I am Nicodemus

A sermon for Lent 2; Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Wednesday a week ago, we had a long power outage. Most it was a big inconvenience; especially at night. It was dark; really dark; scary dark. Then again, if you were outside and if you looked up, as we did, you saw a sight we rarely ever see, the stars; all of the stars. Stars you can only see if you are in the dark. The dark enables you to see the night sky in an entirely new way; it is an inspiring experience; all because it is dark; really dark; enabling dark. Wednesday, it was dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark.

Some Wednesday night some 2000 years ago, a leader of the Jews is walking through the dark. He is seeking the leader of a new and growing group of followers. The leader is a rabbi, known for signs, perhaps a miracle worker, Nicodemus may simply be curious about this Jesus. On the other hand, he goes to see him in the dark and nighttime is the traditional time to study Torah, so perhaps he is seeking an in-depth conversation (Vena). Then again, night time and darkness are metaphors for separation from the presence of God (O’Day; Harrelson) so perhaps this devoted community leader has his doubts, his questions about all their ways of life. Perhaps it more than curiosity, perhaps Nicodemus wants to see the Kingdom as Jesus, and his followers do. Whatever his reason Nicodemus speaks with Jesus and life is never the same.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born from ‘above.’ Nicodemus asks him How can one be born ‘again’? The confusion come from a word with two meanings; it means both ‘above’ and ‘again.’ Nicodemus thinks Jesus is speaking literally. And that causes him trouble mostly because,

to be born again, as Nicodemus understood it, would have meant altering [his] … honor status in a very radical way and he was not ready to trade his honorable position in society for an uncertain new status (Vena).

 Perhaps Nicodemus just simply misunderstood (Gaventa and Petersen). But, Gail O’Day writes

that Jesus is being intentionally ambiguous and intends Nicodemus to hear both meanings inviting him to explore below the surface seeking deeper revelations. But his imagination is not flexible enough (O’Day).

Next, Jesus using Nicodemus’ confusion about live birth says no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit (John 3:5). Paralleling the double meaning of ‘again’ and ’above’ Jesus connects entrance into the Kingdom with both live birth, and spiritual birth; birth in the flesh, and birth in the spirit; thus, connecting flesh and spirit, which is very much against the thought of his day (Harrelson; O’Day). He compares this to the wind which blows where it will. The word ‘wind’ is the same word as ‘spirit,’ so Jesus connects new birth to the mysteries of free moving wind/spirit that is, quite simply, beyond our control (O’Day).

Comparing the Son of Man being lifted up just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness also makes use of a double meaning word. ‘Lift up’ also means ‘exalt.’ Jesus exaltation is how we, by belief, have eternal life (Harrelson).

 For John, eternal life is defined by God, not as future immortality in heaven, but as a spiritual reality that can only be seen by those born of water and spirit as living in God’s unending presence right here, right now (Harrelson; O’Day; Vena). All this is too much for Nicodemus. And that is the intention. Nicodemus is intended to struggle with this trifecta of double meanings as he discerns what eternal new life, born from above, in water and spirit given by the raised up/exalted Son of Man really is. And so are we. The discerning struggle calls us into deeper and deeper listening to all Jesus shares that John recounts (O’Day).

This is not an easy trip for Nicodemus. He appears twice more; once saying that law requires that the Pharisees give Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:45-52) (Sakenfeld). His last appearance is when Pilate give Jesus’ body to him and Joseph of Arimathea for burial (John 19:38-42) (Sakenfeld). Nicodemus is not alone in a long perhaps wandering journey to belief in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who died so we could have life in God’s presence. It took all the disciples a long time, a good three years, to understand.

So, if you have questions or doubts; if you don’t quite get all the nuances of how Jesus’ death brings you life you are in good company. If you aren’t quite ready to toss off whatever honor and status you have in life and commit to being vaccinated against death by a dead, resurrected, ascended Jesus, neither was Nicodemus (Hoezee; Harrelson).

I know, we all know,

that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16).

We know it so well, it is trite. We believe it so strongly, it divides us. We know it so well, believe it so strongly that I doubt its Lenten value because it is too common, or too divisive to help us see ourselves and change our lives.

