By Henry Ossawa Tanner – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/henry-ossawa-tanner-1859-1937-nicodemus-coming-5073716-details.aspx, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4864388
Lent 2A – March 5, 2023
Genesis 12:1-4a – God calls Abram at 75 to leave his country and kindred. “I will bless you to be a blessing.”
Psalm 121 – I lift my eyes to the hills. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. The Lord will be your shade. The sun will not strike you. The Lord will keep your going out and coming in forevermore.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 – The promise rests not only on the adherents to the law, but to those who share the faith of Abraham.
John 3:1-17 – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Born again.
Listen to the Podcast (3/8/20) – Lent 2A
The Gospel readings for Lent A from John 3,4, 9 and 11 are long. The last is 45 verses, about five minutes of reading. Why not recruit a team of dramatic readers to rehearse these, for interest and inflection?
Lent A at-a-glance
The Gospel readings for Lent in Cycle A of the lectionary are the traditional texts that catechumenates studied in preparation for baptism. What if every new member class studied and reflected on these texts?
- Lent 1 (February 26, 2023): Matthew 4 (The Temptation in the Wilderness)
- Lent 2 (March 5, 2023): John 3 (Nicodemus) or Matthew 17
- Lent 3 (March 12, 2023): John 4 (Woman at the Well)
- Lent 4: (March 19, 2023) John 9 (Healing of the Man Born Blind)
- Lent 5: (March 26, 2023) John 11 (The Raising of Lazarus)
Dr. Karoline Lewis: Born Anew
At Preaching on the Bayou, our Lenten preaching retreat (January 2023), Dr. Karoline Lewis (Luther Seminary) called Lent 1 “Born Identity” and Lent 2 “Born Anew.” Because John 3:16, the most well-known verse in the Bible has too often been weaponized, Lewis encouraged us to prepare for this text by continuing to read what comes after the Nicodemus text: John 3:17-21. The Greek word John uses for condemn and judgement is “krisis.” Obviously we get our word crisis from this. We are living in this world of crisis with the state of the economy and the state of the church. Preaching law will draw us to touch upon this.
She also allayed our fear of decision theology, for the Lutherans in the room. If we are going to have a relationship with God, it does require something from us. If a relationship is one-sided it is not a relationship. God wants to be in relationship with us. This will require a rebirth.
I find myself thinking of Jesus’ call to come and die to ourselves. It’s not a popular message, but it seems to have been central to Jesus’ teaching. A death and rebirth must take place.
Lewis said being born again has something to do with the Spirit: “being born of the water and the Spirit.” The Paraclete is John’s unique pneumatology. Comforter, aid, intercessor, guide. To be born again is to be born from this Spirit and into relationship with this Spirit.
John 20:22 is the second born again reference in John. John breathes into them (emphusaow, from which we get our word emphasima) the Holy Spirit. This is the same work used in the Septuagint in Genesis 2:7. God breathed into the dust and created humans. Also Ezekiel 37:9, when God breathed into the dry bones. A new creation is being brought into life from dust, from dry bones. You now have this companion who will walk alongside you.
John 3:16: To be born again is to be promised eternal life. John’s definition of eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Eternal life is knowing God. Knowing here is not knowledge, it is relationship. Belonging, like her book. Abiding in God is what the gospel of John is about. Eternal life is now.
Bishop Claire Burkat: Nic at Night
Some of these thoughts are based on reflections from former Bishop Claire Burkat (formerly Southeast Pennsylvania Synod, currently Interim Bishop in the Sierra Pacific Synod):
- Night is a mysterious private zone.
- By telling us Nick came to Jesus at night we are put on alert.
- Light and dark are powerful theological polarities.
- This Jesus has already turned over the tables in the temple and turned water into wine in John’s gospel. Is he a prophet or troublemaker?
- Later in John, chapter 7, Nic defends Jesus when the Pharisees try to arrest him. So something in this John 3 conversation worked for Nic.
- Later, Nicodemus swiftly and loving takes Jesus’ body (just before night) and prepares it for burial, wrapping the body in spices…
- Jesus: We speak of what we know and testify what we have seen. Nic: Huh?
- Flesh/Spirit is another polarity. Water and Spirit.
- Being born again is necessary to enter the kingdom of God. Nic: How can that be?
- Birth: to sire or beget. The begotten verb. Genesthenay. We need to be begotten a second time by the Spirit. Nic doesn’t get this.
- Born anew also means from above. Which is it? Both?
- Babies do not get to decide when they are being born. God decides.
- Brueggeman: Womb and compassion are the same word (splanknesthays). Can I enter into God’s compassion again?
High and lifted up
- Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert (Numbers 21) so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
- God sent the serpents to punish the people for complaining. “I’ll give you something to complain about…” We can see how people can see natural disasters as punishment.
- God punishes them for their sin, then saves them to teach them a lesson. To give physical life.
- The son of man is lifted up not on bronze, but on a cross. To give eternal life.
- Why does God lift him up? In order that the world might be saved through him.
- Luther called John 3:16 the gospel in miniature.
- God is more gracious than Luther would be: “If I were as our Lord God and those vile people were as disobedient as we, I would knock the earth to pieces.”
- God so loved the cosmos. That’s the word John uses. Perhaps not just the world, but God so loved the “universe.” No one is outside the realm of God’s love.
- Even if I descend to Sheol, you are there.
- This is an incarnational passage. Why not come down from the pulpit at some point? Talk, touch. Shake hands.
- They got to whip him, spit on him, nail him to a cross, put him in a tomb.
- We ought to require people to memorize 3:17 along with 3:16.
