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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, June 11, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to Brandon Dean Hudepohl on his baptismal day, my father Herman C. Ahrens, Jr. on his 82nd birthday, to Marty Worth and her vision for volunteer ministry, to all our volunteers in ministry and always to the glory of God!
Two Questions
Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

From the earliest stages of speech, the intonation of questioning enters the world of infants. The first words: "Dadda" and "Mamma," definitively spoken, become, "Dadda?" and "Mamma?" inquisitively delivered. With inflections of curiosity and inquiry entering an infant's tone, the once declarative address sure to bolster adoring parents can shake the confidence of any well-established egos. Beyond the intonations, the five "W" words: "Why?" "Where?" and "When?" joined with "Who?" and "What?" joined with"How?" can serve as our authoritative undoing.

Questions are capable of driving us into the abyss of doubt and unsureness or onto the peaks of faith and hope. Here are few that have driven the best and brightest to the valleys of despair as well as to the peaks of faith, hope, and love: "Who am I?" "Where did I come from?" "Who is God?" "Where is God?" and "Why should I believe in God?" (During Confirmation, after teaching a class on the humanity and divinity of Christ, I asked, "are there any questions?" One student replied, "Yes. How do you do the color in your hair?" Like I said, questions can drive the best and brightest to mountaintop experiences or valleys of despair!).

Questions allow us to enter the mysterious and the miraculous realms of life. Questions call us to become greater than we ever dreamed or lesser than we ever imagined possible. Questions break us and questions make us.

Today, two amazing texts with two simple and significant questions call us into two places we could not and would not enter on our own.

First, Isaiah calls us into the holy temple of Jerusalem filled with six seraphim, Isaiah, and the Lord! Second, John calls us into a late night garden scene with Jesus and Nicodemus, who is a teacher of the law and a member of the Sanhedrin—the same body of religious leaders which tries Jesus and finds him guilty. The two questions are these: In Isaiah 6:8, God asks the heavenly host": Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" In John 3:4, upon hearing Jesus say, "no one can see the kingdom of God without begin born anew" (John 3:3), Nicodemus asks the first of four questions: "How can anyone be born after having grown old?"

Have you ever found yourself overhearing a question and then offering an unsolicited answer? That's exactly what happens to Isaiah in his call to serve as God's prophet. Having witnessed the fireworks and splendor of the Seraphim, Isaiah proclaims the glory of the Lord and his own uncleanness. A Seraph swoops down from on high with a burning coal from the temple's altar and purges the unclean lips of Isaiah. Following this cleansing, God Almighty turns to the heavenly hosts and asks, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" Before the heavenly ones are given a chance to respond, Isaiah blurts out of his burned and cleansed lips, "Here I am, send me!" Without a moment's hesitation, God gives Isaiah his marching orders, and the rest is prophetic history. And what a beautiful history it is! Isaiah becomes the messianic prophet, the one who foretells the coming of Christ!

Some of the greatest mysteries and answers given throughout life come when someone responds to a question not asked of them. Like Isaiah, people listen in on God's words and God's questions and answer them by saying, as in the words of the hymn: "Here I am Lord! It is I Lord! I have heard you calling in the night! I will go Lord if you lead me. I will serve your people in my heart." These are folks who rise up in the face of "why" and say "why not?" Robert Frost once wrote, "Some people see things as they are and say Why? I see things as they never were and say Why Not?" So which one are you? Are you a "Why" or "Why Not" person of faith?

On the streets of Columbus, more than twenty years ago, when homelessness struck like lightening on this land, many people threw out their accusations and simple answers to difficult questions and said, "Why?" Two Bills from the First Church family—Bill Faith and Bill Wright—joined forces with other community leaders and formed the Coalition for the Homeless whose goal is to end homelessness in central Ohio. Today, (and for the last 12 years), our own Barb Poppe serves as Executive Director and Bill Wright and Bill Faith still see and speak to a future without homelessness in our city and state.

Far away and ten years ago, on the mean streets of Kingston, Jamaica, many people saw the pain and suffering in this island paradise and could only say, "Why?" Heather Biggers saw the young people there and the intelligence and hopefulness in each one of them and said, "Why not?" Then, as now, she and our Catalyst Partners visit and find those seeking to receive higher education and continue to say to them and all of us: "Why Not?"

