"An Arresting Encounter"#90-27
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on March 5, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 3:16
The church lady was home all alone. She was upstairs by herself, and she heard a noise. It sounded like someone was breaking into her house. She crept to the top of the stairs to investigate, and she saw him: a burglar on the ground floor dressed in black ski mask covering his face, prowling about. She didn't know what to do so she shouted down the first thing that came to her mind. "Acts 2:38!" she said. Acts 2:38, it's the book and chapter and verse of the Bible that says, "Repent!" So that's what the church lady shouted. Down in her most commanding voice she said, "Acts 2:38!" Instantly, the burglar dropped to the floor. He put his hands over his head and didn't move a muscle until the police showed up. They arrested him, cuffed him, got the lady's statement. And then as they were bringing him to the car, one of the cops says, "So, it was the Scripture that got you to give it up, eh?" And the man said, "What? No, the lady shouted, said she had an axe and two 38s, so I froze till you guys showed up."
This story makes me reflect on what we're doing on this program every week as has been heard on radio receivers for over 90 years. In so many words, the preachers of this program like that church lady repeat the message of Acts 2:38. Every week we aim for that same arresting encounter with Jesus. We deliver the message of the apostle Peter recorded in the book of Acts 2:38, repent, which means stop. Freeze right where you are. As Peter said to his Jewish brothers and sisters in the book of Acts, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you'll receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Now, if you're listening for the first time, you probably wouldn't be surprised to know that on a church program like this, we're mostly preaching to the choir. That is, most of our listeners, at least most of the ones we know about, are people who listen to this program week after week after week. I've talked with many of them over the phone, in person, on emails, written letters, sent text messages. Some have been listening to preachers on this program for years, for decades, some for longer than I've been alive. But why? Why listen to more than one if it's essentially the same thing every week? The short answer is because there's always more to Jesus. Whenever you meet Him again, in some ways it's like meeting Him for the first time. And so that's our perennial goal: to help people meet Jesus, to facilitate, to usher, to bring about an arresting encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Like the church lady said, it's an Acts 2:38 kind of program. But there's an important difference. Because the speakers on this program, we're not talking down to you from the top of the stairs, so to speak, and we're not the cops making the arrest. We're not speaking down from the moral high ground because compared to Jesus—Jesus who is both God and Man at the same time—compared to Jesus, we're all at the bottom of the stairs, under the acts of God, right there with you.
That's how it goes when anyone meets Jesus and gets a sense of who He truly is and what He came to do. You can hear how meetings with Jesus go by listening to the ancient biography of Jesus called the Gospel according to John. Over the next four weeks on the program, we're going to be doing that. My friend, Pastor John Nunes, a regular guest speaker on the program, he and I are going to be listening alongside you to four scenes from the Gospel according to John, four arresting encounters with Jesus. Four conversations which are unique to John's Gospel. These four conversations are fascinating because they all focus on Jesus interacting with an individual who is not part of His inner circle of followers. They're not among the original 12 apostles.
Each of these four conversation partners are very different from each other: two are men and two are women. One of the women is a non-Jew, an outsider, a foreigner. She's never met Jesus, but by the end of the conversation she'll be telling the whole village about Him. You'll hear more about her next week. The other woman whose name is Martha, she's already a devoted follower of Jesus. But when we meet her in the story, she is realizing that she has seriously misunderstood and underestimated Jesus, who He is, what He came to do, and His timing for how He does it. Those are the two women.
As for the two men, one of them is a well-respected religious insider. The other is an outcast, looked down on by the insiders. Both of them will be meeting Jesus for the first time. During the course of the conversation with Him, both will become interested in following Him. Though as you might imagine, the religious insider has a harder time of it, more about Him in a moment. So all four people are different, but they all share a common experience, an arresting encounter with Jesus. There's a conversion that takes place or re-conversion or the beginning of a conversion; they're all becoming different people, dying and being reborn. And when you and I meet Jesus, whether it's the first time or the hundredth time, we should also expect to come under the Acts, Acts 2:38, the acts of God.
I got the story about the church lady and Acts 2:38 from author Leonard Sweet. He uses the story to illustrate a condition he calls "versitis." No, not bursitis, but versitis. It's a condition that Christians sometimes develop when we dice up the Bible into bits, when we forget that the Bible, when it was written, wasn't divided into chapters and verses. Those were added hundreds of years later. Before there were verses, there were whole narratives, whole letters, whole poems that were written to be read aloud from start to finish.
