I stand before you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Please God fill this sermon with Your grace and let this congregation worship You in the saving light of your eternal glory. Amen.
The Eagles are one of the world’s best-selling bands, they have sold more than 200 million records. A couple of my favorite songs of theirs are “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone” and surprisingly, neither of these songs were written by anyone in the band. “Already Gone” is a song about someone moving on from an abusive relationship. My favorite lyrics from this song are:
“Well, I know it wasn’t you who held me down,”
We hold ourselves down when we allow ourselves to stay in an abusive relationship such as our relationship to sin.
“Heaven knows it wasn’t you who set me free,”
Heaven is a genius choice of words here because only Jesus sets us free.
“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains,
And we never even know we have the key.”
Our key to freedom is Jesus since He is God and He holds all the keys. We need to trust in God and that’s when we really have the key.
Abuse is widespread in all societies all over the world. The statistics are staggering. When I was a child I was afraid of what happened in my home. When I knew something bad was coming I would shake, I couldn’t think clearly, pressure enveloped my skull, my heart would race, my eyes felt like they no longer fit and would get very glassy, my breathing became a struggle, my stomach burned, my legs felt weak and I knew I couldn’t escape it. Fear and despair would close in on me. A darkness crushing me, a massive weight that threatened to drown me. So I withdrew deep into myself.
I’ve never sought out help or therapy or even shared survival stories with other victims of abuse. I have discussed the abuse and heard the stories of the abuse of others but I’ve never compared notes with others about how they survived it. I built a secret place inside myself. It was the greatest hiding place. Let’s call it the storm cellar of my soul. Some of you may have your own version of this.
Even during a beating I could go there and my own screams would be muffled and my pain was there but it seemed like it was happening on some different level where it couldn’t quite overwhelm me. This got me through my youth.
It came in handy sometimes like when I was afraid of the dark. I could hide in my own dark from the dark. I’d turn off the light jump into bed, slide under the covers, curl up and clench my eyes shut. The darkness disappeared as I found a safe place in my storm cellar.
As I grew older I used to be able to adjust the settings for the storm cellar. When there were people I didn’t want to see me I would imagine myself withdrawing to the storm cellar while on the outside I was growing dimmer and you may find this hard to believe but many times it worked. I can’t explain it.
These adjustments were my healing process. As a young man, I could fortify this storm cellar. I visualized myself storing my fears and anxieties in there so I could pretend to be brave and strong. I pretended my way through high school and the Marine corps showing everyone the illusion of this phoney tough guy. Deep down inside I was afraid to communicate with and truly trust people. I’m a coward on my own.
As someone who wanted a loving relationship and eventually to be a husband and a father, well, that’s where things got tougher. Do I dare let someone see into my storm cellar? Do I be honest about my past and my fears? Can I really trust someone? My hiding place didn’t work for that. A kiss from the young woman who would eventually become my wife smashed down the walls of the storm cellar. Sometimes when she tries to understand me I even take her for walks through it’s rubble. But in terms of great fear, I was amazed at how quickly the walls could be rebuilt to store away my fears and anxieties so I could move forward or at least act like I was moving forward.
As I grew older I realized God was with me so that alone neutralized my fears and anxieties.
We all have things that we find fearful, stressful or uncomfortable. We all feel that overwhelming weight of the world. We have places where we fool ourselves into feeling safe. Our home, a room in our home, even our car. Sometimes we think we can escape it at work. We wouldn’t want to be confronted with the things we fear in the course of our daily work. Like work isn’t stressful enough all by itself. BUT when life hits you with what scares you the most I’ve learned to trust God and really put myself out there. Like giving a sermon in front of all of YOU.
A few years back, I was working one night and ended up in the middle of a classroom full of atheists. I was an adjunct professor teaching graphics and web design and one night as my class ended I needed to meet with the department Dean. I went back to the class and there were many students there. I asked if this was a class and a student who I had in many previous classes answered that it was a meeting not a class. I gathered my stuff together and was ready to leave when I stopped and asked this student another question.
Let me share previous experiences with this particular student. A discussion took place once about religion and I explained my thoughts and feelings about Christianity. This student went on to tell me that he was an atheist. I had requested many times to discuss things with him but the opportunity never presented itself.
This night, however, was different. I thought I would give it another shot. I asked him if he was willing to discuss our beliefs and he smiled and explained that this was his meeting. He was the president of the school’s atheist group and these were the members of his group. He said he would love to have the discussion now. I was OK with a one on one but now I was significantly outnumbered. I considered the storm cellar but had an epiphany. God put me in this situation for a reason so I trusted Him. And in doing so, I got that “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” the Eagles sang about. A song about how love finds you when you least expect it. God loved me long before I realized I was even in a relationship with Him.
