Sermon for March 5, 2023 Lent Three “Not Astonished”
Two great stories of journey and adventure for today. First from Abram and the second from Nicodemus.
It seems that in every time and generation there are those who travel and those who do not, and each group has its rationale for their decisions. I know people who have never left Pictou County or NS, never left the West side or NB. And I know people who have travelled the world and explored their home as well. Abram was a traveler, spent most of his life on the road going somewhere that God was going to show him. Little did he know that his life’s travels would be the seed for three great religions of the world. What he knew is that he had to follow the nudges and shoves of his God.
Nicodemus, a Rabbi, member of the esteemed Sanhedrin and teacher of Rabbis was a follower of God. Doing so for Nicodemus was lived out in following the 613 rules of Jewish Law. But there was a curiosity to Nicodemus’. When Jesus started to teach in and around the area of Capernaum, he was curious to know more.
Being cautious he arranged an evening meeting with Jesus, not overtly clandestine but not exactly advertised either. Deborah Kapp in her commentary on this text says that we in the 21st century is familiar with Nicodemus style ‘in our pluralistic world being mainline protestant is not really trendy. People in pews are faithful, deeply faithful and spiritual but that realm and the rest of life are maintained in their own spheres” She goes on to say “Cultural norms push religion into the private sphere, positioning faith as appropriate for family and personal morality, but inappropriate for public issues. For two centuries mainline Protestantism has encouraged such behaviour and attitudes. Our brand of religion promotes self-restraint, tolerance and personal morality and all are worthy virtues. We support public morality and an engagement in social issues too. Of course, but that message has been muffled by the declining size and increasing marginalization of mainline Protestant denominations. In and of itself, there is much to praise about a faith that thrives in the dark. It is genuine, heartfelt, personal and often deep. The point is not that this hidden faith is somehow faulty –as far as it goes; the point is that it is too small. Jesus suggests that Nicodemus’s kind of faith in incomplete, even immature.”
The born again text in Matthew has been used and mostly abused as a hammer to force a particular brand of believing. Debbie Blue in her work likens this text to an invitation by God to open ourselves to imagination and curiosity about a new way of being in relationship with God. The birthing or re-birthing is an action of a mothering God in labour. God does all the work, all the breathing, all the pushing, all the pain and sweating until we are born or re-born. Since Jesus it has been about water and Spirit and God labours to bring us to new birth.
It is what we do with new birth that Jesus is interested in. For Nicodemus it was a call out of the dark into the light, for the disciples a call to follow, to Zacchaeus a call to come out of the tree. And you and me a call to imagine and re-imagine who we can be personally and corporately in our day.
For Jesus he used the words born again, meaning that to go forward you had to leave behind the way of thinking and being you were used to. The disciples heard the expression ‘you can’t put new wine in old wineskins’ meaning the new teachings they were hearing would not in any way be understood and embodied while keeping the old ways. In our day we might be more familiar with paradigm shift which is a new way of stating the old. In order to embrace the new teaching one has to move to a new plane of thought and being.
Nicodemus in the end could not make the shift that was essential to be a follower of Jesus, yes he remained curious but just could not let go of who he was. The disciples managed, awkwardly by times but they made the shift. Christians and the church of the 21st century are being called toward a shift in thinking, a born again moment, a paradigm shift. I think the shift is going to, in part, be a move away from the church being the church. Let me explain; the Jews of Jesus day (and even today) have 613 rules to follow. I have no idea how many rules the church of today has. I expect it is way more than 613. The church was set up to allow people to discover Jesus and his teaching. Along the way the church became a place to protect the church, it’s orthodoxy and to have power over the people. The 21st century church will need to shift so it becomes a place for people to fall in love with Jesus all over again. Jesus, I think, is smiling and saying ‘do not be astonished, it is the only think I have ever wished for. You, my beloved are on the journey that started millennia ago and your faithfulness will is essential for the journey to continue.