“How can a man be born when he is old? (Nicodemus)”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Romans 8:14-17
John 3:1-17


The late Donald C. Luce had a way with people all through his career at Public Service Electric and Gas Company. As a young engineer working in the New Jersey company’s generating stations, he easily made friends at all levels, right down to the men who shoveled coal into the boilers. He continued to do so as he rose through the ranks to become PSE&G’s president and chief executive officer.

At home, he loved to work in his garden, where success was subject to the vagaries of the weather and other factors. There were times when his garden did not flourish, but his friendships always did, even after retirement. They were of the perennial variety. He had what is called the common touch, but he was an uncommon man. A clue to his character is found in a prayer by an anonymous author that was found in Luce’s personal effects at the time of his death. It was read at his memorial service.

“LORD, Thou knowest better than I know myself that I am growing older and will some day be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion. Release me from craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody, helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all: but Thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end.

“Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches and pains; they are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.

“I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility, and a lessened cocksureness when my memory seems to clash with the memory of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken.

“Keep me reasonably sweet. I do not want to be a saint–some of them are so hard to live with. But a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places and talents in unexpected people, and give me O Lord, the grace to tell them so. Amen.”

When Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, apparently to “check Him out,” Jesus told him, “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus responded with the question, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Some people seem bent on proving that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Donald Luce obviously disagreed; so did Jesus and so, eventually, did Nicodemus.

A Charles Schulz cartoon shows Charlie Brown explaining to Linus: “It goes all the way back to the beginning. The moment I was born and set foot on the stage of life, they took one look at me and said, ‘Not right for the part.'” There are two ways of looking at that. St. Paul once said, “The sting of death is sin.” Ever since humanity was stung, we have been right for a part in the kingdom of this world, but wrong for the kingdom of God. Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus that we have to come to grips with what we are, before we can become what we will be.

As the conversation continued, Jesus explained that “As Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” Then follows the most quoted, best known and most memorized passage in the Bible–John 3:16.

The story about Moses, to which Jesus refers, is rather fascinating. When the children of Israel were wandering about in the desert, trying to find themselves as the people of God, they were attacked by a seeming plague of serpents. The deadly reptiles must have been everywhere. The fear of certain death put a stranglehold on the people. In all but a very few of us, snakes seem to bring out a morbid fear. They are one of the most frequent sources of nightmares and, ever since the first time our parents warned us to watch out for snakes, they are everywhere we look or step once the sun goes down. If we stop and think about this seriously, it is irrational. The great majority of snakes are harmless. Most will leave you alone if you leave them alone. Poisonous snakes bite very few people in this country and almost all of the bitten survive with no harm done. Far more people die from being stung by a honeybee.

Yet, the fact remains that most of us shudder when we think about the plight of the Israelites. The imagery of serpent, sin and death goes all the way back to the Genesis story of the fall into sin. What an apt analogy the whole thing becomes. Moses’ home remedy for snakebite was far more effective than the very dangerous “snakebite medicine” people took for years from a bottle. His remedy, however, was also rather bizarre. God told him to make a bronze replica of the very thing that was causing such terror in the camp. He set it atop a pole and anyone who looked at it was cured! With a view to modern medicine, this antidote is interesting. Anti-venom and immunizations with doses of an unwanted disease are commonplace today.

Jesus picks up on the analogy and applies it to Himself. His body pinned to a post, like a serpent on a spit graphically illustrates the horrible consequences of the venom of sin. Jesus came to us offering and seeking justice, mercy kindness, human dignity, love, hope, trust, gentleness and humility. He received all the opposites. Although He was immune to the venom of sin, He accepted its injection and deadly consequences both from us and for us. Like a lamb sacrificed for its pancreas so that a diabetic can receive insulin, so Christ is nailed to a cross and we see the results of and remedy for our sin.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the one who was cured was the wayward son who knew he was a sinner, not the self-righteous older brother who didn’t think he was sick. The significance of the serpent in Adam’s time, Moses’ time, Jesus’ time and our time is that we must first realize we have been bitten before we seek the remedy that God mercifully provides.

In an old church at Berne, Switzerland, an orchestra and chorus were in final rehearsal for a
performance of the “Messiah.” The 100-piece ensemble and 300 voices led up to the glorious aria, “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Then, in crystal clear tones, the generous voice of a great queenly creature poured out the words with flawless style. Suddenly, the conductor popped out of his box and shouted to the lead singer, “Woman, do you know what you say … what you sing? Do you know that the murdered Christ was dead and now lives again? Do you know that you will live again and I shall live again? You sing as if you do not care!” The woman placed her hands on the old man’s shoulders, looked him squarely in the eyes as if to emphasize her honesty, and said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

The conductor resumed his place and raised the baton. As he brought it down, the orchestra
responded, then the chorus joined the surging wave and it swelled again toward the aria. Again the voice was generous, crystal clear and with perfect tonal quality, but one could hardly notice the style—only the tumultuous flow of words and music pouring from a joy-filled heart.

When they finished, the long hush over the entire sanctuary was finally broken by the sound of the footsteps of the lead singer, approaching the conductor. Stooping to look once again into his eyes she said, “Sir, I think this is a new life for me.”

Michelangelo’s “David” is a masterpiece in marble. It stands nine cubits high and displays all the wonderful expressiveness of its creator’s artistic genius. Young David is slightly bent over, as if in the act of hurling the fatal stone. A hundred years before Michelangelo carved his figure out of that block of marble another sculptor ruined it by cutting too large a slice out of the side. The second artist saw a possibility in that bungled mass. The sliced out area of the marble block became the curve in the body of David, which gives the appearance of his throwing the stone at Goliath. A block of marble—ruined by one man—redeemed by another.

I have said enough.

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