Apologies that there's been no 'thinking' going on here this week: one of those weeks where I have been wrestling with a combination of the texts & all the stuff going on in the world - but not found time to actually post: so here we are 'fully formed' - but I still reserve the right to preach around these notes, rather then read them!
Readings are Genesis 12: 1-4a
John 3: 1-17
Jesus & Nicodemus Lent 2
Some weeks when we come to meet with God in worship it feels as if our heads are just full of unanswerable questions. Civil war in Libya and UN involvement in yet another country; tragedy upon tragedy for Japan; and some of the most heart-breaking stories of suffering – especially of children – on Friday’s Comic Relief Day. Why does it happen? How should we respond? Where is God in all this?
So how are we meant to listen to the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night – and that knotty phrase it contains where Jesus says that ‘you must be born again’ or ‘born from above’.
What on earth is Jesus on about? This isn’t the sort of teaching that Nicodemus, a Pharisee is risking his neck to hear. All through John’s gospel there is a constant questioning of who this Jesus is. John speaks of the ‘signs’ by which people come to believe in Jesus.
The first of these signs – the changing of water into wine at Cana – has just happened as the story of Nicodemus is told, and Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus by saying ‘no-one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God’. Nicodemus comes to this teacher from God – Jesus – to find some answers. What is the main thing Jesus wants to teach? Be born again. Nicodemus certainly misses the point ‘can a person enter the mother’s womb & be born a second time?’. If he was a man of our times Nicodemus would almost certainly say ‘eeuw!’.
But it seems that Jesus is wanting to help Nicodemus to see that following Jesus, believing in him, trusting him, will turn his whole life upside down & make it as if his life was starting again from scratch.
Nicodemus comes with his flannel and flattery “I know you are a good teacher” – and Jesus cuts him off in mid sentence. Jesus doesn’t want a fan club, he wants disciples. He doesn’t want clever people nodding their heads at what he says – he wants people prepared to stake their whole existence on the message that he brings – that God’s love is a free gift of astonishing grace and that accepting that love is the most important thing you can do with your life.
Nicodemus is a man of learning and letter and law. He knows – or he thinks he knows – what it is that God has required of people – careful adherence to the commandments and a concern for doing what is righteous. But Nicodemus is in for a huge shock. He’s not the first – we heard the beginning of the story of Abraham, from the Bible’s very first book. Leave your land and your family and go…
Without even a destination in mind, Abraham agrees to go wherever God calls.
This is the sort of whole-hearted following that Jesus is asking for from Nicodemus – a new life, a new place, a new goal – like having your whole life turned upside down and beginning again.
Poor Nicodemus – still left with so many questions. What sort of new life, and how can he be sure that he will like it, once his life begins again? But Jesus asks for trust – this is what he has come into the world for – ‘God so loved the world he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’.
Jesus doesn’t promise answers, he promises life in all its fullness.
But for us in 2011 it almost seems obscene to be thinking about these questions – what does ‘born again’ mean?; what is eternal life? ; how do we follow Jesus? – when the world is in such turmoil.
The people of Japan are painfully aware of the huge trauma of having your life turned upside down by something outside your control. And so our minds may be teeming with other, even more difficult questions – why earthquakes and tsunamis?, why death & disaster?, why sickness and misery?
But Jesus points us to a response to our questions that goes beyond trying to satisfy our sense of justice, or our scientific sensibilities, or our yearning for truth. Allow your world to be turned upside down – stop looking for a reason why God allows this, and trust instead that God cares deeply for each human life.
I was interested to hear that the Shinto Buddhists of Japan do not torment themselves with the questions ‘why has this earthquake happened?’ – they simply accept that natural forces are stronger than they can imagine – and so the ground will shake and the force of a tsunami will wash life away. And the question that then remains is – how will you help your neighbour?
Jesus tells Nicodemus to start again in life and let go of the search for legal correctness in favour of grace and love. And maybe Jesus tells us the same.
You may find this the most unsatisfying answer to your questions about the state of the world – but here it is ‘the state of the world is the state of the world – yet among the wreckage of our personal lives and the life of the world, Jesus offers the hand of love’.
When our world is turned upside down – either because we choose to start again or because change is forced upon us – Jesus invites us to trust him, to walk with him – to receive this bread & wine - & to know that we are loved.
Thanks be to God. Amen.