God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our readings for this Second Sunday in Lent have to do with trust - trusting in God, trusting in Jesus and our willingness to change. In our Old Testament lesson, God says to Abram (later known as Abraham), "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.....So Abram went, as the Lord had told him."
God is asking Abram, who is about 75, to leave his extended family and his homeland and go to a new place. God does not even tell him where he will be going, just that God will show him. In these traditional societies, one's relatives, one's extended family, one's land, was the source of one's identity, economic survival, security and protection. They looked out for one another, protected one another. Your lineage was everything. To leave that social network was very risky. To strike out on one's own was dangerous.
God was asking Abram to leave everything he had known and go to someplace new, someplace unknown. There were no guarantees that life would be good or easy where he was going. God said that he would make of Abram a great nation and bless him, but God is a little short on details. But Abram goes. Why? Because God asked him to go and his faith and trust in God was great.
In our gospel lesson, we read about Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews. He goes to see Jesus at night, possibly so he can slip in and out without being recognized. As part of the religious leadership who saw Jesus as a troublemaker, trying to stir people up with his teachings, it would not have been a good political move for him to be seen talking to Jesus. Or perhaps he wants to have a conversation with Jesus alone, without crowds surrounding him. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out at night. Obviously, something about Jesus or what he has said has piqued the interest and attention of Nicodemus and he has questions he wants to ask Jesus.
Nicodemus is not at a place in his spiritual life where he can fully accept and trust Jesus. But at least he is willing to ask questions. He starts by affirming the fact that Jesus has come from God because no one could do the things he has done without God, no one could do those miracles. So Nicodemus is at least willing to go that far, to take that step.
But then Jesus starts talking about being born from above and Nicodemus has no idea what that means. Nicodemus is thinking in physical terms, not spiritual terms. Can anyone be born a second time from their mother's womb after they are grown? Of course not. But Jesus is talking in spiritual terms. One must be of God, have faith and trust in God. One must be changed or reborn into that kind of spiritual thinking. If you are born of the spirit, you will see better the ways of God. You will see life through a spiritual lens. Jesus is asking Nicodemus to let God work in his life.
Then Jesus challenges Nicodemus one more time. How can you be a teacher of Israel and yet not understand these things? Knowing God is much more than following the letter of the laws. Knowing and following God has more to do with what's in our hearts and how we live our lives, how we treat other people, if we have love for one another. It's not just about knowing the laws.
Jesus thinks that Nicodemus would know about rebirth. From the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah, to the oppression of the Pharaoh in Egypt and the dry bones of loss in the exile, Israel is filled with stories of impossible renewal and rebirth from above.
Being reborn is not a one time event. It is constantly and repeatedly letting God into your heart to rule your life. We have sometimes heard people say, I was born again on a specific date, at a specific time, in a specific place. And for them, that may be true. That may be when they intentionally gave their life to Christ. But we can't stop there. We have to repeatedly, over and over again, recommit ourselves to Christ.
Then Jesus says to Nicodemus the verse that most everyone knows - John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." God loved and God gave. Jesus continues, "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
Jesus was sent by God to save the world through his powerful teaching, by showing the way to God, by showing us a better way to live - by loving our enemies and caring for the poor and neglected. Jesus did not come to condemn us but to give us new life, to help us to become reborn in the Spirit, by listening for the voice of God, by following God's commandments, by living as God would have us live, by being transformed from the inside out.
We don't know specifically how Nicodemus responded to Jesus that night. But we do know that he prepared the spices for Jesus' burial after the crucifixion. Something in the heart of Nicodemus was changed by his encounters with Jesus. It may have been hard for him to change his ways and immediately become a follower of Jesus. But it seems that he was on the right path, that he was exploring and asking questions. That's the first step to deep belief.
To be reborn is to change, to allow ourselves to change and follow God in a new direction. Abram gave up everything he had known and moved to a place where God wanted him to live. Nicodemus learned that to be reborn meant living in the Spirit and following the direction of the Holy Spirit, no matter where it blows.
Change can be hard. It is hard for us to change the way we have always done things, the way we have always thought about things. Even when we know God is calling us to do something, it's hard for us to follow a new path. But God does not call us to go alone. God is always with us, giving us the direction, strength and courage that we need, even in times of discouragement and despair.
God can give us new opportunities that can be life changing and life giving. We may meet new people, form new relationships, cultivate new ideas, learn new things. Change can pull us out of the ruts that we sometimes get stuck in, and we can be recharged and reinvigorated. But we need to trust.
Abram changed his life, trusted in God, and moved to follow the calling of God to became the father of all nations. Nicodemus's heart was opened to listen to Jesus and ponder the spiritual life. What are we called to change? What are we called to do differently in our lives? What is God asking us to be and to do? May we listen to the Spirit of God and respond as we are reborn every day into the fullness of God. Amen.
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