Nicodemus and the offensive offer of new life

Prepared for St. John’s United Church, Marathon’s Sunday service on March 8th, 2020. Based on John 3:1-17 for Lent 2, Year A.


Second birth.

Rebirth.

A spiritual birth.

What in the world could Jesus be talking about here?

Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to the language. But hear it again for the first time: 

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.[i]

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.[ii]

What the heck?

Can we really blame Nicodemus for scratching his head here? Jesus in the Gospel of John would puzzle anyone be they from the 1st or the 21st century!

***

Have you sat around late at night, deep in conversation with someone? The darkness can feel like a protective cocoon. You might have been tucked into the couch with a cup of tea, or huddled around a campfire, speaking softly, going back and forth, wondering about the world around us and our place in it. I think darkness makes space for us to share in ways we may not normally. 

Nicodemus visits Jesus at night. I imagine they share a cup of wine, they sit close together, maybe their knees are almost touching. And they begin to have this deeply theological, but deeply personal conversation.

It is a conversation about belonging, about the nature of a good and faithful life, and of the challenges that prevent us from accepting that new life.

No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.

Maybe that idea is more than just a strange way of speaking. Maybe what Jesus is asking Nicodemus to do is downright offensive?

***

Nicodemus is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent to your average Member of Parliament. He’s an older man, a member of the ethnic majority, who has a position of power and leadership. He’s at the top of the social pyramid. In a society that valued maleness and aged-ness, was ethnocentric and had a rigid sense of social status, Nicodemus embodies everything society tells us to respect.

And here we see Jesus telling him he needs to rethink everything!

You—you teacher of men, you theologian, you religious reformer (because that’s what a Pharisee is)—you may think you’ve got it all figured out but I’mtelling you you’re missing something.

Go back to the beginning.

In our world, could there by anything more offensive?

Can you imagine saying to a CEO or an MP or a top-scholar, “Hey you’ve got it all wrong. Go back to the beginning. Start again.”

***

We’ll be exploring the idea of new life this week and next.

The Gospel of John is focused very intently on the idea of transformation and newness through Jesus. The author uses the language of moving from darkness (or blindness) into the light, into understanding.

Nicodemus, who appears two more times in the story no longer shows up under the cover of darkness but in the light of day to defend and affirm Jesus as the Light of the World.

So in this encounter we see a transformation budding; something is happening within Nicodemus.

But transformation is an uncomfortable thing.

How does the caterpillar feel inside the cocoon?

Jesus doesn’t just tell Nicodemus that he has it wrong, that he’s missing something, he doesn’t just say ‘go back to the drawing board’, he’s suggesting Nicodemus wipes the slate totally clean and starts again.

To be born again—reformed, rebirthed and brought into new life.

Have you ever started a project, gotten halfway through—or even father—and realized you need to stop, put down your tools and begin again? It’s frustrating, right?

Have you ever lost everything and realized you had to start at the beginning? That’s hard.

It’s hard to go back to school when your job has become obsolete.

It’s hard to rebuild a home after you’ve lost it in a fire.

It’s hard teach our bodies how to do simple tasks we took for granted before a stroke.

New life can sound like a sweet pretty thing. Think of Easter with little bunnies and baby chicks, crocuses budding up from the ground. These are our most common images of new life.

But the making of new life is always hard.

Trust me, I learned that last year first hand. The Psalmist may have written that God knit him together in his mother’s womb,[iii] but he fails to mention how pointy those needles are! 

Rebirth is such a wonderful metaphor for new life because…

New life comes with stretchmarks, aches and pains as our new bodies begin to weigh down the old.

New life comes with contractions and the tight press of the womb as we journey into our new realities.

New life begins with a borning cry of triumph and lament as new skin meets cold air and harsh lights.

New life means learning and growing pains, experimentation and failure, as well as success.

But there is grace in new life, knowing that we are on a journey with the Divine, knowing that we have a lifetime of growth and possibility before us.

***

But, new life will not always be greeted by the world with enthusiasm. As with anything that rejects the world’s sense of justice and goodness, it can be met with derision or outright hostility.

The world asks us…

How many steps have you walked?

How many hours have you clocked?

How many likes have you gotten?

How many books have you finished?

How many degrees have you completed?

How many places have you visited?

It is not an interest in living a full life that drives those questions but a fixation with tallying up our lives and comparing with our neighbours.

The church calls us to something different, a different way of valuing one another and our time.

I believe it is a radical call to savour the good world that the Creator has crafted for us. It’s a call to let go of our anxieties, our insecurities and selfishness. It invites us to look for our reward in a different place.

Because the world wants to reward us for doing things it’s way. New life is hard because we’re swimming against the current!

like feeling like I’m better than other people, that I’ve read more, seen more, done more. The world wants to reward me for doing those things and feeling that way about my neighbour. And the world can become hostile and offended when you refuse to play that game.

It can be hard to take pleasure in the creation around us, because we’re constantly receiving messages saying we shouldn’t be satisfied with what we have. We need to have the most and be the best. That attitude has contributed to climate chaos, to body image issues, to mental health problems in our young people, and a society whose consumption feels out-of-control.

And, God’s response to this out-of-control way of doing things is slowness, gratitude, compassion, being grounded in our identity, and having an image to focus on—an image of what our lives and world can be.

The kin-dom of God.

It’s an image Jesus shares with us in his teachings, using everyday metaphors that are just different enough to show us there is another way to live.

It can liberating to say to ourselves, ‘I don’t need to worry about what my neighbour thinks of me, because I know that I am a beloved child of God.’

It can liberating to say to ourselves, ‘there is another way for us to live life together’.

It can be liberating to say to ourselves, ‘this is enough, if we share it together’.

***

My prayer for us, is that we will notice in ourselves how the world tries to rewards us, and our response to that. My God help us break the patterns of competition, greed and selfishness.

My prayer is that we will continue to distinguish that old way of doing things from the new, so that we can begin to learn to delight in what God takes pleasure in.

My prayer is that you will take God up on the offensive and hard offer of rebirth. It is an offer, I believe, that is made to us daily. May you accept God’s loving challenge, and see its fruits.

And, then come home and tell us all about it. Amen.


[i] John 3:3 NRSV, [ii] John 3:5 NRSV, [iii] Psalm 139:13

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