Vacation Bible School Celebration Sunday
June 26, 2016 Speaker: Matt Benton
Passage: John 3:1–3:3, John 3:3–3:15, John 3:16–3:21
There was once a game warden whose sister was married to a master fisherman. Every time the game warden’s brother-in-law went on a fishing trip he would always come back with an incredible amount of fish. I mean an incredible amount. More than anyone or the game warden had ever seen. The game warden was astonished that he knew such an impressive fisherman.
One day his brother-in-law asked the game warden if he’d like to go fishing. The game warden was so excited. Now he would finally get to see his famed brother-in-law, the master fisherman in action. He agreed with great enthusiasm. They agreed upon a date.
When that date came the game warden arrived at the lake and backed his boat in. His brother-in-law arrived carrying only a thermos and a small satchel. No fishing poles. No tackle box. No GPS that tells you where the fish are. No other equipment that they sell at Gander Mountain that I don’t know about, but I’m sure someone in this room could tell me about. Just a thermos and a satchel. The game warden was a bit confused by this, but he got into the boat and set off all the same.
His brother-in-law took control of the boat and drove them out to the center of the lake and dropped anchor. Now, if you’ve ever been fishing or if you’ve watched fishing on TV for reasons passing understanding you know that the middle of the lake is not where you want to fish. Once again, the game warden was quite perplexed. But he figured, hey this guy’s the master, he must know something I don’t.
When they’d stopped, the brother-in-law reached into his satchel and pulled out a stick of dynamite. He lit it, and tossed it down into the water. A few seconds later there was a muffled explosion and then fish started drifting up to the top.
The game warden was shocked. And angry. You can’t do that he says. Do you realize how many rules and regulations you’ve broken?! And then he proceeded to very angrily read his brother-in-law the riot act. After many minutes of this tirade, the game warden was finished. The brother-in-law reached into his satchel, pulled out another stick of dynamite, and lit it. Then, he threw it into the game warden’s lap. Smiling, the brother-in-law said, “Well, are you just gonna sit there or are you gonna fish?”
Friends, I think we have just been sitting here for too long.
I was away last week at Annual Conference in Roanoke. First, thanks to Mike Finegan for preaching for me last week, I heard he preached an amazing sermon. Second, for those that don’t know, Annual Conference is a meeting of Methodist pastors and laity from all around the state. Every pastor is required to attend and every church sends one representative per pastor. We meet to set the budget for the following year for the statewide level of church governance, to celebrate those pastors that are retiring, to ordain new pastors, and to decide on other priorities and objectives for our churches. While I was there I heard the following statistic. In 2015 the combined average worship attendance for all Methodist churches in the Virginia Conference was 102,000. In 2016 that number was 98,000. That’s a 4.5% decrease. From this year to last year over 4,000 people stopped worshipping at Methodist churches in this state on a given Sunday. That happened for two reasons.
I can’t go to church conferences or events without hearing that people are coming to church fewer and fewer Sundays per month than they used to. The average committed worship attender comes to church 1.4 times per month. So the first reason those numbers went down is that committed Christians are coming to church less and less. And if that were the only reason then perhaps the solution to the problem would be on church pastors, such as myself, to make church more compelling. But its not the only reason. We know that fewer and fewer people are identifying as committed Christians. Every year the number of people that identify as atheist or agnostic, the number of people that don’t declare allegiance to any branch of Christianity, the group of people that indicate no spiritual preference is growing. Fewer and fewer people feel the grace and love of God in their life. Fewer and fewer people call Jesus their Lord and Savior. Fewer and fewer people believe in and trust in and love God.
So friends, I have to ask you, are you just gonna sit there, or are you gonna fish?
Because here’s the thing, friends. We have a story to tell. We have a story to tell that the world needs to hear. We have a story to tell that people need to hear. And this is why. On the second day of CVBS at my site we were talking about how God knows our worth. God sees us, God knows us, and God knows how much we are worth. And in doing that I asked the children how other people see them. And from that question I had child after child talk about how they are bullied. And when a seven year old tells you that they are bullied on the school bus and you look in their eyes and see what that experience is doing to them, defining them, subconsciously telling them what they’re worth, you desperately want to tell them the truth. You want to tell them that the bully doesn’t get to decide their worth. The bully doesn’t get to define them. The bully doesn’t get to decide who they are and whose they are. God does. God defines us. God decides our worth. We are God’s. And that God loves them so much. And God says they are His children. And God thinks they are of infinite value.