The student asked how I wished to proceed and I said I wanted everything to be on his terms. He was smiling a big smile now. I asked him to explain his problem with religion and that I would explain the answer in a way to get him thinking in a more open-minded way which as a teacher that would leave me thrilled. He proceeded to ask me to explain about the wars fought for religion and in God’s name and how does God justify this. I explained that every holy war supposedly in God’s name can be traced back to men seeking power and it really had nothing to do with God or religion. He was beaming now as I was willing to run headlong into his trap. I continued to explain that the main causes of all wars can be traced to 3 things. 1. Weapons – the means to wage war, 2. Glory – a manipulative framework created to make sense of a war and last but not least, 3. Greed – a desire for resources or just power in general. My personal research into that exact question was conducted on about 75 wars outside of the bible and a dozen from the bible.
I went on to explain to him basic historical facts that could easily be researched. I discussed what mankind’s beliefs were and how these evolved and then proceeded to explain how war, violence and overpopulation evolved. It was a very enlightening evening for all of us. He was very impressed with my strategy and felt I really turned things around on him. I told him that was never my intention and I had no strategy at all. I re-validated that my intention was to get him to think in a more open-minded way to which he said I succeeded as did several of the other students. I like to think I understand people. And atheists are people just like us. We’re all lost without God. I can relate to that. When I was a young man the thought of anything controlling me filled me with fear. Skeptics also base many of their decisions on their emotions. And we all know that can mislead us unless that emotion is love. God fell in love with us long before He even created us. We also wish to belong. In my experience most atheists actually turn out to be agnostic. They keep their options open if someone could prove God does exist then they’ll consider that further. I was afraid to bear my soul to others but now I was doing in front of a roomful of people I didn’t know. We spoke for about an hour and then I went home. I was the one beaming on the way home and I must have thanked God a few thousand times that night because I knew for a fact it was divine intervention and God allowed me to be His tool. I know He is with me so the storm cellar is no longer needed. It would only serve to interfere with my relationship with God, my true healing and any chance of my being a part of His plan and healing others. The love of my wife brought down the walls but God shattered it. The light of His love nearly wiped it all away. I still have moments where my fear outweighs my faith so a tiny bit of the storm cellar remains. I am still a work in progress as we all are. I was fooled into thinking the darkness was my friend when in reality the darkness was just another form of chains that held me down.
In our Gospel, Nicodemus is a Jewish leader, a chief priest among the Parisees. He is still keeping a lot of himself in his own storm cellar. He is supposed to be a man of faith but he is a lost man who doesn’t know that He just came into the presence of the compass of God’s Love. Nicodemus was trapped in a world of Roman occupation, religious traditions and sorely lacking in faith which is why God had to intervene in his life and our lives in the form of a man.
Like Nicodemus we can be kept from seeing the light of true revelation because we’re blinded by the light that we already see and know.
Another verse in that Eagle’s song “Already gone” is: “…when you look up in the sky, you can see the stars and still not see the light…”
Even a bright light can appear black next to a brighter light. Just imagine your phone with the flashlight app lighting up the screen. You put that in front of a spotlight and all you’ll see is a black box. That spotlight in front of a star would look like a little black speck. A star in front of God, well, you wouldn’t even see the star. It would be completely overshadowed with His glory because that is the truest light. That is the light of the revelation we all need.
Nicodemus (who I call Nic at night) came to Jesus in the cover of darkness. Probably so he would not be seen. BUT he steps right into God’s spotlight. The true darkness was that Nic didn’t know God. He didn’t know Jesus. Jesus speaks with Nicodemus and holds nothing back. They discuss being born again. He asks Jesus how can a man be born again? Nicodemus from his storm cellar gets caught up in the procreation process and the physicality of a grown man fitting inside a womb. Jesus is disappointed with Nicodemus and wonders how a well-educated ruler and religious leader doesn’t understand His meaning. The word Jesus used that is often translated to born is more like begotten, to be Fathered anew. Fathered! To be reconciled with the Father! This is something that only Jesus can do. Jesus brings Nicodemus into the light! The light that heals our eyes and unblinds us as well as unbinds us. Nicodemus came around. Nicodemus gets the Good News! Nicodemus is born again and we know this because he donated seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes to help Joseph of Arimathea with the embalming and burial of Jesus.
I know tonight’s Gospel is John 3:1-17 but I’d like to take you just a little bit further. I’d like to conclude this sermon with verses 19 – 21. These verses put it all together better than any of my words.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”