March 5, 2023
Second Sunday in Lent
God of great love, you alone can take away the sting of sin and remove the venom of death. Show us a sign of your saving power in Jesus Christ, so that we may believe in him and receive the gift of eternal life; through Christ, our healer and redeemer. AMEN.
PRELUDE “Motet on Theme of Thomas Tallis” John Schaffner
CALL TO WORSHIP
I lift up my eyes to the hills — from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Let us worship God.
*HYMN No. 691 “Lord, When I Come into This Life”
1 Lord, when I came into this life
you called me by my name;
today I come, commit myself,
responding to your claim.
2 Within the circle of the faith,
as member of your cast,
I take my place with all the saints
of future, present, past.
3 In all the tensions of my life,
between my faith and doubt,
let your great Spirit give me hope,
sustain me, lead me out.
4 So help me in my unbelief
and let my life be true:
feet firmly planted on the earth,
my sights set high on you.
*CALL TO CONFESSION
Our God does not slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper and your shade at your right hand. Let us confess to our ever vigilant and ever faithful God.
*PRAYER FOR CONFESSION
Gracious God, we are selfish and arrogant. We have overlooked human dignity; we ignore the needs of minorities, migrants and im- migrants. We hear the cries of the land, women, children, and young people, but we have not done enough to respond to the grace that we have received. These actions have caused some people to suffer and experience oppression. Have mercy on us and forgive us.
Response No. 471 “O Lord, Hear My Prayer”
O Lord, hear my prayer.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
When I call, answer me.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
O Lord, hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.
*ASSURANCE OF PARDON
“For God so loved the world that he gave his 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.”
Let us walk in the light of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*RESPONSE No. 288 “Spirit of the Living God”
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Melt me; mold me;
fill me; use me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
*PASSING OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST
ANTHEM “Surely, He Has Borne Our Griefs” John Carter
CHILDREN’S MESSAGE Laken Franchetti
UNISON PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
As these words are read and proclaimed, may we be compelled in these next moments amidst all the imperfections and misunderstandings that may come to be yet compelled into your will, your way, and your wisdom. May your grace and truth abound in our hearing and our doing your Word. Amen.
UNISON SCRIPTURE John 3:1-17
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with that person.”3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[c] must be born from above.’[d] 8 The wind[e] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you[f] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[g] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[h]
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “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.
RESPONSE No. 544 “Bless the Lord” x3
Bless the Lord, my soul,
and bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, my soul,
who leads me into life.
I have a confession to make – I am a relatively typical Presbyterian. Many of us who were born and bred Presbyterian typically do not anticipate or even appreciate radical, fresh starts. We don’t necessarily desire to start all over again in our life of faith. Many Presbyterians, like Pharisees, like tradition. We like stability. We like things done “decently and in order.” Phrases like “shocking change” do not often show up in our personal goals for the year. Phrases like “radical new beginning” do not often appear in the minutes of our session meetings. More often than not, our hope for the future entails a continuation of the way things have been in the same general direction, perhaps with some incremental improvement of current circumstances. Like author Eugene Peterson, we aim for “a long obedience in the same direction”. We seldom seek to end completely what we have known so that some stark new beginning may occur.
Nicodemus probably would have been a wonderful Presbyterian elder or pastor. As a respected Pharisee, he was an unusually dedicated man of God. He was a faithful servant of the Temple and a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling party. The Sanhedrin of the early first century in Jerusalem was like a combination of our U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court and the Pope’s cabinet, all wrapped into one body of 70 men. These men ran the Temple “decently and in order”, Their goal was to govern their nation in a manner acceptable to God. These Pharisees were not ordinary men. They separated themselves from many aspects of ordinary daily life so that they would be free to keep every detail of the law. They were truly dedicated to the pursuit of faithfulness. They gave their lives to lead their nation in proper worship and understanding of God. Words like stability and tradition and carefulness were attributes of the Sanhedrin.
So, when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, our gospel writer wants the reader to know that something new was afoot. This was not normal or careful for a member of the esteemed Sanhedrin to visit an itinerant rabbi at night. Nicodemus’ nighttime visit highlights the gospel writer’s primary interest: Who is this Jesus? But when Nicodemus engages Jesus in conversation, he does not begin with a question, but with an affirmation. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God! No one could do what you’re doing if God were not with you.” We recognize that God is with you, Jesus, so what are you up to? Nicodemus implied. What is God up to? Who are you?