Ten years ago, the Rev. John Aeschbury came to Columbus. He was a pastor and a church-based community organizer. He saw a city in which charity was present, but justice was still sorely missing. While others before him, would analyze and criticize, and ask "Why?" John gathered a core group of pastors, rabbis, and lay leaders, and organized to say, "Why not?" BREAD was born in the midst of this growing vision of justice. BREAD researched issues, focused on change, and not only preached good news to the poor, but delivered bucket loads of hope and policy possibilities to public officials.

All over this congregation, this city, state, country and world—like Isaiah before them—people listen into God's question, "Whom shall I send and who will go for us?" Like Isaiah they blurt out, "Here I am, send me."

Today is Volunteer Sunday. Perhaps we should call it Servants of the Living God Sunday, or as we have appropriately renamed our ministry, The Hands of Christ Ministry Sunday! Having said this, I must add, as much as I admire, respect and love Bill Wright, Bill Faith, Barb Poppe, Heather Biggers, and John Aeschbury, I admire, respect and love each one of you equally. As servants of the living God (not simply volunteers) you enter each day with a "Why Not?" in your heart. Some of you have discovered how to answer "Why not?" Others are still seeking God's guidance on this question. But, the goodness of your hearts and the steadiness of your hands and feet to touch the untouchable and go to uncomfortable places and people inspire me.

There are things you do for this congregation and for others across this globe, which I can't do (or at least I can't do well). More importantly, we are in ministry together. Ours is a ministry in which God needs all of our gifts! Here are a few examples of the amazing catalogue of gifts you bring: you fold the bulletins and concert programs, you sing in the choir and you teach our children to sing, you also teach them our faith, you organize the Acolytes, you are the Acolytes!, you usher in each new Lord's day, you assist with Good Samaritan, you count the money, you answer the phones, you clean and sort the key box (thanks John and Muriel), you deliver flowers to the sick and shut-ins, you make quilts for HIV/AIDS and stillborn babies, you cook and serve meals to Friends of the Homeless, you come to BREAD rallies, and you simply make a huge difference through the acts of kindness, charity, and justice you offer! THEN, all of you head out in the world to do even more to serve God! When God throws out the question, "Whom shall I send and who will go for me?" You are there quietly blurting back, "Here I am, send me!" Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! And above all—thanks be to God!

Our Second Question is a bit more vexing. "How can anyone be born after having grown old?" has everything to do with the faith and nothing to do with birth. In Nicodemus, we see the beauty of God at work in this world for our God specializes in finding and changing people who seem out of reach and out of touch. A great teacher of the law, Nicodemus doesn't understand matters of the heart. Because daylight conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees have been fraught with meanness, antagonism and struggle, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night with his questions and his seeking heart.

The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus unfolds beautifully under the cover of darkness. They come together to discuss nothing less than the kingdom of God. Two different views of life in the kingdom unfold. Jesus calls for birth from above—being born anew. Nicodemus gets stuck in the impossibility of a physical rebirth. Nicodemus needs sufficient proofs and historical and logical evidence to arrive at a faith that is safe, solid, secure, and controlled. Jesus, on the other hand, insists that life in God's kingdom is anything but all of the above. Life in God's kingdom is a gift from God. It cannot be achieved. Jesus' sees life in the kingdom as uncontrolled, uncalculated, and is like the wind of the spirit—it moves where it will.

The affirmations of John 3:1-17 speak of our God who loves us, (more significantly it speaks of our God who loves the whole world!), who does not condemn us but seeks only to save us, who wishes for none to perish from the earth and gives us His son so all may live. In the end, the answer to the question is simple: "Anyone, at any time, at any age, can be born again." It's not the answer which is hard. Rather, like Nicodemus, letting go of our overly-controlling nature is hard. The hard part is arriving at a faith which is unsafe, insecure, uncontrolled and moves like the wind. In other words, the key is trusting in God to deliver us from ourselves, to create new life in us when we are captive to our rules, laws, and locked into our tiny approaches and little lives.

Last Sunday, Andy, Amy, and Brandon met with me to plan for today's baptism. The whole time we were talking, Brandon was smiling, laughing, chatting, cooing, and flirting with me. His beautiful eyes demanded contact. I couldn't help but smile and laugh when I looked into his loving eyes. Isn't that what Nicodemus sought under the cover of night? He must have seen the eyes of Jesus dancing in the daylight! He must have witnessed Jesus' newborn love and sincere grace. He must have wondered, as a wise teacher of the law, "What does he have that I need? Why do his disciples delight in him and follow him? How can I get what he has?"

More questions. But, the answer remains the same, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Now I know that this passage brings up more questions. But, for today, can you rest in the blessed assurance of God's love for you...and for all the world? Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church