Sunday, March 16, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: God calls us into life

Lent 2: Encountering God in our blessings
Psalm 121; Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17

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    Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it felt like you were talking past each other?...Like you were not on the same page? Like you were speaking in different languages?  Maybe it happened with your spouse, or your teen age son or young adult daughter.  Maybe it happened with your boss or co-worker or a student OR a whole room full of students!  You know the feeling.  In your mind what you were saying was perfectly clear! The instructions, directions or concerns expressed made sense.  You thought they were all accurate, understandable, clear, but the one you were talking to, just didn’t GET IT!  Not at all.  You could tell by the glazed look in their eyes, or lack of response, or their response, which was somewhere ‘out in left field’. On the other hand, maybe their explanation to you just didn’t make sense.  They thought YOU were not getting it, at all!  Talking past each other.  It happens, between individuals in the work place and schoolroom, with our loved ones at home and yes, even between groups in our church and faith communities.

    (Wednesday morning the 3 of us pastors and our 3 office staff gathered together in our conference room for a meeting.  Aaron is in the process of updating our church website!  We met to see what he was working on and give suggestions, feedback, etc.  Now for anyone who knows me well or has worked with me, you know that I am NOT technologically savvy, rather I am technologically challenged when it comes to computers.  I know enough to get by and enough to be dangerous!  I tried to watch and listen and give any helpful comments, but at one point Aaron and Phil went off on a tangent or longer discussion point on something.  I had no clue what they were talking about.  I propped my head on my hand on my chair arm for while.  Then Phil said, “Barbara are you getting all of this?”  I said, “No, I am taking a nap.  And that word weebly or whatever, to me I am thinking about those little toys our kids had called weebles. that bounced back when you knocked them over.”  I had no idea what they were talking about.  Talking past each other or one version of it.)

    In our Gospel text for today, the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is a great example of talking past each other.  During this season of Lent, our Gospel stories from John focus on individual people encountering Jesus, some for the first time.  All have experiences with Jesus that have some interesting twists and surprising results.  Let’s take a closer look at John 3.

    Nicodemus seeks out Jesus at night. Is there significance to it being ‘at night’?  We don’t know for sure. Was Nicodemus just being cautious because he knew of the hostility of the Jewish leaders toward Jesus, therefore he waited until dark?  Maybe.  We do know that Nicodemus was a distinguished Pharisee, a ruler of the Jewish supreme council of the Sanhedrin.  He and Jesus seemed to have mutual respect and addressed each other as Rabbi or teacher.  But the conversation leads to no agreement, for Nicodemus really does not comprehend what Jesus is talking about and after verse 9, Nicodemus fades out of the picture and the remainder of the text seems to be addressed to a larger audience.

    So what’s the topic: birth, new birth, rebirth, born from above, born again, born anew.....all of the above. 
    When Nicodemus approaches Jesus, he does not come with a question.  He affirms Jesus, almost flattering him by noting how he is indeed a teacher from God because he saw how he could perform all of these signs.  Nicodemus was impressed by what he saw Jesus do.  Jesus neither affirms nor denies his source of authority, but calls Nicodemus to a decision.  “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born again from above.”  Jesus has already moved into the spiritual level in the discussion, but Nicodemus gets hung up on the physical, the literal sense.  “How can anyone be born if they are old?”  he asks. “You can’t go into your mother’s womb a second time!”  Jesus tries again, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of God, you must be born of water AND Spirit.  Our earthly bodies(flesh) give birth to flesh(physical bodies), but the spirit gives birth to spirit.”.
    And then it is as if Jesus used an illustration that just occurred to him as a gust of wind went by.....  “Take this wind, for example, it goes wherever it pleases, you hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from or where it goes.  Well that is what it is for everyone born of Spirit.”  Holy mystery, Spirit, wind of God...  suddenly it happens.  We don’t always understand when and where it will happen, but this new life he points us to, Jesus seems to be saying, is just as much a mystery as the wind is.

