Meeting Jesus

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
A Pharisee named, Nicodemus, met with Jesus one night.  As we imagine some worry on his part that his peers might see him visiting Jesus, that he came at night seems significant.  But the hour only colors the meeting.   Since Pharisees were, most likely, businessmen, it may have simply been after work.
As a Pharisee, Nicodemus was a separatist from the ways of the world.  He held to strictly interpreted concepts of Israel’s founding laws.  His purpose seems more interesting, as we must read between the lines of his simple affirmation, “You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him” (John 3:2).
Nicodemus met Jesus, not with a question but with a statement.  Yet, Jesus wasted no time leading Nicodemus into a deeper understanding of who He was, especially in His relationship with God.  As Nicodemus recognized the presence of God with Jesus, Jesus opened the door for Nicodemus to meet God.
You see, God sent Jesus to save us.  By definition, salvation, as following Jesus, requires a meeting.  You can only follow someone that you have met and are getting to know.  Jesus and the one to be saved must meet one another.  That’s how a person meets God in salvation.  God sent Jesus to save Nicodemus.  The meeting was on!
Meeting Jesus, we discover who God is, and we trust in Him for salvation.
Lord, open our hearts to those gracious meetings with You which fan the flames of faith and understanding.
How do we meet God in Jesus?

It’s nighttime.  This man who separated himself from the world was sitting with the Rabbi of the people.  It’s ironic, since his name, Nicodemus, means victory of the people.  Perhaps they’re around a fire.  Or, imagine the candles lit, and an oil lamp on the table.  And this Rabbi, Jesus, jumped in by telling a “ghost” story—a Holy Ghost story, the story of the Spirit.
But rather than a scary story, such as ours are, Jesus told the sacred story of the life-giving Spirit of God.  “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do no be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7).
We meet God in Jesus through the work of the Spirit.  This Spirit, who gives us being, this Spirit who gives us life, Jesus characterizes as free and inscrutable.  “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
There is no pressure to slip in a visit under cover of night or simply after work.  The Spirit goes whithersoever it desires.  And we know His presence.  There is no Pharisaical pressure to remain separate from perceived threats to the Law.  The Spirit moves in us and through us and around us and with us.  Indeed, the Spirit moves us in directions and ways which exceed our understanding.  The Spirit gives us life and breath, exceeding the limits of nighttime and all the pharisaical legalism of presumptuous leaders.

And then the tone turned somber if not a little tense.  Nicodemus showed deeper reluctance to the descriptions of Spirit-life which Jesus had offered.  Jesus challenged whether Nicodemus could be such an expert in the Law and not be able to see the truth as He opened it up before him.
From introduction to the Spirit, Jesus now focussed on His personal story.  The image is striking if not frightening.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15).
We meet God in Jesus when He is lifted up.  What does this serpent talk allude to?  What would lifting up Jesus look like?
First, the Moses and serpent story refers to an incident in Israel’s history in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.  Moses tells us that in response to ongoing toxic complaints from the Israelites, “The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Num 21:6).  God’s character, methods, or motives are not the question here.  The emphasis is on the venomous nature of the people’s complaint.
But even that is not Jesus’ point.  Jesus moved to the solution.  “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent [out of bronze], and set it on a standard; and it shall come about that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live’” (Num 21:8).  The bronze serpent was lifted up in sight of the community for the sake of the community.  Thus, must Jesus be lifted up.
Listen!  The serpent was a construction of men which God used for their salvation.  Crucifixion is a construction of men and God used the crucifixion of Jesus for our salvation.  This is the, “Lifting up Jesus,” part.  We think that, “Lifting up Jesus,” means something like, “Giving Jesus the praise!” or, “Always blessing His name!”  Later in John’s Gospel we find that the phrase, “Lift up Jesus,” specifically refers to the crucifixion.  Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”  John explained, “But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die” (John 12:32, 33).
Sacrificial deaths were not a new thing.  Society probably owes its existence to the emergence of such violence.  But previously, no sacrifice ever gave more than a temporary relief from suffering by the suffering of the other.  The difference with this crucifixion, in the lifting up of Jesus, was that Jesus went sinlessly and willingly and gracefully and filled with forgiveness to the cross.  And most importantly, we heard the story from the perspective of Jesus.  That’s the story we tell today as we, “Lift up Jesus.”