On the other hand, Nicodemus is a good Lenten model. He comes to Jesus full of expectations, ready to learn and misunderstands from the very beginning. He doesn’t understand life in God’s presence. He doesn’t understand water/flesh and the spirit as one, in the presence of God. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Moses, and the healing snake lifted up over Israel that saves them from death. He is bound to social customs of honor, prestige, and power he finds hard to give up. And so am I.

I hold miss expectations of Jesus and misunderstand his call if not daily, most certainly regularly. I look at the world and just don’t get life in God’s presence, especially in the here and now. There are too many people who are oppressed for arbitrary human divisions of race, gender, sex, skin color, national origin, faith, illness and lack of success. I believe; I have faith that Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension makes a difference in this world. But the failure of corrupt justice that crucified Jesus is still far too prevalent, and so I doubt. And I ponder my own subtle complicity in all this corruption. I find it as hard to give up social customs of honor, prestige, and power that I benefit from as Nicodemus did. So I am drawn to confess; I am Nicodemus.

So, in so much as you find yourself looking in the mirror and seeing Nicodemus looking back, I invite you to invite Nicodemus to guide your Lenten repentance. However, beware, it is a journey that is dark, really dark, scary dark, enabling dark, inspirationally dark. It is a journey from misunderstanding born of darkness, to darkness born of burying the one who loves you.


References

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 9 2017. 12. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. The Lectionary Gospel John 3:1-17 . 12 3 2017.

Jolly, Marshall A. “Digging Into Our Certainty, Lent 2(A).” 12 3 2017. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. John 3:16. 12 3 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Lent 2 A: Just One More Verse! 12 3 2017.

O’Day, Dail R. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of John. Vol. VIII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Vena, Osvaldo. Commentary on John 3:117. 12 3 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

Tacking buoys

A sermon for Lent 2

Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17, Psalm 121

 A colleague of mine blogged this week about dogma, doctrine, and discipline, all that church law stuff, acting like channel buoys, guiding us on our journey. He goes on say a faith journey is akin to a journey in a sail boat, the wind blows where it will, and sailors have to keep alert to tack correctly and stay between the buoys. [i]

 He story remained me of the time, just after I had met Angie, and we went camping with a group of friends. Someone brought a sunfish sail boat. I invited her to go sailing with me. As we set out I told her about tacking with the wind, and to be careful of the boom. There was constant 5 mile/hour wind, enough to be fun, but not to have to work too hard. When the wind began to get a bit gusty; it was time to turn around and head back to shore. The turn went fine. The next tack came with a sudden gust, the boom moved quite quickly, hit me on the shoulder and knocked me off the boat.  When she saw I was okay, Angie almost rolled off the boat in laughter. I couldn’t decide whether to swim after the boat, now drifting away, or swim off into the middle of lake and obscurity. 34 or so years later, I’m glad I swam after the boat.

Both Abram and Nicodemus are off on journeys; Abram travels far, Nicodemus never leaves home; both traverse the nearness and distance of God; both experience a transformation of faith. We think we know a lot about both. Let’s see.

 We know God calls Abram to 

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

We have probably forgotten that his father started a similar journey to a faraway a land that stalled.[ii] [iii] Abram’s journey begins, or continues if you will, with five divine promises, including in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This final blessing is a commissioning that forever places Israel within the lives of others. [iv] Its theme echoed in Isaiah 42:6: [v]

  I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness … I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations …

Even with all those blessings and all the promise of greatness, it’s a perilous journey, physically, but also spiritually, for in the day to leave your home-land is to risk being lost in the afterlife. Abram risks eternal life for a future he will never see. [vi] Juliana Classens writes:

Abraham is introduced as the embodiment of a new form of society which deliberately severs its bonds with a static past in order to experiment in time. [vii]

 

Nicodemus’ journey is far shorter in distance, and takes only a few years, at least to start. He is firmly rooted in the hierarchy of wealth and power, a Pharisee, and member of the Roman authorized Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body. He comes to visit Jesus because he is intrigued. He comes at night because he is not willing to risk very much. Although it is poignant to note that darkness and night are associated with God’s absence.  [viii]

What we know best of Nicodemus’ visit is the immediate confusion from Jesus quip: no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anōthen [ix] It’s no wonder Nicodemus is confused, we’ve been raging about it for years; “born again” or “born form above?” Well it’s both anōthen means “from above” and “again.” But he would know that, so his confusion is taking mystical language about birth as literal language.

