We Journey by StagesSecond Sunday of Lent
In her book, Speaking Of Sin, Barbara Brown Taylor wrestles with the difficult language used by the church, words like “sin,” “salvation,” and in today’s reading “born again.” I grew up in a community that used and thought we knew what these words meant. Sin generally referred to what others did, not me, and salvation was a one time decision to make. I grew up in the Southern United States an hours drive from where 4 young girls were killed when their church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. I never heard that called out as sin.
It was the same two years later on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma when voting rights marchers were attacked by Police who had been authorized to unleash violent force to turn back the marchers. Those acts of brutality were never called sin, either. Was it because those who had inflicted that same degree of murderous rage were back in their own churches the following week singing “Amazing Grace?” The language of sin, salvation and born-again has always been difficult to pin down if it requires looking into the mirror and seeing your own image.
We forget that the story of Nicodemus precedes and is the context for the 4 verses we read from John 3. He was the first to struggle with the concept of being “born again.” Nicodemus, a well-known and respected Jewish leader, had been watching Jesus from afar and decided that he wanted to find out more about this new brand of religion.
Nicodemus pays Jesus a visit and begins the conversation in a rather pretentious way. “Rabbi, we know you have come from God because of the wondrous signs you’ve been doing.”
Jesus’ reply is rather surprising. He knows this is not a casual meet and greet and cuts to the core with his assessment, “You need to start over and be born again.” Jesus is asking Nicodemus to become as vulnerable and as dependent as a child.
Nicodemus is grappling with the impossibility of being born again, “how can this be?” His position and power offered him a false sense of self-sufficiency that prevented him from accepting God’s gift of grace.
And then, Nicodemus hears verses 14-15 we read earlier. “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.” Jesus is giving Nicodemus an image any Hebrew would remember that pointed to a symbol of death that became an image of life.
Jesus is again reverting to an impossible situation– death to new life in verse 16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
For too long, the early church used this verse as a warning of a drastic fate. We need to remember Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus here, who was already perishing emotionally, socially, intellectually and spiritually. Walter Brueggemann writes that Nicodemus seemed to have everything and yet, took such a great personal risk to come to Jesus. Nicodemus had a gnawing sense of “is this all there is?”
Jesus was offering him a new journey of rebirth and discovery of new life. Jesus was offering Nicodemus “the land that he knew not of” and the land that he could not, in his own power, create for himself.
Jesus Invites us to open our imagination and reconsider our relationship with God. Jesus knows that none of us can do this on our own because rebirth is God’s gift to give. The words of John 3:16 are an invitation to be reborn, vulnerable and dependent, open to the One who gives new life.
This is not an invitation to be alone and independent, left to our own devices. Last week we heard the words repeated, “Go to the land that I will show you…” We read today how Abram begins that journey toward a new land. If we take those words to heart, perhaps they leave us with a sense of mystery and wonder. How might Abram’s story relate to Jesus’ invitation to us?
We have begun the journey of Lent with an opportunity of moving to a new place spiritually. It is up to us to begin this journey. We can remain where we are in our safe spaces emotionally and spiritually or we can journey toward a new land that God will show us. We may think this journey is as impossible as being reborn from our mother’s womb. God calls to each of us:
Leave what you know and go into the unknown. I will be with you and I will bless you, but you must act in faith in response to my word.