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Born of the Spirit

March 12, 2017

By Pastor Michael Cofer

March 12, 2017

John 3:1-17

Imagine you woke up one day and found yourself in medieval England. People more or less speak your language. They might look at your clothes or hair funny, but otherwise, it’s not too hard to get along. But then the wake-up alarm on your phone goes off, and you pull it out of your pocket…

How do you explain this device that you’re holding? It glows. It captures imaginary paintings of any subject in less than a second. It can play music without instruments and emulate the voices of men and women you’ve never been in the same room as. If there are two of these devices and you know the proper code, you can speak to each other anywhere in the world as though you were together.

How could you possibly explain those things – and that leaves out an awful lot – without being accused of sorcery or madness? Explaining how the various components work wouldn’t help at all – presuming you even know that. To understand a cellphone, you really have to have seen the world in which we live.
Now, this is not a perfect analogy, but thinking about a situation like that gives me some understanding of how frustrating it must have been for Jesus to try and explain the kingdom of heaven to people.

He uses a lot of metaphor since they don’t have the proper frame of reference for Him to speak plainly. Parables aren’t His way of being difficult – they’re accommodating our limited capacity to imagine or understand the kingdom of God.

So, from Nicodemus’ perspective, the conversation with Jesus took a turn for the bizarre pretty quickly. Nicodemus opens up with what you’d think would have been a really good start, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

But Jesus doesn’t commend him or even accept his praise, because Jesus knows something that isn’t obvious to you and me – Nicodemus doesn’t really see Jesus when he looks at Him. He sees Jesus’ effects, but he doesn’t see Jesus – not yet at least. But Jesus wants him to. Nicodemus thinks he’s figured Jesus out. But he isn’t even close to grasping the whole thing. Jesus isn’t just some teacher that God sent. In fact, teaching isn’t even Jesus’ main purpose. But it doesn’t matter how Jesus tries to explain His purpose; until you have been born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.

Think about the disciples. How plainly did Jesus tell them over and over again that He must die and that he would rise again! They saw his works. They knew he was a teacher sent from God. Peter even confessed that Jesus was the promised messiah. But still, they could not understand Jesus.
And it’s no different in our day. A lot of people like the idea that “God is love.” But they reject the idea of their own sinfulness. They refuse to believe that a loving God would condemn anyone – or, more probably, they only wish that the people they hate would be condemned.

When you look at how Jesus and Nicodemus interact from a worldly perspective, Jesus doesn’t look very loving. He tells Nicodemus that he is blind and spiritually dead. He tells Nicodemus that he’s going to have to give up the life he lived up to this point if he is going to enter God’s kingdom. But Jesus isn’t condemning this man. He stands condemned already. Jesus is offering him life. “You don’t see the kingdom of God yet. But you can. I want you to. I came so that you can enter the kingdom. Your religious education and your acts of righteousness are only pushing you farther and farther from it. To see this kingdom, you must enter it, and nobody enters it as anything but a spiritual newborn. You bring nothing but dependence into this relationship – no wealth, no stature, no wisdom. You come into this kingdom small, and naked, and new. You come not as a father or teacher or leader. You come as a child.“

Remember how Paul said that he counted everything before Christ as a loss? For those with nothing, this is easily good news. For those with a load of guilt or a checkered past, the idea that they can start over is really welcome. The idea that Jesus is all that matters is a blessed mercy.  But if you think you’ve scratched your way to the top and have accomplished so much without Jesus, the idea of giving up that prestige, influence, and pride is really difficult. The idea of starting over is agonizing. Being called a child is insulting. Being told you don’t get it is frustrating. And if you are a righteous, religious, moral, upstanding citizen it’s hard to believe that you need a savior.

And if you don’t think you need a savior, then you don’t know a thing about God’s love. Because Jesus is what God’s perfect love looks like. God’s love isn’t about ignoring your brokenness – it’s about healing it. God’s love isn’t about rewarding the deserving but about rescuing the undeserving. God’s love isn’t about making you feel better about yourself – it’s about making you new and alive.

God loved his creation so much that He sent His only natural Son to become one of us. To become an object of hatred and scorn. To bear on his shoulders the full weight of mankind’s evil from Adam and Eve until the end of the world. To take the death that we earned for ourselves. To be lifted up on a cross so that whoever turns their eyes to him will not perish but will have never-ending life.

Nicodemus probably wasn’t ready to hear it all. He probably couldn’t see it yet. But he was brought to Jesus because he felt the effects of the Spirit. He saw what God was accomplishing through Jesus and it led Him to this place and this conversation. That may be true of the people in your life, too. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” When the people in your life see you about God’s business, they may not understand it. They may not recognize where it’s coming from or what it’s going to accomplish. But they will notice it’s happening.

That’s how God prepares people to receive this rebirth in the Spirit. He shows the proud what humility looks like. He shows the lost what love really looks like. He shows the dead what life really looks like.

 

I’m pretty sure where we get our tradition of exchanging Christmas presents directly from the gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus.