You may wonder if Nicodemus’ Impossible sounds as much like a snicker as disbelief. It would not be the first time an astounding divine statement is met with laughter. Sarah guffaws [x] when she overhears the three strangers tell Abram your wife Sarah will have a son. [xi]  Be it laughter, or blatant disbelief, Nicodemus error is the same he cannot conceive a way in which he could be born again, or from above.

We can’t figure it out either.  Scott Hozee has an intriguing insight:

Babies don’t decide to get born, they just GET born. Nor can babies decide that all things being equal, they’d prefer to stay in the womb. [xii]

We had nothing to do with being born. We have nothing to do with being born again, or born from above. Either way, again or from above, it’s God’s gift of Jesus among us that gives us eternal life. And here again we must read carefully because for John eternal life is not just forever  it is forever in the presence of God. Moreover, it’s not something far off, its right here, right now. [xiii] [xiv] N. T. Wright notes Jesus says the same thing in the Lord’s Prayer:  your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Abram’s and Nicodemus’ journeys don’t seem to have much in common. Abram’s goes on for years, and we have many stories of its many ups and downs. All we know of Nicodemus’ is the night visit, a modest effort to defend Jesus at trial and his assistance to Joseph at Jesus’ burial. Both stories have a central feature. Both Abram and Nicodemus are invited

… to follow God with closed eyes; to depart on a journey without a map. The journey may be [short or] long, [maybe] much longer than one may have thought. It is a journey with many ups and downs, many joys and sorrows. But it is journey filled with many, many promises – the most important being the promise of God’s presence to show … the way. [xv]

 

Their journeys are precursors to our Lenten journey. We, like they, are called to sever bonds with much that is meaningful, comfortable and valuable, to head off somewhere not even defined, with confusing promises, and laughable rational, for a destination we may never see, and to be a blessing to people we may not know, may not even like, right here right now. This journey is one the church, writ large, all denominations hierarchical, like us, Methodist and the Romans or Congregationalist, like Baptist, even non-denominational churches, and the church writ small, every local congregation, faces every day. All the church carefully considers how to take the first step. And there is wisdom in those considerations because Sam is right:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. [xvi]

He’s right, there’s no way of knowing. The winds:  of chance encounter, of the Spirit blow in unexpected ways of their own accord. All we can do is tack as best we can with one eye on the buoys and the other on the boom.

It is our custom to view Lent as a time to re-orient our lives with God. So let’s set our sail, and tack with the wind. We may get blow off course, we may get knocked off the boat, but we will never be alone, God never abandoned Abraham, or his descendants. God sent us Jesus, so we can complete the journey Abram continued, and Nicodemus took a few tepid steps along. And on our way, may we share the blessing of living in the eternal presence of God every day.

 


[i] Steve Pankey, the buoys of orthodoxy, http://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/the-buoys-of-orthodoxy/
[ii]  David L Petersen, Beverly R Gaventa, New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary, 2010 Abingdon Press
[iii]  TERENCE E. FRETHEIM, New Interpreters’ Bible, THE BOOK OF GENESIS, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS, 
[iv] Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, GENESIS, A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING
[v]  Juliana Claassens Working Preacher  3/13/2014 Genesis 12:1- http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1977 1/3RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index,
[vi]  Scott Hoezee  This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, Next sunday is March 16, 2014 (Ordinary Time) This Week‘s Article: Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Genesis 12:1-4a
[vii] Claassens, ibid
[viii] Walter Harrelson,  New Interpreters’ Study Bible, Abingdon Press, 2003
[ix] Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary.
[x]  Robert Hoch Working Preacher,  3/13/2014 John 3:1-17 http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1979 1/4RCL|Narrative|Evangelio|Index, Commentary on John 3:1-17
[xi] Genesis 18:10
[xii] Scott Hoezee, This Week at the Center for Excellence in PreachingNext sunday is March 16, 2014 (Ordinary Time)This Week‘s Article: Gospel Testament Lectionary Text is: John 3:1-17
[xiii] Harrelson, NISB
[xiv] GAIL R. O’DAY, New Interpreters’ Bible,  THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, INTRODUCTION, COMMENTARY, AND REFLECTIONS 
[xv] Claassens, ibid.
[xvi] http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3462456-the-lord-of-the-rings, ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings