This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, on March 12, 2017, is built on the readings for the Second Sunday in Lent in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
What follows is the transcript of a sermon preached without a text from the center aisle at the 10:30 service.
It was a dark and stormy night. The wind howled across the moors. And somewhere in the distance a wolf began to howl. And then there came… a knock at the door…
So if a story starts that way you know what’s coming right? You know what to expect. I think in the same way maybe we some expectations and some ideas about where today’s gospel reading might be going, based on the way that it begins.
“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, and he came to Jesus by night, and said to him….”
Right away we have some negative ideas about Jesus’ interlocutor in this moment. He’s shown up in the middle of the night. I bet he’s here to try and trap him and to try to test him in some way, trying to get him to misspeak so that he can be arrested…
Well now wait a minute. This is a Nicodemus. This is the same person who in just a few short chapters, after Jesus has overturned the money changers tables in the Temple and the religious leaders have gathered to plot to kill him… Nicodemus will stand up him his defense. And after Jesus is crucified and Nicodemus will show up hundred pounds appointment and balm, an absurdly extravagant amount, to help anoint Jesus’s body for burial. So maybe we better back up just a little bit and cut Nicodemus some slack here.
I think that he is really a legitimate seeker. He has come to Jesus in the middle of the night hoping that the crowds will be thin and he’ll have some extended access, a time for some conversation. He is also probably trying to avoid being seen because the other Pharisees are going to be happy if he is seen to be hanging around with the other side. You know that doesn’t look good on your resume.
Nicodemus shows up and he starts the conversation in sort of the way you always start out, “and how about the Packers,” and the weather, and throws in a little compliment to get this started…
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
and Jesus says, “no, no, no, no, no… We’re not doing this. I know why you’re here!” He says to Nicodemus,
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is in a position of leadership in his religious community and that community is at odds with itself. There are people who believe in the resurrection. There people who don’t believe in the resurrection, and there’s this conflict going on internally at the same time that they are being oppressed by the Romans. They can’t celebrate their festivals. There are money-changers in the temple. They are being taxed to their very last penny to support the empire that’s invaded them. And to make it even worse, wealth is being concentrated in the urban centers and the rural folks are really struggling to get by… There’s all this tension and struggle in the land and he wants more than anything to see the kingdom of heaven.
I’m sure that he has in mind the words of the prophet Isaiah. Nicodemus wants to see a time, to see a land, to see our vision where the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together. The nursing child shall play over the whole of an asp and the weaned child shall put his hand in the adders den, and they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy Mountain…
Wow. So that sounds pretty good doesn’t it? I think Nicodemus is a character in the story deserving of our sympathy because he’s struggling with a lot of things with which we can identify. And what he wants more than anything is for Jesus to help them to understand how all of this could be, and help him to see what God has promised through the ages and through the prophets.
Well Jesus cutting right to the chase, getting past the small talk jumps right in there and gives him the answer just like that.
If you want to see the kingdom of heaven all you have to do is be born from above! Okay. Thanks for coming. See you!
Well we have been fighting about that I can’t tell you how long. Born from above, born again… what does that language mean? And we start to talk about being born again Episcopalians start to turn and head in the other direction right away!
It’s a good thing that we’ve got today’s reading from Genesis to help us figure out what Jesus is talking about here. I think the writers of the lectionary knew what they were doing when they gave us this text this morning. So here’s a little background.
Abram left the land of Ur of the Chaldeans with his father Terah to go to the promised land. But Terah was pretty old so made a pit stop in Haran, I think that there was a Sheetz or something there… So they stop for a while and you know as these things go it was pretty comfortable. So they settled down, settled in, and lived there until Terah died.
And then God shows up again and speaks to Abram and says your journey isn’t done yet. This is what he says,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Okay, so leaving country and kindred and father’s house… that sounds pretty difficult. But if we stop here for just a minute and consider what he’s being asked to leave behind we’ll pretty quickly come to recognize that God is asking Abram to walk away from his entire identity.
People in this time we were known by their name and the land that they came from, Jesus of Nazareth. And they were known by their parents. This is Abram the son of Terah. So being asked to walk away from his country and his father’s house was asking him to leave behind all of the things that named him, that identified him, that said who he was.
And you know it’s really pretty impressive that he was willing to do this because God didn’t offer him a new identity in this command. It you notice he doesn’t say leave your father’s house, and your country, and your kindred behind and go to Cleveland, and be Abram of Cleveland, and be well and prosper in that place. He says I’ll tell you later where you’re going just get on the road.
I think there’s something very instructive in this moment for us as we ponder what it means to be born from above. What would it be like if we placed our whole identity in our relationship with God. What if someone asked you who you were and your answer was “I am a beloved child of God, on the road… to a destination that God has yet to reveal.”
Now that might be a little risky. That might feel a little scary, but think about what might come of that.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus wanting to see the kingdom of heaven realized in the world around him. What would it be like if we could all really believe that in Christ there is no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor free, no male no female, no east or west? What if all of us had the same core identity at the center of our being and we knew that fundamentally that’s who we are? bound to one another by our common humanity, bound to one another by and through the love of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit, we just might begin to see a world where the wolf and the lamb could lie down together, and where no one hurt or destroyed anything in all of God’s creation!
So I haven’t we done it? Why haven’t we taken that step? Why haven’t we abandoned the markers that identify us: liberal conservative, Republican Democrat, Wisconsinite… I don’t know… what do you call people from Illinois… no, no, don’t answer that question…
Why haven’t we dropped all of those things and just named ourselves as who we really are?
I think that for some reason it would feel like we were losing something, like we were giving something up if I renounced the fact that I’m a Packers fan, if I renounced my political party, if I were renounced my family and my state…
But let’s think about that from the other side for just a minute. If what I claim as my identity, is the love of God and my membership in the whole human family then to say that I’m from Wisconsin somehow narrows, diminishes, reduces me. The more labels I choose for myself to set myself apart from or over and against other people, the smaller I become. So while it might feel risky at first, it might feel like we’re losing something giving something up, I think that what we are really losing when we are reborn from above, when we set our identify in our relationship with God, in the journey we are on, and on our willingness to allow God to lead us into the future, are labels spoken out of fear that diminish our ability to love one another as God loves us.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus and he starts out with some small talk but what he really wants to know is how to see and enter, to live life as if I’m already there, in the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells him he must be born from above.
So this morning I think we should finish with a prayer.
Gracious and loving God, we gather before you this morning seeking courage and strength, the will look to let go of labels and names that divide and separate us from one another and from you, and even from ourselves. We ask you to help us, as we kneel at this rail and extend our hands, to place our trust, our lives, our very being and identity in you, and to remember that we are all yours, and that we are all one, and that anything or anyone that says differently is wrong.