To illustrate the severity of our versitis, Leonard Sweet asks his Christian reader, "Can you recite from memory the most famous Bible verse, John 3:16?" I bet you can recite it perfectly. Okay, now try John 3:15. No? How about John 3:14? What about chapter 3, verse 17? And what story is this first part of?" His point is that a regrettable result of our versitis is that too often the Bible is stripped of story and mined for minutia. The Bible becomes a repository of bits of information we can quote, but we forget that it's inviting us into a story, into an arresting encounter with the living God.
Maybe you remembered that the story John 3:16 is a part of—is one of those four conversations I mentioned earlier. It's the conversation between Jesus and that devoutly religious Jewish man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is called the "teacher of Israel." He knows his Bible. He holds the religious high ground, but this encounter with Jesus gives the old man a spiritual heart attack. Jesus puts Nicodemus and all the rest of us back on the ground level, right alongside the people of Israel when they were grumbling and complaining in the wilderness, when they were criticizing God after He had rescued them.
Jesus references a story from the Old Testament Book of Numbers 21. It happened after God had sent Moses to rescue Israel out of slavery in Egypt, to deliver them with great signs and wonders, to lead them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Along the way, the people get impatient. They start telling God how they think He can do a better job at being God. The story shows how the problem Israel is facing, the problem the whole world is facing, is much worse than external slavery, much bigger than political tyranny.
The problem is this old person inside of us who gets impatient and complains, who thinks the world ought to work according to his wishes, who expects the world to work on her timeline. This old person in us puts his or her wishes and preferences and timelines above everything else, puts him or herself above everyone else, even above God. This person has so much self-confidence, so much faith in him or herself that we actually start to believe that we are in a position to criticize God.
But putting yourself above God is like trying to put yourself above the light of the sun. Criticizing God is like raging against the sunlight by closing your eyes and running toward a cliff. And that's where God finds His people in the wilderness in Numbers 21: eyes shut tight, in the dark heading for disaster. So to save His people from a bigger disaster, from an eternal disaster, God gives them over to a smaller, a temporal disaster. He sends deadly snakes. Many of the people are bitten; many of them die.
Some who are bitten when they see their situation under the acts of God, they repent. They ask Moses to ask God to save them. And God gives them the strangest sign to save them. It's a humiliating sign, a shaming sign. He has Moses make a statue of a snake, like one of the snakes that was killing them, and He has Moses lift up the snake. He has the people look at it so that they can be saved. It's a sign designed to send that old man in us into cardiac arrest. It's a sign that spells death for us, a sign to strip us of our faith in our own judgment, so that trust in God and life with God can be reborn. Everyone who looks to God's strange sign will be saved.
That's the story within the story of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus when he tells us about God's love for the world. John says it happened when Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Passover was the commemoration of when God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. While Jesus was there, many of the people believed in His Name. They put their trust in Him because they saw the signs and wonders that He was performing. But Jesus, for His part, didn't entrust Himself to them because He knew all people; He knew what was in them.
Now, there was this Pharisee, a devoutly religious man named Nicodemus. He was a leader among the Jewish people. He came to Jesus at night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a Teacher who has come from God because no one could perform the signs that You are doing unless God is with Him." Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God, the kingly acts of God." Nicodemus says to Him, "How can a person be born when he is old? Certainly he cannot enter into his mother's womb a second time to be born."
Jesus answered. "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a person is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to that which is of the flesh. The Spirit gives birth to that which is of the Spirit. You should not be amazed at My saying to you that it is necessary for you all to be born from above. The Spirit breathes where He wills. The wind blows where it pleases. You hear it sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "You are the teacher of Israel and you do not know these things? Truly, truly. I say to you, we speak of what we know and we testify of what we have seen, but you all are not receiving our testimony. If I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe when I speak to you of heavenly things? And no one has ever gone up into heaven except the One who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man" (that is, Jesus Himself). And just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so also is it necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up so that everyone who believes in Him, everyone who trusts in Him would have eternal life.
"Because in this way, God loved the world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever trusts in Him would not perish but would have eternal life. Because God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world would be saved through Him. Whoever trusts in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not trust stands condemned already because he has refused to trust in the Name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict. The Light has come into the world. But people love darkness more than the light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who practices evil hates the light, does not come to the light. Otherwise, his deeds would be exposed. But the one who does the truth comes to the light so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been done by God."
This is the Gospel according to St. John 3. Praise to You, oh Christ.
