Lent 2: Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
Through rain, desert, wind and snow
Abraham and Sarah had to go
even though they nothing know.
– Oskar Sundmark, 11 years
Even though they nothing know. This is what it means to trust in the God we see revealed in Jesus, what it means to be Christian – to drop our nets, pick up our cross and follow Christ. Or as Soren Kierkegaard puts it: “To be joyful out on 70,000 fathoms of water, many, many miles from all human help – yes, that is something great! To swim in the shallows in the company of waders is not the religious.”
It goes against our instinct though, as dying does, to blindly go as an individual or as a church where God might send us. Especially in a culture that likes to encourage careful decision making, planning, saving for retirement (okay, yes, I am an instinctual planner that likes to have some sense of control, which is why I don’t like to fly in airplanes where I can’t even see the pilot – does he/she really know what they are doing?!). But it is what we do know, or think we know, that often impedes our vision and, therefore, our actions.
Jesus’ ministry in the gospel of John begins with a bang – an incredible miracle of water turned to wine followed by the overturning of the tables of merchants in the courtyard of the Temple. Nicodemus (whose name means “victory of the people”), a Pharisee, then comes to Jesus in secret, at night. He comes to this rabble-rouser in the cover of darkness, not to be seen, and he meets his God in the darkness of his unknowing. It is the performing of signs that has brought Nicodemus to Jesus, though we have just been told that Jesus does not entrust himself to those who believe because of the signs he is doing. Nicodemus refers to Jesus as “a teacher who has come from God”.
Then, in six verses (vs.3-8) the word “born” is used eight times. Birth is a painful and messy business. To be a newborn is to be in a place of complete dependence, of complete unknowing, of complete openness to formative forces. This is, in essence, the story of the catechetical formation of Nicodemus – the invitation to see in a new way, that he might be able to see the Kingdom of God.
If signs have brought Nicodemus to Jesus, Jesus offers him a sign that is sure to surprise him – the entrance to the kingdom of God is in the shape of a cross. Jesus makes reference to a story that Nicodemus is sure to know, that of the bronze serpent that Moses puts on a pole so that the people bitten by snakes as punishment for their faithlessness might look upon it and be healed (Numbers 21: 4-9). The snake was a powerful symbol of death but also of life and healing. Looking at Jesus on the cross is the healing power that Jesus brings to save the world. Belief in Jesus is not assenting to a statement about Jesus, it is allowing our life to be formed by the cross. It is a willingness to bear the burdens of others, to enter into the wave of suffering which crosses our path, to risk rejection for the sake of others. The promise of this life is the Kingdom – life lived in the presence of God, “eternal life.”
Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel. In chapter 7 (vs.45-52) we find him risking rejection by defending Jesus. By chapter 19 (vs. 39-42) Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus, bringing an extravagantly exaggerated 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint his beloved body. This action is far beyond what would be expected for the burial of a “teacher who has come from God”, this is an act of worship of the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” The catechetical transformation of Nicodemus’ seeing, his knowing, has taken root and blossomed. This is a story of such hope for the 21st century North American church whose tables are being overturned. Seeking Christ in our admitted unknowing and humbly gazing upon our crucified Lord must always be our starting point.