March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-21
Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. This means that…
[he was a vampire] [it’s a metaphor] [he didn’t want to be seen]
Because there are other times where he appears to be appearing in daylight I think we have to throw out the vampire option.
In the imagery of the Gospel of John, Darkness is all about spiritual limitedness and Light is for those who have been enlightened. And so Nicodemus was a seeker who had been in the darkness of religious-not-really-understanding but who wanted to come into the light of spiritual understanding.
He may very well have not wanted to be seen. He was a Pharisee, one of the leaders of the Jewish community. He had a lot to lose in terms of standing and position if he was seen cavorting with a religious outlier.
So he came to Jesus to see what he could learn from the man who turned water into wine but he came at night because he didn’t want to give up his day job. He just wanted Jesus to brighten the corners of his faith life. Looking for an upgrade, he discovered that what Jesus was offering was a complete overhaul. It was probably very unsettling for him.
That’s what both of our stories – and the convoluted bit of Romans – are telling us: that complete overhaul in the name of faith is the only thing that matters. Names and positions and genetics and homelands are not enough if we can’t step out in faith and change how we think of ourselves and how we live our lives as we enter into a radically different way of living.
To summarize what Jesus said – and to quote Martin Luther King Jr in the process:
Your whole structure must be changed.
And that is why the birth comparison is so apt. It is messy and dangerous and puts life and death very close together – even today, even though we ignore that bit.
As a process it may be natural but it is also is chaotic and confusing – like the spirit/breath/wind of God: Job’s holy whirlwind hovering over the face of formlessness and void, making the newborn cry as it enters a whole new cold and uncomfortable word.
That is the imagery that Jesus gives us for the process of spiritual transformation summed up as “born anew”. It is giving up plastic for Lent, not chocolate – at least not unless chocolate is part of every single thing you do and how you see the world.
No wonder Nicodemus – at the end of this story – seems to choose his present religion over the transformation Jesus offers.
Except he didn’t. He just took a while. By the end of chapter 7 Nicodemus is standing up for Jesus in front of other Pharisees (7:50-52) and by the end of the story he helps Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial, bringing an extraordinary about of spices for anointing (19:39-40).
So if our spiritual transformations – or giving up of plastic – often seems like 1 step forward and 2 steps back, remember that it too Nicodemus 3 years. And it took Abraham 25 years to the birth of Isaac and he had – according to tradition – 10 tests. Not all of which he passed.
The other reason that birth is an apt image for this level of spiritual transformation is that after you are born nothing is ever the same again. And the same is true for parents – once a child enters your life – a child that is yours to care for as long as they let you (and even after that) – your life is not the same. You don’t fit a child into the spaces at the edge of your life. It changes the way you do everything. EVERYTHING.
It’s like moving to a new place. A new country in particular. Where the flour is weird and the food is different and the way people speak is different (this can happen even when it’s the same language) and the pace of life is different and the assumptions about how things are done are different. And not always good different. But eventually it’s familiar and given time it becomes home.
It’s like living as though the planet is in crisis. It changes behaviours and assumptions. We have to give up things and start new things and usually the new things aren’t exactly convenient.
But this is what faith invites us into. We are invited to live more and more in line with the teachings of Jesus. We are invited to rely on trust and faith rather than position or comfort. It’s not fun and it’s hard and it can seem like we’re getting nowhere. Until we are.
Rev. Shannon Tennant