March 16, 2014
Romans 4:1–5, 13–17
When my eldest niece Gabriella was first learning how to swim, she would cling to the side of the pool and I would stand a few feet away. She’d swim out to me. As she got more confident, I would move farther and farther out into the middle of the pool. Sometimes, if she started to panic, I would take a few steps in toward the wall, so that I could catch her before she started to sink. But mostly she had to keep on finding it in herself to let go of the safety of the wall and swim out into the deeper water and my waiting arms.
When you are 5, the expanse of water between the wall and your waiting aunt seems infinite and treacherous. And my guess is that as adults, we’ve all faced journeys that were similarly terrifying. Letting go of what is familiar and safe to go to a place where you are not confident of your ability to cope is never easy. Think of how Sarah and Abraham must have felt when God came to them in their sunset years and said, “OK, pack up your stuff and your kids, and let’s move. I want you to go to a different country. You will not know anyone. You will not speak the language. Nothing will be familiar or comfortable. Let’s go.” Imagine how frightening it must have been for them! But they trusted God. They let go of the wall. And they went.
Later, God came back with a request that seemed even more outrageous. Sarah was 100 years old when God said, “OK, I think you should have a child. Let go of the wall of realistic expectations and swim out to me.” Can you blame her for laughing? But she had the baby, and little Isaac grew up to be the Father of Israel. When God presents unreasonable, ridiculous ideas, they always turn into blessings.
In our Gospel lesson, we encounter Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a church leader who has studied God’s Word and who teaches God’s Word to others. No doubt he had studied the faith journeys of Sarah and Abraham, perhaps even taught those stories in a class. But somehow it’s always different when it’s you who is being asked to let go of the wall and swim out into the deep.
In today’s text, Nicodemus has taken the risk of seeking out Jesus. Maybe he has heard Jesus’ way of interpreting Scripture—his command that we pray for our enemies instead of getting even, his call to give voice to the voiceless. Maybe he’s seen Jesus welcoming the unclean lepers and crooks, or drinking with sinners and Gentiles—giving everyone a second chance. In any case, he’s heard enough truth in what Jesus preaches that he is willing to let go of what he’s always known, what he’s built his life around, to hear more. He WANTS to embrace Jesus’ new way of interpreting the Law and the prophets, but it’s all so unfamiliar—and therefore difficult. “How can this be?” he keeps on asking. “I don’t get it.”
I sympathize with Nicodemus. Often we think of the Pharisees as Jesus’ opponents, but this someone who loves God, and who is earnestly trying to be Jesus’ student, even though it’s hard. He wants to go toward what beckons him, but he’s afraid to swim away from the safety of what is known and solid. I get that, and probably some of you do too. Don’t we all have some things we believe simply because that’s what we were taught when we were growing up? For each of us, there is a range of what we are accustomed to, and swimming away from those things threatens and scares us.
Nicodemus has a hard time with what Jesus is trying to teach him because he has the idea that faith is logical, based on signs and systems, rules and consequences. Jesus tells him that he can’t grasp faith by such a path. He has to be born anew of water and the Spirit. And he’s like, “Huh? You want me to be born again? What does that even mean? How is that biologically possible?” Jesus keeps trying to explain that Nicodemus is never going to get into the Kingdom of God intellectually. Faith is not reasonable. It is not rational. It cannot be proved. It is not practical or sensible. You cannot master it. You have to receive it as a gift. God’s reproductive procedures are not like any you’ve come to know. God can make something new out of nothing at all. The only way to enter the kingdom is to let go of the wall and float on God’s promises.
Being born is messy. There’s blood, sweat, tears, and sometimes screaming. There are long periods of pain, followed by brief respites, with no predictable schedule. There are sometimes needles and forceps and doctors and nurses and midwives and bright lights, and always there is the mother’s body contorted out of its normal shape. (Just think of poor Sarah having to do this at the age of 100 in an unsanitary tent in the desert before the invention of epidurals!) There’s no reason in the world to believe being born again isn’t equally as full of struggle as being born the first time.
But the Good News is that, just as the Spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters at Creation and called forth new life, that same Spirit hovers over us still. God’s Spirit keeps calling us on journeys to unfamiliar places and events so that something new can happen in this world that God so loves. Sarah and Abraham remind us that it’s only by leaving behind what is familiar that we can actually arrive in the new place of blessings. Jesus reminds us that resurrection can only happen after there’s been a death.
And yet, no matter how painful the choosing, or how frustrating the journey, the end result is always blessings. Through water and the Spirit, we have been born of God. We have been blessed by God. We have entered the Kingdom of God. We have become the Kingdom of God. As citizens of God’s kingdom, we are called upon to pass the blessings on to others. Sometimes the tasks we are assigned seem illogical and scary—maybe even ridiculous. Still, the Spirit blows where She will, and we don’t always understand. We are called to float on the breezes of grace, to trust God’s movement, to surrender to blessing.
As we go through rebirth—that the terrifying experience of letting go of the old and moving toward the something new— we can trust that just as was the case when we were born the first time, we are not in charge. We don’t do all the work. We float in the amniotic fluid of God’s womb until the time is right. And then God eases us through the birth canal into the newness, where our first and most critical task is just to breathe. Breathe deeply. Suck up the Holy Spirit and let it go in one big yowl of new life. And then keep breathing.
We are not responsible for knowing what to do and how to be in every strange new calling. The Holy Spirit who calls us will continue to be there with us, to guide and provide for us. The Holy Spirit gifts us with companions on the journey, and spiritual gifts that nurture our faith. We are fed with God’s own body and blood, and given into one another’s care and companionship. When we get strong enough to explore our new world, God accompanies us, guiding and teaching us, cradling us when we fall, and applauding when we succeed.
Nicodemus did not dissolve when his comfortable faith was rattled. Instead, he, too, became blessed to be a blessing. You may not remember this, but when Jesus’ dead body was taken off the cross, it was Nicodemus—with his reputation among his peers (and perhaps his life!) at stake— who helped to anoint it and prepare it for burial. Though today’s story demonstrates his struggle with Jesus’ challenges to his comfort zone, in the end, he wound up trusting in this unconventional rabbi. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night in today’s text, but apparently God leads him to the light. In the end, Nicodemus stands with Jesus, no matter how hopeless and irrational and unlikely to produce blessing the situation seems.
My sister had a pastor once who was fond of saying, “The will of God will never lead you where the love of God does not precede you.” And so it is. Be born again. Let go of the wall. It’s OK. God will catch you.