Sunday 5th February 2023 Genesis 12 1-4a
Romans 4 1-5, 13-17
John 3 1-17
May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
I have to say that I always think of Nicodemus with a certain degree of empathy. He asks the big questions I like to think I'd have been brave enough to ask Jesus myself. What is the Kingdom of heaven, how do we reach it? Whatever does Jesus mean by being 'born from above'? Three times in today's Gospel Jesus repeats the words 'very truly...'. The true answers to these critical and urgent questions, he seems to be saying, are here in today's Gospel, not just for Nicodemus, but for anyone ready to listen and respond to Him.
In today's Gospel Nicodemus is clearly taking a risk in coming to talk with Jesus; he has to come by night so as not to be seen. But come he does, perhaps brought by the subtle influence of the Spirit Jesus tells him about. And then Jesus gives him a really hard time, responding to his questions with answers which become more and more challenging. Nicodemus comes looking for answers and Jesus responds by talking to him in what seem like riddles. But I'm sure that for many of us his questions are completely reasonable. How exactly can we be 'born after having grown old? 'What does that mean? Clearly it matters; if we don't understand these things Jesus tells us we can't enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Nicodemus speaks for all of us when he asks, 'How can these things be?' If we find ourselves asking the same question, we're in good company; Mary says something very similar to the angel Gabriel. 'How can these things be?' is exactly what we should be asking if we're searching for the Kingdom of Heaven! In our readings today Jesus don't offer us easy answers, but I think he and Nicodemus together suggest some directions, directions we might like to reflect on as we travel through Lent, which is a time for rebirth of precisely the sort that Jesus seems to be offering Nicodemus; rebirth in the sense of being born from above with the goal of entering the kingdom of heaven not at some point in the future but here and now ,and not through asking questions whose answers are just going to lead us to ask more questions, but through acting and doing.
There's a lot of emphasis at the moment on how we go about being re-born. In yesterday's papers alone I came across articles telling me how to boost my concentration, [peppermint tea and jigsaws] and live longer [no red meat, two servings of fish and lots of seeds and leafy veg and no alcohol]. I could exercise more, learn a language, volunteer. But I think when Jesus talks of 'being born from above' He means something much more complex than renewing ourselves through doing new and worthwhile things, even when they mean leading a healthier and perhaps more fulfilled life. I've got to say that for me 'Lifelong learning' has been hugely important; starting Reader training in my sixties has led me to all sorts of discoveries. Preparing for today I found myself wondering whether perhaps Reader training might be a form of being born from above. I find myself praying more, thinking more about the Bible, listening, and looking for God more than ever before. We can all experience this call to learn and discover more about God at any age; Abraham in today's reading from Genesis is 75 when he obeys God's call. And central to Abraham's ability to hear and respond to God's mission, as Paul tells us in Romans, is faith. And this brings us back to Nicodemus. Jesus gives Nicodemus a hard time in today's reading; his faith in Jesus must have been hugely tested by this encounter, and yet later in John's Gospel it's Nicodemus who challenges the unjust way in which the Pharisees judge Jesus without first giving him a fair hearing, and is mocked for doing so, and Nicodemus who after the crucifixion comes with Joseph of Arimathea to gently and carefully anoint Jesus's body and lay it reverently in the tomb. His actions reveal his deep faith in Jesus and the new life he offers.
I wonder if here we have the answer to Nicodemus's own question, 'how can anyone be born after having grown old?'. For Nicodemus, and perhaps for us as well, the answer to that question doesn't come just through thinking, because how can our minds ever encompass the mysteries Jesus talks of here, but through doing. Nicodemus acts because through encountering Jesus he's been born, in Jesus's own words, 'of the Spirit'. The Kingdom of Heaven isn't waiting for Nicodemus at some point in the future; he enters it in John's Gospel through his actions. He risks his own safety by coming to Jesus at night, he stands up for justice despite the mockery he's subjected to, and he shows love and care for Jesus in death; I wonder if without fully knowing it he's experiencing and enacting the very thing he finds so difficult to understand in our Gospel reading.
And so, for those of us who are looking to learn something new, or who want to use Lent to deny ourselves things or change our lifestyles in some way, those things may give us an illusion of being reborn. But we shouldn't confuse them with what Jesus is offering. Just like Nicodemus we too are being invited to be born from above, to live and act in God. Jesus's words invite us to use our imaginations, to let our minds be stretched to the limit, to ask 'how can these things be?'. We'll never know the answer but like Nicodemus, asking the question is the first step towards living and acting in God, growing in faith, and so helping through our actions to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth.
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.