Chasing Away the Shadows

Mar 8, 2020 by

Sermon by Paula Papky

Genesis 12:1-4a         Psalm 121           Romans 4:1-5, 13-17               John 3:1-17


So, you find your seat on the airliner, get settled with your paperback mystery, and then your seatmate asks you, “Are you born again?”  It’s not the sort of question you welcome at the beginning of a long flight, seated beside a passenger who’s clutching her New Testament.  She looks like a serious proselytizer, determined to convert you.  She notes your book, a Nordic noir crime novel called, The Maniac Knife-Sharpener.  You regret not bringing The Pilgrim’s Progress so you can pretend to be on a silent retreat.

This may be your worst flying nightmare.  What does she mean by “Born again?”  Why are you so uneasy with this question that you’d rather sit next to a 2-year old with a cough?

As I lived with the story of Jesus meeting Nicodemus at night this past week and listened to them speak of being “born again”, some of my uneasiness went away.  I found I could more clearly see what John means by “new life” and even by “eternal life.”  What Jesus offers to Nicodemus and to us is nothing less than “eternal life” and there are many clues in their conversation about what is meant by eternal life.  It is, as one writer says about this meeting, “a life-changing event of staggering proportions.”  Now, wouldn’t that liven up a Sunday morning at church?

You have to wonder why Nicodemus would want a different life.  I mean, he’s a Pharisee, an honoured teacher of Judea and the Jerusalem Temple.  He’s got status dripping from his fingertips.  He has an important job as a Pharisee, charged with keeping the Judean people on the right side of the law.  Moses’ Law, that is.  Starting out with ten terse “Thou Shalt Not” statements, the law has grown to 613 sub-laws.  They’re all written and taught by the Pharisees so that God’s people would live lives of ethical purity.  What could be a more important calling?

Of course, there were benefits for Pharisees.  One could live in the right part of Jerusalem, with fences and the right sort of elite neighbours.  The lavish lifestyle was for your whole extended family.  One had the highest honour status in a culture where honour is the most prized value.  And yet Nicodemus must be seeking something more.  Maybe it’s something he can’t even put into words; something he hasn’t the language to articulate.  When John writes that Nicodemus came to meet Jesus at night, he may be implying that he seeks Jesus because he’s confused; he has doubts; he’s not even sure what he wants.

And right off the bat, Jesus makes him even more bewildered, more in the dark, you could say.  It’s as if Jesus is speaking some kind of code – which he is, of course, all through John’s Gospel.  Somehow new meanings have been assigned to certain familiar words and phrases.  “Birth” isn’t about emerging all bloody from your mother’s body.  Birth is about “spirit”, not flesh, apparently.  And Jesus goes on to speak of knowing, of believing, of one who descended from heaven, one called The Son of Man.  He speaks of the one who is lifted up and of the world being saved.  Is it getting foggy in here?  Did someone cut the lights?

My youngest grandson, Max, age 4, recently surprised us by announcing that he believes in God but he doesn’t believe in Jesus.  Granted, it may have been in the context of thinking about Santa and The Easter Bunny and The Tooth Fairy, and the fact that Jesus comes without presents.  But it would seem that even at age 4 he struggles with belief as he tries to make sense of the world.  And as the whole of John’s Gospel is written “that we might believe in Jesus’ name and receive power to become the children of God,” we need to give this subject of believing in Jesus our best and most honest energy and focus.  What is Jesus all about?  What is meant by believing in him?

Sometimes we may wonder as we read John’s Gospel just what John is up to in the way he uses words.  Remember back when you first learned igpay atinlay (Pig Latin)? You used to torment your younger siblings and friends by saying:  Iay onay omethingsay ousay ontday onay.  It was fun for a while to be part of an exclusive tribe that had its own language that determined who was in and who was out.  Nicodemus hasn’t yet been admitted to Jesus’ inner circle and at this point in John’s Gospel, neither have we.  We have to learn the language in order to get who Jesus is, to really meet Jesus and get on his wavelength.  We’ll have to make our way from our own culture into his.

