12 March 2017 TEXTS: Psalm 121, John 3:1-17
TITLE: Who you gonna call?
Today could be called, “take a risk Sunday.” The first risk I’m taking is the sermon title and the pictures on the screen from the 1986 and 2016 versions of a movie. You might just begin thinking about one or both of those, and not listen. The second risk is that we’re going to look at a video for a couple of minutes. It’s from an American university, and it’s meant to be fun. It is modeled on the kind of TV commercials often seen in America during the kinds of programs that old folks like to watch. It identifies a disease, and announces the discovery of a new medicine, and recommends that you ask your doctor to prescribe it for you.
(Show Video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQq1-_ujXrM
OK, now, when you need help, “Who you gonna call?” Both of the places we read in the Bible today asked this question, and in each of them we got “approximately” the same answer, though by different routes.
I: Psalm 121: Not the Mountains
30 years ago I visited a little harbor town on the Pacific seacoast of America. The town had ocean on one side, and forested mountains on the other. From some places in that town on clear days you could see far away to mountains so tall that trees didn’t grow on the tops of them.
At the church I was visiting there was a beautiful painting of that clear-day mountain view on one wall, and under it were the words that we read at the beginning of Psalm 121 today, “I look to the mountains where my help comes from.” It was a beautiful picture, and the verse is a good one, but the two didn’t go together very well. The painter changed the words of the second part from a question into a statement.
Considering the mountains to be the “land of the gods” is pretty common in religions ancient and modern and around the world. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion are considered holy. In the New Testament we can read about the Mount of Olives and Mount Carmel. Greek Folk religion had gods living on Mount Olympus. Hinduism in India has Mount Kailash, and modern-day North Korea, a non-religious or anti-religious state, relocated the birthplace of their Great Leader Kim Il-sung from wherever he actually was born to Mt Baektu, which was held as holy in ancient Korean folk religion.
Assuming that the mountains are the dwelling place of gods or of God is natural enough, but the Psalm we read today told us not to expect much from mountains. The poet starts by telling us of his action and his hope, “I look to the mountains, where will my help come from?” (Action: LOOK. Hope: HELP.) The second part is clearly a question. The answer begins in verse 2 and continues all the way to the end of the last verse. It’s NOT the mountains, but the God who made the mountains who will help. We get a description of what to expect when looking to God for help: protection, attention; guarding, shielding, safety at home and when away.
I enjoyed the video we watched. I hope you did, too. Being a student and not understanding is very common. In one class I was teaching last week, I described what I want students to do for next Wednesday 3 times. Four of my five graduate students “got” it, but the fifth one had to have his classmates explain it even more. I had thought I’d been clear enough. At the school where I teach, and, apparently at the university where the video came from, students who don’t understand don’t like to ask their teachers. (Maybe it’s different in your school.) What happens with students who don’t understand is they EITHER suffer OR they ask their friends, who maybe didn’t understand, either.
Our instruction from the psalm is: don’t look to the mountain, look to the one who created it. In the “Jesus story” we met someone who actually went to the teacher to ask. But it doesn’t look like it was an easy conversation.
II: Nicodemus’ Visit
Nicodemus was identified to us as a leader of his people and a member of the group of the Pharisees. That’s all. Don’t try to put too much into that word, but don’t ignore it, either. Going to Jesus, Nicodemus called him “rabbi”, which means, “teacher.” He added that he believed Jesus to be “a teacher sent by God” and mentioned the signs that Jesus had done. It seems that he had questions about God and the things of God, which is why he went to the guy who he believed to be a teacher sent by God. Hey, when you’ve got questions, “Who you gonna call?”
Jesus didn’t wait for the question. He just began talking, and along the way mentioned something that seemed to be more than a common miracle. He talked about being born “again” or “from above”. That probably wasn’t the question that Nicodemus came with, but eventually Jesus forced the conversation this way, and it stayed there because being “born again” or “born from above” seems so strange. So this student (a leader of his people) and this teacher (sent from God) went “around and around”. After a while, Jesus got tired of the conversation. Verses 10-13 show him first criticizing Nicodemus for being slow to understand, and then teaching him a Bible lesson from his own people’s history.
