12 March 2017
UCC La Jolla – The Rev. Bear Ride
When I was a freshman at UCLA I had a free hour at lunchtime in between classes – so I’d sit in the quad in front of the speakers’ forum on Bruin Walk and listen to the lineup of rather oddball speakers – ranging from political revolutionaries to fundamentalist preachers. One afternoon I ate my peanut butter sandwich to a fire & brimstone preacher who was warning his little flock that there was a very good chance that we’d all end up in hell. He must have noticed that I was listening – for when he said his final amen, he rushed up to me and stuck his fat little finger in my face and said “are you saved?”
That really annoyed me. He was rude and obviously didn’t care about me at all. What mattered to him was that he add another salvation notch to his raggedy Bible.
My confession here is that – in situations like this – I sometimes misbehave. He really did annoy me, and I didn’t think he was doing Jesus any favors. So I said “what do you mean.” Well of course, if you had to ask, the answer was no. So it was open season on my soul…
Even with just a cursory reading of the Gospels it’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t have one, single, universal answer to the question of one’s salvation that could apply in all situations. He paid particular attention to who it was that was standing in front of him. To Jesus each person mattered. Nowhere, nowhere in scripture do we find Jesus wagging his finger in some poor body’s face asking “have you been saved?” Not that he didn’t care, but he knew how to make people ask the question of themselves – he held up a mirror to the soul. As folks gathered to hear Jesus preach, teach, heal and care, they found in him something of God which they could trust with their innermost selves – and so they presented themselves and he responded – person-to-person, sharing a liberating message of reconciliation and the gracious gift of God’s boundless love universal in scope, but unique in application.
It has been said that Nicodemus was the original Night Stalker. What we know of the hero of today’s story is this: he was a well-respected Rabbi and a Pharisee, and a pillar of his community. He had social standing. In the eyes of his community, he was somebody to reckon with. And he was curious. And probably opened-minded. Why else would he have gone out of his way to try to get a word with Jesus? Spiritually, he was apparently drawn to Jesus. Curious and open-minded, yes. But not enough to come out in the light of day. That could be interpreted as being a commitment. And he wasn’t ready for that. Instead he exercised caution and discretion. So Nicodemus waited ‘til all was dark and still – presumably so his neighbors and friends wouldn’t see him sneak out to seek the wisdom of this new and notorious Rabbi, Jesus.
Chances are good that Nicodemus had heard about the many miracles of Jesus: the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk; he healed the “sick and cynical” and even brought Lazarus back from the dead.” (William Slioan Coffin)
And so he begins: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
We actually have no idea where Nicodemus was going to go with this –what questions he might have had, or his train of thought, or line of questioning, because Jesus – impatiently – immediately turned the tables and sent the conversation in an entirely unexpected direction – which happens quite often with Jesus. It can be an annoying characteristic in a fellow-conversationalist. What you get in the end is not at all what you came for in the beginning.
And so, obtusely – perhaps anticipating an inquiry to follow Nicodemus’ respectful question of approach Jesus jumped way ahead of the script and said: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Judgment, forgiveness, love, salvation, belief, light, darkness. Honestly, there are enough abstractions and big ideas in these few verses to last us a lifetime. But Jesus allows these big ideas to sit there and percolate – and he gets to the point, which is a very important point, even for us: Jesus challenges Nicodemus to make a deeper commitment and enter another whole dimension of life. “You must be born again,” says Jesus. To which Nicodemus replies: “Huh?.” It takes him a while, but perhaps he will begin to get this as an invitation to start a new life in the midst of the old one. Jesus offers Nicodemus a second chance.
Saint Augustine wrote: “you are running well, but off the track.”
Like Nicodemus, when we find ourselves in distress and when we, like him, seek guidance, we think we want to change. In fact, mostly we want to remain the same, but we want to feel better about it. “In psychological terms, we want to be more effective neurotics. We prefer the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” (Coffin) We are running well indeed, but on the wrong track.
What does it mean to be born again? – it means we’d be wise to “reexamine old questions as though they had never been asked before. It means to simply recognize that what is of utmost importance occupies the most important place in our live. To be born again is to recognize, and then live as if, the kingdom of God were the only thing that matters. To be born again is to recognize the gift of the second chance. It is to accept with gratitude the gift of God which is new each new day.
A few weeks ago the text appointed for the day was in which Moses exhorted the children of Israel – at the end of their long, 40 year pilgrimage through the desert to “Choose Life.” He might as well have said, here’s your second chance: treat it as if you’re being born again into a whole new dimension of living. Or Jesus might have said to old Nicodemus “choose life!” Come out! He might have said – come to me in the daylight for heaven’s sake! Fear not. Be born anew! Choose to live. Why? —
Because God so loved the world,
That God entered the world,
Not to judge the world,
But that the world might be saved.
Sometimes it is a wise thing to exercise discretion and prudence in life – but Jesus says, not when it comes to your soul’s priorities. Here you have to just trust and jump into the water, remembering your baptism.
7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ Jesus said. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Choose the good.
Choose to allow hope to heal despair.
Choose the ancestors. Choose those yet to come.
Choose to offer cups of water to the thirsty. Choose to thirst for justice.
Choose to share the food you have. Chose to hunger for righteousness.
Choose hospitality. Choose solidarity with the refugee.
Choose the ones that remind you that you are the beloved.
Choose the Way,
Choose the Truth,
Choose Life. (Rev. Bentley Stewart)
And choose to be born again and again and again, every day.
The Apostle adds the postscript here – helping us see the implications of new life more clearly, saying “since we have been saved by grace through faith, we are what God has made us to be, created in Christ for good works…which is to be our way of life.”
“Our way of life” is our daily agenda. Our daily agenda is that of gratitude and love because God’s love for and action to save the world precedes all the rest.
For God so loved the world,
That God entered the world,
Not to judge the world,
But that the world might be saved.
4God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
—©2017 The Rev. Dr. Bear Ride
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.