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March 20, 2011
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-4. 13-17; John 3:1-17
03-20-2011 SermonOften when we meet someone for the first time, we ask – where are you from? Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Or where did you go to school, and so on – just to get acquainted and see if we have anything in common. Or to find out more about ourselves, we might ask our family to tell us the story of our birth – what were the circumstances? For me, I guess the most significant thing was that my dad was stationed in England with the Army Air Corp (as it was called then) when I was born and I did not even meet him until I was a year old.
Well, in our Gospel story today, Nicodemus comes to find out more about Jesus of Nazareth. But when Nicodemus approached Jesus, he did not exactly come with a question. Instead he began by announcing that he knew who Jesus was – he knew where he came from. He thought he had it all figured out. After all, he was a Pharisee, a learned one, a leader of the Jews, a teacher in Israel. So Nicodemus announced – we know who you are – that you come from God, we have seen your signs and miracles.
But from the conversation that followed, we find that Nicodemus did not know as much as he thought he did. Nicodemus has spent his life trying to be good, to obey the law, to follow every commandment. But now, he found himself intrigued by this man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had authority in his teaching, who healed, who turned water into wine, but who also challenged the very basis for his religion.
So, Jesus tells him a birth story – a story of being born all over again, about being born of the Spirit. Nicodemus is thinking sort of like an accountant who is trying to balance a ledger, and what Jesus is saying surely does not add up, but Jesus sticks with his tale. So, Nicodemus asks – how can these things be? He wanted proofs and arguments in order to come to a clear conclusion. He assumed that this was the way to faith.
But, Jesus goes on with his birth story – this new birth is of the Spirit which blows like the wind, blows where it chooses, blows so that we might hear the sound but not know where it comes from or where it goes, a wind that is not controllable.
Jesus told Nicodemus that life in the Kingdom of God cannot be earned or achieved. Life in the Kingdom cannot be calculated like a math problem. Well, all of this made no sense to Nicodemus. He only knew how to think very concretely. He had always put his trust in the security of rituals and doctrines and laws. But Jesus was asking Nicodemus to look beyond this way of thinking, to set aside his limited understanding of God, and to risk a new vision without his old securities.
The call to Abraham and Sarah which we read in Genesis, has a similar ring to it. They were asked to leave country and family and everything familiar and secure, and to go to the place that God would show them. Now, there was promise in their calling – they would be blessed, they would become a great nation of many people, and through them all other people would be blessed. The tricky thing about this promise is found a couple of verses before we started reading today. At the end of chapter 11, the writer tells us that Sarah is barren, unable to have children.
Yet, God is asking them to leave everything, follow where God leads, with the promise of Sarah giving birth to a great nation. Amazingly, the text says, Abraham went! In the letter to the Romans, Paul holds up Abraham and Sarah as examples of courageous servants of God.
Through the centuries there have been those who have answered God’s call to leave everything. In the 4th century, an Egyptian monk, St Anthony, gave away the huge estate left to him by his parents. He had heard of Jesus’ message to sell all that he owned and giving it to the poor, so that is what Anthony did. And he went to the mountains where he lived alone. Twenty years later, he left his cave and started a community of like-minded people who wanted to live with only bare necessities. This started the monastic movement of those we now refer to as our Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were willing to leave everything behind – wealth, possessions, family, but also their security, their original ideas of what it meant to be a disciple of Christ. They sought a new way of being with God, they wanted to be born into a more spiritual life.
Jesus tried to teach Nicodemus about this new birth into a more spiritual life. Now, from the John text we read this morning, we don’t find out how this encounter with Jesus affected him, but we do learn from the end of the Gospel that Nicodemus was changed. He must have come to a new understanding of the new birth Jesus was offering.
For, later, he courageously stood up for Jesus when he was tried before the Sanhedrin and he publicly questioned the authorities who wanted to put Jesus to death. And, then after Jesus’ death on the cross when all the disciples fled, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea came forward and asked for Jesus’ body to prepare it for burial.
Abraham and Sarah and Nicodemus and the Desert Fathers and Mothers were given an invitation into new life, leaving what was secure and well known. And they all accepted the invitation in some way.
The invitation is for us too – an invitation into God’s imagination, into a life where we recognize how little we really know of God, a life where God’s Spirit may come sweeping over us like a mighty wind without us even trying to control it, a life of exploring new ways of being with God and new language for talking about our relationship with God and with each other.
Will we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable? Because in order to enter into this invitation, we must open ourselves up to life in the Kingdom that is created by the Spirit, not created by us! To begin this adventure, the only thing we need to do is to turn more toward God.
Jesus called Nicodemus into new life – to turn toward a new way of thinking about life with God. Abraham and Sarah were called to leave their old life and follow God into the unknown. They were all willing to trust God with their lives, with everything.
Perhaps during this Lenten season, we are to examine once again our call, our invitation, to trust God with everything. May God give us grace to trust in the Spirit at work in us, guiding and guarding, as we are born again and again and again into the new life offered in Jesus Christ, the one who comes to save! Amen.