Monday, March 21, 2011

What Would Nicodemus Do?

(A sermon for Lent 2A March 20, 2011 Psalm 121, John 3:1-17)

Four years ago I was headed to Kansas to experience my first gathering with the lectionary study group known as The Well. In my bag I had my laptop, the two papers I had written and a folder of articles and other materials we were all supposed to have read before we got there. I climbed into my window seat, dutifully shoved the bag underneath the seat in front of me, clicked my seat belt and began to look through the folder.

I had hoped the seat next to me would remain empty, but as the plane filled that scenario became less and less likely. I hunkered down and tried to plug into the work in my hands. My rare introverted, academic reverie was interrupted by a backpack flung with a bit too much spunk that landed practically in my lap, “Hi! I’m Richard[i],” he declared.

I nodded my head. The less encouragement the better in these cases, right? I also noted that no one was in the aisle seat, yet he was dutifully seated in the middle seat and also seemed to be sitting in my seat as well.

I was stunned that this was to be my fate all the way to KANSAS and then it got worse. He leaned over my shoulder, way too close for comfort, and said, “Tell me… are you born again?”

Here were my blink of an eye thoughts: “oh my gosh I cannot believe that just happened if I were a real Christian I would talk to him but I don’t feel like it and if he finds out I’m a minister I’m going to have to defend that too ugh please make him go away what am I going to do can he see I’m reading

religious stuff maybe I can just say yes but I’ve taken a vow of silence… does this seat have an eject button?”

While I was running through my internal monologue he was pulling something out of his backpack – and here’s where I have to admit I was thinking, “Oh no… a Bible? A tract? No, it was… the same folder of materials I had? A huge grin broke out on his face as he said, “I’m just messing with you, I’m Richard Connors and it looks like we’ve been invited to the same lectionary group.”

And exhale.

It’s an interesting phrase, “Born again.” It sure had Nicodemus totally stumped. And some 2,000 years later I’m not convinced we’ve figured it out yet. It seems like all too often it’s used as a standard to keep people in or out.

Are you born again? = “Are you saved like us?”

Are you born again? = “Are you crazy like them?”



It’s an unhelpful label, coated in stereotypes either way you lean; heavy-laden with cultural baggage. Sometimes I wonder if we can blame a huge portion of our cultural divides when it comes to religion on that guy who had all of the great seats to sporting events, wore a rainbow wig and held up a sign everywhere he went that said, “John 3:16.”

It’s not Scripture’s fault that so much focus has been put on this one verse pulled from all context. I wonder how different the world would be if rainbow wig guy held up a sign that said, “John 5:21.”

Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life

to whomever he wishes.

Please hear me when I say that I don’t think Jesus is wrong or the Scripture is wrong, I think that the way some have turned it into a line in the sand as some sort of Book of Life proof-text is wrong.

Faith is an ongoing work of the Spirit. It is a gift from God that informs our actions. It is not a one-time action that guarantees the gift from God.

Faith is not a yes or no answer – it’s a journey.

Our Psalm this morning was most likely written for and recited on journeys to Jerusalem by those who were pilgrimaging there for religious festivals. It also echoes of a journey from darkness to light:

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.

On this journey the Lord will keep you. There is no ‘if’ the Lord will keep you – love will never let you go. God’s grace is for all – it rains on all, the sun shines on all – will we accept it? Will we accept God’s grace?

Will we accept that God’s grace is for all?

Or will we stick with that line in the sand.

A pole placed in the sand casts a shadow, but as the sun heads to its brightest point in the sky with the most light flooding the earth there is no longer a line to be seen. When light floods in, shadows are cast out - the boundaries and borders disapper - the line is lifted from the sand.

We aren’t forced to join the other side, the battle lines just disappear.

Nicodemus shows up in the dark. He is not just a curious onlooker or poor peasant. He’s a leader of the Pharisees. Unlike so many others who quickly follow Jesus in the Gospels, he takes his time. Of course he does – he has so much more to lose.

Even purposefully cloaked in darkness it is bold of him to go and find Jesus. To make matters worse Nicodemus basically doesn’t understand a single thing he says. Jesus teases him, “You’re a teacher of Israel?”

Outside the Temple weeks later the religious authorities are attempting to have Jesus arrested. Still one of them, but clearly torn, Nicodemus utters a legal technicality on Jesus’ behalf. They turn on him, “What are you, from the same place he is?”

Later still, at the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, the dead man on the cross bleeds. His side is pierced by the soldiers and the body is taken down. Nicodemus steps out of the shadows of his doubt and contemplation and together with another they take his body away. Nicodemus has arrived with 100 pounds of spices – an amount that makes clear to those around that this is not the official act of a leader of the Pharisees, but rather the faithful action of a follower of Jesus.

A pole placed in the sand casts a shadow, but as the sun heads to its brightest point in the sky with the most light flooding the earth there is no longer a line to be seen. When light floods in, shadows are cast out - the boundaries and borders disapper - the line is lifted from the sand.

Nicodemus didn’t join the other side, the battle lines just disappeared.

In his song, Fearless Love, David Wilcox tells the story of a church member encouraged by their pastor to attend a rally in the park. His lyrics sing out:

“That’s where the wicked planned to demonstrate and carry signs to set a spark.”

But while there one of the men you showed up to stand against is hit by a rock thrown from behind you. In front of you he bleeds:

(His) head is cradled in his arms (and) though his blood contains his death And though the lines are drawn in hate, you drop your sign of Bible verse and help the wounded stand up straight.

You didn’t join the other side, the battle lines just disappeared[ii].

The news in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John is Good News. It encapsulates the heart of the Christian message which is: God is love. And God is SO into loving us that he sent his Son to us to be and show us God’s love in this world. And God's love -- surprising, all encompassing, unasked for and undeserved – is given unconditionally. [iii]

A pole placed in the sand casts a shadow, but as the sun heads to its brightest point in the sky with the most light flooding the earth there is no longer a line to be seen. When light floods in, shadows are cast out - the boundaries and borders disappear - the line is lifted from the sand.

God loves us whether we like it or not.

God loves others whether we like it or not.

It’s okay to let the battle lines disappear.




[i] Name changed to protect the guilty.

[ii] David Wilcox. “Fearless Love” East Asheville Hardware, 1996.

6 comments:

Crimson Rambler said...

oh my, oh my, oh my...you have so caught it in this one! thank you!

KGMom said...

KZJ--thanks so much for posting a link on your FB page, elsewise I would not have read this.
And thanks for knocking it out of the park.
I think I'll order up a whole bunch of T-shirts with John 5:21 on them. Just for fun...
I so love the image of a pole stuck in the sand with the moving shadow.
A couple of years ago, I heard a sermon (in Louisville) on John 3:16--and that pastor preached on the verses before--about just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness portion. Had never thought about that before.
It's good to be challenged.

kathrynzj said...

Thanks Crimson and KG Mom. The lectionary didn't give us the Numbers text this year, but I have preached on that before. I think I titled it 'Snakes on a Plain'

liz said...

Wow! Thanks KZJ !

Holly said...

This is wonderful.

kathrynzj said...

UGH! Major error at the bottom of the sermon:

God loves us whether we like it or not.
God loves OTHERS whether we like it or not.

It's okay to let the battle lines disappear.