The Perfect Bracket

image-4Is belief like filling out your March Madness bracket? I often grew up asking the question, ‘How can these things be?’ But I was not seeking enlightenment like our friend, Nicodemus today. No, for years, since I was a child, I have been trying to create the perfect bracket.

The perfect bracket is more of myth than anything; like people’s quest for the Holy Grail. For those of you who are unfamiliar with all of this talk of March Madness, every year…in March… the NCAA basketball season culminates with one of the greatest tournaments ever created. This year 68 teams will compete to become the tournament champion, and in effect, the NCAA Basketball Champion for the 2016-2017 season. These teams come from all locations, sizes, and conferences; from large and historic programs like Duke and North Carolina, to small and relatively unknown schools like Iona in New York state.

Now, the odds of winning the tournament are extremely difficult for these teams. The winning team will most likely have to win six games in a row to become champion. But the odds of the average Joe fan like you or me filling out a perfect bracket, being able to pick every single winner and loser of this 68 team tournament before it all begins, are about 1 in 128 BILLION. It’s more likely that the next President of the United States is here in this sanctuary today than one of us filling out a perfect bracket.

So what does March Madness have to do with today’s scripture lesson? Probably not much if you are not a basketball fan. Or maybe it does. Today the scripture lesson is speaking about belief. And what better lesson to learn from a crazy sports fan than on the topic of belief? All of this coming from a guy who grew up in Cleveland, better known as ‘Believeland’ throughout the last year, as we cheered on our Cleveland Cavs to an NBA championship.

 

If you look closely in the stands during sporting events, there are fans holding up various signs for the television cameras to catch. More often than not, one may see a sign that actually quotes one of the verses from our story in the Gospel of John, 3:16.

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.

In many ways this verse has become the staple of what it means to claim the Christian faith; believe in Christ, and you may have eternal life.

But within this simple message is a pretty complex idea, right? Believe. What does it mean to believe? If we look to a definition of the term belief, it goes something like this: ‘an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists’. Is being a Christian something as simple as accepting the message as a child to be how the world works, and then we are magically part of the group of people who will have eternal life? What happens if people did not grow up with the message of Jesus as Christ? What happens if, as an adult, we experience a world that is not as easy or as kind as we once thought it was as children? What happens if the relationship with Christ we felt so personally and intimately in our former years, has slowly but surely drifted away into a distant memory of ‘the way things used to be’?

Is it as easy to believe in Christ when every day we wake up to news headlines of more violence, more injustice, more fear and uncertainty in the world? Perhaps for some here today it is. But perhaps for some here today what initially was such an easy concept, ‘belief’ has now become quite a complicated idea all together. What do we specifically believe in anyways? Do we believe in ourselves? Our hard work ethic? Do we believe in America? Do we believe in the ‘American Dream’? Do we believe in going to heaven? Or do we believe in God’s presence here today on earth?

During this season of Lent, let’s walk alongside Nicodemus in the darkness as he seeks such belief. And as we walk alongside Nicodemus, let us also walk alongside Jesus, as he teaches us what it means to walk with God, and what it means to live a life of belief, even at the risk of other’s doubts and condemnation, and even at the risk of punishment and crucifixion.

 

We pick up in John, chapter 3. Nicodemus isn’t unlike you or me. He was a Pharisee; a religious leader according to the Gospel of John in the opening verse. He was a person of faith who sought to live life the right way, even though, just like you or me, I’m sure he had his challenges, his doubts, his questions about how God works at times.

In verse 2 we read that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Now, this is not purely happenstance. The author, John, develops a theme of darkness and light throughout the entirety of the gospel. Here, Nicodemus, the religious leader who is pretty ignorant of what Jesus is truly all about, approaches in darkness.

We also read that he addresses Jesus as ‘rabbi’, and Nicodemus goes on to say that he knows Jesus is from God because of the miracles that Jesus has performed. However, Jesus wants to clarify something here: being of God does not rely on performing miracles. There is more.

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus is perplexed by this statement from Jesus…

 4Nicodemus 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?” 

Jesus then goes on to talk about the spiritual side of faithfulness to God, our Creator.

 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.”

Now Nicodemus is truly interested, and yet completely baffled. Perhaps his next question reaches depths much further than anyone may think.

 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

Jesus will then share with Nicodemus not only about faith and belief, but about Jesus’ own calling in this world, as he foretells of his impending death and resurrection.

12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

The words of the author John here encapsulate the message not only for Nicodemus, but for all who will eventually read these words, and even those who google search the scripture reference in their phones during a sporting event after seeing such a sign in the stadium grandstands…

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.”

 

What is this belief thing all about? Why is belief so important to Jesus and to Christianity? Nicodemus really wanted to understand. He went so far as to meet with Jesus at night in fear of judgment and admonishment from his fellow Pharisees. But Nicodemus is just a normal guy at the end of the day, and he’s a bit confused by what Jesus is talking about; ‘…being born from above?’

But Jesus doesn’t give up with Nicodemus. Jesus could have easily dismissed him, and both of them could have gone on their way, but Jesus wanted to make one thing clear, which is our Good News today as well:

God’s gift of belief is not something tangible that we calculate and record. No, it is a gift of God’s Spirit moving within us, teaching us to rely less on the world around us, and more on the Kingdom of God within and amongst us.

Remember these words of Jesus:

 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.”

So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Yes, we at times see glimpses of God in this world. There are days when the air feels especially warm and sweet. There are moments when people we meet offer us extra love and joy. There are moments when we feel a little closer to the divine at times. But if someone were to ask us to explain, or especially to prove, how God is moving in the world, it would be very difficult. Perhaps, much like the wind, we can point to the sound of it, or we can point to the effect of God’s movement in the world. We may not be able to prove God’s existence by mere logic or science, but we certainly can point to the effects of God’s movement in this world.

Someone, much like Nicodemus may ask, ‘How can this be?’

Today we can point to the wonderful things happening in places like Uganda where villages are now drinking clean water thanks to the efforts of people from the other side of the globe in places like the US. We can point to congregations like here at Cool Spring Presbyterian Church, where young people are given opportunities to retreat from the daily realities of poverty and hardship and attend summer camp thanks to the generosity of this congregation and many like it. And we can even point to ourselves, and share with others of how God has moved within us to make us feel love when we have felt unable to be loved, how we have felt God’s touch when no one else would offer a hand, when we felt God’s Spirit within us in the waters of baptism, and the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper as we worship on Sundays.

Yes, we may not know where it comes or where it goes, but the Spirit of God moves within this world like that of the wind, and we have felt it.

 

So is having belief in God the same as having belief in filling out the perfect bracket? No; not really. Perhaps they are similar in the way that both are logically mere improbabilities. Perhaps they are similar in the sense that they embrace more of a feeling in our gut more than anything else we can measure or quantify.

But sporting events come and go. Tournaments, and team spirit, and the drama and legends of athletes are of this mortal world. Even if one of us beat the odds of the 1 in 128 billion to choose a perfect bracket…even that will eventually be left to history.

The Good News this morning for us is that as children of God, our sights are not set on worldly fame or glory, but on eternal joy and salvation in Christ Jesus. Our belief in God is not meant to be measured or quantified, but to reflect the movement of God in this world, as we point to God’s Kingdom. Belief transforms from a noun, an idea or concept, to a verb, an action, a way of living.

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.”

This morning may we be messengers of God’s saving love in Christ Jesus for one another, and all whom we encounter…in the darkness of night, in the light of our daily lives, or in the winds that blow throughout this earth. Amen.

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