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Sermon for Sunday 30 May 2021

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Psalm 29

1Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. 3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. 4The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor. 5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon; 6He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox. 7The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 8The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare. 9And in the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!” 10The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King forevermore. 11The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Second Reading: Acts 2:14a, 22-36

14aPeter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them:

22“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — 23this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. 25For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; 26therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. 27For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. 28You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, 31he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. 32This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, 35until I make your enemies your footstool.’ 36Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Gospel: John 3:1-17

1There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This Verse Says it All

In the late 1980s, artist Jim Sanborn was hired to create a piece of art to be displayed at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  Not only was this a great opportunity for this artist, but was quite the honor as well.  Sanborn decided that he would have a little fun with this project.  He contacted the retired chairman of the CIA’s Cryptographic Center Edward Scheidt, who was an expert in encryption and cryptology.  Sanborn wanted Mr. Scheidt to help him create a message in code for this art piece.  On Nov. 3, 1990, Jim Sanborn’s artwork was unveiled at the CIA headquarters.  It’s called Kryptos, which is the Greek word for “hidden.”

Kryptos is a giant copper screen that looks like a wavy, unrolled scroll.  On this giant screen, there is a word puzzle.  To the untrained eye, it looks like a mass of random letters.  But Sanborn and Scheidt say there are four encrypted messages within that mass of letters.  And those four hidden messages make up a riddle.  Jim Sanborn thought the folks at the CIA would figure out the puzzle in a matter of weeks.  He was wrong.  

Over the past 30 years, three of the four messages have been decoded.  The fourth one remains a mystery.  And even if someone were to correctly decode the fourth message, they’d still have to put the four messages together and solve the riddle.  Code experts and amateurs, all over the world, are working on cracking the code to reveal the message of Kryptos.  Can you imagine spending 30 years or more trying to decode a hidden message or solve a riddle?  

This isn’t a message that will save lives or reveal the mysteries of the universe.  Yet how many people are investing time and energy into cracking its code?  An even more fascinating form of hidden message comes from the year 499 BC.  There was a Greek ruler [named Histiaeus] who tried to stir up a revolt against the Persian king Darius I.  As the legend goes, he sent the plans for the revolt to his nephew by shaving the head of his servant and tattooing a message about the revolt on the servant’s scalp.  He waited until the servant’s hair grew back, and then sent the servant to visit his nephew with instructions to shave his servant’s head once he arrived.

It was rather ingenious when you think about it, hiding a message in plain sight. Turning the messenger into the message.  But when you think about it, isn’t this exactly what God did when He wanted to share the most important message in history with us? God the Father sent His Son Jesus, to be both the messenger and the message.  John, in the prologue to his Gospel wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . .”  Hidden messages are fascinating, but I’m grateful that God didn’t hide His most important message from us.  No cryptology, no codes, no puzzles, no fine print.  Jesus was both the message and the messenger of God immense love and mercy.

In the Garden of Eden, God walked and communicated directly with Adam and Eve.  Genesis 3:8 tells us, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day.”  Think about that, the Creator and His creation lived in relationship with one another until the day when Adam and Eve chose to break that relationship of trust.  Later God would speak directly to others like Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Jacob.  God also spoke through the prophets like Moses, Isaiah and Amos and Hosea.  If you read the Bible from cover to cover, you’ll see that God is always trying to communicate with His people.  And God’s message to us is plain and simple and backed up by God’s own character.  So, if we were to distill the whole of the Bible into one completely essential message, what would it be?   

Thankfully, St. John records Jesus’ words for us in what is probably the most famous single verse in the Bible—John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  Martin Luther called this “the Gospel in miniature.”  It’s the message of salvation in just 24 words.  If all the Bibles in the world were to suddenly disappear, we would still have everything that is absolutely vital for salvation in this one verse.  For me, this is where we start when reaching out to others to share the good news of God’s love and mercy.  The message of God’s love and forgiveness is right here in this one simple verse.

In the final episode of Tim Allen’s TV show, The Last Man Standing, Mr. Ed Alzate, asks Kyle what he can do to get to heaven.  Kyle, an aspiring pastor, says it’s not something as simple as a list of things to do and says he’d like to go and think about it.   Later in the show, Kyle comes back and tells Mr. Alzate that it’s a complex subject and he’d love to have that conversation with him.  I love the fact that the writers of the show would be so bold as to write this into the script.  However, I disagree with the answer they chose to write.  The answer isn’t complex, it’s very simple, and the key is contained in this single verse.  I say this often and it bears repeating, salvation is easy, being a disciple is a bit tougher.

I read about this big conference where speaker after speaker lined up to lecture on various topics.  Finally, the last speaker of the evening stepped up to the mic.  He said, “I have only ten minutes, I barely know where to start.”  From the back of the room, someone shouted, “Start at the ninth minute.”  If we were given 10 minutes to explain God’s character, God’s love and God’s plans for humanity, it would be best if we start the ninth minute with this verse: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

For God so loved the world . . .  This is the beginning of it all—the mind and heart of God.  This statement defines reality.  It defines the universe.  It defines all human experience.  God so loved the world . . . The same God that Isaiah saw “high and lifted up” in the year that King Uzziah died.  The same God who guided the Children of Israel through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  The same God who spoke—and the earth was created.  This is the same God that continues to love His world.

God so loved the world.  Now to be clear, I don’t believe John meant that God is crazy about mountains or lakes or deserts or sunflowers or whatever.  I’m certain He’s happy with what He created in nature, the Bible tells us that He declared all He created as “good,” (Genesis 1:25).  Rather, I believe He’s talking about people, this is who Jesus is referring to in this verse.  The complex creature who can make deserts bloom and lakes die.  People of every color and nationality and culture and ability and personality.  This is the world to which Jesus is referring.  To me, this is an explanation of truly limitless love.  And just as amazing, is the fact that we were created in His image!  (Genesis 1:26). 