I love the fact that we got to do that this week at CVBS. I don’t know the number, but I’m sure its hundreds of kids we got to tell God loves you to. And if my group is any indication, the vast majority of those kids definitely desperately needed to hear that message.
But what I want you to think about right now, what I want you to hold onto right now, what I want you to picture right now are the countless children, teens, young adults, adults, seniors who desperately need to hear that message and didn’t or couldn’t come to CVBS. Friends we have a story to tell. And we have a world that desperately needs for us to tell that story. So let me tell you that story so that you can go and tell others.
Now this story is the big story that God is telling all throughout Scripture, from beginning to end. It’s the story that is told in virtually every encounter with God in the Old Testament and with Jesus in the New Testament. We told the children five different stories this week and used each story to emphasize one particular aspect of the larger story, but you could really tell the whole story using one of them. Which is what I want to do this morning. Turn with me please to John chapter 3.
John 3: 1-3
The first part of this story is that Jesus sees us. Its not as pronounced in this story as it is in the Zacchaeus story, which is the one where the short tax collector climbs a tree in order to see Jesus. It’s a great story. Check it out. Luke 19. Or in the blind Bartimaeus story. Mark 10. Also good. But the point is here in this story nonetheless. Jesus sees us. Jesus notices us. Its very late at night, and in the ancient world you didn’t really go out at night, but Jesus takes time to talk with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council which were none too kind to Jesus. So Jesus would have been well within his right to turn Nicodemus away thinking he was only there to bother, annoy, argue, attack Jesus. But instead, Jesus sees him, notices him, makes time for him.
The same is true of our God. God sees us. God notices us. Which on the one hand sounds daunting, even scary, but on the other hand is deeply touching and beautiful. That the God who created all there is, who created the vast expanse we call the universe, who could be watching and noticing things of immense power and majesty and beauty, would want to take notice of us. Amazing. God sees us. God notices us. God makes time for us.
The second part of this story is in here too. Jesus knows us. Jesus knew who Nicodemus was. He knew he was a member of the ruling council, a Pharisee. We know this because Jesus immediately begins a deep, complex, metaphysical theological discussion. Jesus not only doesn’t dismiss him out of hand, but instead cuts right to the heart of why Nicodemus sought him out. Which shows us that Jesus has compassion for Nicodemus wants to help Nicodemus and loves Nicodemus.
Which isn’t necessarily a given based on who Nicodemus was. You see, at the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel was under Roman occupation. Anyone who had any political authority had it based on their collusion with the Roman authority. That the Israelites were able to have any political body of their own, religious or otherwise, depended entirely on that body being friendly to and working for the interests of the Romans. Which meant that to the average Israelite, anyone who had any political authority, like Nicodemus, was a traitor. And an enemy. And despised. Jesus knew all this. And yet Jesus loved Nicodemus all the same. He helped Nicodemus all the same.
We spent a lot of time with the kids this week talking about things about us that are surface level and things that are below the surface. We talked about how there are things about us that anyone could easily know, things about us that friends know, things about us that only our closest friends and family would know, etc. And that there are things about us that only God could know, that we keep hidden from the world. We all have those things. Those thoughts we think on I-95. The things about ourselves we aren’t proud of. The places in our lives we are still working on. The things that make us deeply happy.
Every now and then I’ll hear a song or I’ll watch something and it will be so meaningful to me, it will be so beautiful to me that I’ll be afraid to talk about it or share that experience with someone else for fear that their reaction would somehow cheapen it. Maybe I’m just weird, but I feel like there’s always something that we want to keep to ourselves, some area we hold back from even those closest to us. And the thing is, God knows all of us. The good. The bad. The ugly. God knows it all. And even still God loves us. God wants to be with us. God wants us to know him. Jesus sees us. Jesus knows us. We have one more part to this story.
John 3: 3-15
Jesus saw Nicodemus. Jesus knew Nicodemus. Jesus saved Nicodemus.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that only those who are born again can see the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus doesn’t understand as its clear someone can only be born once. It’s not something that you can really do over. Jesus tells him that flesh gives birth to flesh, Spirit gives birth to Spirit. Which sounds weird and cryptic until we remember that Nicodemus is a Pharisee.