Nicodemus had to be careful. He did not want this Jesus to lead his people astray. He did not want this Galilean rabbi to undermine the careful inner workings of the Temple. He did not want this Jesus to cause upheaval in the tenuous relationship between the Jewish leaders and their Roman occupiers. But there was something different about this teacher from Galilee. Perhaps God was up to something new in this Jesus of Nazareth. ‘Rabbi, Nicodemus said, no one can do what you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Very truly, I tell you, Nicodemus, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.’ If you want to enter the kingdom of God, you must be born again, you must start anew. Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
Though Nicodemus’ question seems ridiculous, even literalistic, he was familiar with this conversation of “rebirth”. Talk of “rebirth” was common among the Jewish leaders of the day. Greek converts to Judaism were spoken of as “reborn”. New believers were often called newborn infants in faith. “Rebirth” was a key aspect of the Greek mystery religions of the day. Scholars have claimed that the whole world was talking about rebirth and seeking renewal. In the days leading up to this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, the crowds had been going out to the wilderness to be baptized by John, knowing full well that the dunking of a person into the waters of the Jordan River signified death of the old life and rebirth into a new life. So, when Nicodemus asked about entering the womb a second time and being born again, he was ‘playing along’ with a well-known metaphor.
Nicodemus may have known for quite some time that he and his people were in need of a fresh spiritual journey, a rebirth of their hearts and souls. Nicodemus may have recognized that the time was ripe for something new, that God had been preparing his people for some new revelation. Nicodemus, being a faithful man, may have been praying for years for someone like Jesus to come along, longing for a Messiah who would turn the hearts and minds and wills of his people. But Nicodemus also knew how set were his people in their ways, how firm were their habits and disciplines and attitudes. Any rebirth or renewal might have seemed just as impossible as entering the womb a second time.
Coming to Jesus at night, Nicodemus seems genuinely curious, perhaps even hesitantly hopeful. Nicodemus, Jesus said, 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. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus replied, ‘How can these things be?’ Whoever believes in me may have eternal life,
Jesus said. Whoever turns to me will find healing and salvation.
Nicodemus, ‘For God so loved the world that he (sent me) his only Son, so that everyone who believes in (me) may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send (me) into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved (through me).’
Whatever happened with Nicodemus? Did he receive the answers to the questions he was asking? Did he come to know and experience rebirth? We do not fully know. The Nicodemus story ends with many questions unanswered. What we do know is that later, in chapter 7 of John’s gospel, when Jesus was on trial before the powerful Sanhedrin, Nicodemus spoke up. Nicodemus raised his voice among the powerful body of seventy members of the Sanhedrin. He encouraged them to listen to Jesus, to hear his testimony. Later, in chapter 19 of John’s gospel, we discover that it was Nicodemus, after Jesus had died, who brought 100 pounds of spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. This was at no small cost or risk on his part. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea risked their reputations and perhaps their lives in order to give Jesus an honorable burial.
Though the fate of Nicodemus remains unresolved in the gospel, his prominence in the text suggests that he may have been well known to the early church. Nicodemus may well have become one of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem. It is possible that Nicodemus, upon seeing Jesus lifted up, believed, and in believing, discovered eternal life.
In these lengthening days of the season of Lent, as we look forward to Holy Week and Easter, to the lifting up of Jesus on the cross, perhaps we, like Nicodemus, can engage our minds in that timeless question: Who is Jesus? And what does that mean to me? Perhaps we can loosen our settled-ness and become curious and hopeful about the possibility of our own rebirth – reflect upon being REBORN. Like Nicodemus, we cannot reason our way into God’s kingdom. We cannot faithfully practice our way into God’s kingdom. What we can do is turn to Jesus in trust and hope, to visit him on some quiet and dark night, and acknowledge that we too may be ripe for a fresh start. We too may have been preparing, though we did not know it, for some “radical new beginning” even, in life and in faith.
Eternal life, life in God’s kingdom, life lived before God and with God, life lived reconciled to God and at peace with God, with ourselves and with our neighbor, is not something that we must wait for, not something that we must die a physical death to receive, but a gift that can be ours, here and now, a gift that can be ours as we die to selfish interests and self-serving schemes, and come alive again to God. By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.
Liturgy and Commentary provided by Kyle Walker, John M. Buchanan, Sarah A. Speed, Todd S. Speed, Gregory Knox Jones, Teri McDowell Ott, the Presbyterian Church Book of Confessions, Anna Fulmer, Scott Hoezee and Leonard VanderZee.
*AFFIRMATION OF FAITH from “A Statement of Faith: Jesus Died For Sinners”
We believe that in the death of Jesus on the cross God achieved and demonstrated once for all the costly forgiveness of our sins. Jesus Christ is the Reconciler between God and the world. He acted on behalf of sinners as one of us, fulfilling the obedience God demands of us, accepting God’s condemnation of our sinfulness. In his lonely agony on the cross Jesus felt forsaken by God and thus experienced hell itself for us. Yet the Son was never more in accord with the Father’s will. He was acting on behalf of God, manifesting the Father’s love that takes on itself the loneliness, pain, and death that result from our waywardness. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not holding our sins against us. Each of us beholds on the cross the Savior who died in our place, so that we may no longer live for ourselves, but for him. In him is our only hope of salvation.
*HYMN No. 523 “You Satisfy the Hungry Heart”
You satisfy the hungry heart
with gift of finest wheat;
come give to us, O saving Lord,
the bread of life to eat.
