In honor of St. Patrick’s day, a light-hearted joke by way of an introduction. Paddy O’Brien was just off the boat from Ireland, new to America. His cousins told him there were good jobs available on the docks. Paddy wasn’t a big man, but he was a hard worker. He arrived at the docks eager to prove his strength despite his stature. So he picked up a large anvil and carried it up to the gangplank to the ship. The anvil was very heavy, and the gangplank was very narrow, and Paddy lost his balance and took a bad step. He fell into the water with a huge splash. As the men on board looked over the side of the ship to see what had happened, they saw him come sputtering up to the surface. He was clearly struggling to keep his head above water. Finally he shouted, “Throw me a rope, ye spalpeens,” he yelled. “Throw me a rope or I’m gonna drop this confounded anvil!”
It’s not a great joke, but it does get at something basic about human nature. We often will hold on for dear life to what we know, even if what we know is about to kill us. I think at some level our story this morning about Nicodemus shows how Nicodemus struggles to let go of what he knows in order to grab hold of something new, something he sees in Jesus that he thinks will be more life-giving than what he has.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee. You probably remember that Pharisees lived as holy a life as they knew how, following as closely and completely as possible the hundreds of commandments and rules laid out in the Torah. These rules defined what you could eat and who you could eat with, what you could wear, what you could plant, how to harvest your fields, and exactly what your obligation was to those in need. Nicodemus was probably a rich man, because it cost a lot of money to follow all those rules. He was also a leader of the Jews, maybe even a member of the governing council. If anyone had life figured out, it should have been Nicodemus. But something draws him to Jesus. Maybe, in a story familiar to us today, all his riches and power failed to make him happy. Maybe he saw some of the miracles Jesus performed, like turning water into wine, and he began to wonder about God. Maybe being close to God isn’t following a long list of rules; maybe God’s love isn’t reserved for just a deserving few; maybe God’s love is poured out freely for all. And when Jesus criticized the temple priests for being corrupt and too concerned about their own welfare, maybe Nicodemus found himself questioning the values of the whole religious establishment that he was a part of. So he comes to Jesus by night, when none of the other Jewish leaders will see him, and he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” It sounds a little like flattery, but it seems to conceal Nicodemus’s real questions: Jesus, he asks, how do you do these things? What is the nature of your relationship with God? How are you holy and yet not a Pharisee, not connected with the temple? And Jesus answers the implicit questions: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus says, ‘Born from above,’ because for the gospel writer, God is in the heavens. Jesus could have said “Born of God;” other translations say “Born again” or “Born anew.” Nicodemus doesn’t get it, wondering how a grown man can enter a second time into his mother’s womb. And as Jesus continues talking, Nicodemus gets more and more confused. What does this mean, people who are born of the spirit, born again, born anew, are like the wind, coming and going as they please, without anyone being able to tell why or how? Jesus in effect says, “Yes, Nicodemus, there is a whole other reality than the one you know: the reality of the kingdom of God. Accessing that reality does not happen by following rules. It happens by being born from above in the spirit. And if you are born again, you’ll come to know what is really important in this life: you’ll come to know the kingdom of God.
This encounter with Nicodemus gets at an essential aspect of what it means to be Christian: our need to be born again, or born anew. Our tradition has interpreted this in a variety of ways over the centuries. Baptism is in some ways viewed as a rebirth, as in the words in our prayer book, in the waters of baptism “we are buried with Christ in his death” and “reborn by the Holy Spirit.” Many Evangelical Christians believe in the need to be “born again” by making the conscious decision to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. I tend to think that being born again is a life long process, happening in small ways over time. Marcus Borg, a bible scholar and writer, says being born again is essentially a passive event, something that happens to us, something that we can’t control. But, he continues, in order for it to happen, we have to let go of what we know and embrace what we don’t understand. That phrase really struck me this week: We have to let go of what we know and embrace what we don’t understand. And we’ve all experienced this in big and small ways. The end of a relationship, or the beginning of a new one. The birth of a child, or the loss of a loved one. The loss of a job, or a new opportunity.
Stories about being born again, about experiencing new life, are really Easter stories, of course. This is the second Sunday in Lent, the period of time leading up to Easter that the church sets aside for reflection and self-examination. Intentionally letting go of what we know may be a question of deciding to face those things that are slowly killing us, like addictions or unhealthy relationships. Overtime, the alcohol or drugs have become the only thing we really know. We’re going through the motions of life, but really only living for that next drink. We know its killing us, but it feels like the only thing we really have. Likewise, the unkind or abusive friend or partner isn’t good to us, we know, but the fear of being by ourselves again is overwhelming. Giving up this life, as bad as it is, will be a painful and difficult process, but until we do, we will be unable to really experience re-birth.
Sometimes, we’re not aware of the things in our life that are controlling us, but I think Lent can help us identify them. The Lenten discipline of giving something up, whether sweets or fatty foods or caffeine, is another way of giving up what we know. By giving something up, we get a clearer sense of its real importance in our lives, the extent to which it may control us. We get a sense of whether it really makes us happy, or if it just fills a temporary need. Fasting has fallen out of favor in our Christian tradition, but it is still an important spiritual practice in many world religions, particularly for Muslims, who fast for the month of Ramadan. When I helped teach a class on spiritual practices for college students (most of whom had no formal involvement in religious per se), we decided as a group to do the 30 Hour Famine. Many students reflected about how they hadn’t realized how much they think about food during the day, and about how available it is, and about how grateful they are to live in a society where food scarcity isn’t a problem. I realized all the ways I use food in ways other than for nutrition: for instance, bribing myself into completing tasks I don’t want to do: finish this sermon and you can have a cookie. I was also aware of what a feast my life is everyday: the variety, quality, and amount of food I eat is truly amazing. I think this discipline of giving something up, for a day, or for the season of Lent, can give us valuable insights into our lives.
Being ‘born again’ is a process that involves more than an big event or two in our lives. Going back to Nicodemus: he leaves his encounter with Jesus still in the dark: he doesn’t get it. We don’t hear anything else about Nicodemus’ journey, but I like to imagine him playing the conversation with Jesus over again in mind, watching Jesus’ ministry unfold, maybe asking questions of some of the disciples and chewing on their answers. Later in the gospel, Nicodemus challenges the other Pharisees openly on their plans to arrest Jesus, and after Jesus’ death, he brings spices to wrap Jesus’ body with. He has moved from acting and living in darkness, to living in the light.
Martin Luther wrote of ‘daily dying and rising with Christ.’ For me, and maybe for you as well, there are the big events in my life that led to rebirth, but the process of being born again, born from above, is incremental. It can be daily if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone, let go of what we know, and embrace what we don’t understand. Have the difficult conversation with a stranger, or a friend. Let go our of pre-conceived notions about others, or ourselves, and see what is revealed to us when we look with fresh eyes. Perhaps in some of our quiet time today and this week, we can identify those things in our life which are keeping us from God, and how we might let them go, how we might make room for the holy spirit so we might be born from above, again, and again, and again. Nicodemus somehow came to realize that he did not have life figured out: in spite of his carefully following all the rules, something was missing. Jesus suggests that accessing the kingdom of God means that we have to be born anew, born again in the spirit. This new birth is a gift from God that we can’t control. What we can do is learn to let go of those things we know but that get in the way of our ability to see or receive the gift of new birth. That is a good task for Lent, and I hope that we will all spend some time prayerfully and intentionally engaging it. Amen.