A few years ago, a high school teacher in Colorado found out that one of her best students had come very close to taking her own life.  The teacher was heartbroken to think that one of her students could be so despondent that she would consider ending her very promising life.  So this teacher asked the girl’s mother if she could write her daughter a letter.

In the letter, the teacher told the girl what she saw when she looked at her.  She saw a young woman with a great personality and intellect.  A young woman with a bright future.  When the girl received the letter, she remarked to her mother, “I didn’t think anyone would say such nice things to me.  I didn’t think anyone would miss me when I’m gone.”  The letter had such a positive effect on that young student that the teacher committed to writing a personal letter to every single one of her students—all 130 of them—to tell them all the good things she saw in them.

The teacher reported that her students loved their letters.  They read them over and over again.  They shared them with their friends.  One girl said, “I’m going to keep this forever.”  They never realized before how much they mattered to their teacher.  They never realized that she saw something special in each one of them.  It was a wonderful and reassuring gesture.  People need to know they’re loved and that someone cares deeply for them.  You and I have that message that people so very much need to hear.  “God so loved the world. . .” God’s love for all of us is limitless.

If God’s love for us is limitless, then what do we have to fear?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that God has good plans and purposes for us?  Doesn’t it stand to reason that we can come to God with anything; our doubts and questions and failures, and not be turned away?  This is an amazing truth that needs to be shared with everyone who needs to hear it.  This is the first great truth that is essential to our faith.  And the second great truth is just as amazing.  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  God loves us so much that He was willing to give us the ultimate gift—the gift of His Son.  It’s so simple—yet at the same time, so profound.  

Pastor Adrian Rogers makes the point that a lot of people reject the message of God’s love, in the life and death of Jesus, because it’s simply too amazing and too simple to accept.  Rogers met a lawyer one day, and they were chatting about the books they read.  Rogers said the primary book he read was the Bible.  The lawyer thought this was a little short-sighted of Rogers.  “If you don’t read any further than that,” the lawyer asked, “how do you know what to talk about when you speak to people?”  Rogers responded that all people everywhere have only three problems: sin, sorrow and death.  And he found the wisdom to address those problems in the Bible.  The lawyer disagreed.  He insisted that there are so many more problems in the world.  

To this Rogers suggested the lawyer take some time to think about it and get back to him.  The lawyer took some time to ponder their conversation and when he approached Pastor Rogers again, he said, “Man has only three problems: sin, sorrow and death.”  To this Rogers responded, “And Jesus Christ is the only answer to all three problems.  You give me all of the wisdom of this world . . . but there’s no other answer apart from the cross.”  Our sin is what separated us from God and broke our relationship with the Creator of Life.  And that broken relationship is the source of all our sorrow and of death.

But God loves the world too much to let us bear the consequences of our sin.  Jesus is the answer to our broken relationship with God.  Jesus took on the sin that separates us from God.  He died on the cross to put our sins to death once and for all.  He then rose from the dead to show us that, through Him, our relationship to God, the Source of Life, has been restored.

Theologian, Karl Barth, was asked what he thought was the most important word in the New Testament.  One would think the answer would be “Jesus” or “faith” or “love” or “grace.”  But that wasn’t Karl Barth’s answer.  He said the most important word in the New Testament is huper (hoop ER).  Huper is a Greek preposition meaning “on behalf of” or “in place of.”  So when Barth called huper the most important word, he meant the most important of all truths is that we are significant because Jesus took our place on the cross that we may be saved.

It is our understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son.  Two great truths that are essential for us to be saved.  But there’s still one more great truth in this short but important verse.  “For God so loved the world he gave his only Son . . . that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  It makes no difference what we’ve done in our lives.  We could be the biggest loser, the biggest failure, the biggest sinner who ever lived.  It makes no difference.  This is the glory of the Gospel.  We can be born anew.  Born anew to be the person God created us to be.  This is the message of hope and salvation that the world needs to hear.

            God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.  Three great truths contained in 24 simple words.  Anyone can have life that never ends through faith in Jesus Christ.  We’ve heard these truths all our life, but the question is, do we share these wonderful truths with those around us?  The message of God’s saving grace is simple to share.  And share we must! 

But some people think that sharing God’s simple truth with others is hard, so I’m going to give you the key to all you need to know to share God’s amazing love and grace with others.  It involves memorizing 3 short verses.  Now before you become concerned, you already know the three verses you need.  The first is the one I’ve been talking about to this point, John 3:16.  We all know it and have already memorized it.  The next two verses you also already know, you’ve heard your pastors repeat them for years.  These two verses come from St. John’s first epistle, verses 8-9: “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleans us from all unrighteousness.”  God’s message of salvation in just three verses.  I told you, you had nothing to fear.

Our Triune God’s call found in our Old Testament reading for today, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us,” is a call that is coming to you and me today.  The church’s task is to equip the saints for ministry, but it’s all of us who are being called into the harvest fields.  Empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, each one of us have been called to go and make disciples for the kingdom.  And the message of God’s immense love and mercy for us to share, isn’t complex.  In just 3 short verses we have all we need to tell others of God’s love for the world.  A love so great that He sent Jesus, so that whoever believes in Him, acknowledges and confessed their sins, God will forgive them, and they too can enjoy eternal life.  This is the simple message of love and hope, the gospel in miniature, that we’re being sent out to share.  So go and share, as Jesus commands.


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