Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon for Lent 2 A

Did you sleep well last night? I hope so…Tossing and turning as the hours tick past can be a wretched experience.
I wonder if that’s what brought Nicodemus to Jesus…Perhaps he had been mulling over something he’d heard and just couldn’t sleep till he’d cleared it up.
Jesus had started a train of thought that had ended with a really burning question…it must have been pretty overwhelming to actually get him out of bed
If you had, as the song puts it “Just one question” to put to God’s Son, I wonder what you’d choose…what you most long to hear answered….
Think on that.
Maybe even try asking him, sometime?

Meanwhile, though, back to Nicodemus.
Perhaps he's afraid of what his friends and colleagues will say if he's seen approaching this controversial itinerant preacher. Hence his nocturnal ramblings. He’s chosen the cover of darkness, because actually he’s scared.
Scared of being caught showing an unhealthy interest in Jesus.
Scared that in engaging with him, he might be identified as one of the lunatic fringe.
After all, Nicodemus is a respected figure, part of the establishment with a reputation to protect, and a lot to lose. He’s not in the same position as that ragtag handful of Galilean boatmen who could just drop everything and go where Jesus lead. He has real status – and status and Christian discipleship are always uneasy companions.
It makes sense for Nicodemus to be anxious, even fearful.

Fearful as some of our brothers and sisters in the world church still are, fearful that faith might cost them their livelihoods, even their lives.

That’s not a kind of fear we are familiar with, enjoying the freedoms we do.
We’ve come through these doors in broad daylight – and though the world may seem to walk by our west screens we don’t feel the need to put up blackout curtains, lest we be seen at worship.
The worst we face, on the whole, is a kind of incredulity – that as sensible people we would choose to spend our time in chilly buildings talking to an imaginary friend.
That may be frustrating, and should make us wonder what we might do to share our faith in ways that actually speak of God’s living reality – but it doesn’t put us in fear of our lives.
I wonder whether, in comparable circumstances, you and I would have visited Jesus by night – indeed whether we’d have actually managed to leave home at all.
Are we engaged enough to leave our beds to meet with Jesus?
Would we risk our reputations for his sake?
Would we mind being identified as disciples, if there were any inherent risk?

Again, if you’re not sure how you’d answer that, it might be worth reflecting on.
Perhaps you could talk God, or to one of his friends whom you trust…
Because really, there doesn’t seem to be much point in turning up week by week, if this whole faith thing hasn’t yet taken you by storm, nor the wind of the Spirit swept you off your feet, planting you somewhere you neither chose nor expected…
That passion that forced Nicodemus from the safety of his home by night is a gift of the Spirit that transforms the way of faith from duty to joy – and it’s something to ask for, and to celebrate.

I think that’s where Jesus was going as the conversation unfolded. Here’s Nicodemus, immured in his current way of life…believing that he’s too old for a fresh start…. But still he comes, armed with his deductions, in search of some answers..
You see, he thinks he has worked it all out.
Jesus is undoubtedly a Rabbi sent specially by God.
That’s the only explanation for the signs and wonders that so many have witnessed.
In grasping that, Nicodemus is already half way there but recognising a heaven-sent teacher is not in itself enough to propel a man from his bed in the small hours. Something more is nagging away… but he doesn't know what,- he is just aware of that vague feeling of disquiet which is often a sign that God is trying to get through to us, if only we will stand still and listen. A restless searching is another of those gifts of faith to be cherished and engaged with

Nicodemus, of course, has come to listen, to be taught, but he must have found Jesus's response at best discouraging, - positively baffling i. Instead of being congratulated on his perception, - he does recognise the presence of God when he sees it,- he is told that he can't even SEE the kingdom, still less enter it.
He’s still way off course.
He needs to be born again.
"Ah yes, born again" we say, nodding sagely, for this has become a Christian cliche over the centuries, carrying with it all sorts of associations, helpful and otherwise.
It is hard to imagine how very strange the phrase sounded to Nicodemus – who is much too adult to consider a new start.
We’re confident that we know much better than him, with his literal vision of re-entering the womb
Actually, though, his confusion has much to say to us, if we really think about a new-born baby, something I’m very keen on doing at the moment, as the granny of Eleanor Grace, now three whole weeks old. She arrived, as do we all, naked, totally helpless, dependent upon others for food, warmth, love, everything she needs to help her live and thrive.
In the same way, Nicodemus and all who seek the kingdom must become totally vulnerable and helpless before God, accepting that without him we can do nothing, that it’s never about pleasing him with our best efforts, proving our faith with acts of loving service, however much we might want to earn God’s love.
But of course, we’d rather be loved and admired for what we can do…specially in this age of achievement, when we want to believe that we have conquered the world and everything in it. Accepting that, in matters of eternal significance, we are ultimately helpless without God isn’t easy.
It wasn’t easy for the cultured, educated Nicodemus either.
Total vulnerability never is.
We want to believe that we understand the world and have mastered its way, unlike a newborn baby who comes without intellectual or emotional baggage, with literally no pre-conceptions.
Nothing is impossible, impractical, foolish, beneath that hypnotic newborn gaze.
In contrast, when we find ourselves challenged by the Gospel, too often our response is limited by our ideas of what is actually sensible, or socially acceptable. It takes a lot of courage to dump all that we have learned about how the world works, even when we are becoming aware of the shortcomings of the system…but if we are starting from scratch, we can be more genuinely open to the radical implications of the gospel message.
Being born again might look a bit like that

Finally, a baby and its parents in those very first newborn days can become all the world to each other, giving and receiving absolute unconditional love. There are no distractions for the baby: she knows no-one else to love, and has no idea that her parents, brimming with good intentions, will ever let her down. Eleanor is loved by all her family simply because she is herself. And that, wonderfully, is the way God feels about us.
He can’t HELP loving us. Amazing! Incredible, but true.
That gift of love is offered to us, today and always, by the God Nicodemus yearned for day and night.
The God we meet in Word and Sacrament.
the God who loved the world – not just the good, not just the Jews, not even just the Christians - the God who loved the WORLD so much that he sent his only Son…

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