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A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock on Lent 2

[5 March 2023]:Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

NICODEMUS HAD HEARD ENOUGH about what Jesus was up to in Jerusalem to make him think he ought to pay him a visit and find out more. On the other hand, as a VIP with a big theological reputation to uphold, he decided it might be just as well to pay it at night. Better to be at least fairly safe than to be sorry, he thought, so he waited till he thought his neighbors were all asleep. So Nicodemus was fairly safe, and, at least at the start of their nocturnal interview, Jesus was fairly patient. What the whole thing boiled down to, Jesus told him, was that unless you got born again, you might as well give up. That was all very well, Nicodemus said, but just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off? How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing sixty-five? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? … A gust of wind happened to whistle down the chimney at that point, making the dying embers burst into flame, and Jesus said being born again was like that. It wasn't something you did. The wind did it. The Spirit did it. It was something that happened, for God's sake. "How can this be?" Nicodemus asked (John 3:9), and that's when Jesus really got going. Maybe Nicodemus had six honorary doctorates and half a column in Who's Who, Jesus said, but if he couldn't see something as plain as the nose on his face, he'd better go back to kindergarten. Jesus said, "I'm telling you God's so in love with this world that he's sent me down, so if you don't believe your own eyes, then maybe you'll believe mine, maybe you'll believe me, maybe you won't come sneaking around scared half to death in the dark anymore, but will come to, come clean, come to life." What impressed Nicodemus even more than the speech was the quickening of his own breathing and the pounding of his own heart. He hadn't felt like that since his first kiss, since the time his first child was born. Later on, when Jesus was dead, he went along with Joseph of Arimathea to pay his last respects at the tomb in broad daylight. It was a crazy thing to do, what with the witch-hunt that was going on, but he decided it was more than worth it. When [Nicodemus] heard the next day that some of the disciples had seen Jesus alive again, he wept like a newborn child. (John 3:1-21; 19:38-42)[1]

That’s how Frederick Buechner speaks about the story of this morning’s gospel; and the telling of a good story always generates good questions. One question about this story is: How many of us are Nicodemus? Another question is: Like Nicodemus, how many of us find Jesus compelling but still a bit scary? I do.

In another gospel setting, it is Peter who causes Jesus to ask the central question of faith: “Who do you say that I am?” In terms of responding to this key question, when it comes to Jesus and following him, when it comes to Jesus and becoming increasingly like him, I can easily – and quite comfortably – fall into the temptation of wanting to be just a little bit pregnant. I know that I am not alone in the hedging of my discipleship bets. And in that common confession, perhaps we should consider renaming this church in Nicodemus’ honor and claim him as this faith community’s patron saint.

I, for one, wouldn’t object because the Nicodemus presented in today’s gospel, the one who came to Jesus by night for fear of being overtly associated with this radical rabbi and tainted by his actions – this Nicodemus, toward the end of the Jesus story, also appears to have grown to be more open to who Jesus is. From being the man who surreptitiously met with Jesus, Nicodemus (along with another prominent Jewish figure of the time, Joseph of Arimathea) publicly (not at night but in the middle of the afternoon) took Jesus’ dead body down from the horrid cross. That’s a huge leap in Nicodemus’ behavior, and I see it as an evolving sign of commitment to what it means and what it takes to follow Jesus. And in this, Nicodemus gives me hope and encouragement – hope and encouragement that I, too, can grow in my faith and in my courage to represent Christ.

Of course, we don’t know what actually occurred in Nicodemus’ life and soul that produced growth in his sense of belonging to Jesus, to the extent that he moved from lurking in the shadows to being visibly hands-on at the cross. Nicodemus went from being cautious – if not ashamed – of being associated with Jesus to risking his own reputation and perhaps his life in tending publicly to Jesus’ dead body. What changed? What caused Nicodemus to go from being a Christmas and Easter kind of groupie to a committed explorer of resurrection life? I don’t know, but something happened; and I believe that what happened stemmed from the experience of Nicodemus following our Lord.

As I trust you know, this Lent, St. Philip’s is offering two book study and discussion groups. One is led by Linda Moore where that group is reading a series of reflections on the seasons of Lent and Easter. The other group is led by Becky Taylor and is discussing a book, entitled, Freeing Jesus. (I am sure that it is not too late to participate in both these Wednesday night sessions.). In the Taylor group focusing on the book, Freeing Jesus, the continuous question is “freeing Jesus from what? to be what?” These questions certainly pertain to the season of Lent and how so many of us conceive of Lent with such negativity.

I told you last week of the Lenten quip the bishop I once served would make in greeting his clergy. “I hope you’re having a miserable Lent!”, he would say in passing; and I always suspected he was only half joking because with its unwavering assessment of our lives and our faithfulness, Lent is not much fun – perhaps the spiritual equivalent of having to face doing our taxes. Nonetheless, I do maintain that Lent is – or is meant to be – a time for joy. The clarity of knowing where we stand with God can be freeing. Let me explain with a very brief story that I was told recently.

A friend of mine told me of a man in the Orthodox Christian tradition who, from the individual telling me the story, is very disciplined about exercising his faith and paying attention to his spiritual life. Among other practices, he keeps the daily prayers, worships in community at least weekly, and is mindful of his need to make a personal confession to his priest. In fact, his bishop is his confessor and spiritual director.

The story goes that, in this faithful man’s preparation for Lent, he set up an appointment with the bishop to make his confession. In that tender setting, he laid out what was burdening his conscience. In particular, he told the bishop that he had dropped the saying of his evening prayers on two consecutive nights. And I suppose with such a disciplined routine in place, the dropping of two nights’ prayers seemed to the man like a slippery slope, down a bad trajectory. In making this confession, this is what the bishop said to his spiritual charge: “You did not sin, but you missed an opportunity.”

“You did not sin, but you missed an opportunity.” Even as I relate this story to you, I am stunned by the wisdom and the restoration of this guidance. Its message is that our spiritual lives are not defined to what we do with them. Rather, these disciplines, these commitments are opportunities to meet with the God who loves us and desires to be with us; and in the silence of these meetings wants us to know of our life as God’s Beloved – no matter what.

This is to say that our faith life and its purpose are not about getting “straight A’s” or keeping a perfect attendance record or memorizing prayers and Bible passages. Yet, if such practices function as vehicles that transport us to the presence of God and to the reality that God aches to meet with us precisely because we are the Holy One’s beloved – if we can see the purposes that these spiritual disciplines this way, then we will know the joy of our lives. And surprisingly and contrary to most people’s attitude about Lent, we will have discovered the joy of these forty days. This is so because joy, being different from happiness, is rooted in gratitude.

From the well-known Psalm 11:

Be joyful in the Lord all you lands; Serve the Lord with gladness and come before [God]’s] presence with a song…Enter {God’s] gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to [God] and call upon his Name.

So whether it is Lent or an ordinary day, God calls us to get on the “bus” so we can show up on time to meet our dearest friend, who also turns out to be our Creator, our Redeemer, and the Sustainer of all that matters. Don’t leave God in the lurch and lose the opportunity to meet the Life-giver once again – or especially for the first time. Amen.

[1] Fredrich Buechner, Hidden Treasures.

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