How is it that somebody like me, a longtime Christian, meets Jesus again in the same way as a non-Christian—someone who meets Him for the first time? As for me, and maybe you're like me, I've been baptized. I've been brought to trust in Jesus by the gift of the Holy Spirit. I've already been born again from above. So if someone is coming to Jesus for the first time, wouldn't I be in a position to look down on them from above? The Bible says that those who belong to Jesus are already with Jesus up in heaven, at God's right hand above everything. We are already born again from above. But this rebirth process is not yet complete in us. And it won't be complete until Jesus returns to raise us from the dead. It's incomplete because that old person is still in us, still prowling about, still grumbling in the wilderness, still under the axe and afraid of being exposed by the light.
You see, repenting, turning back to God, it's not a one-time deal. With Jesus, it's always an arresting encounter. Repentance is something that we Christians must practice throughout our entire mortal life. So even if you haven't met Jesus yet, we Christians have no right to look down on you or to shout down on you from above. Instead, we come alongside you to meet Jesus again and again and again on the ground floor, at the cross, where faith in ourselves comes to an end and simple trust in Jesus begins again. Life with God begins again for the first time. For us, it's the same Acts 2:38 program every week, playing on that old, faithful John 3:16 receiver.
And if you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Lord Jesus, on this program, You are drawing people to Yourself. We come in all shapes and sizes, various backgrounds and colors, different races and places, but we all come to You once lifted up and stretched out on that strange sign to save us. Open our eyes so that we can see how the people next to us are not so very different. They all need You like we need You. Let our words and actions reflect this truth so that it may be seen clearly that what we have done has been done by You. Because You live and You reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.
Reflections for March 5, 2023
Title: An Arresting Encounter
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and we're back with our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Hello, Mark.
Mark Eischer: I find Nicodemus to be a very interesting character. What do we all know about him and is he mentioned elsewhere in Scripture?
Mike Zeigler: He is only mentioned in the Gospel of John, and mostly here in this chapter, chapter 3. He does show up again at the end of chapter 7. He's part of the religious group there, and we see him in a more positive light there. He's saying to his Pharisees buddies, "Hey guys, let's give this Jesus guy a chance. Hear Him out." But then his friends insult him, because he's open to Jesus, and they aren't.
Then the last time we meet him is at the end of chapter 19 when he's with the guy who is giving Jesus a proper burial after Jesus is crucified. And that guy is identified explicitly as a follower of Jesus, but secretly, because he's afraid of being ridiculed or whatever. And so we're led to conclude the same thing about Nicodemus, that he's starting to move in that direction, he's becoming a disciple, but still not ready to be out in the open about it.
Mark Eischer: All right. So John is telling us just enough to pique our curiosity, but then he leaves us hanging and wanting to know more.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. He does not tell us everything we want to know about Nicodemus. Partly, that's because Nicodemus is a minor character, and John has said upfront and several times that he has a singular purpose for this book. This is a life story of Jesus. And you think about John, he is writing as someone who had spent three life-changing years with Jesus of Nazareth. Has seen him crucified, bodily raised from the dead, ascended back to God into heaven, and now he's devoted his entire adult life to verbally retelling and listening to the story and the stories of Jesus.
And after 50 years or more of reflection and thought, now inspired by God's Spirit, he finally puts down an account on paper, in writing. And it's simply a history of what happened, but also it is a literary masterpiece. People have been studying it for 2,000 years. It's full of artistry and symbolism that's at work on many levels.
Mark Eischer: For example, darkness and light, wind and water, rebirth.
Mike Zeigler: Yes. And even Nicodemus is in some ways symbolic. And by symbolic I don't mean that he's fictitious, he's a real person, really existed. But John presents him in a symbolic way, because Nicodemus represents more than just himself. He represents the other religious leaders in Israel at the time. But in some ways, he represents all people, but especially he represents any of us who would like to think of ourselves as religious experts, experts in the things of God, spiritually mature.
Mark Eischer: John is wanting us to think about how we would meet Jesus and the questions we might ask him.
Mike Zeigler: Yes, because we're all going to meet Jesus, one way or another. And it's interesting when Nicodemus has his chance to meet Jesus, the characteristics that are on display for this, again, he's influential, mature, deeply religious man. His main characteristics are that he doesn't get it. He doesn't understand the ways of God, and he can't understand, Jesus says. He can't understand on his own effort. And so it shows us that real growth in faith, growth in God, it doesn't happen by us getting smarter and smarter or better and better. It happens by starting over at the beginning again, by being reborn, by trusting childlike in God and Jesus His Son.
Mark Eischer: And along with that goes the idea of repentance.
Mike Zeigler: That's what repentance is, to repent is to start over, to turn back to God, to be crucified and reborn. To return to our Baptism, to become new people.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"God So Loved the World" arr. Don Petering. (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.
"Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.