This brings us to the Father.  Giving Jesus to the world, God was giving Himself to His creation.  Hear these most well-know of verses.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
We meet God in Jesus as God gave His Son to us.  He is the God who gives of Himself into His creation and for our good.
Pharisees tried to remain separate from the Romans and from the Greek cultural influences and the common folk and the Sadducees and all the others who didn’t follow the Law with the right (meaning, in agreement with them) interpretation.  Business occupied his day and a meeting with this Jesus, with Whom he sensed God, occupied this night for Nicodemus.
In complete contrast, God refused to separate Himself from us.  He came in the flesh.  He turned night into day in the light of His presence.  Jesus walked with us and touched us and lived with us and went about doing good.  And Jesus died for us and rose for us and is coming back for us.
The age of life was present and open to Nicodemus that night.  It remains open to us today.  We often translate the phrase, zoen aionion, the zoe—eon, eternal life.  For many, this implies a future in heaven.  But this phrase refers to an eon or “age” of life which is present as we speak, and which lies before us without end.  Eternal life is simply that life which is worth living eternally.
God meets us in Jesus, and we can meet Him and be saved (entering into this life-age) through Him.  He is the Father God who gave His only Son to us.  He is the Son of Man lifted up on the cross.  He is the Spirit who gives us life.  Meet Him!  Know Him!  Trust Him!

Worship in Spirit and Truth

“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
Last week, we met Nicodemus.  That is, he came one night and met Jesus.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, and apparently a successful businessman.  This week, we read that Jesus met an unnamed woman of Samaria, of the village of Sychar.  She was drawing water in the middle of the day, at a time when encounters with other women of the village would be least likely.  A person from a more opposite situation in life than that of Nicodemus could probably not be found.  But Jesus found her.  And she met Jesus.
God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and truth.  Her journey was quite different from that of Nicodemus.  Her starting point grew from a totally different world.  She was well-versed in matters of faith from the perspective she shared with others of Samaria.  Still, God sought her and found her and invited her to faith through one of the deepest, most extended theological discussions in Scripture.
We believe Jesus and give our lives to God as we worship Him in spirit and truth.  The story of the woman at the well shapes our faith in ways the story of Nicodemus does not.  We often get entangled in various challenges to worship.  These things short-circuit our worship of God in spirit and truth.  This story clarifies at least five challenges to worship in spirit and truth.
Lord, lead us to worship in spirit and truth.  Amen.
What are some challenges to our worship in spirit and truth?

Water of Unity
Jesus had asked this woman for some water.  She protested.  He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan.  Didn’t He know how inappropriate this was?  Samaritans and Jews do not deal with one another.  The first matter is this life-giving water which washes away our prejudice.  Divisive thinking and acting short-circuits worship.
Muslims and Christians, Blacks and Whites, Rich and Poor, our binary distinctions keep us comfortably separate and clearly decided on who is who.  The truth that one God created all of us often fails to change our minds.  Too often, the spirit of grace fails to persuade us to share that same spirit of grace with others.
God challenges our divisiveness through group-expanding metaphors such as water from the well.  The request for water from Jacob’s well, Jesus turned into an offer for a gusher of spiritual water renewing and giving life to the soul.  This water washes away the distinction between Jew and Samaritan.  This water satisfies our deepest thirst.  The currents of this water carry us into an everlasting age of life without the pains of exclusion.

Husbands and Others
The woman asked for some of this spiritual water and to be cleansed by its truth.  Jesus countered with the request that she go get her husband.  This brings up the matter of relationship.  Broken relationships short-circuit worship.
She admitted that she “currently” had no husband.  Jesus clarified that indeed, she had had five husbands and that she was not married to her current companion.
She presumed He must be a prophet to have knowledge of all this truth.  How could He know, otherwise?  More perplexing is the lack of condemnation from Jesus.  He simply declared the reality of her broken relationships with a spirit of grace.  Jesus offered no particular blame.  Nor did He suggest she get married now, or reconcile to the first one, or whatever.
While it might be important that the woman recognize Jesus as a prophet, I doubt that that was even the point.  God challenges our brokenness by leading us to deal with failing and failed relationships.  When we face the truths of our lives God opens a spirit of grace which convicts and consoles and challenges.
To the challenge, she abruptly shifted the conversation.  But she was brought face to face with perhaps her greatest need, fulfilling her desire to be in relationship with someone to love and by whom to be loved.

