NBTS E-Story

President Mast delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at Hope College, during his 40th Hope Anniversary

I want to tell you a story. It is a story about a man, actually a scholar, named Nicodemus who came to visit Jesus in the middle of the night. There are two intriguing things about this story- the first is what they talked about and second is why Nicodemus came in the middle of the night with questions he could have simply asked Jesus in the daylight. We have assumed that Dr. Nicodemus, which is what his students called him, was concerned that the neighborhood may wonder about why a well-known leader and scholar would visit an itinerant preacher from the hill country of Galilee. Or perhaps Nico, which is what his colleagues called him, was more concerned about what the other 70 members of the Sanhedrin would think, because Nico was a leader among leaders, a leader among the elders, priests and scribes, but in the darkness he appeared to be seeking the advice of a carpenter's son. Or was Nicki, which is what his mother had always called him, concerned that he had reached the pinnacle of his power and his influence and he was still intrigued with a man who hung with a crowd that didn't have an advanced degree among them.

Jesus clearly walked outside the mainstream religion of the day. He taught with wisdom, but he had never been to seminary. He healed with power, but he had never attended medical school. He held children gently, but he had never been a father. And he touched lepers, but he was not insane. Who was this man, thought Nico?

Well, Nico came, and seeing Nicodemus, Jesus called him friend. It must have been a hot Palestinian night because Jesus had moved from a room within the house to the rooftop to sleep. Even though it was in the middle of the night Nicodemus came wearing a three piece suit, wing tip shoes and carrying the ever present brief case. For the record, Jesus was in jeans and a T- shirt- no shoes!

And as the conversation begins, it becomes quickly apparent that Nicodemus confessed a theology that was as buttoned down as his clothes. Jesus listened for a long time as Nicodemus spoke about the God he worshipped and finally whispered to Nicki, can you spell "MYSTERY?"

For many years I served as the senior pastor of an historic congregation in Albany, NY that in a few years will celebrate its 375th anniversary. When I arrived in Albany in 1988, I read the list of duties and then asked that one be added- I asked that I be invited to teach the confirmation class each and every year. This duty was often given to an associate pastor or to an old and wise elder of the church, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to learn from my young people! The assignment on the very first evening we met was always the same- I wanted the class to draw a picture of God. As you would expect, I saw a lot of old white men with beards, some pictures of Jesus, some more abstract pictures of rocks and suns and shepherds. But one day I spied a simple picture of a tree slightly bent and I was puzzled. The young woman smiled and explained to me that God was like the wind- one cannot see it, she said, but one can see what it does in the world. MYSTERY.
The word for wind and for spirit in Hebrew is the same- RUACH. It should not surprise us that in the midst of the theological conversation with Nicki, Jesus suggested that God is like the wind- closer to a verb than a noun. God is more like the wind which no one can see or capture than a proposition that a grammarian can parse. Jesus and Nico talked and then in the middle of the midnight conversation, Jesus utters some words that have become some of the best known in all of scripture- he whispered to Nicki, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son who whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Martin Luther exclaimed that this one verse contained the whole gospel.

As a child growing up in Jenison, just twenty miles from here, my mother had placed on the wall just next to the bedroom closet door a very small ceramic scroll, not more than three inches tall and a couple inches wide. It did not have enough room for the whole John 3:16 verse, but simply read "For God so loved the world& (Ellipsis)" It is those words that I read every morning- it is the words that faded into the darkness when I went to bed every evening. "For God so loved the world&" The scroll is long gone, but the words have been seared into my soul- "For God so loved the world&"

My entire message this morning is based on one Greek word- the word for "world"  the object of God's love. The Greek word Jesus used for world was "Kosmos." There are a number of meanings for this word in the scriptures, but there are three that I believe inform this precious passage in important ways.

The first is that God loved the cosmos, the whole created order, every corner of the world, all that God had formed including humankind- or in other words, God loved the earth and beyond!

