A Sermon preached by The Rev. Beth Lind Foote, Interim Rector, on the Second Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2020
Last week the Gospel of Matthew led us out into the wilderness with Jesus for Lent, and this week it feels like we really are in the wilderness. What a Lent it’s turning out to be! With the concern over the coronavirus, the tumbling stock market, the stress of the 2020 election cycle—all these things come together to mark this Lent as a strange time. Maybe, given the level of uncertainty we’re living with, it’s fortuitous that the rest of our Gospel readings for Lent all come from the Gospel of John, which is known for its mysticism and its beauty. We could use both right now.
Today we hear the story of Nicodemus, next week we meet the woman at the well, the fourth Sunday is the healing of the Blind Man, and the last Sunday of Lent we hear the raising of Lazarus. All of these stories are unique to the Gospel of John, and each one shows us an intimate encounter healing encounter with Jesus.
Compared to the other people Jesus encounters Nicodemus seems to have has his life together. He’s a Pharisee after all, and Pharisees were upstanding religious leaders.
But in today’s reading John presents us with another side of Nicodemus. What can we learn from this story today in the midst of our strange and anxious Lenten season?
Nicodemus seems to have a yearning for a deeper spirituality than what his tradition has taught him, and he seeks out Jesus. The fact that John says he came “by night,” symbolizes the mystical quality of Nicodemus’ spiritual yearning.
Jesus immediately sizes up Nicodemus and initiates a conversation about being “born.”
He says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above…no one can enter the kingdom of god without being born of water and the Spirit. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it but you do not know where it come from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Poor Nicodemus is flummoxed by this talk about being “born” of the spirit. He takes Jesus literally and asks, “How can these things be?”
We don’t know what happened to Nicodemus after his dialogue by night with Jesus. Maybe he supported his movement financially. Maybe he followed Jesus’ ministry from the safety of his position as a Pharisee. And maybe something new was being born in him.
Because the story of Nicodemus continues. He reappears another two times in John’s Gospel. In both instances, John identifies Nicodemus as “Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night,” which reminds us of who Nicodemus is, and he came to Jesus.
About midway through John’s Gospel, Nicodemus, uses his influence as a member of the Sanhedrin to defend Jesus when the temple police want to arrest Jesus for teaching in the Temple. And after the crucifixion, Nicodemus comes out of the shadows to bring 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, which makes it a burial on the scale of a king. Nicodemus along with Joseph of Arimethia break all sorts of religious and social traditions by personally attending to Jesus’ body. It was something never done by men, and it made them ritually unclean.
If we look at the whole arc of the story of Nicodemus, we see someone whose faith grows over time, and whose faith required a degree of sacrifice. We see someone who is being born of the Spirit.
It’s ironic that the story of Nicodemus, which shows us the process of spiritual growth over time, has become associated with the term “born again”. In evangelical American Christianity, “born again,” means that you’ve had a definitive one-time conversion experience. Nicodemus did not have a one time experience of being “born again”, his faith grew as a process.
What do I hear in this story as we travel through Lent in 2020? In this time of uncertainty, I recognize in myself a desire for more clarity and control, a very human sign of stress. But as I sat with this passage, I found new meaning in Jesus words about the wind. “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.” I wonder what is being born in me by the Spirit this Lent? What is being born here at All Saints? What is being born in all of you?
Personally, I feel a new appreciation for the movement of the spirit. Sometimes we don’t understand where it’s blowing, and we need to trust, have faith, and listen for it. I hear Jesus saying God is still active in the world. The winds of the Spirit are still blowing. We need to raise our sails to catch the wind of the Spirit as we mature in faith, as we move forward in our time of transition, as we move forward as a society.
Last Wednesday we had our first Wednesday evening Lenten program, “Signs of Life,” and we talked about the meaning of “Light” to our faith. One of the monks in our video talked about the comfort he felt seeing the light of the sanctuary lamp in the chapel. We also have a sanctuary lamp that is lit 24 hours a day, and it is comforting to see it when I come into the dark church.
The video talked about the play of light and dark in John’s Gospel, and how light was there before God created the earth, and how Jesus calls himself the light of the world. In the story of Nicodemus we see the interplay of the darkness of night and the light of the world, and Jesus draws him towards the light of new life.
In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. used the Nicodemus story as a metaphor for the United States’ need to be “born again” to address social and economic inequality. Half a century later, we need that kind of rebirth more than ever. In his language about being “born” again, Jesus challenges us to let the new be born within us, as a society, as a church, and as individual followers of Jesus. Birth is hard work, and it leads to new beginnings, a new life.
In these challenging times, I also find comfort in the familiar verse from John that I’d like to reclaim as a touchstone for us this morning, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” May new faith be born again in you this Lenten Season. Amen