“I don’t get it.  How can this be?”  Nicodemus asks.  He continues in the physical realm.  Jesus knows Nicodemus to be a credentialed leader, a learned man, but Jesus has little sympathy for Nicodemus in his confusion.  He goes on to say that he and his disciples speak and give testimony to what they see and know, but Nicodemus and his people just don’t get it, still don’t believe earthly things.  How will they ever believe if he talks more about heavenly things?

    This encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, two individuals, really becomes two communities that also confront each other: the Christian followers of Jesus and the Jewish community represented by Nic, a great teacher in Israel.  The two communities do not understand each other.  They are thinking in two different spheres of existence, physical and spiritual.  On the one hand, no one can see or enter the Kingdom of God without a new birth and on the other hand no one can go thru physical birth a second time.  They are passing each other in their thoughts.  They will not be able to understand and grasp the spiritual things unless they are born of the Spirit, unless they accept the testimony of Jesus and his followers and become part of the Christian community.

    The encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus resulted in Jesus’ invitation for this esteemed ruler of the Jewish council to be born again from above, to have one’s life radically transformed by the power of God.  There is no clear evidence in the gospel that Nicodemus became a secret believer in Jesus, but some scholars claim he did.

    As we study this narrative, we are drawn into the drama.  We no longer remain as spectators, but ask ourselves the questions?  Am I with Nicodemus?  Do I believe it is impossible to encounter God, to be “born from above” until I have everything figured out, until I have my questions answered adequately, until I have clear answers for all of the difficult issues that we face?  Then and only then will I consider taking that step.  Or am I with Jesus in my understanding and willingness to enter a different world, the realm of Spirit?  Am I willing to risk this birth from above, to enter the Kingdom and receive Jesus as the One from above who descended to earth to make the only true God known to us, to all of humanity?  Am I willing to risk living with mystery, Holy mystery, to live with some ambiguity and unanswered questions?

    This ‘new life’ that Jesus points us to is just as much a mystery as the wind.  Where does it come from, where is it going?   God is at work in our world, bringing new life.  Sometimes it overwhelms us.  Like the wind, sometimes it surprises us.
     An encounter with God invites us to new places, sometimes literally.  That can be scary, risky, with lots of unknowns. It means letting God control our lives and learning to trust this God, as we move into unknown or new places. In our Genesis text for the day, Abram and Sarai are called to go to a new land that God will give them.  “Go from your country, your people, your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Wow!  That sounds scary and risky.  Leaving all to move forward toward that future.  God promises life and a future for them and others.  Gives blessing to them, over and over again.  From barrenness to fertility and blessing.

    When God’s spirit blows into our lives, sometimes we find ourselves feeling very vulnerable and exposed.  Being born again, born anew, born from above can be a radically transformative experience by the power of God working in us.  It is like beginning life over again with new perceptions, new insights and understandings, even new relationships, but it can also be painful and scary.  It involves leaving behind the past, living in the present with new hope for the future, even though the way may be messy and murky.  Sometimes it takes longer than we would like, sometimes it comes upon us before we are ready.
    In John’s gospel, being ‘born again from above, means living a changed and holy life, means living ‘in the light’, a favorite theme of this gospel writer.  It means being obedient to God and God’s word.  It includes breaking free of unbelief and believing in God’s son.  It means breaking free of darkness and walking in the light.  It means breaking free of a restricted, rigid, judgmental life and experiencing abundant life and God’s grace and mercy. 
    From reading John’s gospel, we also know that Jesus promises eternal life that begins even now to all who believe, a new KIND of life.  Light and Life have come into the world in the person of God’s son, Jesus.  Those who receive him and believe in his name are born from above.

STJ 91 Like a mother who has borne us
    -notice the last phrase of each verse...

God has called us into life
God has walked with us in life
God still calls us into life
God still walks with us in life.

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