No Messing Around
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
March 22, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 3: 1-3 (CEB)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Philippians 3: 7-16 (CEB)
These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. 15So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. 16Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.
Last summer, I joined with the youth of Wesley Memorial for Junior High Service Week at Camp Lookout. Each day, the youth involved went with groups to different parts of the city and to different agencies to offer their gifts and to serve our community. One day, Steaven, Heather, and I were with a group that worked with Widow’s Harvest Ministries. We got on one of the Camp buses and went to the home of a widow on the Northshore. Our task for the morning was to get her yard cleaned up. Heather pruned the lady’s front bushes, Steaven was on a ladder cutting brush off her back fence. My task was to tackle the English ivy. It was EVERYWHERE in this lady’s side yard. Claiming victory over the ivy in the three or so hours we were working at this woman’s house required a two-fold approach. First, I needed to uproot the ivy from the ground, and like I said, it was everywhere. The second think I need to do was get the ivy untangled from the bushes and tree limbs all around the yard. I alternated between these two tasks. As I worked to get the ivy out of the tree limbs, though, I noticed something interesting. Sometimes, I could find the tips of the ivy, and in every case, those tips were stretched out, growing toward the next highest limb. It was like looking at an arm stretched out to get something off the top shelf. You could sense what seemed like a clear desire of the vine to attach itself and keep growing. It is a fascinating thing, when you think about it. I wanted to know a little bit more about why ivy behaves in such a way, so this week, I looked it up.
Any of you who are in to science will know this, but there is a process in plants called phototropism. “Plants have a hormone in them called auxin that enables them to grow toward sunlight so they’ll be able to generate energy through photosynthesis.” In other words, a part of the ivy’s basic makeup, its DNA, is this innate knowledge “that if it can attach itself to something higher, there will be more sunlight” and thus more energy.
What brought to mind that English ivy this week was Paul’s words to the Philippians, “The goal that I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.” I’m going to get to our Lenten “messy” message in a minute, but first I want to say something about that vine, and about Paul’s words, and about this Coronavirus pandemic in which we find ourselves. Right now, it feels like everything is falling down, like the world is crumbling around us. Stocks are falling, the economy has crashed to a halt. People’s health is in grave jeopardy. Our healthcare systems sit on a tipping point. It is very easy to let our minds and our hearts go the way of the world; to fall and to crumble into doubt and despair. But you know, even a vine growing toward sunlight can do so on a dead tree. And even with our world in turmoil and chaos, even with everything falling down around us, we can still reach for the Son. There is life in the light, and nothing to stop us from growing toward the light of Christ. Nothing.
The world may be a mess; our lives may be a mess, but the light of Christ can pull us to a higher place. And that’s the core message of our Lenten series, “Finding Redemption in Our Mess.” We are now in our fourth week of Lent. And through this season, we have been thinking about the messes of our lives; giving consideration to how they got there and how to get things cleaned up. This is moving us toward the great message of Easter, and the restoration that comes through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Our focus has been on the messes of our own making, the messes that arise from sin, but right now we are all living in the tough reality of a big mess that is not of our own making. And as we talk through all of this, I want you all to hear that the message crosses over – from one mess to another to another, no matter the cause.
So last week, we talked about how moving beyond the messes of our lives requires an acknowledgment that we really want things to change. Instead of praying that God would “bless the mess” in our lives, we have to acknowledge that the mess is there, that it’s a problem, and that we want God’s help in fixing the problem. When Jesus asks the question, “Do you want to get well,” we must answer, “Yes!” This morning, we’re going to talk about beginning that process of change, or cleaning up. And, spoiler alert, this is a major process that basically requires that we dive right in. But it is also an innate, God-given longing within each of us, to be always reaching toward the Son.
Early in his ministry, Jesus was approached by a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a staunch Pharisee. He had heard of Jesus and his miraculous work, but he was also a bit skeptical, and afraid to reveal that he might see in Jesus the light for which he has been longing. So Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night and says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” and Jesus replied, affirming Nicodemus, “Unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” And then he goes on, and I didn’t read this part of the passage this morning, but after Jesus makes that statement, Nicodemus asks how an adult could possible re-enter the mother’s womb and be born again. And Jesus describes a new birth by water and the Spirit. Now, you all know how painful, and difficult, and messy birth can be. The same is true of new birth, of spiritual renewal. It’s not easy to shed the familiar and the comfortable. But there’s no messing around here, if we want to get things cleaned up, that’s exactly what we have to do. Painful as it may be, we have to turn from our old life and embrace the new.
Which brings me back to Paul’s words to the Philippians. “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
“It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”
Our lives are and will be a continual cycle of reaching up to new heights, and then finding ourselves surrounded by a mess again, and so reaching higher still. This is a goal we strive after, never really a final destination we reach. This is a goal we pursue, for which we reach and grab, because Christ himself has grabbed hold of us “for just this purpose.” But living into that purpose, pursuing that goal also means leaving behind the old ways of life, the messes that can become all-consuming. Again, though, finding redemption and restoration in our lives doesn’t mean that we just sort of declutter; we also have to move away from all the messy “agents” in our lives; sin most especially. Ultimately, God’s goal, Christ’s life-saving work, is not simply so that we have “less mess in our lives; [God’s goal] is to lift us out of our old life and into a new one[!]”
I’m really not sure where we go from here. On top of any messes we were already dealing with, we are walking in dark and unfamiliar territory right now. Everything is messy. But here’s the truth I cling to today and everyday; the truth that keeps me striving forward. There is something innate within each of us; something placed there by God himself, that keeps us longing for and moving toward the light. And as long as we are growing toward the Son, no matter what messes may surround us, we are moving in the right direction and nothing can stop us. This is the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
So it is that “I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me.”