Nicodemus is humble enough to admit he’s in the dark about Jesus and what he means.  It’s the darkness of un-knowing, of being unenlightened.  But he does say to Jesus, “We know you come from God.”

What?  He doesn’t he come from a hick town in Galilee?  And doesn’t everyone know nothing good can come from Galilee?  People in Jesus’ time were extremely conscious of birth.  One’s honour status came from one’s parents and was forever fixed.  Yet here is Nicodemus questioning that low status of Jesus, implying that it must be incorrect.  To “come from God” is surely the highest honour status one could have.  To state that Jesus’ status comes from God would sweep away those notions about unchangeable birth status.  That’s a pretty big learning so early in the conversation!

And Jesus answers, do you believe I’m from God because you’ve seen the signs I’ve done?  The way I cleared the Temple?  What happened at that wedding in Cana?  He seems to say, that’s one way to learn the truth about me, to demand evidence, to have me prove I’m from God by doing signs.  But there’s a better way to come to know me and to be able to see the Kingdom of God:  you’ll have to be born again.

Nicodemus is moving from darkness to a glimmer of light and understanding but now is plunged back into darkness.  He knows the Roman Empire, but the Kingdom of God?  And being born from above?  A new mystery to penetrate.  How can one be born from above?  And what would happen to my old birth with its honour and status?  It becomes irrelevant?  Do I leave behind my family, all the generations before me and after, to live this new life?

Jesus makes it clear that being reborn is the only way to enter and live in the Kingdom of God.  You must be born of water and the Spirit, Jesus tells him.  He’s using words we know – kingdom, birth, water, spirit – but they seem to have acquired new meanings.  Uh-oh.  Someone dimmed the lights again.

But Jesus says, do not be astonished.  Don’t be put off, don’t feel you aren’t up to understanding my meaning.  These words are meant to console, I think.  They are meant to say something like:  you can do this, get beyond the darkness of not understanding.  Think about what you know of the Spirit of God, who created you and the whole world; led you from slavery; kept you safe in the desert; spoke through the prophets.

Yes, that Spirit.  As impossible to control as the wind but having enormous power and energy.  You can be reborn by that Spirit if your desire is to see and experience the Kingdom of God; if you want to “live tomorrow’s life today” as a Brian Wren hymn puts it.

And when Nicodemus protests, “How can these things be?” Jesus reassures him.  Three times he says, “Very truly, I tell you…”  Nicodemus has sought the truth about Jesus and Jesus tells him the truth:  that it is possible to know sky things, heavenly things; they can be learned from him, the one who has access to the heavens, who ascends and descends between heaven and earth.  He’s still using language not yet totally familiar but he doesn’t cut the conversation short.  He says the new birth, the new life, will be made clearer when he, Jesus, is lifted up –a phrase we learn in John’s Gospel is about the crucifixion, the lifting up on the cross, and the resurrection, the lifting up from the grave.

It is indeed a code John’s Gospel uses, one that can only be understood and experienced by Jesus’ followers, the in-group.  Nicodemus becomes a follower.  A trusted member of Jesus’ inner circle.  When next we see him he is with Joseph ofAramathea, taking the body down from the cross, washing it, wrapping it in costly spices and placing it in a new tomb.  He has learned the language of the in-group through being attached to the new family Jesus builds.

All the key words are there to enlighten us about the meaning of eternal life:  new birth, water, spirit, kingdom of God.  Clearly eternal life is life animated by the Spirit.  It is life enlivened, energized, enriched by the Spirit.  And it is there for all those who attach themselves to Jesus in the new family.  It is a richer quality of life available to us as individuals and as a community.  There is within us, the baptized and the seekers, something that yearns for a richer life, something we may not even be able to articulate at the start.  Eternal life is an Easter life:  life with a focus, with ethics, with devotion.  Like Nicodemus we still exist in a larger society but where we really live is in a sort of anti-society with a different language and different values:  a passion for justice and equality; loyalty to Christ and to each other; and the honouring of the Spirit, the breath, the wind of God that blows through us, shaping and reshaping us into the people worthy of our birth as the children of God.


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