You see Pharisees believed that salvation came through keeping strict obedience to the Jewish law. Through eating the right things and avoiding the wrong things. Through wearing acceptable clothing. Through following ritual purity laws. All of which are things involving our physical bodies. Flesh gives birth to flesh. But the salvation that Jesus offers comes through the Spirit.
You see we are early on in John’s gospel. But Jesus is already alluding to what happens later, clearly no one told Jesus about spoiler alert. But Jesus knows that he will be lifted up, he will be crucified, and he will die. But the Spirit will bring him back to life on Easter Sunday so that all who believe in Jesus may have eternal life through him in the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh. But Spirit gives birth to spirit. The flesh and body of Christ failed and died on the cross, but the Spirit gave new life to Christ’s body and he was resurrected. Our flesh and body will fail to get us into the Kingdom of Heaven. But the Spirit can give us new life and we can be born anew into an eternal kingdom. Jesus wants this for Nicodemus. Jesus wants this for you. Jesus continues…
John 3: 16-21
And this right here is the heart of the story, the heart of the Gospel. This right here is why we come to church. This right here is the story that the world desperately needs to hear. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but will have eternal life. This is the invitation that God in Jesus Christ offers Nicodemus and offers you. You can have eternal life. You can be born again. You can have life and have it abundantly here and now and for eternity. All this can be yours if you simply ask Jesus for it. If you simply ask the Spirit of God to dwell in your heart. Whoever believes in Christ is not condemned. The Spirit has given you new life. Whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of Jesus. Flesh gives birth to flesh and eventually our flesh will fail.
This is the verdict, that the light has come into the world but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil. This we know. This we experience. We see this when a seven year old tells us she is bullied. We see this when someone kills forty-nine people in cold blood. We see this when one in four children in the richest nation in the world are born into poverty. We see this when every six seconds someone dies from hunger. We see this every time that we are forced to confront the very real and chilling fact that we live in a broken world in need of redemption. This verse is a call back to a verse in the first chapter of John that says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The light has come into the world. The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot overcome it. That’s why we can come here and sing and worship and have hope. Yet people love the darkness, they cling to the darkness, they continue to live in the darkness. The darkness still exists. And that is why we need to go from this place and tell this story, boldly proclaim this story, shout this story, live this story.
Because those that do evil hate the light and refuse to come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. There are people in this world who are hurting and broken. There are people in this world who act out of that hurt and their actions hurt others. But notice what this verse says about them, they don’t want to come into the light because they are afraid. They are afraid that people will find out what they’ve done. It’s not that they love the darkness. It’s not that they are deep down evil people who are beyond redemption. It’s not that they are against the light. It’s that they’re scared. They believe that if they came out of the darkness that Jesus might see them. And that Jesus might know who they really are. And if Jesus knew who they really were then there is no way that Jesus could love them.
But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light. And this is the truth: that God in Jesus Christ already knows all there is to know about us. That our deeds are already exposed. There’s no hiding in darkness. Jesus sees us even in the darkness. Jesus knows us, Jesus knows our hearts and our deeds. And yet Jesus loves us still. God loves us still. And whoever knows that truth need not be afraid, they need not stay in the darkness, they can come into the light of God’s love. And they can boldly proclaim that their deeds are known by God, they can be themselves in the light because they know that God sees them, God knows them, and God saves them.
We live in a world that desperately needs to hear this message. We live in communities and neighborhoods that desperately need to hear this message. Which is why, instead of having Vacation Bible School inside a church we take our VBS out into those communities and neighborhoods. We take it to the people who need to hear it. But we can’t reach everyone. Right now I know you can think of someone who needs to hear it. You can think of someone who needs to know how much God loves them. Who needs to know that God wants to save them. You can think of that person, I know you can. Bring that message to them. Bring the message of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ to them. Let them know that God sees them. No matter where they are, no matter what they do, God sees them. Let them know God knows them. God knows them better than they know themselves. And God loves them all the same. And let them know God saves them. God stands ready to come into their hearts and change their lives.
We have a story that someone in your life needs to hear. You have a stick of lit dynamite sitting in your lap. Are you gonna just sit there, or are you gonna fish?