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March 8, 2020
2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Roman 4:1-17; John 3:1-17
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones
The pastor at my daughter’s church decided, and I agree, that children as young as my 3-year old granddaughter do not need to hear: “You are dust and to dust you shall return” on Ash Wednesday. My grandson who is 7, was deemed mature enough to get the adult version. Lilly heard the “you are dust” pronouncement when her parents and brother received the ashen crosses on their foreheads. But, when it was her turn, the pastor said: “You are a special child of God.” When the family returned to their pew she said to her mother, with a smug smile of superiority on her face: “I’m a special child of God.” She then turned around to the people sitting behind them and proudly repeated that announcement and, continued to announce: “I am special” for the rest of the evening. Lent’s call to humility will have to be a lesson learned at an older age. She is pretty resistant to being humbled now.
Abram was the first chosen one of God’s Chosen people; but, God informed him the blessing of chosen-ness was not for him alone. Abram was being blessed to be a blessing for “all the families of the world.” The bible tells us Abram was in his seventies when God called him to leave his father’s house in Ur, which is in modern-day Iraq, to travel to a far-off land. One likely assume this was not an easy call for Abram to accept and not immediately perceived as a blessing. Starting over at his age must have given him pause. Giving up the comfort, security, and familiarity of home to make a new home is a major life stressor. We know that eventually, God will give Abram and Sarai new names to go along with their new lives – Abraham and Sarah. Hope for a better future is the only way we can make ourselves take the plunge. Perhaps it was easier for Sarai. She had lived with Abram’s family all her adult life – maybe that’s why we don’t hear any protest from her about picking up stakes and leaving. Then again, she wasn’t leaving her in-laws entirely. Abram invited his nephew, Lot, to join them. It’s hard to leave the past completely behind.
In our epistle reading, the Apostle Paul presents Abraham as a model of faith. Paul preempts any notion that faith can be achieved. Faith is a gift from God for which the proper response is the kind of trust and obedience Abraham exemplified. The relationship Abraham found with God led him to righteousness. Paul informs his readers that righteousness is not simply a matter of moral or ethical living. Abraham and Sarah found themselves in a few tough situations in which their actions would not pass the test on that standard. Paul contends righteousness is walking with God in such a way that moral and ethical behavior increasingly become our way of being in the world. It is a trusting relationship with God that frees us to accept God’s grace and blessings leading to new life. A new life that Jesus tells Nicodemus comes from being “born from above.”
Like Abraham, Nicodemus was challenged to leave the comfort and security of his confidence he had fulfilled all the requirements of faithfulness to God. As a Pharisee, he knew the rules to be followed but lacked the kind of relationship with God that he had begun to suspect he needed. Nicodemus had heard about the miracles Jesus had performed and concluded Jesus had a special relationship with God that gave him the powers he displayed. He had heard about Jesus’ preaching and teaching on the Law (Torah) and the writings of the Prophets that gave new insight. Nicodemus was impressed and/or bewildered by this man who overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple and accused them of exploiting the poor in the name of God. We can identify with Nicodemus, one who believes in God and seeks to know the will of God, but who is also afraid to be changed by God.
Nicodemus was drawn to learn more about Jesus, but he was afraid to be seen with him, so he came in the night. He did not want to jeopardize his power and prestige as a leader in the Pharisee community. Yet, his coming at all indicated he had taken the first baby step into a new life. Humility is vital to learning. If you already know all the answers, Jesus can’t teach you anything.” Nicodemus, like Abraham, needed to leave what he knew to see the new thing Jesus was offering. And, so it is that the Lenten season invites us to humble ourselves so we may learn about ourselves and the life Christ calls us to live.
When Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he was making a play on words to challenge Nicodemus. The Greek word, translated as “again” in our bibles, can also be translated as “above” or “again.” John uses this type of play on words several times, with Jesus countering a literal use of a word with a theological usage. If translated as “from above,” then Jesus is referring to God. Nicodemus could only understand the literal meaning and so thought Jesus was telling him he must return to the womb and come out again. Like Nicodemus, we are challenged by Jesus to leave the safe secure womb of a compartmentalized faith so we can live our faith in the world, day after day.
Jesus further indicates that he is not speaking literally or concretely when he tells Nicodemus: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The Greek word translated as “spirit” here is “pneuma,” which can also be translated as breath, as it is used in the Genesis creation story of God breathing over the waters to create, to give birth to, the world. As Paul taught the Roman congregation that we cannot achieve faith but only accept it as a gift from God, we cannot “birth” ourselves. To be transformed we need to “be birthed.” The concept of needing to be saved by our own declaration to earn a place in heaven contradicts the biblical witness of Christ and the Apostle Paul. To boast of our being “born again” as a badge of salvation making us more “special” than others in God’s eyes displays a lack of humility and understanding that is needed to be a blessing to all of God’s children. A self-proclaimed religious superiority that condemns other children of God is immature at best and at its worst drives people away from learning about Christ and the kingdom of God. It is John 3:16 16“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.” without John 3:17 17“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.”
Jesus pushed Nicodemus to a new land, the kingdom of God. Jesus continually pushes us to see that God sends a new life from above and new perspectives to interrupt our old habits. This is the process Jesus calls the way to salvation. God sent Jesus so the world might be saved through him, through his message of love and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God he initiates. Following Jesus requires a radical departure from the complacency that nurtures injustice; norms that oppress and enslave; empty traditions that replace true commitment; false pride that denies God’s power and authority; and prejudices that maintain ignorance and separate us from God’s children, our brothers, and sisters.
Nicodemus’ faith journey did not end with that initial nocturnal visit. We read about him again when he defends Jesus’ right to teach against the accusations of a fellow Pharisee. Then at the end of Jesus’ time in the world, Nicodemus comes to Jesus again on Good Friday when he helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus bathes his body and rubs it with perfumes and spices. Notice how Nicodemus moves from the smaller circle of Jesus’ followers to a gathering of all the Jews in Jerusalem, to the crowd of Jews and Gentiles at Calvary. Nicodemus keeps his eye on Jesus, moves toward him and eventually gets close enough to touch him. Nicodemus becomes a blessing. Abraham and Nicodemus were chosen to play different roles in God’s salvation history, yet each moved the world in the direction of God’s kingdom. During this season of Lent may we, like Abraham and Nicodemus, leave what is known, but not fruitful for the kingdom of God, and venture to where God calls us to be – the place where our blessings bless others.
© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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