2 Lent A—3/12/17
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17
Pr. Scott Kramer
The Lord said to Abram, “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…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God had big plans for Abram. But what was required of Abram in return was a big move. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you, God commands. Abram responds in obedience to God. It’s a risky move!
On the other hand, it’s an adventure! The Bible tells us that in his homeland Abram was already rich and powerful. He’s no refugee! In fact, as a wealthy man Abram could afford to take this risk, especially since he is motivated by God’s appeal to self-interest: “I will make of you a great nation, and make your name great…” Abram is already a man of privilege, and God is promising even more. In a sense, who among us wouldn’t pull up stakes and move as Abram did?
Mobility in our society is usually a sign of power and privilege. Don’t like your job, your spouse, your neighbors, your weather, your church, your taxes? Just pull up stakes and move to greener pastures. The more money and privilege you have the less risk and the greater the potential rewards.
Geographical moves involve some risk. But harder by far is the decision to pull up stakes and move away from habits of belief and values of a lifetime. This is the challenge that Nicodemus faced.
Nicodemus, as John tells us, was a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews–and not just any leader. Nicodemus was one of the most powerful and influential people of his community and his entire life’s work had been devoted to preserving traditions. He would have been considered one of the least likely people to listen to Jesus, who was considered a radical and a threat to tradition.
If he’s seen even talking to Jesus—let alone showing interest in what he says!—Nicodemus stands to lose the power and prestige that he’s accumulated over many years. Unwilling to risk all that publicly, Nicodemus nevertheless approaches Jesus under cover of darkness.
What he hears Jesus say must have tempted him to turn tail and run. You must be born from above, born of water and Spirit, Jesus says. “Born from above” is often translated as, “Born again.” In other words, Jesus tells him, you have to start all over. The work of the Holy Spirit is the transformation of hearts and minds—every heart and every mind. Not just once but over and over and over again through an entire lifetime.
Today’s reading from John is a miracle story. It’s not “turning water into wine” or “raising the dead”; nevertheless, the very idea that privileged Nicodemus goes out of his way to stay close to and listen to Jesus is a miracle. Jesus’ words are hard for Nicodemus to hear. “How can these things be?” he asks. He isn’t fully convinced by Jesus; and yet, he doesn’t turn tail and run!
How different from the choice of countless people in our own time. Rather than listening to the voice of Christ that requires us to look ourselves squarely in the mirror, millions of people turn tail and run, refusing to see their need for transformed hearts and minds.
I saw a TV special this past week on the life of Maya Angelou, the great American poet and civil rights activist who died in 2014 at the age of 86. One of the stories she tells is from a time when she was much younger. At that time, Angelou was an actress for a small local theater. One season the company presented a very controversial and provocative performance on racism in America. It all got to be too much for several people in the audience, who stood up and walked out. One man, she said, was in such a hurry to leave the theater that he fell and broke his leg on the way out!
This for me is a parable of life in 21st-century America. Rather than engaging in difficult conversations that might lead to changed hearts and minds, millions would rather run. Rather than listening to and learning from what is different and maybe difficult to hear, millions of Americans—including Christians—choose fear based on ignorance and self-interest. Rather than turning toward God with changed hearts and minds—born again!–millions instead cling to habits and beliefs of a lifetime.
Habits of heart and mind are hard to break, especially if they seem to work well for us. Nevertheless, Unless you are born again, Jesus teaches, you cannot see the kingdom of God. Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God. This is not a once-for-all deal. To be “born again” begins at baptism, and is a process that is repeated again and again over the course of a lifetime.
What is this “kingdom of God” that Jesus speaks of? Well, here’s your answer, and for many it will be familiar: 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.
The kingdom of God is embedded in this world, and there’s more. The Greek word that we translate “world” is “kosmos,” which of course means all creation! Jesus, the Word made flesh, came among us with a new and challenging message full of truth and life. Everyone who believes—“trusts”—in him follows his example of welcoming a world beyond self-interest, beyond habits of the heart and mind that keep our lives small and fearful and distant from the love of God in Christ for the whole world.
Friends, there’s a miracle going on in today’s reading from John. Unlike Abram, who was lured to faithfulness at least in part out of self-interest, Nicodemus risked confronting his habits of a lifetime through the truth of the living Christ.
To pull up stakes and move in our society is usually a sign of power and privilege. People who move tend to be people with many options. Hard conversations around sexuality, politics and race are the very thing many Christians seek to avoid when they come to worship. Rather than doing together the difficult spiritual work that is required of Christians, we all are tempted to turn tail and run toward whatever suits us. To run away is so much easier than staying close to the heart of Jesus. Staying close to Christ means risking changed hearts and minds that would lead to changed priorities, changed relationships, and changed lives.
The essential message of Lent is repentance, turning toward God’s love for the whole cosmos. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts and minds…to be born again!