 7:50
 John 19:39.
 Molin, Steve. “The Night Visitor.” Sermon Writer. 2006. Web. Feb.19.2018.
 The following scene takes place in The Simpsons season 14 episode 10 “Pray Anything” originally airing on Fox Network on Feburary 9th, 2003.
 Michaud, Jon. “Eighty-Five from the Archive: Oliver Sacks.” New Yorker. 22.Feb.2010. Web. Feb.19.2018.
 Michaud, Jon. “Eighty-Five from the Archive: Oliver Sacks.”
 The following was sent into Sermon Illustrations under Born Again by Terry Seufferlein of Norman, Oklahoma. The website was accessed on Feburary 19, 2018.
 John 3:16.
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.