What Jesus may said ends at verse 15, where the gospel writer takes over to explain the whole thing to us in two verses. Among Christians, many people hold John, chapter 3, verse 16 to be so central to Christianity that we forget the conversation with Nicodemus that comes before it and the verse that comes right after it. Since we’ve already talked through verses 1-15, I’ll read those last two: (John 3:16-17)
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour.”
Remember the video from the university? Compare this story: Though Nicodemus was NOT suffering from FMOOWMP, he still took the medicine, “FOH”. He went to the professor (Jesus) for help. The video promised that FOH would be the answer for FMOOOWMP. Did it work for Nicodemus? We don’t find out in chapter 3, but near the end of the gospel, when Jesus’ dead body was taken down from the cross, Nicodemus was as one of the guys who put it body into the tomb.
III: What do you need help with?
In some religions with many gods, there are hierarchies, some gods higher up and more powerful than others. Christianity doesn’t allow that. Only ONE God, and even though God is described as ‘Trinity’, there’s no rank there, but an equal fellowship of “three persons in One God.” That doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried. Through creation of the cult of saints, prayers are sent first to saints and only passed “higher up” if the saint herself or himself can’t take care of the matter directly. So you’ll find people praying to St. Anthony for help with finding something they’ve lost. Irish women are supposed to pray to St. Bridget of Kildare when they need help while in labor to give birth.
What do you need help with? It depends, doesn’t it? And when you need help; “Who You Gonna Call?” When I encounter computer troubles, I’m not likely to pray, I’m more likely to curse. For computer troubles I don’t turn to the mountains, or to heaven, or to a saint. I turn to a book, or I listen to my wife and phone our son in America.
When I feel that I’m in danger, I DO pray. That’s when Psalm 121is helpful. Not because it tells me how or what to pray, not because it contains magic words to get God to do what I want, but because it reminds me to trust in the ONE to whom I’m praying, the one who neither slumbers nor sleeps.
And in those frequent times when I’m confused about the nature or content of my faith in God, I also pray. That’s what Nicodemus was doing in the story we read from John 3. He was confused. He believed some things about God, then saw or heard about the signs that Jesus was doing, and connected these with “being from God”, so went to get answers.
We’ll never know exactly what questions he INTENDED to ask Jesus, because the people who wrote John’s gospel hijacked the story and used it to teach about being born “from above”, which they regarded to be a VERY IMPORTANT part of relating to God in Christ. They wanted the folks of their time to know about it, and THAT’s the message that comes to us today through this gospel story. Nobody doubts that “being born from above” was central in Jesus’ teaching. We’ve no reason to doubt that Nicodemus came to talk with Jesus one night. But putting the teachings and the event together, that’s the ART of gospel writing, and through that art we learn important things: 1)about Jesus; 2)about what he taught; and 3) about the community of believers who carried those things along and eventually wrote them down for us decades later.
To answer the question of the title, “Who you Gonna Call?”, we’ve had three inputs today. They come in an order of importance from lowest to highest for us to remember. The lowest is the video, the middle is the Psalm, and the highest is the Gospel story.
FROM THE VIDEO: If you’re a student, don’t be afraid to visit your professor in his or her office. Doing so can result in success.
FROM THE PSALM: You are protected by God. Compared to that truth, the fact of a mountain is only a little bump.
FROM THE GOSPEL STORY: Getting born from above, or born again is something that God does to and for us. We don’t earn it, we can’t make it happen. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. So stop trying to save your soul, and begin growing it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN
Let us Pray:
We call on you God, because you are greater than the mountains, so we trust in you to help.
We call on you Jesus, because yours are the words of eternal life.
We call on you, Holy Spirit, because through your action we are born again.
We call on you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to be our guide, now and forevermore. AMEN