Born from above

Nicodemus Coming to Jesus by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2011. The lectionary readings are Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121 , Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17 .

On the night before Easter, at the Great Vigil of Easter, the church gathers to hear again how God has been working to save his people, from the beginning of time. God saved the People of Israel. God saved those who met Jesus and followed him, and God saves us still. One of the scripture readings often heard in that liturgy is from the Book of Ezekiel (36:24-28). God says

I will . . . bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your impurities . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you . . . .

A new heart and a new spirit. This promise comes when people are down and out. They’re tired. They’re beaten. They’ve almost given up. But God gives hope and God makes a promise. Easter, itself, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings the ultimate in a new creation, and all of Easter is a prolonged celebration and meditation on what it means for us, that we have the hope of eternal life, but in today’s scripture, we get a foretaste of God’s life-giving Spirit. We get a glimmer of it in the first reading, and we get a close-up view in the Gospel.

The Reading from Genesis only mentions Abram. God tells Abram and Sarai to “get up and go.” God has a plan for them, and everything is going to be different. Abram and Sarai follow God into a new land, and it seems like over and over again, their faith is put to the test. If they had one view of how their life might go, how things might turn out, it seems like, at every corner, God does something else. This reaches a highpoint when God reveals to Abram and Sarai that they are going to have a child, even in their old age, and they both get a name-change marking the occasion. One would think that after all they had been through, they might be used to God’s way of seeming to change the nature of the game mid-course, but they don’t seem any more accustomed to it than we might be. When Sarah hears that she’s going to give birth at her old age, she laughs, and indeed, that’s how Isaac gets which means, “laughter, or she laughs.”

Laughter is a common response when we finally begin to see what might be unfolding for us in God’s plan. But before the laughter, there are other emotions: fear, loneliness, heartache, confusion, anger… you name it.

Nicodemus must have been going through some of this when he hears about Jesus. We don’t know what had changed or shifted in his life to put him in this place of potentiality, but whatever it was, Nicodemus was tired of the old. He had tried things his way. And so, cautiously at first, Nicodemus approaches Jesus in the night.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, one of the spiritual elite, a man of social standing and respect and probably known by many of the other religious leaders. He is referred to as the “ruler of the Jews,” so he must have been of special rank and authority. He knows the scriptures. He is educated. He can carry a conversation with the most sophisticated people around and he is nobody’s fool.

But somehow Nicodemus has also come to a turning point in his life. Something has to give. He notices that Jesus is unlike others. Jesus is more than a great teacher. There is something there that not only challenges the mind, but it also somehow makes a claim on the heart. Jesus makes a claim on his whole life. And so Nicodemus draws closer. He comes to meet Jesus by night. He comes by night because he has a lot to lose. He is hesitant. He is afraid.

Jesus tells him that if he wants to see the kingdom of God, he has to be born anew. Born of water and spirit. Born again. Born from above. Born with new belief that God loves the world so very much, that God has come into the world to save it through Jesus.

This is a game-change. Nicodemus probably thought he had life all planned out. Everything was in place, but now this. Nicodemus was fulfilled, or so his thought. He was full, for sure. He’s very “full.” He’s filled with information and knowledge. He’s filled with beliefs and opinions. He’s filled with years of religious practice, of fasting and almsgiving, and praying at the temple, and doing charitable work. Nicodemus has reached old age by living a good, careful and prudent life. And so, why the change now? What is Jesus talking about?

Because God has even more new life planned. And somehow through Nicodemus, others, too, are going to be saved.

It’s tempting (for me, at least) to thing of Lent as a natural time for spiritual growth. We can see things blooming and blossoming outdoors, and so we can imagine that it is within the normal and predictable order of things that growth might be taking new form in us, as well. And while some of that may be true, the kind of spiritual rebirth experienced by Nicodemus is anything but natural. It comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t follow the normal order of things. It involves his being “born again,” or to translate the phrase differently, Nicodemus is “born from above.”

Though we might like to imagine that life follows a predictable course, our actual living tells us otherwise, doesn’t it? A diagnosis from the doctor can change everything. A changing economy or downsizing can change everything. A disaster can change the life we thought we were living. A death of someone we love can disorient us and seem to change everything. And we find we’re in that wilderness place with Abram and Sarai, unable to see or hear God’s promise yet. We’re like Nicodemus stumbling in the dark, unable to make our way just yet, not seeing that there’s any light.

In such times, words often fail. When someone’s house burns down, the worse thing to say is, “You can rebuild.” When someone loses a child or tries to have a child and can’t, one of the worst things to say is, “You can always try again.” And when someone is out of work, though we don’t know what to say to be encouraging or helpful, it’s usually not so helpful for us to say, “You’ll find another job.”

While all these phrases are the things we say because we don’t know what to say, the person with the fire, the loss, the emptiness, is where he or she is. For us to want them to move into another place too quickly is to refuse to see where she or he is. These people (our friends, our family, ourselves) are in a place that feels wild and uncharted. It can feel like a place of loneliness, a place of death even, and a place of ashes. Words don’t sound the same in this place, even when we can hear them.

But while words often fail, we do have one another. When someone near us is struggling, it’s not always the most helpful thing to recommend books, or plot strategy, or offer words of encouragement- though all of these things (of course) have their place. The most powerful reminder of hope in God is to offer ourselves. If there is some part of us that has known God’s rebirth in our lives, if there is some part of us that has felt the rekindling of God’s spirit even when we had been down… if there is some part of us that can live as a witness to God’s power of new life, of new birth, then our presence itself can be a sign of hope for the person who is lost. Abraham and Sarah became spiritual leaders because they had been through the wilderness and survived. Nicodemus became helpful to others because he had gone through his own “dark night of the soul” and had been found by Light again, so he could witness to the light.

A friend of mine was recently reflecting on the time she lost her job a few years ago. With the loss of her job, not only did she lose her income, her health insurance, her sense of stability, but she also lost her identity, since her job was so much a part of her own self-understanding. But, as she puts it, after a while, she realized that she needed to believe in her own journey again. Though she had always thought she had life planned and plotted out, clearly, something else was going to happen. Life wasn’t over, just changed. She had lost one identity, but life was inviting her to find a new one. She had to regain belief in her own journey, that even though the pathway might be through the fog, with the help of others, and with the help of God, she would make it.

What we can offer the person or the people who are suffering is our own strength, witness, and support. If we can convey in some way that we, ourselves have known what it is to be lost in the wilderness and then born from above, this is the hope we can share.

Just a few weeks ago we observed Ash Wednesday. Though the liturgy and prayers of that day can sometimes feel heavy, the day allows us to re-locate ourselves in the drama of life, and death, and new life. We acknowledge the places that are broken and begin to clear away the wreckage. And we allow God to begin again with us. To re-frame the words of Psalm 51,

God helps us to hear of joy and gladness, that the body that was broken might rejoice. God creates a new heart, and a right spirit within us. God gives us the joy of his saving help again, and sustains us with his bountiful spirit. We are delivered from death, and given new lives for praise.

Jesus says that we can be born again. We can be born from above. This happens again and again and again. With God’s Spirit, we ARE (even now) being born from above.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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