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Lent 2 March 12, 2017 - The Rev. Janet Campbell
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, Washington
Sunday, March 12, 2017
The Rev. Janet Campbell
On the first Sunday in Lent
the gospel reading is always the story
of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness –
          last week we heard Matthew’s version.
The gospels assigned
for the remaining Sundays in Lent
          vary according to the year
          of our 3-year lectionary cycle
and in Year A, this year,
we have four life-changing stories
from John’s Gospel . . .
which are,
in my opinion,
the best gospels
to take us through to Easter.
Together, they offer a kind of
          meditation on baptism,
the best preparation
there could be
          for celebrating the Easter feast.
We should have them every year!
Each story is well worth contemplating
          all week long,
                   a week at a time
          over these next four weeks.
Transformational encounters with Jesus.
Today’s story:
Nicodemus, full of questions,
encounters Jesus by night
          and learns that one can be truly reborn
                   in this life
          by passage through water
                   and infusion with God’s Spirit.
And a preview of coming attractions:
Next week:
A Samaritan woman
encounters Jesus at her village well
          and learns of the only water
                   that can truly satisfy her thirsty soul:
          the living water Jesus gives,  
          “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The following Sunday,
the Fourth in Lent,
a man blind from birth
          encounters Jesus
          and receives from him the gift of sight.   
And on the last Sunday
          before Palm Sunday,
Lazarus stumbles forth from his grave,
called by Jesus back to life,
          unbound and set free.        
Life-changing encounters.
We are immersed
by these stories
in the meaning of our baptism:
the desire and power of God
to bring us to new birth:
          enlighten our darkness,
          satisfy our spiritual thirst,
          open our eyes to what is real and true,
          set us free from every life-limiting bond,
                    even the bond of death itself.
A process that begins
with our baptism
and continues the rest of our life.

Available free of charge
through Jesus
to those who would
believe in him:
          see him,
          drink of him,
          be set free by him.
 And it is renewal of our baptism
(and baptism itself for some)
toward which we swim
in this exceedingly watery
So, for today,
what about Nicodemus
who came to Jesus by night . . .
in the dark, that is . . .
. . . in John’s Gospel
being a sign of
“not seeing,” “not knowing:”

like most of the people
who ran into Jesus,
was in the dark
about who Jesus really was.
He had come only this far:
“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 God.”
True enough,
although there were others
in Jesus’ time
and there have been others since,
about whom
that might be said . . .
in our own time
Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel,
Edith Stein . . .
But Jesus had a particular and unique claim
about his relationship with God:
his son-ship:

“The Father and I are one,”                             [John 10:30]
he says later in John’s gospel,
“Believe me,
I am in the Father,
and the Father is in me.”                                 [John 14:11]
The signs he was doing
          in Jerusalem –
(John doesn’t tell us what they were)                   
          would reveal that relationship
                   to those with eyes to see.
intrigued perhaps,
by “these signs” –
came to Jesus
with his half-formed understanding
          and a thirst to know more,
          (and a need to do so secretly) . . .

He was, after all, a Pharisee
and no doubt preferred
          that his fellow Pharisees
                   not know about
          his tête a tête with Jesus,
                    of whom they were already
                   fearful and suspicious.  
Most often,
Pharisees came to Jesus
in a group and loaded for bear,
looking to test him
          and trip him up in public.
But Nicodemus came alone
          with no one else around
not to confront or attack,
but with
genuine curiosity and interest
in what might come of the meeting.
And so,
to discover something new.

And what did come of the meeting,
for Nicodemus,
for the community
          to whom John told this story,
for us two millennia later?
While Nicodemus
had his feet firmly planted
in the earthly realm,
Jesus spoke to him
of spiritual realities.
Of course one cannot enter a second time
into the waters of the mother’s womb
to be born again into this earthly life,
but while in this earthly life,
one can pass through the waters of baptism
and be born from above,
born into the new life
which had come down from God
          to God’s people
in the person of Jesus,
          God’s Son,
the new life of the Spirit.

We don’t know
whether Nicodemus
accepted this invitation,
or even understood it as an invitation . . .
the story leaves us guessing.
But there are two suggestive moments
later in John’s gospel.
When the Pharisees and Chief Priests
debated in council
whether or not
to arrest this increasingly troublesome Jesus,
Nicodemus risked being identified
          as one of his followers
          when he tried
          to forestall a hasty decision,
“Our law does not judge people
without first giving them a hearing
to find out what they are doing,
does it?”
he said to them.                                                          [John 7:50-51]

John also tells us
after the crucifixion,
it was Nicodemus
who brought aloes and myrrh,
and along with Joseph of Arimathea,
anointed Jesus’ body,
wrapped it in linen cloths
and laid it in a tomb –
an action of caring and respect.                                            [John:19:39-40]
Something had happened
in his night-time encounter
with Jesus.
We might even suspect
that it was by the Spirit
that Nicodemus was moved
to come to Jesus that night.
God is like that.

And what of John’s community . . .
The story
reinforces for them
          the identity of Jesus,
          and their own identity
                   as his followers,
as they daily face
the hostility of fellow Jews
          and the threat of discovery and persecution
                   by their Roman rulers.
They have been born from above,
filled with God’s Spirit,
made citizens of God’s kingdom.
They are newly alive and strong
in the power of their baptism.

And in Jesus’ reminder
of their ancestors’
           Exodus from Egypt
when God’s saving power was made manifest
in the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses . . .      [Num. 21:6-9]
God’s saving power made manifest
in Jesus lifted up
          on the cross . . .
Bitten by poisonous snakes
          infesting their camp,
the Israelites had only to look
on the bronze serpent
                   to be healed and live.
So John’s community
          had only to look on Jesus
          and his self-giving on the cross
to be healed of the poisons of this world
          and live.

The story
reinforces for us, too,
          the identity of Jesus,
          and our own identity
                   as his followers,
as we daily negotiate
the threats and poisonous atmosphere
of our own
anxious and chaotic times.
We can live in these times,
we can live through these times,
for the same reason John’s community
          could live in their times
                   and through their times,
We, too, have been born from above,
          filled with God’s Spirit,
          made citizens of God’s kingdom.
We, too,
are newly alive and strong
in the power of our baptism:
          God’s power to make all things,
          all persons,

When we find ourselves assailed
without and within
by uncertainty and fears,
by the inexplicable and seemingly unbearable
cruelties of this age,
when we discover
we ourselves have once again
succumbed to our own destructive patterns,
our old behaviors and ways of being
that bring not life,
but exhaustion and death,
and we wonder if indeed
we could ever possibly be born again,
could ever possibly be made new,
then we turn,
as John’s community turned,
to the dying Jesus on the cross,
the weight of the whole great world,
and the weight of our own little worlds
          on his shoulders . . .
. . . the dying we share through our baptism,
the dying through which we rise
to new life in him

We travel this Lent
with the God who is always
making all things new
and inviting us into transformation.
“For God so loved the world
that God gave God’s only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but 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.”