“A New Way of Thinking”

This is the message that I gave on the 2nd Sunday of Lent (28 February 1999) at the Neon (KY) United Methodist Church.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Genesis 12: 1 –4; Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17; and John 3: 1 – 17.


Can you remember what it was like when you learned something new? Now, I am not talking about when you did something like passing your driver’s test but rather when you mastered a new idea. Perhaps it was in math class when the teacher was trying to teach you how to multiply fractions? Or it could have been when you were trying to cook something from scratch and you finally got the ingredients just right. When this happened, there was a sense of exhilaration that you finally learned something.

When we try to learn something new, often times we encounter difficulties because we try to fit this new learning into what we already know. As long as we do this, as long as we try to learn something new based on our old ways, we have a hard time learning new things. Often times we can get real frustrated about learning. That’s why when we do finally learn the new point, there is a feeling of exhilaration. We have overcome the barriers that we were faced with and things become easier. Then when we look at that problem again, it seems so simple.

The old way of thinking was what Paul was writing about in his letter to the Romans. What Paul was talking about was two different ways of living. In the old way, admittance to heaven was granted through your adherence to the law, by the manner of your works. But God’s Grace is a gift, given to us because, as it was written in John 3: 16,

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

And if God’s grace is a gift to us, how then can anything we do get us into heaven? This is an interesting question; it is a question that can cause us long sleepless nights. What can we do to get into heaven?

Nicodemus was faced with such a dilemma. He came to Jesus seeking to find out how it was that Jesus could be doing what He was doing. As Jesus told him, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

To my mind, this is one of the most important statements in the whole New Testament. Unless we are born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God. This statement was very hard for Nicodemus to understand because he was listening to it with his old way of thinking. As Nicodemus replied, “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”

Nicodemus still thought that the way to heaven was through strict adherence to the law. Yet the law was often times contradictory and you could find yourself easily violating one point of the law while upholding another one. That is true even today. In our secular society, we seek to meet the requirements for success that are imposed on us by our culture and our society, often times to find that when we reach success, we find our lives lacking something or that the definition of success has changed.

As Jesus told Nicodemus, “ we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” This means that as long as we continue to believe in terms of the law, in believing that what you do is our key to heaven, then there was no way that we can ever understand the message Jesus was telling.

The period of Lent is a period of preparation. It is a journey that begins when we accept Christ into our lives. But we must first change our way of thinking. We must go beyond the old way of thinking, of trying to live within the boundaries of society and its laws. It is a journey based on faith and understanding what Christ expects from us. Faith is something that we cannot learn. God spoke to Abraham

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

So Abram left, as the Lord has told him;

And without hesitation, Abraham left for the Promised Land. And each time that Jesus called one of his disciples to follow him, they did so without hesitation.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (Luke 5: 10b – 11)

Later, Jesus called the last two disciples, Phillip and Nathanael, Nathanael first expressed disbelief about Jesus. He said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” because it was a popular belief that no one from that town was any good. Yet Jesus knew who Nathanael was,

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 47 – 51)

The promise that God made to Abraham, the promise that Jesus made to his disciples, came only through the faith that they, Abraham and the disciples, put in God and Jesus. As Paul wrote, “the promise comes by faith, so that it may be grace”

Jesus challenged Nicodemus to change his way of thinking, to go beyond simply living the law and to have faith that God did love him. It was not necessary to return to his mother’s womb because as Nicodemus knew, that was physically impossible. But Nicodemus could let the Spirit of the Lord come into his live and he could then be born again.

The invitation that Christ gave to Nicodemus is also given to us. It is an invitation to see God as a gracious and womb-like, offering the sanctuary of shelter that we often need. This is in contrast to a view of God through the law where He would be the source and enforcer of requirements, boundaries and divisions. Christ’s invitation to be born again, to accept the presence of the Holy Spirit, is an invitation to take a different path for the rest of our live.

The path that He gives us is a much more difficult one, but only if we view it with our old way of thinking. If we take this new path, we find a life that is more and more centered in God and one in which we have a deepening relationship with the Spirit of God.

Just like Nicodemus had a hard time accepting the invitation, so too is it hard for us. After all, our old way of thinking does not confirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; the only reality that we can be certain is the visible world of our ordinary experience. And in this view, the only means of obtaining satisfaction is through the material world. We live our lives, measuring our self-worth and level of satisfaction based on how well we measure up to what the material world defines as success. Not only is this burdensome and often times unreachable, but when we do reach success, we finds the results, the rewards unsatisfying.

Jesus’ invitation, to Nicodemus to be born again, for the disciples to follow him, challenges and changes our way of thinking. It shows us that the Holy Spirit is real and that God is real. Consider what happened to Job. At the end of the Book of Job, after Job has experienced a dramatic self-disclosure of God, he exclaimed, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye beholds thee.” (Job 42: 5)

When we view the world with our old way of thinking, we cannot envision a God who would give up his only son; we cannot envision Christ dying on the cross for our sins. In our old way of thinking, the law traps us, forcing us to seek things and rewards that are extremely fleeting.

The gospel of Jesus – the good news of Jesus – is that there is a way of being that moves beyond both secular and religious conventional wisdom. The path of transformation that Jesus spoke about leads from a life of requirements and measuring up (whether it is to the daily culture we live in or to God) to a life of a relationship with God. Though the path that Jesus puts before us may look narrow, rough and rocky, it leads us away from a life of anxiety and towards one of peace and trust; from a life centered in culture to a life centered in God.

Jesus challenged his disciples to follow him, to go from being just fishermen to becoming fishers of men. Jesus challenged Nicodemus to be born again, to be born of the Spirit. The disciples followed through faith and came to understand Jesus’ message when the Holy Spirit came to them. Nicodemus went away, probably more confused than he was when first came to Jesus that night so long ago. How will you accept Jesus’ challenge and invitation? Will you hold to the old way of thinking and not understand? Or will you accept the Holy Spirit and accept Christ as your Savior? It is a new way of thinking. But then again the life that you lead as a result is a new life, one in Christ.

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