Nicodemus, 1973, Cameroon
from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN
Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
“The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.”
Just a little over a week ago, we started on a journey.
A Lenten journey, in which we asked
God to create and make in us new and contrite hearts.
If you’re counting, you still have 30 days to go.
Or, if it sounds better to you, a month.
This Lenten journey, this journey of faith,
is intended for us to take a more intensive look at our lives and our discipleship.
It seems fitting then that we make this journey with the Gospel of John.
Last summer, maybe you’ll remember, we journeyed with Luke, all the way through Galilee, into the Decapolis, and on to Jerusalem, following Jesus’ ministry.
The gospel of John is a wholly different venture than Luke’s,
or Mark or Matthew for that matter.
John gives us no parables to ponder,
he chooses only seven signs of Jesus
to tell the entire story of our Savior’s life; and through these seven signs,
John tells the layered and convoluted journey of the Christian life of faith,
a journey from darkness to light.
John’s way of telling the good news is surprising.
He follows few of the details of the other evangelists
and he often rearranges the order of the stories he includes.
John seems bent on unsettling his readers, making us think—
and in building his narrative,
John draws us deeper into the encounters people experienced in meeting Jesus.
The story of Nicodemus is a case in point.
Nicodemus is a man of knowledge, a religious man.
We can identify with him at least in this way:
He is Educated, faithful, and a leader in the town.
Nicodemus heard all about Jesus and he is curious, very curious;
He is also cautious, though.
Jesus’s teaching went against the grain, it had angered his fellow men,
so Nic comes at night.
He just has to hear Jesus for himself—
Nicodemus comes genuinely, though, not to try and trick Jesus
Or to test Jesus; he comes saying humbly, “We know you are from God.
We’ve seen the signs that you do.”
Here is the irony in the story, though, …
You don’t really know, Nicodemus, you don’t really see. As Jesus tells him,
“Amen, Amen, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus thinks he knows,
yet like the night in which he comes, he’s in the dark.
Then Nicodemus dives in deeper…
“How can anyone be born after having grown old?”
Therein lies our question.
Here is where we enter the story more fully, we want to know too,
What are you talking about Jesus?
Nicodemus urges Jesus to say more…
“How is this be…we cannot re-enter into the womb?”
No, Jesus replies, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
Now Nicodemus is quiet.
We are a bit in the dark now.
You see, Nicodemus being a man who studied scripture,
would surely connect this saying of Jesus – born of water and the spirit—
to the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel long ago had announced the promise of a new covenant that will be ushered in with water and the spirit—”for the sake of my holy name,” God tells him, “I will take my people, I will gather you, and bring you…
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean. 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…and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
Maybe we don’t hear another word from Nicodemus in this story
because he’s struck by what he is hearing…
wondering if this man Jesus might really be the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Still, Nicodemus must be wondering, how can I be a part of this:
‘How can I be born from above.’
Born anothen—this is the Greek word John uses,
sometimes translated born from above, or born anew, or born again.
Yes, this story is where we find that familiar phrase…
Born again….it is funny to me that what perplexes this learned man Nicodemus
is something Christians during my lifetime seem to have all figured out.
I lost count of how many times I was asked growing up, “Have you been born again?”
Being stubborn, I mostly wouldn’t answer the question when asked…
because if I said yes, just to get away quickly,
it seemed I’d be giving in to the beliefs of the questioner; it seemed like a trap. And if I said no, I was not really being honest about my faith.
The truth is, I knew Jesus’ teaching was not that simple.
I just didn’t know enough to argue.
After some study, now, I know only enough to be dangerous.
It is no accident Jesus uses the imagery of being born—
we humans are familiar with birth.
The messy process of birthing comes
with all the weary months leading up to the birth,
with all the worry and discomfort that accompanies pregnancy.
Birth involves breaking open and pouring out and frankly, pain.
The emphasis in this story is on birth because being born anew,
like Jesus is talking about, is all about growing into God’s likeness
and living into God’s kingdom.
The new birth Jesus wants for us is a lifelong process of growth,
a journey of faith that carries with it a long gestation period,
and the ups and downs of real life, pain and joy.
Jesus is calling Nicodemus to a higher awareness, which is no easy one and done; Nicodemus is called to a journey of faith through rebirth.
There’s a short Netflix series Rob and I watched recently
that creatively illustrates this idea of rebirth.
Quick disclaimer, Rob and I are great
at picking out Netflix shows that are just terrible.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we stumble upon a series that intrigues us,
if only because there is one redeemable character in it.
Earlier this year we watched a series called “Living with Yourself.”
It is about a man named Miles whose life at present is a dead end,
or at least he thinks it is. Miles is married to successful, loving wife.
They are trying to have a baby, and have had no luck so far;
Miles thinks his job is dull, his friends are boring. Hopefully you get the picture.
In seeking a remedy for all this, Miles ends up unknowingly getting cloned.
Now you have to suspend reality to get to the point of the show,
because clones aren’t birthed and then immediately are 35 years old.
But on this show they are—and the clone has the same memories as their forbearers. So, the story goes that Miles, even though he wasn’t supposed to, meets his clone, and some funny things happen.
But it doesn’t take Miles long to realize,
his clone is a much better version of himself; the clone is happy to be alive, a curious person. The clone is a better husband, eager coworker, all of it.
Miles very literally experiences a Lenten self-examination.
He sees his better self: more forgiving, more compassionate, more enlightened.
He sees other people’s problems for once, not just his own.
Miles wanted a quick answer to his sorry life
but in taking what he thought was the easy route, he didn’t avoid any pain at all.
Ironically, he actually compounded it.
The rebirth for Miles came only by walking through the mess he’d made,
realizing that he’d had the ability to adapt and grow in spirit all along.
John’s story about Nicodemus is not over.
He appears again much later in the gospel, supporting Jesus’ teaching;
and at Jesus’ death, Nicodemus comes out into the full light,
as a follower, helping to bury Jesus after the crucifixion.
But today we see Nic at the beginning of his journey,
somewhat muddled about what it all means, and like us,
unsure of all that Jesus has to say about spiritual and heavenly things
and how those born of the spirit are like the wind blowing where it may.
Nicodemus’ story is our own journey,
as we are all on the road somewhere in our relationship with God.
Genuinely questioning, hopefully not looking for easy answers,
and remaining open to the spirit working throughout our lives.
All of our readings this second Sunday in Lent are journeying lessons,
to reiterate this walk we’re on with Jesus…
it is Nicodemus’ in the gospel,
from the psalmist we hear of God’s watching over us
in all our going out and coming in; the Lord keeps us close, and will not fall asleep.
In Paul’s letter to church at Rome we are connected back to Abraham,
Our forefather, who faithfulness to go on that very first journey
Took him away from family and everything that he knows.
Abram, go, I will bless you—
this is the place where we begin our journey
You, me, Nicodemus…all of us.
With God’s call to go, to start life anew, to be open to rebirth,
So that we will See afresh that our lives are in every way tied together,
bound up with one another in Christ.
Our beginning is in accepting God’s call
to take the faith given to us and go out, to be a blessing to the world.