My Mountain of Sacrifice
By calling out her need, Jesus moved the conversation to the next level.  When you start touching upon a person’s deepest needs and desires they begin to think about ultimate matters such as who God is and how you worship Him.  Is He the God whose anger must be soothed or the God whose grace can be received?  Thinking of God as retributive rather than restorative short-circuits our worship in spirit and truth.
God challenges our worship by calling us away from worship based on our particular place and practice of punitive sacrifice.  First, she focused on place.  “Our mountain, in Samaria, is the only right place to worship.”  So many substitutes for the mountain come to mind: our church, our denomination, our doctrine, our color, our … you fill in the blank.  Most importantly, the mountain signified a place of sacrificial ritual, the spilling of blood.
Jesus did not take the bait.  She framed her argument in opposition to the position of the Jews who approved only Jerusalem as the place of worship.  Jesus spoke an immediate and comprehensive answer filled with the spirit of love and profound truth.  Jesus said, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Beyond the exclusionary constraints of place or any of its substitutes or the spilling of blood, God bids us worship Him in spirit and truth.  Whether Mount Zion in Jerusalem or Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, we maintain our mountains as places to sacrifice.  We develop and maintain places to shed blood in hopes of keeping the peace.  The invitation to worship God in spirit and truth erases our presumed need for continued blood offering.  Rather now, as Paul said in Romans 12, we present our bodies as living sacrifices!
The spirit is one of openness; it’s not my mountain or your mountain—neither is the point.  The truth invites the immediate and living response of our lives in praise and adoration.  The truth refuses to embrace bloody scapegoating and retribution and wrath and fear.

Waterpots, Carry-out, and Witness
The story then pivots on the moment when Jesus admitted to being the Messiah, the Christ.  The woman claimed that she knew the Messiah was coming and would help us understand everything.  In response, “Jesus said, to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’” (John 4:26).  Jesus revealed this truth because He was already busy doing the will of the Father who sent Him.  He was bringing to harvest a dear lady with troubled relationships.  He was revealing how God was working in and through Him.
About this time the disciples returned from their mission to find food.  Interrupted by the disciples, the woman left her water-pot and headed into town.  The truth she took back into the village was far more important than a pot of water.  She proclaimed the possibility that the Christ was nearby.
Meanwhile, Jesus refused to eat the carry-out.  Rather, Jesus schooled the disciples on how ripe for harvest the souls of the people were.  The value and readiness of souls changes the spirit of our work.
We witness of so many things.  We get excited about our ball teams, and we should.  March even goes into a madness over playoffs.  We have “spirit.”  In a spirit of excited witness we may point to our church, our pastor, our doctrines, our politics.  Here is the challenge.  The woman did none of this.  She pointed to Jesus.  He claimed to be the Christ.
Our misguided witness to our pet projects and ideologies short-circuits worship.  It is as harmful as failing to witness at all.  Both hurt worship.  God challenges us to witness that Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, the One anointed to save the world.  We have no other message to offer.  This singular focus enables and guides our worship.

Samaritan Disciples
Then, the Samaritans offer a final shaping of our worship in spirit and truth.  A measure of the effectiveness of worship is the extent to which others begin to hear and respond to that word of grace which moved us.  Walking through faith in another person’s steps short-circuits worship.  With Jesus, each of us can walk on his or her own.  Indeed, it is incumbent on us to so walk.
As exciting as it is for the pastor to lead someone to Christ or to prompt a spiritual breakthrough in someone’s life, it excites the pastor beyond measure to see disciples begin to hear God for themselves and to grow in faith without being spoon-fed.  The Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s witness, and because they began hearing from Christ, Himself.
Perhaps we’ve read this verse as a put down to the woman.  Now I see it as the ultimate goal of any Christian leader.  “[A]nd they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world’” (John 4:42, emphasis added).
We worship in spirit and truth as God convinces us of His great truth through the power of His Spirit.  Then we begin to understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  Will you join in listening and hearing and sharing and worshiping in spirit and truth?  Amen.