Sunday, March 14, 2021
Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B
Prayer of the Day
O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Numbers 21:4-9 The lifting up of the serpent
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10 Saved by grace through faith for good works
John 3:14-21 The lifting up of the Son of Man
Title: Preparing to Live
Well, it seems as though our good friend Nicodemus who is visiting Jesus in today’s Gospel reading was listening to the vicar’s sermon last week that included talk about preparing. Last week we heard that Jesus had come to Jerusalem and was preparing to celebrate the Passover and ended up clearing out the temple, sending scrambling the sellers and the moneychangers as part of his preparation.
But now it is nighttime in Passover-celebrating Jerusalem and Nicodemus sneaks a visit with Jesus. Sneaking because he is one of the religious leaders. There is already talk amongst his peers of the dangers that they see in Jesus and his teaching. But Nicodemus can’t help himself. He is driven to meet with Jesus, face to face. He wants to see for himself what all the delight and the dread is all about. Hearing the vicar’s words myself last week, I started to think about this very familiar visitation account in a new way. Perhaps Nicodemus is in preparation mode himself. He is certainly not looking for advice for preparing for the Passover. He has that down. The tradition is strong within him. A tradition that dictates clearly what he and his household must do. And I can’t imagine he was coming to Jesus in preparation for leaving the council of leaders on which he sat so as to follow this young man as one of his disciples. Afterall, Nicodemus has power, always hard to give up. Not to mention he’s older, and embracing life on the road with an itinerant preacher could not have been less attractive.
And while Nicodemus’ opening line doesn’t give a lot of hint about what he might be preparing for, Jesus’ seemingly non-sequitur of a response just might point to it. Keeping in mind that John puts stock in how Jesus sizes up people because in the final verse of chapter 2, what came right before this opener of chapter 3, we read that Jesus “needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” And with that affirmation, Nicodemus the questioner enters.
So, what does Jesus see in Nicodemus that maybe the old man doesn’t even see in himself? Anxiety and questions about the end of life, about death, about what’s next. A desire to prepare for the inevitable that seems to be approaching, and what is to follow. Afterall, Jesus doesn’t bother responding to Nicodemus’ opening line with anything like: ‘Yes, you are right. I am from God.’ OR ‘Ask these guys what they have seen.’ OR ‘Who do you believe that I am?’ For Nicodemus’ sake and, I’d like to think with a big dose of compassion, Jesus gets to the point Nicodemus would like addressed: seeing the fullness of the kingdom of God, aka heaven, aka paradise after he dies.
And while Nicodemus has come to prepare himself for death, Jesus invites him to prepare for life. To which the old man says that he is too old for this kind of talk. He has lived his life. There is no going back. He is just looking to be prepared for what is coming with some peaceful assurance from this one who he has judged must be from God.
But Jesus does not let up. For this news of new life is too good for Nicodemus to miss out on. The psalmist exclaims it perfectly: “You sent forth your word and healed them and rescued them from the grave.” (107:20) It’s like Jesus is in the classic situation for which lifeguards are trained in which the one in need of rescuing actually will fight off the one who has come out to save them. Embodying the enduring mercy and steadfast love of God, Jesus does not give up. For Nicodemus’ sake, for our sake. Life is here. Life in the spirit is now. Be born into it. Live.
I find it sad, heartbreaking even, to see how many times, through too any ages, the church has failed to speak these words of new life that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus. Too often, the church has taught people to sit in the night with Nicodemus and prepare to die without ever having embraced the new life in Christ that is ours now, through baptism, a foretaste of the life to come. Whether to shore up power – political or ecclesiastical – or add weight to the oppressed – voices that were charged with proclaiming the good news of God in Christ instead added their bite to the serpents of this world and told the walking dead and dying that it will get better in the next life. Endure it now and hope for a better future. Add to that the abuse of the cross by too many who make it a symbol and source of guilt and condemnation rather than grace and mercy, freedom and life, and you have a history that has led us to a time where the church is judged irrelevant by some, a cult of death by others.
Another great mistake addressed in this passage that is so easy for the church and those who make up the body of Christ to fall into (wrongfully burdening themselves and others) is the misconception that we are working out our own rebirth that Jesus is calling us to. He employs the image of birth for good reason. Think about it. How active were you in your first one? I’m guessing not much. Someone might try to say: well, I got in the right position so it could happen. Was that a conscious decision on you part? Probably not. Never in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus does he put out some sort of to-do list that will lead to life, salvation, heaven, what ever you want to call the great gift of new life in Christ (both now and in our life to come) that is ours by the grace of God
The writer of Ephesians puts it clearly in the excerpt that was read this morning.
4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which [God} loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2)
Jesus says that the Spirit blows where it will. We don’t control it. We don’t tell her to give birth to us. We don’t see her coming or going. All we can do is pray that her breath fills our sails and her direction becomes our direction.
And then of course there are those seven words at the heart of what for many of us was the first Bible verse we memorized: For God so loved…that God gave. And if that is too much, reduce it to four: God loved, God gave. What more do we need to hear? There is our life in God. There is more than what Nicodemus was looking for. There is gift that he couldn’t even thought to prepare for.
Now some may look ahead and see words of condemnation for those who do not believe. But I’d like to suggest that it is not God who is condemning but they themselves. They are condemned to miss out on the life that is ours when we believe. And, when you think about it, since none of us have perfect faith in this life, we ourselves are both those who believe and those who do not believe. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know what it means to live in moments of faith and what a blessing those are. And we know what it is to live in moments of unbelief and know how lifeless those can be. (Please do not hear doubt when I say unbelief. Very different.)
In a couple of weeks, as we walk with Jesus the way of the cross, we will encounter someone else, who like Nicodemus comes to Jesus preparing to die – the man on the cross next to Jesus. And like Nicodemus, Jesus will speak words of comfort and hope, ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’ There is no time for this man on a cross to be born again, no chance for him to be baptized. But the promise, the assurance is spoken to him by Jesus. What comfort is ours in both our living and our dying. What assurance, encouragement, grace, mercy, and peace is ours for all our preparing.
All because God loved so God gave us new life,
Through Jesus who was lifted up for us and then rose to new life,
And so, the Spirit births us and breaths into us this new life.
Life is ours. Here and now and forever. Prepared and given by God through Christ in the baptismal waters of rebirth, renewed daily by the breath of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Mark Erson,