John 3: 1-17

Lent 2A Grateful Series

March 8, 2020

Lincoln Street UMC, Portland, Oregon

Elizabeth Winslea

What I love about the scripture story this morning is not really how certain aspects of it have been used and abused in our modern culture. John 3:16 becoming some sort of magic code or secret handshake. What I love about this story is that it is full of grace. God so loved the world - God’s love is so overflowing for the world. That is grace.

We could believe in a God who is some great taskmaster in the sky, expecting us to jump through all sorts of hoops. We could believe in a God who is some master puppeteer, waving arms about and pulling our strings to make us move about in some prescribed way. We could believe in a God who is a great banker, adding up columns of rights and wrongs in the biggest ledger book ever seen.

But instead, we have this God, the one described in our passage this morning. The God who loves. That, friends, is pure grace.

Grace, or kharis, is unmerited favor. It is the deep breath in the midst of a storm, the swell of the heart to love, the rush of the blood at the sun setting over the ocean. Grace is the moment you know you are fully forgiven. The place from which you are able to forgive.

Grace are the glimpses we get at how amazing it is these bodies ever work, let alone see us through thousands of days. Grace is the gift that reaches into the center of our lives and expands our hearts, our minds, to a goodness we thought did not exist, a goodness we certainly did not create.

And God’s love is that grace.

Nicodemus is searching in this story. Perhaps you can relate?

He is searching for answers but he doesn’t even really know how to ask the questions.

And so the conversation that he and Jesus have volleys an idea back and forth at awkward angles, bouncing in and out of reach.

Why did he go searching that night? Perhaps he wouldn’t even have been able to put it into words. I’m thinking there was not a lot of sense-making going on for him at the time.

But he was driven out of his bed, out of his home, down how many dark alleys so that he could have this encounter with Jesus. There was something inside that needed grace. That needed a sense of healing. That needed to be knit together in wholeness.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and it is safe to assume that in that role he had ample opportunity to exercise a faith, a rational faith. But perhaps that just wasn’t enough anymore. Perhaps he was unsettled by what he was hearing about Jesus’ teachings. Perhaps those parables were niggling their way in and leaving Nicodemus wondering what he was missing.

But I’m pretty sure the conversation he finally got to have with Jesus didn’t leave him too much clearer. He wanted logical answers to something that was far less logical, lodged in his heart.

He wanted a recipe, directions, for spiritual renewal and Jesus was telling him that is was more about letting go, more about being radically reformed, than about any right procedure.Jesus wants Nicodemus to have an experience of the heart, and be transformed by the truth of this grace.

There is all sorts of evidence in modern scientific studies that gratitude brings heart health. People who practice gratitude sleep better, are less depressed and tired and are more self-aware and confident. It is believed that gratitude lowers the risk of heart disease.[1]  The science of gratitude shows that it brings healing. It is not a panacea for all of life’s struggles, but it can be a positive way forward.

“Nicodemus, my friend,” says Jesus, “let your heart be healed. Let your spirit be reborn in the knowledge of God’s unending love and grace.”

Gratitude and grace share that same root word - kharis. When we can recognize how grace is the very substance of our presence here on earth, when grace is the way we structure how we see all of life and our purpose here, from that births a deepened gratitude. And thus, grace and gratitude widen the heart to goodness.

Jesus is not offering Nicodemus a blueprint for finding the right answer. Jesus is suggesting that there is a completely different way to live the answer. Where grace - God’s overflowing and unearned love - is the substance of our cells. Where grace is what captures our hearts. And in being born anew in that grace we become freed for gratitude.  Amen.

This sermon was written by Elizabeth Winslea and delivered on March 8, 2020, at Lincoln Street United Methodist Church. It is published here with the permission of the author. Please link back to this post and credit the author if you reprint or use any portion of it.


[1]  Diana Butler Bass, Grateful, HarperOne, © 2017, 29.