1 As when the shepherd calls his sheep,
they know and heed his voice,
so when you call your family, Lord,
we follow and rejoice. (Refrain)
2 With joyful lips we sing to you
our praise and gratitude
that you should count us worthy, Lord,
to share this heavenly food. (Refrain)
3 Is not the cup we bless and share
the blood of Christ outpoured?
Do not one cup, one loaf, declare
our oneness in the Lord? (Refrain)
4 The mystery of your presence, Lord,
no mortal tongue can tell:
whom all the world cannot contain
comes in our hearts to dwell. (Refrain)
5 You give yourself to us, O Lord;
then selfless let us be,
to serve each other in your name
in truth and charity. (Refrain)
THE SACRAMENT OF COMMUNION
Friends, if your seeking has led you here,
if your weary heart followed breadcrumbs all the way to this sanctuary,
then I have good news:
you do not have to seek anymore.
This table is God’s Table.
So if you came here looking for justice,
then rest in the comfort that all will be fed here.
If you came seeking beauty,
then let your spirit marvel at the beauty of a community coming together.
If you came seeking a brush with the Divine,
then know that God is present in this ordinary meal.
So kick off your walking shoes.
Let your weary heart stop the search.
We are standing on holy ground.
This is God’s Table.
All are invited.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
God of the lost and the found,
surely it is right for us to give our thanks and praise;
for day after day we look for you,
and day after day we find you:
in the laugher of children,
in the sun rising over the horizon,
in the flowers of spring.
Our seeking does not go unanswered,
and for that we are grateful.
So first and foremost, we come to you in prayer to say thank you,
for when we’re seeking beauty,
you give us mountains and freckles, green eyes and brown eyes.
When we we’re looking for reason to hope,
you give us rainbows after the storm, and candles flickering in the window.
When we’re seeking peace,
you give us three part harmony and the sound of the rain.
And when we’re seeking justice,
your life reminds us that everyone is welcome at your Table, and none shall be turned away.
For all these reminders we are deeply grateful.
And yet, gracious God, our seeking does not stop.
For even though your fingerprints are all over this world,
we are not yet at your promised day.
So in addition to our gratitude, we also pray today for conviction.
Do not let us get comfortable with half-hearted seeking.
Do not let us grow numb to the suffering of this world.
Make us relentless in our pursuit of justice—
relentless in our consoling of the grieving,
in our welcoming of the stranger,
and in the feeding of the hungry.
Like a dog with a scent,
may we walk toward your kingdom,
never giving up, never wandering off the path.
And as we see and as we seek, pour out your Spirit on this ordinary bread and cup.
May this meal be the nourishment we need to continue seeking you in the world.
Until your promised day, we will pray.
Until your promised day, we will seek, saying: Our Father…
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
The Lord Jesus, on the night of his arrest, took bread, and after giving thanks to God,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat. This is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
In the same way he took the cup, saying: This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.
Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the saving death of the risen Lord, until he comes.
God of manna and mustard seeds,
we came to this Table hungry
and we leave feeling full—
full of hope,
full of promise,
full of what could be.
For we not only found glimpses of you at this Table,
but we caught a glimpse of the way things could be:
in a meal where all are welcomed and all are fed.
Is there anything holier than that?
So thank you for nourishing our curiosity
alongside our spirit and our conviction.
May we always seek you the way you seek after us.
With grateful hearts we pray, amen.
OFFERING OF TITHES & OFFERINGS
All that we have and all that we are belongs to God. Every time we perceive our abundance and give out of it, we engage in an act of resistance against the forces of scarcity, cynicism, and hopelessness about the possibilities for the world around us. Let us resist, give, and participate in God’s transformation of us and our world.
*RESPONSE N0. 605 “Praise to God the Father”
Praise to God the Father;
praise to God the Son;
praise to God the Spirit:
praise to the Three-in-One.
Sing praise, sing praise to the Lord on high.
Praise to God Almighty;
praise to the Holy One.
* PRAYER OF DEDICATION
We return these gifts to you and relinquish our control over them, O God, that you may use them beyond us, beyond this place, and beyond self-interest that your love may abound in the flourishing of every living thing you have entrusted to us.
*HYMN No. 674 “I Call, O Lord, On You”
1 I call, O Lord, on you:
come quickly to my aid;
hear from your throne in heaven above
my cry of deep distress.
2 Lord, let my prayer ascend
like incense in your sight;
see in my hands to heaven above
my evening sacrifice.
3 Set, Lord, a guard to keep
close watch upon my mouth;
let no rebellious word escape
your seal upon my lips.
4 Have pity, Lord, on me;
you are my strength, my shield:
you are my refuge in all ills;
I turn in trust to you.
Recite the words you cherish in your hearts and remember to walk them into the world where your feet go and your hands work. Let these words change you into the salt and light Jesus expects us to be in the world. In that vein, I leave you with these traditional benediction words as the call- to-action Rev. William Sloane Coffin offered them to be:
May the Lord Bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May God give you grace not to sell yourselves short,
Grace to risk something big for something good,
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.
May God take your minds and think through them.
May God take your lips and speak through them.
May God take your hands and work through them.
May God take your hearts and set them on fire. Amen.