March 12, 2017 Sermon
God’s Grace and Our Yearning
Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a panda named Po. His father made noodle soup for a living and wished his son to inherit the noodle business some day; but Po was crazy about kung fu and the local kung fu masters. He fantasized about becoming a kung fu master, but unfortunately he was fat, lazy, loved eating, and didn’t like exercising. Fortunately, the Grand Master designated him as the chosen Dragon Warrior worthy of receiving the Dragon Scroll and defeating the most powerful and evil kung fu master. But then again unfortunately, he was still fat, lazy, and didn’t like exercising, and other masters made fun of him. But again fortunately, his master found a way to motivate this fat and lazy panda into training in the art of kung fu. In the end when he became skilled and realized that the secret to the Dragon Warrior’s power lies in believing in oneself, he was able to defeat the evil master and save the village.
This is the story of the animated movie Kung Fu Panda. Although the situations and characters are ridiculously funny, Po’s yearning to become a kung fu master is quite touching. He is fat, lazy, and doesn’t like exercising, and other masters laugh at him; but it doesn’t stop him from dreaming and pursuing. And his master, although he can’t believe this ridiculous panda could be the chosen Dragon Warrior, provides guidance and leads him to his destiny. Of course, Po’s path to becoming the Dragon Warrior is full of ups and downs, not unlike our life and faith journey.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, which means he was a serious religious man. We often connect the words Pharisee and hypocrite because Jesus tends to rebuke Pharisees and calls them hypocrites; but in reality, most Pharisees were serious and sincere in their faith. He was not only a Pharisee but also a member of the Sanhedrin. Sanhedrin was a Jewish political entity operating under the Roman government, which means he was a prominent politician as well. From this information, we can conclude that he was a scholar with power and authority over regular people, and also, wealth. Here is a man who can sing “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” in both spiritual and secular ways. He had everything good and desirable according to the social standard of his time.
Now what is a man who has everything doing visiting a small town preacher in the middle of the night? Don’t you find it strange? Of course, it is strange; that’s why he went to see Jesus in the middle of the night when no one could see him! He was in the closet. For all we know, people might have lost respect for him if they knew whom he was visiting in secret. What a scandal! There is one reason why a serious religious leader and prominent politician would go visit a small town preacher in secret; He had a spiritual thirst that his usual religious practices could not satisfy. He needed a new spirituality, a new way of having a relationship with God. He came to learn this new spirituality from Jesus.
This scene kind of looks like a kung fu student learning metaphysical things from his or her master. The things that Jesus tells Nicodemus, his teaching about God’s kingdom, is so mysterious that even a religious teacher and scholar Nicodemus cannot understand; being born of the spirit or being like the wind. Didn’t we all go “huh?” when we read this? What we should understand is that since God is spirit, we cannot experience God’s mystery without diving into the spiritual realm. While Jesus teaches Nicodemus about the mystery of God and God’s kingdom, we hear the ever famous John 3:16; “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”. This verse, which is the favorite verse for a lot of Christians, focuses on the love of God and God’s intention to bless us, not on judging and condemning in case we don’t believe. God is inviting us into an intimate and meaningful relationship with God.
As in any relationship in the world, our relationship with God cannot be maintained without spending time together or sharing our sorrows, joys, and concerns. In our relationship with each other, sometimes we have to quietly listen, sometimes we get to talk, and sometimes, especially if we are with intimate friends, nobody needs to talk; we are content just sitting together in silence enjoying each other’s company. We can have the same kind of relationship with God. Sometimes we talk; we share our joy, sadness, frustrations, and concerns with God. But sometimes we quietly listen for God’s voice. We can meditate on different things listening for God’s voice too; reading of the Bible or other sacred texts, pieces of art, or any of God’s beautiful creations can be objects of meditation. Sometimes, we can just sit in silence with God, enjoying each other’s company. This practice that is called silent prayer gives us inner peace and strengthens our faith.
We are listening to Jesus teaching Nicodemus in the context of Lent. Lent is a good opportunity to fix and strengthen our relationship with God. There are two aspects of our relationship with God; God’s infinite love and grace offered to us, and our yearning for God. If you remember my old theology professor’s analogy; there was God’s heartbeat reaching out to us, and our spiritual attentiveness that made us listen for that heartbeat. In the Genesis text we read today, it was God who called Abraham; in our gospel text, it was Nicodemus who sought Jesus out. God and we reach out for each other for connection and relationship.
Last week, we started this Season of Lent by putting our trust in God in our life’s struggles and temptations. This week, we continue our Lenten journey, aware of God’s love and grace freely offered to us and our yearning to be closer to God, as God’s children. This week, I invite you to check on your relationship with God; see where it is, what could be improved, and so on. I also invite you to spend more time with God, in words and in silence.
Rev. Sunny Kim