Second Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Series A

March 20, 2011 St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran

Keith Olstad


The texts:

The first lesson: Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm 121

The second lesson: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

The Gospel: John 3:1-17


The children’s lesson:

Good morning. I’m glad to see you. I always enjoy this time talking with you.


When you go on a trip with your family, I bet it happens like this. You get up in the morning, and someone says, “Let’s go on a trip!” So everyone gets in the car, and you drive all around for a few days until you’ve had enough of taking a trip. No maps, no packing suitcases, no packing food, no arrangements for hotels or relatives. Just get up and go!


That’s not the way your family does it? You mean you make plans, and you like to know where you’re going, and you try to follow a schedule? Wow, that’s not the way Abram and Sarai and their family take off for a trip we will hear about in our first lesson! God told them to take off on a long trip to something God would tell them about later, so they did! No schedule, no maps, no clear place to go to, just go, said God, and I will be with you.


There may be times in your life when you need to leave and not know where exactly you’re going. It may be a trip you take, or a school you go to, or a friendship you start. But always know that just as Abram and Sarai experience in our first lesson, God always stays with you. God will always be there for you, always guide you, and always bless you.


The sermon:

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.


The morning sun shone brightly into the room as the couple, faces long and drawn, sat facing their pastor. They had for years been pillars of the church, and their pastor knew them well. Their voices husky with emotion, they explained that last night, engrossed by their favorite reality show in their dimly lit living room, their daughter-in-law, Sakura, had called from Japan. They had talked with her and their two grandchildren last week. After the earthquake, their son, Bill, had sent them a text saying that they were all fine, but that they were worried about a possible tsunami. But after that, these fine people sitting with their pastor hadn’t heard more until Sakura phoned late last week from her parents’ home further inland.


Their pastor knew that after college, Bill had moved to Japan where he met and fell in love with Sakura while teaching at a small coastal city. These good people had travelled to Japan twice for the baptisms of their two beautiful grandchildren. On those long trips, these quiet church folks had begun to understand why Bill had so fallen in love with his new home.


But last week, the couple explained, Sakura had sounded tired and unusually nervous when she said that Bill was not home. She had said she hadn’t heard from him for a couple of days, that he was out helping with the search and rescue efforts, and she expected him to come home soon.


The couple told their pastor that they had been concerned when Sakura called last night, but they hadn’t imagined this. Sakura explained that last week she had not told them the full truth. After the earthquake, Bill had come home briefly, texted his folks, and then went back out to help victims of the earthquake. When the tsunami hit, it just barely reached their house. But Bill had gone in the direction of the shore, and she had not heard from him since. For days now she had been searching the streets and the area shelters. She wept when she told her beloved parents-in-law that no one knew what happened to him.


“What kind of God would let this happen?” the suddenly enraged father bellowed. His neck as red as his eyes, he emitted an immense sob. “How can a loving, gracious God let all those beautiful people be swept up in some God-awful wave of death and devastation? What good is there when someone so dear—someone so good, descent and fine as my son…?” He couldn’t finish his sentence before burying his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving.


As the grieving mother put her arms around her quivering husband, their pastor moved her chair closer to these dear, old stalwarts of the church. “I am so sorry,” she said softly. “I am so sorry, and I am so glad to be here with you.” In this moment of profound confusion and sorrow, these good people had come to talk with their pastor.


For ages this is what people of faith have done when events brutally disrupt lives. When everything changes—when hopes and dreams are wrenched apart, when what is good and beautiful is suddenly horrible and wretched—people go to their pastors, their spiritual advisors. When everything changed for Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews and an official in the synagogue, he went to a trustworthy if controversial rabbi, one sent from God. He went at night, perhaps to avoid being seen—or perhaps because his whole life had become an exercise in darkness. He came out of the darkness into the light, and talked with Jesus.


“I know you have God’s power. There is no other way you could do what you do,” Nicodemus confided. “But I do not—I cannot—understand you.”1 Jesus, according to John’s gospel, didn’t help him much. Jesus spoke in riddles, in highly symbolic language that sent the Pharisee spinning. Shortly, reeling from both the power and the obscurity of Jesus’ words, poor Nicodemus intoned “How can these things be?” And Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”2


How can such things be made understandable? When events so contradict what we want, what we hope for, what we think God represents, how can any one—Pharisee or pastor, professor or person in the pew—make simple sense of what seems beyond understanding?


After a few minutes of silence, broken only by the moaning of aching hearts, the pastor said, “Tell me more about your conversation with Sakura.” The mother, speaking softly, said their daughter-in-law had explained that she hadn’t wanted them to worry. She had been so sure that Bill was simply out of communication and would return at any moment. Now, she offered, she wished she had told them the truth. She was afraid that her deceiving them would make her mother- and father-in-law reject and abandon her. She loved Bill so much. She just couldn’t believe that he was gone. Now she needed them more than ever, she said. Could they ever forgive her?


They hadn’t known what to say, this gentle couple confided to their pastor. Their shock made them unable to respond, they said; they didn’t know what to say or do. They only knew that they deeply loved their daughter-in-law and their beautiful grandchildren. But they felt profoundly betrayed, and they simply could not cope with the possibility that Bill might be among the dead from this horrible tragedy.


There was another pause. Their pastor noted the freshly fallen snow outside her window, and for just a second she marveled at the snow’s capacity for reflecting light. She hoped the sun would shine brightly again someday soon for these heart-broken people sitting tearfully before her in her office. She turned to the gospel of John, the third chapter. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”3


“You can say that again,” muttered the distraught father.


The pastor continued. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”4


“Will God’s Spirit save my son?” sobbed the mother, her face drawn.


“God’s Spirit is most certainly with your son, whatever his situation,” responded the pastor without hesitation. “Let me read a few more verses. The first you will certainly recognize, but the second isn’t so often heard. Listen to these verses especially carefully this sunny morning when your world seems so bleak.”


“For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”5


“These words can be God’s gift for you this morning,” continued the pastor. “You have lived your lives expecting that your son would give you a daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. Now, deep in the darkness of the night you have learned that your son, who you love as you love life itself, may have been swept away by a raging sea. You don’t know for sure, and that probably only makes it harder. For Bill and his family, and for the two of you, you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it will blow.


“But know this, God’s spirit will always blow graciously on you, and on your son, and on Sakura and your grandchildren. No matter what Bill’s fate turns out to be, he is baptized, and God has promised to guide, cherish and hold him close forever. No matter how you work through whatever betrayal you feel from Sakura; she is baptized. She and your grandchildren will always be in the fullness of God’s care, and so will you.”


Again the mother sobbed, whether from grief or relief. The pastor repeated, “Bill and his family—and you, dear friends—will always be in the fullness of God’s care.”


And so also will you, people of St. Paul-Ref, always be in the fullness of God’s gracious love and care. God does not insulate you from the tortuous cycle of life and death, whether from deception or disaster. But when your children startle you with jolting news, when a family member or friend suddenly dies, when the future is horribly vague and threatening, God stays with you in the presence of family and friends. When you gather to struggle, God promises to be with you through pastor or parishioner. When you come to the font and the table, God will welcome and nourish you in water and word, in bread and wine, offered by loving companions on the journey. Always and forever, God will be with you and will bless you.


So be it. Amen.

1 See John 3:2

2 John 3: 9 & 10   (NRSV)

3 John 3:8a

4 Ibid. v. 8b

5 Ibid. vv. 16 & 17  (NRSV, emended)