March 12, 2017

Lent 2 Year A

Nicodemus encounters Jesus and his whole life is thrown into turmoil. He is unable to deny that he senses the presence of God in Jesus even though it is in conflict with the religious understanding of his day. Some things take more effort to deny than they do to admit. Nicodemus couldn’t deny what he sensed but neither did he have the courage to raise his questions in public.

Like Nicodemus, sometimes our deepest questions about authentic faith and the meaning of life remain unspoken and, as long as they do, we remain profoundly unsatisfied. A fault line stretches between what Nicodemus professed in the daylight among his fellow religious leaders and what he wondered about at night. Nicodemus lives along that fault line. And so do many of us. And we know fault lines sometimes give way to earthquakes.

The ground trembles within Nicodemus. His heart shakes because the scripture he has known since birth is coming alive in strange, dangerous ways. He can’t deny what he feels in the presence of Jesus, so he follows his question to the source. Under the cover of darkness, Nicodemus may have assumed he could keep the conversation with Jesus on his terms. He would go home with his questions answered and his life undisturbed. Then he could go on with his normal religious life. But Nicodemus finds that his questions have led him to a most vulnerable place. New life at an old age? Why such riddles? Uncontrollable winds that roar through the soul and fill your life with Holy Spirit? What’s going on here? Wait a minute, Jesus. What have you done with my religion?

Jesus speaks of a new birth from the Spirit, and we, with Nicodemus, are induced into labor. Any who has witnessed birth knows that neither the labor nor the birthing is without pain. Nicodemus discovers quickly that he can’t control his encounter with God or even the course of his life.

What on earth are you talking about, he asks Jesus in desperation? Jesus’ language doesn’t make sense, so Nicodemus resorts to literalism, that last bastion for those who would keep God in a religious box. How can I reenter the womb, he asks? Literalism is a way to keep things safe on the page or in the head, but certainly not in the heart. But, Jesus is not interested in a safe religious conversation – not then and not now. Then and now, he is interested in the transformation of our lives. That part of me that is like Nicodemus trembles because I know that to believe seriously in Jesus is to yield everything – to lose the religion of my own making and be born again. This is risky business. How can this be? Nicodemus cries out in holy labor. How?

Jesus speaks and we who would be born listen. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. The fault line cracks right down the center of our understanding; grace shatters the fetters of safe religion. Jesus says the most radical thing of all: if you believe in me you will emerge from the womb of the Spirit wet with the newness of life. A whole new person. And we cry out with Nicodemus: How can this be?

Nicodemus was schooled in the ways of his religion, but nothing can prepare you adequately for an encounter with the Holy. All that is required is the willingness to acknowledge that the God of Jesus is still present today blowing the wind of the Spirit into our lives. Nicodemus stands there in the night and feels the wind blowing across this face.

Do you suppose this is possible for us in our day? To come timidly at night or to come boldly in the day to ask of God, how can this be? How can it be that you or any of us who are nursing secret hurts and fears and nagging insecurities can ever change? How can we be born again?

This is the heart of the matter isn’t it? Believing that you can be born anew is but a short distance from believing in the One whose love is capable of saving you. That belief will send you shooting right out the womb into a new life. Salvation is what the early church fathers and mothers called this life-long process of being made whole in God. It’s what Jesus invited Nicodemus to accept.

Grace shatters you and leaves your safe religion in pieces. Don’t bother putting it back together. Jesus says that love blows into our lives with the power to make us whole. We are only summoned to trust in that love and to cast our lives confidently upon God who is capable of transforming everything, including us.

The Nicodemus within each of us leaps as the words return full circle and full of life. This is to be born again: to believe in God’s love for you so generously displayed in Jesus. Love graciously given; Love freely enduring whatever pain we have experienced in our lives.

And Nicodemus is evidence of the fact that rebirth can happen at any age, what the writer Emerson meant when he said, “As we grow old, the beauty steals inward.”

The story of Nicodemus and the talk he has with Jesus contain the beginning of rebirth. Nicodemus, a man distinguished in the ways of the world, has acknowledged his own emptiness and feels a hunger for new life.

Accustomed to control, he lacks the power to transform himself. He cannot summon the Spirit any more than he could hold the wind in his fist. All he can do, and all he needs to do, is to become receptive to the gift, allow the beauty to steal inward, and surrender to the love that has always been there.

“For 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Amen.