I suspect that as Jesus listened to Nicki speak about his faith, he discovered that his God was way too small. JB Phillips wrote a book more than 70 years ago that I read for the first time here at Hope College, and its title I have never forgotten: "Your God is too Small." When God's identity is too small, the world God loves is also too small! For you see for Nicki, God's home was in the Holy of Holies in the temple- or in the holy city of Jerusalem, or at the very most, God's home was synonymous with the Holy Land of Israel. But the words of Jesus are clear, for God so loved the whole world, the entire cosmos. If some in our midst are occasionally identified as tree huggers, God is a hemisphere hugger, a lover of the smallest insect and the greatest star. "For God so loved the KOSMOS!"
Allow me to offer a confession- it is really a deep apology on behalf of the church. We have never fully gotten this core meaning of cosmos that God loved. We have spent centuries building our relationship with the world on the single word -"dominion"- which comes to us from the creation story. We heard God say to us that we were to have dominion over the earth, and we stopped listening. We heard, falsely, that we were to dominate the earth and use it for our own selfish ends. Over the last decades the church has finally woken to the fact that we are as much to blame for the degradation of the environment as anyone else and so we began to talk about the stewardship of creation. It is a step forward, but not yet clear and compelling.

A cursory reading of the creation story tells us one simple fact; humankind is part of creation. We don't stand outside of it- and we certainly don't stand above it. "For God so loved the world&" We are part of that world, and everything we do, good and bad, makes the web of life tremble. The pollution of air, water, outer space, the disappearance of thousands of unique species every year, make the web tremble, and we live in the web. The gift of God's son is a gift for the world- the universe- the cosmos.

I am afraid we are all too often descendants of Nico, and claim a God who is far too small and thus a world far too limited. If we all were members of my confirmation classes and had to draw a picture of God, who or what would God look like? In the first chapters of Genesis we catch our first glimpse of God and God looks strangely like a Gardener. God is the one who creates and plants and waters and cares for the world. God- the cosmic gardener; patient, caring, faithful, always creating. For you see the first words of Genesis which in most bibles is translated as "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth..." is far better translated from the Hebrew as "in the beginning when God began to create&" God the cosmic gardener has never lost the drive to create and the heart to love.
GK Chesterton wrote years ago about this gardener when he reflected on Easter morning. He wrote: "On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of the new creation, with the new heaven and the new earth; and in the semblance of a Gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn."
God's love for the world is like a gardener's love for his or her garden- but God's garden stretches from the farthest star to the smallest insect, from the greatest rivers, to the deepest seas, and to each and every member of the human race.

Here is a second meaning of this word cosmos that brings light to these words of Jesus whispered in the darkness. It simply means every human being that God has ever created or will ever create. It means all of humankind. And so when Jesus says "for God so loved the world" he means that God loves all of us- all seven billion of us, and the billions who have gone before us and the billions yet to be born.
OK- this does not sound like new news to most of us. But for Nico it was. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was all too often worshipped as a tribal god. God was particularly often, exclusively, concerned about the covenantal people. The people, who lived beyond the river, around the bend, on the wrong side of the tracks, were too often invisible and thus voiceless.
Like Nicodemus, God's love is only for us and ours- people who speak our language, worship in our way, live in houses like ours, drive cars like ours, go to colleges like ours, share values like ours, and share our faith, and strangely but surely remind us over and over again that we are God's special children.

For God so loved the world means at its very heart that every child born belongs to God- that the value of an American life is the same as the value of a Korean life, the value of Syrian and Russian lives.

I am not sure when I began visiting monuments to those who have died, but it has claimed a great deal of time in my global travel. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that my father, who served in World War II was a part of the contingent of soldiers that freed Dachau, which gave him nightmares until his dying day. I visited Dachau with our son David about 50 years after his grandfather had helped open the gates. We walked among the empty landscape on a cold, misty April morning as I prayed that one of the churches on the site would be open for some refuge. Alas, they were all locked tight, and I was left with the terrible absence of thousands who had faced death. I have spent time at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, at Babiyar in Kiev, the mounds of Russian dead outside St. Petersburg, and among the genocide sites of Rwanda. May I ask an indelicate question? I do so only because the gospel words demand it. How many foreign lives are worth an American one? When we hear of catastrophes we breathe a sigh of relief when we discover that no Americans have died- but, do we imagine the enormous pain of others in the loss of loved ones. I have often wondered how many lives of "others" need to be stacked up to equal an American life.

