Born again (and again and again)

nicodemus-visiting-jesus_henry-ossawa-tannerA sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020.  The scripture readings are Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of my favorite passages of scripture is read at the Easter Vigil, the service that happens on the night before Easter. Though the service is called a “vigil,” that simply means that it’s the “night before,” not that it’s especially long and drawn out—at least not the way our church celebrates the service. Whether the service includes lots of biblical readings or just a few (like ours), it often includes a reading from the Book of Ezekiel. Yes, I like the “Valley of the Dry Bones” reading, but the scripture I like is from a different section.). God says to his people who have been exiled, cut off, and felt forgotten:

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 . . . . 36:24-28

A new heart and a new spirit. This promise comes when people are worn 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 the whole season of Easter is a prolonged celebration and meditation on what it means for us, that we have the hope of eternal life.

But we get a sample of that today. In today’s scripture, we get a foretaste of God’s life-giving Spirit. We see a bit of it in the first reading, and we get a close-up view in the Gospel.

The Reading from Genesis reminds us of the stories about Abraham and Sarah. God tells them to “get up and go.” God has a plan, and everything is going to be different. So Abram and Sarai follow God into a new land, and over and over again, their faith is put to the test.

They must have thought life would be one way, but it turns out very differently. Just when they get their head around a new challenge, there seems like an even greater challenge around the corner. This reaches a highpoint when God reveals to Abram and Sarai that in their old age, they are going to have a child. After all they’ve been through, you’d think they would be used to God’s surprises. But this one beats all. In fact, when Sarah hears that she’s going to be a mother, she laughs out loud. (Which is how they come up with the name of her son, “Isaac.” Isaac means “laughter, or she laughs.”)
We’d laugh too, if we really knew what God had in store for us when we follow in faith. We’d laugh out of disbelief, out of wonder, or out of nervousness.

In our Gospel lesson, I can almost hear Nicodemus laughing, as Jesus tells him he can be born again. 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 knows the scriptures. He is educated. He can carry a conversation with the most sophisticated people around and he is nobody’s fool.

And just when Nicodemus is expecting some nugget of wisdom or great advice from Jesus, he hears what sounds like nonsense; like a joke, even. 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. God offers new life, but it sometimes brings disruption along with it.

We might like to think of the spiritual life as predictable and linear. We can be tempted to think of the Season of Lent as parallel to the season of spring, with spiritual growth just happening naturally. But 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 hope the spiritual life can be predictable and linear—when we think about it, the spiritual life is just that—a life, and life is often filled with disruptions and surprises. 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. A virus or the threat of a virus can threaten in all kinds of ways.

At those times, we are likely to feel like we’re in a lost place, or a wilderness, 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. But 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.

When I think of Nicodemus, I sometimes think of a former parishioner. This was a wonderful woman who had been eased out of her job in Washington through political changes. With the loss of her job, she felt like her reputation was taken away and much of her ability to continue getting work in her specialty. She lost her income, her health insurance, her sense of stability, but she also felt like she had 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. Eventually, she teamed up with another woman and they opened their own firm, both, enjoying their work well into the age that many people retire.

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 the week before last, we observed Ash Wednesday. The liturgy and prayers of that day invite 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.

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