The Reverend Elizabeth Bowyer
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Reflection for Lent 2, Sunday, March 12, 2017

Based on Genesis 12: 1-4a “God calls Abram to be a blessing”

And John 3: 1-17 “Nicodemus learns that ‘God so loved the world’”

Opening Prayer:  May the words on my lips and the thoughts and feelings we hold in response to our readings from Scripture this day, may all of it be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

“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.”*  (John 3: verse 8, p. 96)

This morning and for the next three Sundays, the good news is brought to us from the gospel according to John.

The gospel of John, though to be the fourth and last of the accounts of Jesus’ birth, life, ministries, death, and resurrection offers both blessing and challenge to us gathered here this day as liberal thinking Christian friends.

In some ways, John’s gospel places a clear and unswerving emphasis on Jesus as the longed-for Messiah, sent from Heaven by God to save the world from itself.

In other ways, John’s gospel brings with it, dense and mysterious concepts and language that has many of us scratching our heads in confusion, if not frustration.

With its emphasis on spiritual rather than fleshly matters; on heavenly rather than earthly things; and on faith having more substance to it than belief, many a theologian, biblical scholar, preacher, and congregant alike might find themselves preferring one of the other gospel accounts from Matthew, Mark, or Luke to this one ascribed to the author of John.

But, then, grappling with our faith as relates to scripture is exactly what we are called to do during the season of Lent.

Besides, who would want to miss out on these stories-these life-altering conversations such as Jesus had with Nicodemus that we heard this morning?

Who would want to miss out on the ‘life-altering’ conversation Jesus will have with the woman at the well next week, or the story of the man born blind the next Sunday, or, on the last Sunday in the season of Lent, the story of the death and re-birth of Lazarus?

These are all stories found in John’s gospel thought to have been composed for the Johannine community in Ephesus some 50-80 years after Jesus’ death on the cross. 

Offered to a fearful community of Jewish Christians trying to live out their faith in a hostile environment, one hopes that these words would have brought a sense of comfort and support to its listeners.

Here, this morning, we have the first of a quartet of life-altering conversations attributed to John, the son of Zebedee.  Remember him?  He and his brother, James, were among those first disciples who dropped their fishing nets so as to make space for the Spirit’s breath of life to take up residence in their own lives as ones called to follow in the Way of Jesus.

Against that backdrop, let’s take another look at Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, learned teacher of religion himself, but also a seeker of new understanding for what it means to make space for the Spirit’s breath in his own life.

The first thing to note about the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is that the conversation takes place in the dark of night.  Is this happening because it’s safer that way or is it more a case of Nicodemus being in the dark, metaphorically speaking?  The story doesn’t offer an explanation for why their chat takes place at night, it just states the facts. 

For that reason alone, I am drawn in by its possibilities.

After all, if I were a member of the religious elite in Jerusalem charged with maintaining the status quo, I wouldn’t want a clandestine meeting with Jesus widely known.

The second thing of note in the passage is how Nicodemus chooses to address Jesus, well known itinerant peasant, preacher, teacher, and healer as Rabbi and how this immediately sets the scene for a conversation between two equals.

“Rabbi”,  Nicodemus says, “We know that you are a teacher who comes from God.  For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” * (Chapter 3, verses 2-3, p. 96)

Jesus’ response: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”  takes us into what feels like a tennis match of a sort.  And, it isn’t long before Nicodemus stops lobbing the ball back over the proverbial net, so taken is he with what Jesus has to say.

And, so it is, I imagine Nicodemus asking for a ‘time out’ to just sit on the bench, wipe his brow, and engage more deeply in this life-altering conversation with Jesus that will surely having him pondering what he needs to let go and to take up in his faith journey.

Like so many life-altering conversations, we can’t pinpoint the exact moment when Nicodemus’ thoughts and ideas about God, faith, and religion actually do shift.

We can’t know if the understanding of being so completely changed as a mature adult actually does come to make sense to Nicodemus. 

However, we do know this:  Nicodemus is recorded in scripture as a religious leader who does speak up in Jesus’ favour later in the 7th chapter of John’s gospel.  It happens in the context of the political authorities questioning the religious leaders as to their inclination for or against Jesus.  Though his question citing the law of fairness at verse 51, p. 104* may seem a small act of courage for the context of the situation, is nonetheless an act based on his experience of Jesus.

Then, again, in the 19th chapter of John’s gospel, we learn that its Nicodemus who accompanies Joseph of Arimethea to the cross at Golgotha, armed with spices brought to prepare Jesus’ body for its appropriate burial. (verses 38-39 p. 118*)

Was Nicodemus convinced by his previous conversation with Jesus that he, indeed, was sent by God to save the world from itself? 

Was he convinced that the kingdom of God had come near in their holy conversation that dark night?

Who knows?

What I do know is that our faith based actions do speak far louder than our words of belief. 

I do know that how we ultimately live out our faith matters more than what we say we believe.

I do know that our shared conversations about how our lives are shaped and changed by these stories from scripture and by our acceptance of the Spirit’s presence in our everyday living matters a very great deal.

This last week, we welcomed our first Lenten Lecture series speaker, the Reverend Aaron Miller from University Hill United Church into our midst to offer his take on the question: Who is Jesus for you? and to share in the give and take of related conversation. 

Gathered together as a community of 27 seekers, we entered into holy conversation with Aaron about his orthodox perspective on Jesus as Lord, Saviour, and Friend.    We also heard Aaron name the challenge he finds in walking the talk of his faith in the ebb and flow of everyday living.

Together, on that occasion, we were also about the work of letting go and making space for the Spirit’s breath of life to be make itself known in our midst.

This coming week, we will have another opportunity to enter into holy conversation about who Jesus is when we welcome another guest speaker.

Ibi Chuan, Vancouver School of Theology graduate, ordinand for ministry in the United Church currently serving in a student capacity at Tai-Kong United Church in Richmond, B.C. and one with connections to aboriginal Taiwanese culture will also bring something new and different to our shared conversation. 

Who knows, some among us might feel the kingdom of heaven come near as we enter into what is surely to be holy if not life-altering conversation together. 

Whatever does happen, I do know this: God continually calls us to deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other as we continue to probe our relationship with Jesus en route to the cross this Lenten season.

“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.”*  (John 3: verse 8, p. 96)

For all of this and more, we say thanks be to God, amen.

*The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1989