For God so loved the world- for God so loved the cosmos- for God so loved every child ever born that he gave his own Child. For in God's eyes and in God's heart, the birth and death of each child is cause for equal joy and equal sorrow. It is for this reason that I am convinced that one of the most important challenges of the 21st century, Class of 2014, your century, is to commit to true dialogue and service with people of every faith and no faith. They, the people who don't look like us, and live like us, and talk like us, and believe like us, can never be objects of our mission, but must always be subjects of our love- that is the heart of John 3:16.

And there is a third meaning of this word Kosmos that we need to acknowledge. It refers to those who live outside the lines we have drawn. They are the invisible ones- the voiceless ones, the last and the least. They are what Jesus would call the marginalized ones; women and children, Samaritans and foreigners, an Ethiopian eunuch and a disabled child of the covenant- all those who were not allowed to enter the temple and thus who were unable to draw close to God. Jesus whispered to Nico in the darkness, For God so loved these ones, the ones who we have forced to live far away.

Early in 2000, the first year of the new millennium, the Roman Catholic Church declared it a Jubilee Year and among other celebrations sponsored the performance of a newly composed symphony. About one hundred church leaders from across the country gathered at the Cathedral in Baltimore for a dinner at the home of the Archbishop and then a procession to the cathedral which was packed with thousands of people. As we sat in the front pews and waited for the performance to begin an Episcopal Bishop, seated next to me, recalled that the last time he had visited the cathedral a giant congregation had gathered to celebrate the life and ministry of Mother Theresa from Calcutta.

The evening was scheduled in the same way with dinner and then procession. The diminutive nun, less than five feet tall, was positioned in the middle of all of the VIPs. They entered the front of the cathedral, proceeded down the side aisle and then up the center. About half way up the center aisle the entire procession stopped and the whispers began-"Where is she?" It appears that they had lost Mother Theresa! They looked around "discreetly" and then a wise one figured it out- she went out the main cathedral doors and found Mother Theresa seated on the front steps surrounded by a whole crowd of folk who either couldn't get into the cathedral or were simply hanging out to find out what was happening. When told that the whole Cathedral congregation was waiting for her, Mother Theresa simply responded that she needed to spend a bit more time with "her" people. You see, there was no sermon required that day, her actions incarnated the words of Jesus to Nico, "For God so loved the world&"  the marginalized ones, the voiceless ones, the invisible ones, the ones who had no ticket to make it into the Cathedral or Dimnent Chapel.

Since this is my second opportunity to preach at a Baccalaureate Service at Hope, and I am getting old and not expecting a third invitation, I am going to risk saying a word not only to the Class of 2014 and to your family and friends and professors, but directly to your new President. Dr. Knapp, the words of Jesus to Nicodemus two thousand years ago directly apply to Hope College and its future. John, our God, the God who led us to found Hope College, is often too small and thus our world is too limited. This remarkable community of faith and learning is called to move the light from under a basket and let it shine in the world. This college is a gift that no longer can be held closely as our own, but rather it is a gift that God calls that we share with the world. My words are not an attempt to do strategic planning for this college I love, but simply a call for this community to hear the words of Jesus in the night so you can live them in the day- "For God so loved the world&" -the kosmos, the earth, all people in the earth and especially those who live out their days by the side of the road.

This is not the last time we see Nicodemus. The last time, after all of the disciples have fled into the darkness following the death of Jesus on the cross, was when Nicodemus comes out of the night into the light. He comes with Joseph of Arimathea to collect the crucified body of Jesus, his old friend. But this time, the night visitor, comes with courage.

Imagine all of the difference one night made in his life. Love sat on a rooftop. Love waited for Nicodemus in the middle of the night. Love waited for the one who always led, to follow; the one who always taught, to learn; the one who felt he had arrived, to finally seek. Love whispered and for Nicodemus, fear became faith, questions gave way to courage, and the darkness became light. As it was for Nicodemus, may it be for you, Class of 2014!

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