It’s the second Sunday of Lent—a journey that we’ve barely begun. Last Sunday Jim distributed ashes and marked those who wanted with a sign of their commitment to following Jesus through his final journey to crucifixion and on to his glorious resurrection. I hope there has been some awareness of this during our week, and that we will continue, at least in some small way, to be more Christ-like in our daily lives.
In today’s Gospel reading, we meet a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a leader of the Jews. We can assume that he was respected and learn-ed, like each of us. He admits to being older, and as such had been following the Law and the many rules of Jewish life for quite a while. We know that the Romans and many of the Pharisees were set against Jesus, so it isn’t surprising that Nicodemus waits until the dark of night to seek out this “teacher who has come from God.”
He could well have been seeking Jesus in secret out of fear of what others would say if he approached in broad daylight. But perhaps it wasn’t fear of others’ judgment. Perhaps it was just that it is in the dark of night that we often wrestle with the worst of our doubts, worries, and uncertainties, and when we feel our spiritual hunger most acutely.
What a contrast with the story that follows this one—the woman at the well—where a Samaritan woman encounters Jesus at the high of the day’s sun. Maybe this is saying that it doesn’t matter what drives us to seek God, that his grace of conversion is available 24/7.
Nicodemus already had the Jewish Law and the rules, so why was he seeking more? And did he find what he was seeking? Unlike the woman at the well, who immediately understood Jesus’ message about being “living water,” Nicodemus is baffled by Jesus’ saying that we must be born again by water and Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. Do we ever feel like that—like we think we should have the answers but get overwhelmed and confused by our daily challenges? Do we fall on our knees, imploring God’s guidance at such times? Do we reach out to others and admit our vulnerability? Do we do both? Hopefully, we do something! Maybe we come to God in the night and utter that one-word prayer that has done so much to change the world: “Help!”
I know I’ve shared this story before, so I ask your indulgence as I repeat it and its powerful message. This comes from the book, The Song of the Bird, by the Jesuit Anthony de Mello.
A neighbor found Nasruddin on his hands and knees.
“What are you looking for, friend?”
Both men got on their knees to search. After a while, the neighbor said, “Where did you lose it?”
“Good Lord! Then why are you searching here?”
“Because it’s brighter here.”
The punch line to this little story says, “Search for God where you lost Him,” and that fits nicely into this reflection on Nicodemus’ journey and our journey into Lent. What this says to me is that I can use this period of Lent to gain some insight into where I need to seek God’s help in my daily living. Have I lost God by not taking enough time for meditation and prayer? Have I lost God by being distant from those in my life whom I’m called to love and serve? Have I lost God by my indifference to the stranger in my midst?
This isn’t anything new. We’re all human and we all have our faults that get in the way. What might seem new is the idea that we don’t have to keep letting them get in our way. We can change, can be converted into healthier, more whole people—and the good news is that we do not have to do this on our own. We have the Spirit of God to guide us through our conversion process! The word “conversion” translates as “to see anew.” So, while we might think we don’t need to be converted, that we’re already baptized Christians, we might garner the humility to admit that maybe—just maybe—there are things about our characters that might need to be tweaked around the edges.
Nicodemus started his search by approaching Jesus when things were darkest, and he did not even come with a laundry-list of questions. He said simply, “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.”
Nicodemus did not understand all that Jesus was saying to him, perhaps because Jesus’ message of redemption did not fit neatly into the Pharisee’s legalistic framework. He did not grasp these things at that time, but he did not reject them. He simply asked, “How can these things be?”
Jesus went on to offer Nicodemus eternal life and alluded to the coming crucifixion with a reference to Moses saving his people from death by lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole. (God had sent fiery serpents among the unfaithful people and then instructed Moses to lift up the bronze serpent which, when looked upon, would save the people from death.)
Jesus went on to assure Nicodemus: “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.” And Jesus added, “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.” But we are not saved by knowing ABOUT Jesus; we are saved by knowing HIM and letting the spirit of God into our lives.
In today’s Scripture reading, Nicodemus does not seem to have an “aha” conversion moment. But he is one person who continues to appear in the Gospel narrative. After the police are called to arrest Jesus at the Temple, Nicodemus speaks up on his behalf in front of the Roman rulers. And after the crucifixion, it is Nicodemus who comes to help Joseph of Arimathaea. Nicodemus brings with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds, and together these two men bury Jesus.
What this tells me is that the Spirit of God did create change in Nicodemus, that Nicodemus did experience a spiritual awakening, although the details are not part of the sacred text.
The changes that God brings about in OUR lives are also not part of sacred text—but they are the substance out of which the kingdom of God is built. It is the grace of God that allows us to change and to grow into more mature, more caring followers of Christ. It is reassuring to me that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it through him. As the Gospel of John says, “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.” It comforts me to realize that God loves me just as I am—but that doesn’t mean I want to stop seeking to know God better, to follow him more closely, to learn to love as he has first loved me.
Today’s Scripture is calling us to be in a deeper relationship with God, to be born anew through the Spirit of God. We could undergo a strict Lenten ritual of prayer and fasting, sack cloth and ashes—but I doubt that that would do much to make us more loving of one another. Rather, as Mother Theresa suggested, we might try simply to do small things with great love. That would be a great Lenten tradition! Perhaps you have your own Lenten practices; perhaps you might be tempted to adopt one. I would certainly encourage each of us to use these days pray-fully.
Recently I came across a quotation that might make us more aware of our sacred relationship with God and each other. It says: “I believe churches are meant for praising God. But so are 2:00 a.m. car rides, showers, coffee shops, the gym, conversations with friends, strangers, etc. Don’t let a building confine your faith because we will never change the world by just going to church; we need to be the church.” Hopefully, that is a Lenten challenge we can all embrace.
In the name of the one who offers us eternal life and challenges us to journey with him, even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Sources: DeMello, Anthony, The Song of the Bird, pg. 27
Sermon Seeds & Working Preacher for 03/08/2020
SCRIPTURE READING: John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
“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.”
“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.”
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.