“Peace”

December 4, 2016

December 4, 2016 - Second Sunday in Advent

By Pastor Michael Cofer

You can tell Christmas is coming: eggnog is nestled hopefully in the dairy case at Kroger; you can’t find a parking spot in the same zip code as the mall and your calendar is overflowing with wonderful (if time consuming) holiday events. Kids in school are getting extra cagey as they anxiously await Christmas break. Travel plans are being made furiously and maybe you’ve got an extra-extra workload to make your upcoming Christmas vacation happen.

Life is full, hectic and maybe a little overwhelming. I think we’d all like to find a little peace for ourselves. Maybe some down time, a little quiet time, a little “me” time. Or, better yet, wouldn’t it be great if life just slowed down so you could handle it at a more reasonable pace?

But, maybe you’ve had this experience–I certainly have. You have a moment to rest and a quiet moment… but your brain won’t stop hounding you with the stuff that you could or need to be doing instead of resting… and even in the quiet, you don’t find peace.

There are a lot of things that can rob the peace we should have: busyness, anxiety, guilt, bitterness, anger. Know what all of them have in common? They aren’t out there. They’re in our hearts.

The more I thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that peace isn’t something to be found. It’s something to be made…

Jesus is called the prince of peace. At his birth the angels said “peace on earth!” But those things weren’t incidentals that Jesus happened into. They were his mission. Jesus came to bring peace between God and man. He didn’t look for it. He didn’t wait for it. He came to make it.

You’ll remember that Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” He didn’t say, “blessed are the peace-finders.” You know what the difference is? Peacemakers make the first move. Peacemakers are the ones who humble themselves and put themselves in the vulnerable position.

Think for a moment how God could have made his entrance… He could have come with a host of sword-bearing seraphim in righteous retribution. Or, He could have shown forth in unveiled holiness as he did in the days of Moses and David – when to touch or even look at Him would mean instant death for sinners.

Instead he came as a tiny, precious baby born among pack animals and greeted by poor shepherds. It didn’t have to be this way; these were choices God and the message it sent was crystal clear: “I come in peace.”

That peace wasn’t going to just happen on its own. There was never going to be a morning when the world stumbled into peace with God. Even among God’s chosen people. Do you know that “Israel” means “struggles” or (more literally) “wrestles with God?” Peace with God doesn’t come naturally to us.

But that’s why Jesus came. That’s why He became one of us – to bridge the gulf between God and man. To deliver the message of God’s love and forgiveness and make peace. And that’s why He laid down His life – to bring an end to the conflict between God and man, to heal the mortal wound in our relationship with God that began with Adam and Eve.

And yet… the song the angels sang wasn’t about peace in Heaven, but “peace on earth and goodwill toward those on whom His favor rests.” The peace of Christ shouldn’t stop with our relationship to God, but it should spill into our relationships with our fellow man. How will that happen?

Do you suppose that we will find peace with our neighbor? Or will we need to make peace with them? If we follow the prince of peace, then we will learn about the humble joy of being peacemakers. And peacemakers make the first move. Peacemakers are the ones who humble themselves and put themselves in the vulnerable position.

What does that look like? It means being understanding and gracious when others have offended us… even if you have the right to be angry or bitter. Why would anyone ever want to exercise that right?! Instead, a peacemaker returns offense with love, kindness and forgiveness (even when it isn’t being sought). Peacemakers humble themselves, and admit their own mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

There is no peace with God without grace and forgiveness. And, you know what? The same is true for peace among men.

So, perhaps part of our Advent preparations should include some serious self -examination. Which of my relationships are broken and hurting? What unforgiven sins do I need to finally forgive? What bitterness and anger do I need to let go of? Who do I need to ask for forgiveness? Where are guilt and shame driving a wedge between God and me, or between my brother and me?

And let’s not stop at self-examination… because alone it won’t accomplish peace. Rather, let’s make the move to actually asking God and our neighbors for forgiveness. Let’s take the steps to mend our broken relationships. You won’t be received 100% successfully. Some folks don’t want to be forgiven. Some folks want to nurse the grudge and cling to the hurt. You might not be able to help that. Jesus faced the same thing, you know. That’s okay. Still, he made the first move. And even to those who rejected Him, He never withdrew his offer of grace. And that’s the call for us. In Romans 13 it says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

You know, an interesting thing happens when you are a peacemaker–you will have peace. Even in those relationships where they don’t want to forgive or be forgiven… If you are the peacemaker, then you will lay down the burden of those sins. Your love and compassion for the other person will grow, as you see how it hurts them to carry the hurt around. But you will have peace–peace that goes well beyond what seems possible… because the peace we have to offer is nothing other than the same peace we have received in Christ. The grace and forgiveness we have in Him is sure and certain and inexhaustible. He made the first move and humbled himself to make peace, and that’s what we celebrate on Christmas.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.                       (St. Francis)

How do you receive the most valuable gift ever? And, once you know its value, are you willing to give it away?

Jesus is Alive!

March 27, 2016

resurrection-morning

Pastor Cofer
Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18

There is a time and a place to sit in quiet contemplation and meditate on the deep mysteries of God. There is a time to enter humbly and reverently into the presence God.

