March 20, 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

Abram and Nicodemus provide an interesting contrast in our readings today. First we have Abram, a model of faith, courage, and obedience to God. Today’s brief story is the first time that we hear about Abram in the bible. God tells him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And Abram goes. He does what God has told him to do.

He goes. And we know that he becomes the father of many nations, and the father of the three major religions of the world. After Abram, so many others come to believe in the One God. They worship God, and listen for God, and do their best to follow God and God’s ways.

Abram is a wonderful example of faith. Nicodemus? Not so much. John’s Gospel tells us that Nicodemus is a religious person. He’s a Pharisee and a leader in the religious community. And just like Abram must have been hearing God’s voice in a new way, telling him to leave everything and start fresh in a new place, I think Nicodemus must have been hearing God’s voice in a new way too.

Nicodemus was hearing God’s voice and seeing God’s wonders in the man called Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe Nic was at the wedding in Cana. Maybe he saw what Jesus did – turning water into wine. Or maybe Nic was in the temple when Jesus drove out the money changers and the people selling animals for offerings. Perhaps he heard what Jesus said, and he was intrigued.

But unlike Abram who heard God’s voice and set out on the road, and unlike the disciples who dropped their nets at the invitation to follow, Nicodemus wasn’t ready to jump into the Jesus movement. He wasn’t ready to leave behind his life quite yet. He wasn’t ready to begin again. He had to check things out first.

And so Nicodemus goes to see Jesus at night. He wants to ask his questions, but he doesn’t want to be seen asking them. He wants to find out about this “teacher from God” who performs signs and wonders, but he doesn’t want to make any commitments, at least not yet.

Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” without being born of the Spirit, without being born again. And Nicodemus is confused. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

As usual in John’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking in metaphors and people don’t always understand what he means. Interpreting the words centuries later, Christians have considered, and re-considered, and debated what Jesus’ words really mean. Those who call themselves “born again Christians” talk about a moment of conversion in their lives when they left behind their sinful ways and embraced the life of discipleship. Others think of baptism as that moment of metaphorical rebirth.

But I came across another idea in my reading this week. It’s the idea that Jesus was not just telling Nicodemus the next step on the journey to becoming a disciple. After all, I don’t remember Jesus telling anyone else that they needed to be born again! Instead, Jesus may be responding to Nic’s particular situation. His instructions may be specifically for Nicodemus,
based on Jesus’ observations of this man.

By indicating that he needs to be born again, Jesus is implying that Nicodemus is still in the metaphorical womb. He’s keeping himself in a safe, secure place of comfort and nurture… And he’s probably quite content to stay there.

Jesus is saying that if Nicodemus wants to be a disciple, then he’s going to have to be willing to leave the womb. He’s going to have to come into the light of day. Yes, it’s going to be scary, and there are going to be risks, but there are also going to be joys and wonders to see, life and love to experience.

If Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, really wants to experience the Kingdom of God, he’s going to have to find the courage of Abram to leave behind the safety and security of his life and his position and embark on a journey into the unknown.

I’m reminded of an old phrase that used to get used a lot in churches when we were talking about the imperative to share our faith with others. We talked about “getting out of our comfort zones,” and it was the idea that God might sometimes (or perhaps often) ask us to do things that make us uncomfortable. And sometimes (perhaps often) we need to face that uncertainty, endure that discomfort, and forge ahead to do what we believe God is calling us to do.

Maybe God is calling you to be present with someone who is suffering or dying. Maybe God is calling you to stand up for someone who is being hurt or abused. Maybe God is calling you to speak out against injustice, discrimination, and hatred. Maybe God is calling you to give generously (even to the point of your own need) so that others may have the necessities of life. Maybe God is calling you to share your faith with another person – perhaps not only through your loving actions and the way you live. Maybe God is calling you to put your faith into words, and to be vulnerable enough to share them with someone who is wondering and searching.

If these things make us uncomfortable, then perhaps we are more like Nicodemus than we are like Abram. Perhaps Jesus’ message for us today is that we need to be born again. We need to squeeze out of the safe, warm, comfort of the womb (or the church) and get out in the world to participate in Jesus’ work of building the Kingdom.

I wonder if any of you have one of those fish magnets on the back of your car. The fish, as you probably know, is a symbol for Christianity. According to tradition, ancient Christians, during their persecution by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Christ, used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes. When a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company.

But today many Christians put fish magnets on the back of their cars. Some of the fish magnets say “Jesus” on them, and others have the Greek word for fish “ἰχθύς” whose Greek letters are an acrostic for “Jesus Christ God’s son Saviour.” (Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ)

The fish magnets still identify that someone is a Christian, but now everyone knows what the fish symbol means. It’s no longer a “secret symbol” only understood within the Christian community. Instead, it clearly identifies (to those inside the church and out) that this person is a follower of Jesus and they don’t mind if everyone knows.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should all run out and buy fish magnets for our cars, or that we should wear crosses around our necks to let the world know who we are. But I do think that like Nicodemus, Jesus is inviting us to come out of the comfort and safety of our religious traditions, and to let God lead us into new, risky, and exciting possibilities.

If we are serious about our faith, if we really want to be disciples of Jesus, then we can’t let our Christianity get compartmentalized. We can’t let it be something that we keep in the dark, that we only do on Sunday mornings or in the privacy of our own homes.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes worry about whether I can be a good model of the Christian faith. You know, there are so many people who have been turned away from Christianity or from religion in general because they encountered Christians who seemed to be hypocrites. You know, people who put fish magnets on their cars, people who wore crosses around their necks, and then drove dangerously, cut people off in traffic, and swore at the other drivers.

Putting a fish magnet on your car (or being open about your Christian faith to the people around you) can feel like a lot of pressure. Because now that people know who you are, you have to start actually living like a disciple of Jesus. Whether you are at work, or with friends, or encountering strangers in the community, you have to be the one who is humble and kind, giving and forgiving. You have to be the one who puts the other first and who goes the extra mile. Even if being open about your faith doesn’t seem like as big a risk as it was for Nicodemus, it may still feel like a lot of pressure.

Well, the good news is that the burden is not ours to carry alone. As Christians, we are not expected to be perfect all the time. We don’t have to have all the answers, and we don’t have to have everything figured out. Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we will have questions for Jesus and things that get us confused. But we’ll be asking those questions in the light, along the way, on the journey with Jesus.

God promised Abram that if he went where God was sending him that God would bless him so that Abram would be a blessing to others. And the same promise is true for us. But we are called to be a blessing to others, not because we are faultless, but because we can reflect the One who is. Abram was a blessing, not because of his own skill, but because God used him to purely reflect God’s light.

In a short time, the religious part of your week will likely be finished. The church service will be over, you’ll go on your way, and on to work, or school, or play, or whatever else you will do this week. And so I invite you to pause and consider… How will you carry your faith into your life this week? Having experienced the love and grace of God today, where will you reflect that blessing during the week?

Think of the people that you will meet… those you know, and those who will be strangers… Think about those people and the opportunities you may have to share God’s love in word and in action.

God is saying to you today: “Go from this community, from this church… to the places that I will show you this week. And I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.” Let us go where God sends us, filled with God’s Spirit of courage and faith. And may we see God’s Kingdom come. Amen.