Friday, March 10, 2017
The Nicodemus Dilemma (Lent 2, March 12 2017)
Homily: March 12 2017, Yr A Lent 2, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 12.1-4a; Ps 121, Romans 4.1-5,13-17; John 3.1-17
How many of you are responsible for your own birth? I’m guessing not very many. Because it doesn’t work like that. You were born by someone else. Someone else carried you, someone else did the labour, someone else dealt with the mess. Each one of us entered into an incredible new reality at our birth, but not one of us can say that we did it on our own.
In today’s gospel, we’re back in the womb again. Not our mother’s womb this time, but the womb of our present reality, the womb of this earth as we know it, of this material world, the womb of the flesh. We know it well, this life. We’re starting to get the hang of it. Sometimes, like Nicodemus, we feel like we’ve got things figured out. But then Nicodemus meets Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”
Because there’s a whole new reality waiting for us. A spiritual reality. A dimension of life that we don’t even realize is there even though it surrounds us and penetrates us. A reality that Jesus calls the kingdom of God. Can you see it Nicodemus?
No, you can’t. This is a spiritual reality that Nicodemus has completely missed. It’s not just that he doesn’t know it, he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know it. He thinks he’s in the know. He’s a Pharisee, a teacher, a leader. He comes to Jesus proclaiming his knowledge. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”
And Jesus responds, “you don’t know nothing.”
Now, we can’t really blame Nicodemus for that. Think about it. How much did you know about this reality that we live in now before you were born. Imagine yourself in your mother’s womb in the days before your birth. What would you have known about sky and trees and people apart perhaps from your mother? Not very much. Maybe a few hints, some sounds, the occasional sensation of touch through your mother’s belly. But there is no way we could have imagined this world while we were still in the womb. In order to see it, in order to enter it, we had to be born.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that the kingdom of God is like that. Even though it’s all around us, even though it’s near to us, it’s still beyond our imagination. Not one of us can see it, not one of us can enter it without being born, just as we entered a new world when we were born from our mother’s womb. But this is a new birth. This time, Jesus says, we must be born from above, born again, born into a new reality, born of the Spirit.
You have to admit, this is pretty astonishing stuff. “How can this be?” asks Nicodemus. “How can anyone who has grown old be born again? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
And he’s right. We can’t birth ourselves. And for those of us who like to be in control of our own lives, who like to do things for ourselves, that’s a problem. In fact it’s more than a problem, it’s frickin’ annoying, downright frustrating. If we are to be born again, and that’s what Jesus is telling us needs to happen, we can’t do this ourselves, no more than we did it ourselves the first time around. To be born from above, Jesus says, it’s the Spirit who must bear us. It’s out of our hands.
This is the Nicodemus dilemma.
When Nicodemus encounters Jesus, he sees something of God, and so he wants to lay his hands on it and bring it into his world, to incorporate Jesus into his own knowledge and understanding. But Jesus says to him “you can’t just bring me into your world, you need to be born into a whole new world. There is a whole new reality with God that awaits us, that surrounds us, a reality that is beyond what we can imagine, a reality that goes beyond our present awareness by as much as our present reality transcends the reality we experienced in the womb before our physical birth. It’s here, but it’s a whole new world. And you can’t see it, you can’t enter this new reality until you are born again. And you can’t birth yourself.
So what is a Nicodemus to do?
Fortunately for us, there is a solution to the Nicodemus dilemma, and it’s summed up in one of the most famous verses in the Bible:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”
We can’t see or enter the kingdom of God without being born from above. But God loves us so much, God wants so much for us to be born from above and to enter that new reality and to be with him that he gave his only Son to make it possible. Jesus is the one who is from above, the one who was born from above, and so he can speak to this new reality, he can testify as to what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus can tell us about it! Are we listening? Do we receive his testimony? Do we believe, can we trust what he is telling us? Sadly, at least in this story, Nicodemus isn’t there yet. He isn’t receptive to Jesus testimony, he’s not yet ready to trust what Jesus has to say. He’s not ready to be born yet.
Because even though we can’t birth ourselves, it does seem that we have a part to play in getting ready to be born. God is preparing for our birth, he’s making it possible by giving his Son, and by lifting him up for us to see. Our part is to receive this gift, to hear Jesus’ words and to believe in him, to trust him, to have faith. We don’t have to do the heavy lifting. God will send his Spirit to bear us, to carry us, to do the labour, to give birth. Only the Spirit can bear us from this world of fixed realities into God’s kingdom, full of new possibilities.
And what a birth that will be. Just as we opened our eyes that first time when we left our mother’s womb, our eyes will be opened again to a world that is transformed, to a new home, to the astonishing reality of the kingdom of God. When we were born the first time, our world was filled with new sights and sounds, new relationships, new hopes and dreams. When we are born from above all this await us once more but in new and unimagined ways.
Birth is not easy. Birth can be a struggle, it can be painful, it can be disruptive. We don’t know much about this new birth from above. Does it happen in an instant or is it a long process? Has it already begun? Will we know when it is complete? We can only push our metaphors so far. All we know for sure is that we have to trust our birth to God.
And that’s ok, because birth is what God does. God makes children. God sent us his Son into the world so that all who receive him, who trust and believe and have faith in him will be born as children of God.
So get ready. You are being born.
 Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A (Minneapolis: 2016, Luther Seminary)
Image by Torsten Mangner, Creative Commons