But it’s not today. Today is a day to let it all out. All the alleluias that have been bottled up for 6 weeks… all the joy and praise and light can’t be contained anymore. BECAUSE JESUS IS ALIVE!

I’m sorry, but if that doesn’t rouse you from your sleep, you must not be paying attention. JESUS IS ALIVE. Right now. He was nailed to a cross. He was dead and buried. But He is alive again! This isn’t a metaphor. This isn’t a “spiritual” thing. He got up off the slab, folded his burial shroud nice and tidy as if He was making His bed in the morning. Then he blew the boulder away from the entrance in an explosion of glory and WALKED OUT OF THE GRAVE.

I thought for a long time about what message I was supposed to bring to you all today. Easter is a big, important day. So I wanted to give you a big, important sermon. But I prayed about it, and asked God what to say, and you know what He told me? Jesus resurrection is impressive enough, all on its own.

I don’t think we fully appreciate the significance of Easter. The facts are so simple any child can understand them, but the news is so good, it’s almost hard to believe. Jesus died. And then He came back to life and will never die again. He’s living and breathing and speaking and thinking and celebrating.

It’s tempting to laugh at Mary as she’s standing at the empty tomb. She turns and looks at Jesus, full on in the face and she in all sincerity asks Him, “Have you seen Jesus? He seems to be missing…”

But really, you have to cut her some slack. She expected to see Jesus lying in the tomb. Usually when you put a dead person somewhere, they tend to stay there.

Now, if you’ve ever been stood up, you know it’s not a great feeling. You’re not sure how long you have to wait around, maybe you’re hoping that the other person got caught in traffic, or maybe went to the wrong place or something. In your mind you invent all sorts of reasons why they aren’t there with you.

And standing there at the empty tomb Mary is feeling a bit stood up. She had come at o-dark-thirty to take care of Jesus’ corpse. She had the spices ready to go to cover up the smell. She had mentally prepared herself for the shock of seeing him lying there, and was all set to go through with the mourning process.

But He wasn’t there. And her mind raced to think up some explanation… maybe they moved him. But “they” who? And where to? People shouldn’t be messing with Jesus body! And after she finally accepted that He was gone, she started to weep.
Of course, Jesus had told them all that He had to die, and on the third day he’d rise again. But, in the midst of her grief perhaps resurrection seemed like too much to hope for. Or maybe she thought He meant something spiritual when He talked about rising from the dead. So the empty tomb doesn’t immediately fill her with hope – she hasn’t yet realized that this resurrection is real, a flesh and blood thing.

Now, let’s be honest with ourselves: most of the time, we see what we expect to see. Sometimes I’ll bump into one of the fine folks from Hope Lutheran when I’m at the grocery store or the gas station or something. Maybe I’m wearing flip flops or a sweatshirt or a hat. And we make eye contact… and it’s awkward. I smile with the “hey there!” smile and they smile back with the “Do I know you?” smile. And then it clicks and they go, “Oh! It’s pastor! Hey Pastor! I didn’t recognize you without the robe!”

This is precisely what happened to Mary. In her mind, Jesus was still dead, even though her eyes were looking straight at him. And then it happens; He calls her by name and realization washes over her in a flood of joy and relief and wonder.

Maybe we’re a little guilty of the same thing. Sure we know He’s alive, but maybe sometimes we expect Him to play dead. Maybe we don’t expect Him to speak anymore. Maybe we don’t expect Him to move anymore. Maybe we don’t expect Him to heal, and feed, and occasionally flip over some tables.

Easter isn’t just the celebration of a miracle 2,000 years ago and half a world away from here. It is the celebration that JESUS IS ALIVE right now. The tomb is still empty.

And you know what the folks who visited the empty tomb did? They ran and told people. They didn’t care if they looked silly or if people would think they were crazy. They had just witnessed the greatest event in history and who cares what anybody thinks about them! When you have news this good, you have to tell somebody.

I’m here to tell you today that the tomb is STILL EMPTY and JESUS IS STILL ALIVE. This isn’t old news, folks. This is earth shaking, heart pumping, too-good-to-be-true-but-it’s-true-anyways news. And I’m sorry, but it is not okay to keep this to yourself.

When Chick-fil-a is giving out free sandwiches, we tell everyone and their dog. We post it on Facebook. We tell the other folks in the office before leaving for lunch! “Come on, guys! Let’s eat more chicken!”

It’s natural, right? When you have good news, and you can give it away freely… you do!

You want some good news? How about this: Jesus is alive. And you know what that means? He’s just the first of the resurrection. His resurrection is a preview for you and me, and for everyone who believes in this Jesus. This is so much better than free chicken sandwiches. We’re talking about the cure for death. And it’s absolutely free.

I hope you can get excited about that. Better yet, I hope you can tell somebody, because the whole world needs to hear this:

Christ is Risen!

All the alleluias that have been bottled up for 6 weeks… all the joy and praise and light can’t be contained anymore. BECAUSE JESUS IS ALIVE!

You can find a full listing of our sermons on the sermon archive.