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How do we begin again?

“How Do We Begin Again?”

March 5, 2023 - Cobleskill Untied Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

Second Sunday in Lent

John 3:1-17

Narrator: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him,

Nicodemus: "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."

Jesus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."

Nicodemus: "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

Jesus: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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."

Nicodemus: "How can these things be?"

Jesus: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Our youth group met on Friday night and, like we usually do, we played 4-square and then sat down for dinner and conversation. I asked them if they knew the word “Lent.” After the first round of ideas about how it might be the stuff you find in your belly button or between your toes or in your dryer, then we had some ideas surface about how it was Lent not lint and how it might have something more to do with Jesus than it did small remnants of clothing. One youth around the table even remembered that Lent recalls the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness… how it then gives a framework and season for tuning into Jesus’ journey toward the cross in these 40 days leading up to Easter.

Whether Lent is a new idea that you’re still figuring out, or whether you’ve been unpacking this heavy season for many decades, you’ve come to the right place. During these weeks of Lent leading up to Easter we are seeking together a fresh and new way of understanding the relevance of Jesus’ impact in our world today. We’re giving ourselves permission to have more questions than answers and embrace “seeking” as a spiritual discipline, of sorts.

We’re doing this by encouraging ourselves to ask questions and wonder together as we read the scripture and follow the story of Jesus together each week. This week, we just heard a story from the Gospel of John about a man who seeks out Jesus with questions. But this is no ordinary question and answer session. Nicodemus comes to Jesus when? At nighttime.

Why? Is this important to understanding the story? What makes asking questions in the dark seem so very different from asking questions in broad daylight? What was Nicodemus risking by talking to Jesus? What was underneath his questions?

We don’t know a lot about Nicodemus. Some of us might even be hearing his name today for the first time. But we do know that the scripture calls him a Pharisee, a leader among the Jews. And this sets up a power dynamic. Jesus isn’t a Pharisee. He isn’t a leader in the establishment. He’s a man who’s been gaining a following by teaching on the mountain sides and healing in the streets. Nicodemus clearly has the upper hand when it comes to the title and the power.

But somehow, title and power had stopped being enough. Despite power and authority, Nicodemus oddly felt it was Jesus who potentially had something to teach him, and maybe asking questions of this Jesus guy in front of others made Nicodemus embarrassed. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen questioning his faith?

Have you ever saved a hard question to ask at night rather than in the daytime? Have you ever felt like you wanted to take a risk, but doing it in broad daylight was too much? Have you ever felt like you needed a fresh start, but you didn’t know how to begin again?

I imagine this was the way our guy Nicodemus felt. We have no idea what kind of life he was coming from. Did he feel trapped in some way? Was he seeking a spark that he’d lost? Had his faith somehow become irrelevant? Was he being judged by others for asking simple questions? We have no idea. But what we do know is that when Jesus tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God except by being born from above,” he jumps on this with a big, full-throttled question: “How can (!) anyone be born after growing old?” How is it possible? Tongue in cheek, he asks further…Can you enter your mother’s womb and be born a second time?

In other words, how can you begin again when it seems like an impossible prospect? How can you get a fresh start when you’re engrained in old ways?

In a moment of sacred space, Jesus offers an answer. Anyone can begin again. The key is to understand that our life is not calculated and limited by years lived and material accomplishments and earthly standards of wealth and power. God measures our life by how well we live into and bring forth God’s kingdom in the midst of our earthly life. Trading our limited earthly goals and priorities instead for God’s limitless goals and aspirations of justice, love, and being a kind neighbor. When we can trade one set of earthly priorities for the heavenly, God-given ones, this is what Jesus calls being born of the Spirit. We are released from whatever it is that holds us back from imagining a new and better chapter. When we are born of the Spirit we are able to see possibilities where before there were only barriers. Life where there was death. Hope where there was only despair. Justice and mercy where there was only condemnation and judgment. Being born of the Spirit is like a new beginning. It’s the freedom to imagine a different ending for ourselves and the world as a whole.

How do we begin again? We let the Spirit of God into our lives, to blow where it wants. We find the courage and faith to imagine that earth can be as it is in heaven. We begin again by accepting God’s grace to turn toward possibility.

I wish I could tell you how it all worked out for Nicodemus. We don’t know too much about what happened with him, how his life was different after his clandestine, starry encounter with Jesus. But we do know this. When most everyone else had walked away from Jesus as he was dying on the cross, Nicodemus walked toward Jesus, unafraid of being seen in the daylight and associated with this man, he was one of the two who asked to care for Jesus’ body, giving it a proper burial. Perhaps Nicodemus had an inkling of hope that the Spirit was still moving. That miracles and new beginnings were still possible. That his life could be part of this movement and that he could have one small part in bringing a new day. Against all the odds, Nicodemus decided that day to be part of what the Spirit was doing, laying a body that felt lifeless and dead, into the darkness of a tomb. You see, Nicodemus knew a thing or two about darkness and how new beginnings can often start there.

No matter what makes you feel trapped and boxed in, let this story bring you hope. No matter what earthly limitations and injustices make you feel like nothing can change. Let the Spirit find you in the darkest night. Let a God who turns tombs into wombs give you new birth. Let Jesus’ starry conversation full of questioning and wondering, help you to understand what the opposite of condemnation and judgment look like.

I want to keep seeking this Spirit that blows in the wind. And I want to keep seeking it with you. Together let’s keep seeking a life lived by heavenly standards. Let’s keep seeking a safe place where our questions are welcomed and new beginnings are possible. A place where God’s love invites everyone to the table.

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