March 5, 2023

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

“Out of the Womb”

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. Or at least, not yet. 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 kin-dom 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 that makes sense to me. 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 Kin-dom 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 Kin-dom.

As some of you know, I’ll be attending a meeting in Toronto the next couple of days. For a few years now I’ve been a member of our denomination’s Life and Mission Agency Committee. That’s the group that oversees the program-related work of our church at the national level. It includes Canadian and International Ministries, new church development, Christian education, stewardship, justice ministries, sexuality and inclusion, communications, Presbyterian World Service & Development, and more.

Reading through the meeting materials and draft reports of various departments to this year’s General Assembly, I couldn’t help but become aware of how our whole church is being challenged to “come out of the womb.”

I mean that collectively we are being invited, and we are learning to speak out in the public sphere about issues that are important. We are being challenged to self-examination as a church – to acknowledge the sins and errors of the past, to assess our current situation, and to make significant changes for the future towards which God is calling us.

We are being called in many and various ways to take risks by giving generously, by trying new forms of ministry, and by making space in the church for new leaders with different perspectives, experiences, and identities to guide us.

We are taking stock of where the church is currently at in its commitment to anti-racism by undertaking a racial audit.

We are acknowledging and redressing injustices in which the church was involved, especially the Residential School System.

We are engaging in partnerships with Presbyterians and others around the world to share in mission and ministry together, including Malawi and Taiwan.

We are exploring how the dominant culture has formed many of us, and how we are called to do ministry differently in inter-cultural contexts.

We are facing the challenges associated with mental health and learning how to support individuals and communities being affected by them.

We are engaging in intentional reflection and action to create safer spaces in congregations and courts of the church for 2SLGBTQI+ people.

Some of our congregations are working on renewal initiatives, and Presbyterians are starting new worshipping communities.

Indigenous, Inner-city, and other specialized ministries are reaching out with the love of Christ in their communities.

Some of our congregations are experimenting with new projects in mission, outreach, justice, hospitality, or Christian formation.

Many Presbyterians are giving generously to support relief and development programs around the world, and sponsoring refugees to come to Canada.

I think that these are some of the ways that our denomination is “coming out of the womb” – out of the safe, predictable, comfortable, and familiar ministries of the past. And the work of the Life and Mission Agency will assist Presbyterian congregations and missions across our church to have the vision and courage to come out too.

Whether we think of the new things God is calling us to do as “being born again” or “born from above” or “born of the Spirit,” we can be sure that new beginnings are possible when we choose to come out into the light and follow Jesus on the way.

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. The same promise was true for Nicodemus, and its true for us too as individuals, congregations, and as a denomination.

God is saying to the church: “It is time for a new birth. Come out of the womb, and go to the places that I will show you. 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 Kin-dom come. Amen.