Genesis 12:1-8, John 3:1-17
February 17, 2008
Maybe you saw the 1996 movie, “Mission Impossible.” It starred Tom Cruise. Did any of you see it? I know it was kind of a “shoot ‘em up” flick. And maybe that’s not your idea of a movie. But that’s ok.
Maybe you remember the TV show it was made from, that came out in – what year. Does anyone remember? I’ll give you a hint. It starts with “19.” It was 1966! Do you remember Peter Graves and the tape recorder he would find hidden in various places? (And it was a “reel to reel” tape recorder! Remember? What was that!) It would always say, “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.” “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, (which they always did!) will be to…” And then it would say whatever the mission was. And it would always say, “As usual, if you are caught or killed, the agency will disavow any knowledge of your activities.“ I loved that! Then of course at the end it said, “This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds. Good luck!”
Do you remember all that? If you didn’t, I hope I recreated it well enough! Because, what I loved about that show – that was sort of captured in the movie – was the sense of the impossible. The missions they were given were so utterly outlandish that the writers wanted you to think no one could ever accomplish them! No one, that is, except the IMF – The Impossible Mission Force! (However, since every mission actually was accomplished on every show, perhaps it should have been called “Mission Almost Impossible.”) Anyway, it was great! They don’t make shows like that any more, do they!
Well, as I was reading these two stories for today, that whole concept of the “Impossible Mission” was running through my mind. (With the music, of course! Dun duuun dun dun, dun duuuun dun dun dun!) In this case, God wasn’t speaking on a secret tape recorder to Abraham. But he was giving him quite a difficult “mission,” wasn’t he? God told “Abram” to pack up everything and go to a whole new country. And in the course of that conversation, he wasn’t even giving him any real directions. And remember this was before the age of GPS and Google Maps! And that really didn’t matter anyway, since there were barely any roads!
Then we have this story of Nicodemus. In John chapter 3, he comes to Jesus by night. And there was a sense of the “clandestine” in this story, wasn’t there? This was a “secret operation” in a way. Actually, there is one explanation of this story that says that night was the time people would usually get together to discuss various religious and philosophical things. So this meeting was to be seen as a normal kind of a “philosophical exchange” session. And there may be something to that. But there’s also a strong indication of this being a meeting that contained the sense of secrecy.
Think about it. Those people weren’t sure what to make of this new Rabbi, Jesus. He was starting to become a bit controversial. And so Nicodemus, this Jewish leader, was coming to Jesus at night probably because he didn’t want his colleagues to know about this. Remember that at the end of Jesus’ life, it was Joseph of Arimathea who took the body of Jesus to his own tomb, and it was this same Nicodemus brought the costly burial spices to anoint the body. At that point in John’s Gospel, both are described as being “secret followers of Jesus.”
So the “mission impossible” idea works here – at least a little bit. There’s another possibility here, though. It’s also been suggested that maybe Nicodemus’ was sent by his colleagues to try to “find things out.” And maybe they told him that if he were caught or killed that they would disavow any knowledge of his actions! I don’t know… maybe! But my money is on the idea that Nicodemus was a potential follower of Jesus. Or at least that he was open to the point that Jesus won him over!
Even this conversation seems to have taken place on a mystical, symbolic level. Take a look at this. Nicodemus starts by asking Jesus about the source of his “authority.” “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.” That’s a fair question. But the way Jesus answers him, it’s almost as if he was ignoring what he said. Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Now, we often think of that as a nice statement about the nature of the Christian life. But in the context in John’s telling of the story, it seems a bit odd.”
Even Nicodemus is puzzled by this seemingly total change of subject. But he goes with it. And he makes an observation about the impossible nature of what Jesus has just said. “How can a man be born again?” he asks. “Can he enter a second time into his mothers womb and be born?” He’s asking a legitimate questions, but going with the impossibility of the statement.
Of course, Jesus is speaking figuratively about the newness of life that he offers. But let me say this. For some people, the idea of a changed life, the thought of this “new life in Christ,” is just as impossible! For some people, if they really understand the nature of that change, and would ask themselves seriously, they would admit the impossibility of that change! I have said a number of times now from this (very) pulpit, that in Christ, our lives are new, and that in him, we will never be the same. Yet is that true for us? Is that true for you? God, in Jesus Christ calls us to a life that’s different. But are you living any differently than anyone else?
This is Lent. And in the season of Lent, we are asked to consider that changed life. In Lent, we are to ask ourselves about our life of faith. Can anyone tell that we belong to Jesus Christ? Have we been so completely changed that it’s as if we have been born anew? Or is that an impossible mission?”
Now, please understand, I don’t want to get into talking about the whole “Born Again Christian” movement. I know sometimes there’s some extra “stuff” that goes along with that. Sometimes that makes this whole subject a bit tricky. Because we may or may not ascribe to all of what some people mean by being “Born Again Christian.” But none of that means that we should ever set aside that concept, and avoid these very important words of Jesus!
We are to be different! We are to be so different as to be “born anew.” And I know that sometimes there are other things that come into play here. One of them is fear. Sometimes we fear that living a “different” and “Christ-like life” means that we’re going to be viewed as being “holier than thou” by others. We worry about being seen as “hypocritical.” Isn’t that true?
As people – (and most of us are people) – as people, we do tend to worry about “what other people will think.” And I have to tell you that part of this process of “living a changed life” means dealing with that worry. We need to do something here that is also a seemingly “impossible mission.” And that is, we are called to worry less about what other people think of us, and worry more about what God thinks of us.
That’s hard isn’t it? I think one of the biggest myths about the Christian faith is that it comes “easy” to us. Yes, Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) But that doesn’t mean the Christian life is easy. It means that Jesus will help us bear our burdens. Remember, oxen are yoked in pairs! They share the load! It means that Jesus makes life easier when we “come unto him.” I love that passage! But the Christian life is one of “discipline.” For we are “disciples” – same root word!
Sometimes it tough living the Christian life! I think that’s at least part of the reason God put us in Church families. We’re here to support one another. We’re here to uphold one another! We’re here to rejoice with one another, and to encourage one another, and to upbuild one another, and to edify one another. Do you get the picture?
Part of the Christian life is growing in strength as God’s people. Remember what Paul told us. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:2-5)
So your “mission,” should you choose to accept it, is to be God’s people! Your “mission” is to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is to live your life for his glory. And I don’t promise that it will be an “easy mission.” In fact, there will be times that it will seem “impossible.” The difference is, that the “agency” will not “disavow any knowledge of your activities.” Not at all! Jesus will do as he promised. He will be with you always – to the close of the age! And look around you! So will his people!
Eternal God, your steadfast love for us is so great, and your faithfulness is eternal. Help us to be the people you truly call us to be. Help us to be your light to the world around us. Help us to know you are with us always and that you will be in our lives and supporting us no matter what comes our way. Instill in us the joy of your kingdom. May the way we live our lives draw others to you. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.