June 3, 2012
Gospel: John 3:1-17
1st Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8
2nd Reading: Romans 8:12-17
In this sermon I take on the perspective of Nicodemus who visits Jesus in the Gospel for this morning.
I am Nicodemus and I am an important, religious man. I always knew I would be a Pharisee like my father. We were getting tired of the Saducees. They were the priests who lorded over everyone, who spoke long prayers in the marketplaces to be noticed, and wore fine clothes and sat at the best tables. They were rich and used religion to get richer. We, Pharisees, were from a poor class. We were more flexible in our understanding of scripture—more understanding and merciful. We felt we were getting it right—or at least more right than others around us.
I had experienced God often. I spent much of my time praying at the temple and conducting meetings there. I always made my sacrifices and said my prayers. My family and I kept the Sabbath. We remembered the stories of how God had chosen our people, rescued us and brought us through the wilderness. We remembered how God saved us from the Babylonians and helped us get back on track as a people, worshiping God alone. We felt God with our people leading us forward, giving us laws to order our community, and helping us to be compassionate.
My grandfathers had known God in the house churches in Babylon, where they yearned for home, living among the pagans. They kept the faith strong. Many times, God was present when others said it was impossible away from the temple. But God was there, speaking through prophets and teachers, giving my family food and everything we needed. We lost many people we loved, but we always had God with us. God always keeps his promises and he led us back home again.
In the temple, I also experienced God, so majestic I almost can’t describe. Those tall pillars give the person praying a sense of being so small. The arc of the covenant was kept in its own secret room, behind many layers of curtains. That was to protect us from the power of God. If we were to behold God’s majesty we would be destroyed just by the intensity of it. Many times as I worshiped, I could almost feel that room pulsating with energy and life. So mysterious, so large, so far away—God the creator of the universe right here in our midst, and we bringing our feeble voices to pray and praise and offering a little gold, or a lamb or ox, a handful of grain or a flask of oil. Here we were coming together, heaven and earth, in one place, God and humankind in this temple. We came together, infinitely large and infinitesimal itty-bitty. We came together, the wise all-powerful creator and the cringing dim-wit. It was so humbling.
I’d watch the torches reflecting on the walls and think of the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the night. I thought of the fires that have cooked our food. I heard the crackle and wondered what kind of crackle the burning bush made as Moses stood before it, barefoot and bewildered, explaining to the great “I AM” that his speech impediment wouldn’t allow him to address the Pharaoh and that the people would never listen to him.
I heard the prayers and thought of how God’s mighty voice boomed over the waters of creation and spoke each star into being, every river, every plant, the sun and moon, the animals, and finally humankind. What are our little voices next to the creating voice of God?
I had experienced the power of God, and yet something was still missing. I was curious when I heard of Jesus. He and I studied in the same kind of schools. I heard of his miracles. But unlike many of the others, he did the miracles for others. He didn’t make a big deal of himself. He used his powers to help other people besides himself. That really made me curious. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to help other people.
I didn’t think my buddies would approve of my curiosity. They were pretty comfortable with the status quo. So I went by myself. And why make a scene, so I went in the evening.
I started out by buttering him up. “You’re pretty amazing,” I said. “You must be from God, you’re that amazing.” Jesus said something then that was confusing. He said we can’t experience God’s kingdom without being born in a different way. Well this sounded like the Babylonian cult goddess of fertility. A God giving birth? Yahweh was the creator of everything and in that way had given birth to all that we know, but he had done it through words and breath. This talk about giving birth was kind of embarrassing to me and seemed like women’s talk. So I asked him, “What are you talking about? Old people don’t grow in wombs and get pushed out into this world all wet and crying.”
But he said, “Birth can take many forms. There is always something being born in us. We are always learning and growing. God is always creating something new with us. Let God create something new with you. Let God give birth to you.”
I am not proud, but I said, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I just didn’t have a clue. I wasn’t expecting to have this conversation. I was going to ask where he studied. I was going to pick his brain. But instead he puzzled me with words I haven’t stopped thinking about since.
He said I was stuck in the concrete world, but there is more to life than that. There is eternal life and that God wanted to give that to all of us—the people, the animals, the water and plants, the planets and moon and stars. God sent a messenger, his son, to gather it all together for eternity.
I didn’t know what to say, but I knew I couldn’t take much more in. So I went away to ponder Jesus’ words. I slowly started to put some of the pieces together like clues in a great mystery. People were saying Jesus was God’s son. And when I heard that he had been crucified, I remembered that he said there was more to life than this concrete world. And so I went with Joseph of Arimethea to claim his body, to see what more there might be. Jesus had been tortured and he had been pierced in the side, and blood and water had flowed from this wound. And I thought of how he said we must be born from water and the spirit. How he must have suffered! Was it all for nothing or was something new to be born from this horrible death?
In my life I have known the presence of a majestic God, creator of the universe. When I met Jesus, did I meet God treating me like a brother, giving me so much to think about and encouragement to find new meaning and new birth? Did I sit and have a conversation with God, no big pillars needed or smoke or sacrifices? And does the Holy Spirit of God breathe new life in me, creating me anew everyday, making me a part of community with all of creation? God holy and majestic, so far away. God my brother, one who challenged me by his words, the kind of life he lived, and the death he died. God as close as my breath, within me and around me, in everyone I meet. Yet not three Gods but one, with different functions, offering different experiences to this beloved creation.
Maybe I will never understand and the Pharisee in me wants to understand. Maybe I can live in the mystery of this mult-faceted, mult-layered, interesting God and use my life to give him glory so that many can know rebirth and new life and God’s kingdom.