March 12, 2017 2nd Sunday in Lent YR A The Rev. Anne Abdy
Well, we are twelve days into Lent. How is it going? When I preached last I encouraged you to really listen for what God is inviting you to do. If you don’t have an idea, it will come. You will know your invitation when it is presented. Keep listening.
The five Sundays in Lent and Palm Sunday (the 6th Sunday in Lent) all have different themes depending on how you interpret the Scriptures. If you review the Gospel readings leading up to Palm Sunday—there is one common variable. In every reading, there is an encounter with Jesus. First, the devil last week, where like Jesus, we are tempted, that is just what humans do. It is human nature. It is in our DNA. So if your Lenten practice has not been going according to plan, that is okay. The key is to engage the process of self-reflection and with the hope that faith brings—we are changed. We are able to change course because it is both faith and hope that moves us away from the Tempter.
Today Nicodemus takes the center stage. He only shows up three times, and then only in the Gospel of John. His corrective course of action begins with today’s encounter. In the second encounter he reminds his colleagues that the Jewish law requires that a person be heard before being judged (John 7:50-51), and ends with the third encounter where Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body for burial by bringing the embalming spices to the grave (John 19:39-42).
A modern example of what corrective action might look like is the advice I give my patients. I use the metaphor of a cruise ship and help them understand that they are the captains of their own cruise ships and to empower them to engage the power of change. But in order to keep the ships afloat and in the deeper water of the ocean, they have to make good decisions. Poor judgment and poor decision-making gets them—the “Captains” in trouble with the possibility of running aground. The corrective action is to steer the ships away from the island reefs.
What possibly could cause Nicodemus’ ship to run aground? We know he is a very powerful man. We know he is well respected. Remember, Nicodemus has spent his whole life studying the Torah. He has engaged in debate. He has proven himself. His friends have judged him to be of right character that they elected him a leader and teacher. Nicodemus’ belief system and personal values have been formed by what he has witnessed and what he has experienced. His values about strict adherence to the Jewish law is filtered through this belief system. He is the ultimate conformist non-rule breaking leader. He has compartmentalized his belief system.
Yet deep down Nicodemus knows something. He knows there is something different about this man named Jesus. Something about what he has heard about Jesus has peaked his interest. I believe that God has touched Nicodemus’ heart, however, Nicodemus’ just does not know it yet.
So he calls Jesus up on the phone, and rather than arranging a meeting in public at the town gate, he sneaks out into the middle of the night to meet with Jesus. It is like me sneaking around in boarding school hallways after lights out to have late night visits with friends. There is something about sneaking about at night. Maybe it is the thrill of not getting caught, or maybe as in Nicodemus’ case, he was seeking something more but he just cannot bring himself to do it in daylight. Can you imagine the gossip in that rumor mill if he did?
We realize that Nicodemus doesn’t get it when he asks Jesus to explain: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Logically, it is a reasonable request. Biologically—it truly does not make sense. It just cannot happen. He is judging Jesus because the facts just do not add up. Even as he sets up this radical Messiah, this wayward, eating meals with sinners and beggar loving rabbi, his judgments have gotten in the way of him experiencing exactly what Jesus wants him and all of us to do.
Jesus answers Nicodemus’ question about being “born again” and “born by water and the Spirit” with a bit of a gentle chuckle saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” He then goes onto explain what he meant. The Message Bible translates this passage nicely into contemporary modern language.
“Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.”
When I had was in college, I had conversion experience. My Baptist friends asked me “Are you are born again?” For Baptists “born again” is a pivotal experience. It is a course correction. An acceptance of God’s plan for salvation through Jesus Christ. For me, being “born again” was not so much a pivotal turning point but rather a gentle course correction. My experience gave me an opportunity to understand more clearly my evolving relationship with God. And, I would dare to say that we all have conversion experiences which draw us towards God. That is what we’re talking about here with our friend Nicodemus.
He has done some self-reflection much like we are doing through Lent. He realizes there is more to life than to bow to the prevailing cultural winds of the day. We have done this too. The church for decades lost the ability to call people to do radical good and to help them do it! My field education parish did not have an outreach project till 2014. They were the “frozen chosen.” The Church failed us. But I know the culture is changing because I see it here at Resurrection with our ministries. Nicodemus knows something is different and he wants to change course. He throws out all the judgments, values, and beliefs to move in the direction of the Light (capital “L”), even if it is undercover in the darkness of the night.
‘To be born again with water and Spirit’ (v.5) allows Nicodemus to fully engage this life. Literally, water is life-giving. We cannot survive with out it. Our bodies are 65% water. Then there is the Spirit, the Spirit of God, the life force from above that nourishes and feed us when we open our eyes to God’s powerful presence within us. Jesus asks us to not compartmentalize our beliefs. Instead he wants us to live with “big faith.” A professor in seminary cautioned my colleagues and I to “not straight-jacket the Holy Spirit.” We need now, more than at any time in history, to throw caution to the wind. To have “big” faith.
Jesus is calling us—the Church—to put aside self-consciousness because writing a check in the darkness of night to support a charity is no longer cutting it. As Christians, we must roll up our sleeves, get out into the community and be among all of God’s people.
Richard Rohr has a daily blog and this past week he about Christians attempting to engage with the lost, poor, homeless, downtrodden, and abandoned: “Hand-taking, embracing, and breathing-with, [I would add: sitting-with] aren’t often immediately attractive to us. Vulnerability, letting go, total disclosure, and surrender don’t come easily. Our culture is built on a movement toward empire and aggrandizement of the group.” The tension of looking at a person holding a sign on a street corner then turning away. Or are you that person who walks passed a beggar on the street? Or are you that person who momentarily stares at a person who gestures with frailing arms and who talks to a ghost? These encounters create “interior conflict that Scripture describes as the conflict between the world and the Spirit.” Christianity was built on one-on-one relationship encounters, not by empire or oneupmanship.
In these uncertain times, we can and must do more. Are you willing to put aside your judgment and invite God to make course corrections in your attitudes, beliefs, feelings, heart, and soul? Do you want to live life with “big” faith?” Do you want to be born again?
“Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (v.5)