Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
His footsteps echoed on the stone walls, and he slowed, trying to be quiet, searching for the house. In this part of the city, they all looked alike, especially in the dark. At the corner, he saw two soldiers, their swords glinting in the moonlight. He slowed a bit, meeting their eyes and nodding. They let him pass. His heart pounding, he turned another corner of the maze-like city streets.
He finally found it: through the window, the soft red glow of a hearth beckoning him. He knocked and the door opened against the night. Inside, the rabbi sat silently, as if he had been waiting all evening for the visitor.
“Good evening, Nicodemus.”
“Rabbi, thank you for seeing me at such a late hour.”
The rabbi nodded.
The silence filled the house. “Jesus, I know you are a true teacher, because I have heard about the things that you have been doing, and I know that no one could such things unless is the Holy One is with him.”
Jesus nodded again. “No one can see the Realm of God unless he has been born from above.”
Nicodemus’ brow furrowed, his heartbeat beginning to tick up again. He had been told that this was no ordinary rabbi, this one talked in riddles. He shook his head a bit. “I don’t understand, how can someone be born a second time? You can’t crawl back up inside your mother’s womb again.”
The rabbi smiled. “You can’t even see where the kingdom of God is without being born of water and Spirit. You might think that, just because you are a teacher yourself, you have a VIP pass, but it doesn’t work that way. There is a different kind of birth, a birth of the Spirit. It’s like the wind: you can hear it, you know it’s there, but you can’t see it. You don’t know where it starts, how it chooses its path among the trees, or through the city streets, or even where it goes after it is finished blowing. That’s how it is for the children of the Spirit.”
He had come a long way, through the night, at great risk, to hear something that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Nicodemus waited for an explanation. But there was only silence. Finally, he said quietly, “How? How does this work?”
Jesus smiled, at last. “Nicodemus, Nicodemus, Nicodemus. You spent all those years studying the Torah and the Talmud so you could be some sort of a hotshot teacher, and you still don’t get it.
“Look, this is pretty basic stuff. But, if you can’t grasp something so self-evident, how are you going to understand when I try to tell you what heaven is or how eternity works? Remember in the Book of Daniel, and the vision of the Son of Man, and there were all those snarling beasts, and rival kingdoms and then finally the people of the Saints of the Highest One are given dominion and the whole world is set free? Do you remember when our ancestors were being bitten in the desert by vipers and Moses made a copper serpent and raised it high above the people’s heads? Remember how when people looked at it, they were healed of the vipers’ poison? This is just like that. But the good news is, this is how the world is saved.”
Poor Nicodemus. He just wanted to know who this Jesus of Nazareth really was, to get some clue about his teaching, or how he made wine out of water or healed people’s birth defects. But instead of answers, all Nicodemus got was a jumble of seemingly unrelated stories about water, and wind and snakes. And being born all over again. That’s what happens when you go on a journey of spiritual discovery. You must be prepared to forget everything you think is true and be willing to go to a place where the wind blows wild, where nothing makes sense, where the only answers are more questions and you find yourself saying, “How can these things be?”
And if you think you are just going to sum it all up on a poster you can hold up at the football game, you’ll find yourself just stumbling around in a dark confusion. Yet, no matter how confusing all this seems, if you want to know truth, you must be willing to go in deeper.
In our reading from the Hebrew Bible today, Abram, living in what is now Iraq, becomes an immigrant in a land far away. The gods of his people no longer speak to him, so he listens deeper, to the wind, to the stars to the earth itself, and hears a promise: “if you are willing to leave behind all that you know, and risk everything you have, there is a place of blessing for you. And not just for you, for the whole world.” Abram would later be called Abraham, the “father of many nations.” Today, three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam claim him as the Great Patriarch of them all.
The season of Lent offers us an opportunity to begin our own journey from Ur to Canaan, or to begin it again, even if we have been on it all our lives. Lent is not about fasting from chocolate or wine or red meat for forty days. Lent helps us discovering a way of leaving everything we have, on a long journey through a desert or on dark and dangerous streets. If we are faithful to that journey, we will come to know how it is for the people who have nothing, for whom being born is just a brief and painful time before dying. On that journey we can be reborn with eyes that can really see the world and how it can be made whole.
There is, in Jewish thinking, a concept called tikkun olam, which means “the repairing of the world.” Tikkun olam implies that each of us has a responsibility working to make the world better for us and for all future generations. The Hebrew prophets called the people to tzedakah (justice and righteousness) and g’milut hasadim (acts of loving kindness). If we neglect those things, evil and injustice continue and the creation itself cries under their weight.
Nicodemus, for all his confusion when sitting before Jesus, appears twice more in the Gospel of John, the only one of the Gospels which tells his story. Later, as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, he reminds his fellow justices that they cannot judge Jesus as a heretic without a trial. The last time we see him, it’s night again, and this time, he is helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial. He must have spent the rest of his life trying to repair the world he had seen because of the Teacher.
Abram, who left his comfortable, upper class life in Ur to spend the rest of his days wandering around the wilderness of Canaan, found that the journey itself was the destination, that one only gains a repaired world by changing the one that is here, changing it to one where the weak are no longer trampled by the powerful, where the poor and sick are no longer told they don’t deserve to have health care, where immigrants are welcomed and not sent back to lives without hope. He traveled to a new place, where a new nation would be established, a nation where the hope of the poor would not be taken away. It didn’t always work perfectly, and sometimes not at all, but still, through that nation blew the Spirit, calling into existence things which did not exist before.
American Christianity really loves parts of today’s Gospel, the verses where it says “You must be born again,” and “God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.” Those words are plastered on billboards and bumperstickers, on bookmarks and Bible covers. But in yanking them out of the context of this powerful encounter between a rabbi and teacher turned student, they miss the most important words of all: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
For most modern American Christians, salvation is a personal act, a deal with a God who loves Christians but not anyone else. And it doesn’t even mean that you have to leave anything behind. But the message of our readings today is that salvation is radically inclusive, that all the families of the earth are welcomed into Divine blessing.
Jesus writes John, did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it from disrepair. For those who walk the Lenten path, that repair starts first with us. Being born again is not some religious experience, where you raise your hands and feel the goosebumps on your skin as you walk the church aisle, tears streaming down your face. Being born again is hard work. You’ll lose everything you’ve got, but you will inherit a brand new world. Nothing will ever be the same, but that’s the point.