Looking Deep Inside (Sermon)

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Second Sunday in Lent. The gospel reading was John 3:1-17. Watch the sermon online.

This took place about fifteen years ago or so. I don’t recall exactly when. I do know where I was living at the time, because this took place right across the river from home at a busy intersection. I was waiting to turn right so I could cross the bridge and return home.

Traffic would often get backed up at that intersection in all directions. On this day, the traffic was much worse than usual. Not heavier than usual, but worse. Here’s why. A  storm had just gone through, and the power was out . And the traffic light at this busy intersection was dark.

Now, I immediately remembered what I had learned in driver’s ed as a teenager – when a traffic light is dark, treat it like a 4-way stop. Everybody stops at the intersection, and then goes through one at a time, clockwise. But that’s not what happened that day. I guess drivers ed was different there. Because that intersection was the Wild West.

Cars traveling on the cross street were just flying through the intersection on and off the bridge, one after another, if anything driving even faster than normal. And the cars in front of me were inching forward, deep into the intersection, trying to find a break to get in. It was like trying to merge onto an interstate at rush hour. Horns were honking. People were yelling. I was getting more and more tense. I don’t remember any collisions, but there were certainly some close calls. When I finally made it through, I felt more relief on that bridge than I’d ever had before.

When I got home five minutes later, I was still very tense. And I was angry. I was so angry at all those drivers for driving in such a dangerous way, for ignoring what I knew was the right and safe thing to do. And that anger stayed with me. I complained to my wife about it. I complained to people at church about it. I even wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper about it. I couldn’t let it go.

Eventually I started to question why this upset me so much. I started to look inside. To examine myself. That’s why I’m telling you this story, by the way. Throughout Lent this year, we are looking at the six disciplines of Lent. On Ash Wednesday I invited you to the discipline of Lent – self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – strengthened by the gifts of word and sacrament. Today we’re looking at self-examination.

So I started to examine myself, to look inside. And I saw in there that I really wasn’t angry for the reason I thought. I thought I was angry at those drivers because they were so dangerous. But really, I was angry because I saw them as immature, selfish. And more – I saw them as savages, barbarians, people who were uncivilized. I was so angry at them for not being more like me.

And I kept looking inside. I looked deeper. And I saw that these feelings weren’t new. These were the same feelings I’d had felt for years about town I grew up in, which was only about ten miles away. I had always wanted to get out of that town, because I always felt like I was better than the people there. I did leave that town after college, but here I was, years later, back in the same county, back with the same feelings.

And I looked even deeper. I looked back at my youth, and I saw that my feelings toward the people I grew up around weren’t even really about them; they were about me. I grew up thinking of myself as someone who would accomplish something great, who would be able to make a difference in the world, but it always felt like there was something holding me back. In my youth, I blamed that on my surroundings. Looking back, what was really holding me back was something deep within me, my own fears, my own struggles, and the early stirrings of depression.

It was so humbling to see all this. To see how much I was overreacting, how much anger I carried. To see how easily I was triggered at that intersection that day, by people acting differently than I wanted them to. And all because of something hidden deep in the darkness within me.

As I looked inside, I saw something like a mirror deep within me, a mirror showing me my beliefs, that God’s love is for all of us, that we are called to do God’s work in the world, that we are all sinners and saints in God’s eyes. In that mirror I saw such a disconnect between those beliefs and the arrogance and judgment I was portraying.

And I glimpsed, just glimpsed, the Holy Spirit deep within me. The Holy Spirit, I believe, was that mirror. But not just a mirror. Along with showing me myself, the Spirit was also inviting me to be better. Calling me to be better. Inspiring me to be better. I heard deep within me the voice of Christ telling me that I was forgiven for my arrogance, and that I was set free to rise above it. Set free from being stuck in this pattern over and over again.

And I started to work on it. I haven’t beaten it. I still have to work at it. I still get triggered by certain things, and I still overreact sometimes.  Especially in times of stress, it’s so easy for my nastier instincts to come out. I think I’ll have to work on it my whole life. But that day, I had hope that I wasn’t a lost cause. That I had room to grow, that I had the ability to grow. That I had the chance to grow. That God was at work in me.

That’s the gift of self-examination. And I think we see examples of people who practiced self-examination in scripture.

Nicodemus, for instance, in our gospel reading today. Nicodemus was a Jewish leader who was intrigued by Jesus, and came to him by night. Night in John’s gospel symbolizes confusion, hidden things, deep things. Nicodemus was looking deep inside, confused, and trying to figure out who he was, and who Jesus was.

Jesus shined a light into his darkness, and told him, “You must be born from above.” Jesus told him, “You must be born of water and Spirit.” Jesus told him, “Believe, and you have eternal life.” Jesus told him, “God loves this world.” And this light showed Nicodemus his own confusion. “How can these things be?” he asked. Nicodemus looked deep inside, and what did he find? He found his own confusion, and he found the voice of Jesus, offering him love and challenging him to be better.

We don’t know much about Nicodemus other than this. Did his encounter with Jesus change him? But John does tell us that he was there at Christ’s crucifixion; along with Joseph of Arimathea, he helped to bury Jesus’ body. So something kept pulling him toward Jesus. How that turned out we don’t know. But it seems like something changed.

And then there was Pontius Pilate.

This is the first of our Stations of the Cross, painted by Kim Jennings. On the left is Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate here seems thoughtful to me. Perhaps confused. Faced with a difficult decision, whether or not to condemn Jesus to death.

Pilate looked deep inside, and what did he find? Well, he found Jesus standing there, looking at him. And like a mirror, Jesus offered him love and challenged him to be better. But look where Pilate’s eyes are. He seems to me not to be looking at Jesus. He didn’t want to see it. Pilate was not changed. Pilate looked away, and condemned Jesus to death.

When we look inside, when we find Jesus there, when we encounter that mirror, we have a choice of how to respond. Will we embrace his love, and his challenge? Will we allow Christ to change us?

I encourage you to look inside. I know it can be scary to go deep. Finding out what’s really inside us can be frightening. But no matter what else you find there, Christ will be there. Waiting to see you. Seeing you for exactly who you are. And loving you no matter what.

As we sang a few minutes ago:

Oh love, how deep, how broad, how high
Beyond all thought and fantasy
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!

Look inside. He’s there, waiting for you. Offering you love and challenge.

If you remember only one thing from this sermon, remember this:

Jesus loves us so much that he accepts us exactly as we are.

And he loves us too much to let us stay that way.

Featured Photo by Kenneth Kuan on Unsplash

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