Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sermon Lent 2A - March 16, 2014

Lent 2A
Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
St Stephen Lutheran Church
March 16, 2014

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s one of the most famous clandestine meetings in all of history.
Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees,
comes in secrecy to the upstart Rabbi from Galilee.
He comes out of the night,
bringing news, that Jesus has attracted notice.
Even though Jesus is an outsider,
uneducated in the standard Rabbinical circles,
he must be in God’s favor,
for the signs which accompany Jesus’ ministry
are unmistakable expressions of God’s power and presence.
And so Nicodemus comes,
perhaps under orders,
perhaps on his own,
to see what this rabbi, this teacher, this God-favored man
is all about.
He may expect a rabbinic pedigree,
where he was taught if he was not taught at the accredited schools,
whose feet he studied at,
and how he explained his signs from God.
What Nicodemus did not expect is to have his world turned on its ear.

For Jesus says, ‘You must be reborn.’
On the face of it, this is the most ridiculous thing that he could say.
It is a physical impossibility,
akin to a religious leader telling you
that in order to see the kingdom of God,
you must be turned into an avocado.
Or perhaps a kumquat.
We’re talking that strange here.
Perhaps Nicodemus is just going along with the whole charade,
taking Jesus at face value and asking
how in the world an old man was supposed to be reborn.
And that is indeed how the text reads.

But this question of rebirth is not just a question of physical possibility;
here we have a question about human existence in all its facets.
For the one thing that all human beings long for,
and cannot ever get,
is a recovery of youth.
This is not just a characteristic of our youth-obsessed age.
In the old days when I was in school (yes, I know)
they taught us about the explorers,
and how Ponce de Leon traveled to Florida to find the Fountain of Youth,
(the ancestor of so many college students who travel there for Spring Break,
families seeking an escape going to Disney World,
and retirees who go to Florida for rejuvenation, relaxation, and recreation.

Or, on the weirder side,
there are practioners of a technique called ‘rebirthing-breathwork,’
who believe that birth trauma can explain a lot of the problems in life,
and therefore have a special breathing technique
which apparently involves inhaling and exhaling without a break,
supposedly to heal this trauma.
They added the suffix ‘breathwork’ to rebirthing,
because there is an even weirder and more dangerous form of ‘rebirthing’ out there.
This gained national attention in 2001
when a ten-year old girl was killed in Colorado
during a two-week ‘attachment therapy’ session.
She was suffocated during a rebirthing procedure,
which involved wrapping her in a sheet
and adults sat on her to motivate her emergence from the ‘womb.’

Or there are the prophets of technology who promise to liberate us from our givenness.
I read a story in the Trib a few months ago
about people who are grafting microcircuitry into their bodies
to make them better and more responsive.
Often times technology can help people who have been injured,
but do we really want technology to be used in this way
as simply an elective surgery, an improvement at what cost,
and for the chosen few who can afford it?
Well, we know that what scientists never ask ‘Should we?’
They only ask ‘Can we.’

From the mundane to the crazy,
we all try to recapture our youth.
And we do it because we have a lost sense of possibility.
and a keen awareness of our limits.
We are born into a world in which we are going to die someday.
We are born into a world in which decisions are made for us,
where we will know McDonald’s and Coke
and Microsoft and Google
and we all will have a social security number
and there is no escape.
We are born, and we are born into a certain family,
and a certain nation, and a certain situation.
And more than all of these things, Nicodemus knows,
all of us have a history
which is inescapable,
and which imprisons us in its web of conflicts and relationships,
guilt and sin.
To start over?
To avoid the mistakes, to heal the pain,
to choose the good over the evil,
to unsee what we have seen
and see what we could have seen?
It is a dream.
For our bodies and for our souls.
There is no technique, no process, and no escape
from our sin, the evil of the world, and our death.

And so when Jesus makes his bald-faced statement,
Nicodemus explodes.
Behind his seemingly sarcastic reply to Jesus
may very well be a suppressed cry of despair and anger.
‘Excuse me, Rabbi, but what the hell are you talking about?
What the hell do you mean ‘born again?’
If there is a thing to do to get to heaven I’m all for it.
Let me know what ethical standard I have to measure up to,
let me know how much I must give to the church,
tell me what breathing technique I need,
but don’t tell me I can go back and start over
The one thing I know is that you can’t go back.’

To start over is not a human possibility.
All our attempts to do so will fail.
But what is born of the flesh is flesh,
and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit.
Jesus says, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel,
with the degree on your wall
and the proper credentials?
What about Abram, seventy-five years old,
a pagan in Ur of the Chaldees,
and God called him, and called him to a blessing?
Born again.'

The Spirit is not domesticated.
It is not a technical method,
under our control,
carefully calibrated to bring about certain results,
which will bring about our will.
The Spirit is free,
the Spirit is freedom,
it is full of God’s power to save.

The Spirit does not come by a person looking inward upon himself.
We cannot start over by finding what is within ourselves and going from there.
The life of the kingdom does not come from inside, but from outside.
Jesus uses the image familiar to Israel’s story;
the story of Moses,
holding up a bronzed serpent,
that everyone who looked upon it would be healed of the venom
coursing through their veins.
Hope beyond hope,
born again.

So Jesus says that he will be lifted up,
lifted up for all the world to see,
so that all who look upon him
will be taken out of themselves
and born again into the life of God.
This God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
This Son who so loved the world that he descended from heaven
to live in a world without new beginnings,
a world trying to live by its own means,
a world that wanted no part of God.
And yet this Son, this God, was not come to condemn that world, but to save it.

Those who look upon him,
who stand before him amazed at his mercy
and transformed by his love
are born of the Spirit,
they are children of God.
They follow him wherever he goes,
for they have found in him what so many generations have sought –
the life that is always new,
the life that is truly life –
the life that is everlasting.