Welcome to the second Sunday in Lent.
As I was reflecting on the spiritual journey that is at the heart of Lent and reading through many email messages that include Lenten reflections, I remembered something I heard several years ago. In an interview, Anne Lamott, Bay Area writer, told a story about herself. Some of you may know her work; she has written a number of books that reflect a keen wit and an irreverent sense of humor. For me, what sets her apart from other good writers in the intellectual Bay Area arts’ scene is that she is very public about her Christianity.
In the interview, she compared her journey to finding Jesus to finding a stray cat. This is not a verbatim quote but the story went like this. The first reaction to meeting the cat is you’re a lovely cat but I’m not ready to commit to having a cat right now but you can stay in this bed in the garage. But you’re on your own for food. Later, it’s o.k. I’ll leave some food out for you but you can’t come into the house. Then, it’s o.k. you can come into the kitchen but no further. Finally the cat is curled up on the foot of the bed and she’s wondering why it took her so long to invite this loving creature into her life.
I’m sure she’s not the only person to have that experience, either with Jesus or with an animal. Sometimes we can’t just jump right in. We have to go through some process to be able to say yes. So, it seems, do people we meet in scripture.
Today, we meet Nicodemus. Among the people who encounter Jesus, the story of Nicodemus is unique in a couple of ways. One is that he is not one of the outsiders that we’re accustomed to Jesus meeting; he’s a Pharisee. The second is that he makes multiple appearances in the Gospel of John, first in today’s reading, then later when Jesus is preaching at the temple and finally at the crucifixion.
The three appearances are particularly relevant to us today because it is clear to me that Nicodemus was on a spiritual journey. As we contemplate our Lenten journeys, what might we learn from his experience?
In scripture, his first encounter with Jesus is at night; it is clear from the reading that Nicodemus knows something about Jesus’ teachings and has questions. As a Pharisee, he is a learned person, a scholar, and part of the elite that Jesus is challenging. His approach to Jesus is private, which could mean a number of things. Their conversation would be less likely to inflame the antagonism against Jesus that a public encounter might. Or maybe Nicodemus wants to hide from his peers his interest in this rabbi who is shaking things up. Or maybe Nicodemus is interested in what Jesus teaches but isn’t ready to say yes.
What does it take to enter the Kingdom of God, he asks. You must be born from above, says Jesus, an answer that clearly does not resonate with Nicodemus. Hearing the words literally, he is befuddled. How can anyone be born after having grown old, he asks.
Nicodemus is an educated man, probably an excellent analytic type, but he doesn’t fully understand what he is being told. Maybe he was too concrete in his thinking and couldn’t envision what “being born from above” could possibly mean. Maybe he’s having trouble reconciling the teaching of Jesus with his own spiritual tradition. Or maybe he just needs something more.
Jesus chides Nicodemus, tells him that he’s not listening, then says:
You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, by the Spirit of God.’ (John 3:7-8 The Message)
In defining what he means by “being born of the Spirit,” Jesus is describing a spiritual awakening, a spiritual transformation.
Still confused, Nicodemus asks how can this be? Jesus’ answer is one of the most recognized statements in scripture: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.
God so loved the world that he sent his Son to us, to live among us and to teach us.
There is no record here of Nicodemus’ reaction to this explanation but his later actions suggest that he “got it.” He next appears in the 7th chapter of John’s Gospel when the authorities debate arresting Jesus for preaching. The plot to kill Jesus is under way and the Pharisees want Jesus to be arrested. It is Nicodemus who speaks up in Jesus’ defense, reminding the temple elites that, by their own rules, they cannot convict someone without first giving him a hearing. Everyone leaves and Jesus continues his ministry.
The final appearance of Nicodemus is after the crucifixion when the time has come to bury Jesus. Nicodemus brings a lavish amount of perfumed ointment (75 pounds) and, along with Joseph of Arimathea, wraps the body in linen and lays him in the tomb.
When we look at the story of Nicodemus, perhaps we can see some of ourselves in him. First he was a skeptic, challenging Jesus to explain his words. Then as an advocate for the accused, he defended Jesus against arbitrary arrest. Finally, he performed a most intimate and loving task, the anointing and burial of Jesus’ body.
Spiritual journeys are not necessarily linear and certainly aren’t easy. Nicodemus had a direct encounter with Jesus and still had difficulty understanding the teachings. It shouldn’t surprise us that, 2000 years removed from the time and place of Jesus, we might have difficulty understanding what is asked of us. How can I love the neighbor who is threatening and spewing hatred towards to my people? Where is God in our world right now? How do I let Jesus in? Or even that stray cat?
Lent began with a call from the prophet Joel to rend our hearts and return to God. This is not an invitation to the intellect. It is a call to rip open our hearts and explore what it means to be a person of faith, to be a follower of Jesus. Maybe it is not so much to find answers but to explore questions, to challenge certainty and what we know, to be uncomfortable with easy answers, any answer, to see what frightens us as well as what makes of feel safe. And to let in that astonishing message of how much God loves each and every one of us and to live in the light.
I’d like to give Anne Lamott the final word today. In one of her books on faith, she wrote this:
I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I . . .[know] . . . that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.
(Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)
May you continue to have a blessed Lent.
© Rev. Deacon Pam J. Jester