A Border-crossing Church
A few years ago I approached the Lenten texts from year A from a border-crossing perspective. Here is the text of that sermon:
We follow a border-crossing Jesus, who calls us to be a border-crossing church.
A border-crossing church is a church that does what Jesus did: breaking through barriers in order to reach out in love to the neighbor across the artificial human borders that we set up to keep others apart – boundaries of race, class and gender, for example. Paul says in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Barriers of race, class and gender are irrelevant because of Jesus.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What do you think?” The man replies. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength.” “Correct,” Jesus says.
But wanting to justify himself, Luke tells us, the lawyer asks Jesus, “Ah, but who is my neighbor?” Who, precisely now, is it that I must love? Who is in this circle called neighbor?
It’s a great question. Is someone of a different race my neighbor? Is my someone of a different religion my neighbor? Is my neighbor someone who lives next door? How about three houses down? How about in the next neighborhood, or across the world?
In true rabbinic fashion, Jesus answers the question with a story. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho where is beaten and robbed and left for dead. In time a priest goes by and does nothing. Also a Levite. All the people who should respond don’t. And then along comes a Samaritan.
Samaritans were Jews in Samaria who had long ago married with other races, clans and religions. Today some would call them mestizos: half breeds. Jews despised them. They called them dogs. It was forbidden to talk to them, touch them, shake hands, make eye contact. They were untouchable.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus uses a Samaritan in this story? Jesus intentionally chooses someone he intuitively knows will make his listeners flinch. He knows that for them the term “Good Samaritan” is an oxymoron.
Christian spirituality is not ethereal. It is earthy. God is not found in rising above humanity, but in encountering humanity grounded in human suffering. In Jesus’ spirituality God is encountered through the least of these.
For Jesus, it is impossible to love God without loving neighbor. They are simply two sides of one and the same coin. John says, “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone that is loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love. (I John 4:7-8)
The Lenten Journey
In these 40 days of Lent we hear stories of a border-crossing Jesus.
Lent I: The Temptation of Jesus – After Jesus’ baptism, we are told the Spirit drives him into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the devil. This is a border-crossing, from the relative comfort of home into the discomfort of the wilderness. From mommy to Satan. From the known into the unknown.
In the wilderness Jesus is tempted to be derailed from his ministry. Not by bad things. Satan does not tempt Jesus to give up good for evil. Jesus is not tempted to commit adultery or genocide. Instead he is tempted with good things, like bread, safety, authority. We too are tempted every day to be derailed from our ministry, by things that might not be bad, but will distract us from the ministry to which God has called us. We too are tempted every day to choose the comfortable place rather than cross the border into the uncomfortable place into which God is calling us.
Lent II: Nicodemus – Then we hear the story of Nicodemus (John 3) who is told that he must be “born again” or perhaps “reborn from above” in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. The birth canal is another border from womb to world. Being born again is a border crossing we must take every day. As usual Jesus moves from the physical to the spiritual. This is not a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.
Nicodemus, you and I – we are called to leave the womb of this self-centered life and to cross the border into an other-centered, God-centered life. We are called to die to ourselves and rise again in Christ. This too is a border-crossing.
Lent III: Woman at the Well – Next we hear the story of the woman at the well, from John 4. This is a major border-crossing. Jesus sits down next to someone who has three strikes against her: She is a woman – men are not to speak to women in public in Semitic societies. Jesus is breaking the rules. Second, she is a Samaritan woman. We’ve already talked about the fact that an orthodox Jew is not to speak to a Samaritan. Finally, this woman has had many husbands. This makes her suspect. Jesus engages her in public. Even the disciples are shocked by this. He crosses gender barriers. “I will give you water so that you will never thirst again,” Jesus says. But of course he is not speaking of our physical thirst, but our spiritual thirst. This is a thirst that can only be addressed by being “in Christ,” by making Christ’s faith our faith, by following Christ’s way of being in the world.
Lent IV: Healing of the Man Born blind – In March we hear the story of the man born blind. In this story Jesus crosses borders of shame, disease, disability. In the process he challenges the blindness of the religious leaders of his day to the truth of their own spiritual blindness. This Jesus walks into the face of leprosy and a host of other unnamed diseases, making him unclean. He crosses borders that the world call unsafe, unreasonable, unwise, and invites us to do the same. Many say the early church’s willingness to care for the sick and the poor made Christianity preferable to its pagan counterparts. The Emperor Julian complained to the high priest of Galatia in 362 A.D. that Christian virtues overshadowed pagan virtues. “They care for their own poor, and ours as well.” (http://www.roman-emperors.org/julian.htm). There is great risk in encountering disease. But when the church chooses safety and comfort, its message is powerless. When we become a border-crossing church, the power of the gospel changes lives.
Lent V: Raising of Lazarus – Finally, we will hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Is not death the final border? Jesus, the Word of God becomes flesh for our sake, crossing the border from divinity into our humanity. Entering into our world, he lived a border-crossing life, showing us the way of justice and peace. Then he took upon himself the full weight of human sin, hatred, violence and suffering on the cross. Rising again, he crossed the border from this world into eternity. Jesus became Christ. And he promised to come again. On the day when we take our final breath, he promises to come back and carry us across that final border. “In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you, that where I am you may be also.”
This Lenten season, as we make the journey of the cross with Jesus, heed Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. Let us be Christ’s body, his hands and feet in this world. Trusting in the promises of baptism let us be the church that bursts through barriers of race, class, gender, creed, stigma, shame, disease, disability. Believing in the resurrection of the dead, let us have the courage to walk into the darkness of this world and bring the love of God, the light of Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit. Amen.