March 5, 2023
Second Sunday in Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer, March 5, 2023
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
There’s a point in many full-term pregnancies, when the mother-to-be faces the fact that her body just isn’t going to be able to hold this fetus any longer. Maybe it’s when she realizes she can’t reach down to tie her shoes. Or perhaps it’s the struggle simply to crawl out of bed, or her aching back, or the stretch across even the loosest of maternity clothes. It’s just time to push this child into life.
The baby isn’t always on the same page, of course. That infant may feel perfectly happy to stay camped out in the dark, listening to the mother’s regular heartbeat, rocking to the gentle swish of her gait, and, though those tiny limbs must be getting somewhat cramped, not feeling a need to be born at all.
Midwives and nurses call it, “failure to progress.” The labor just stalls as if the fetus is saying, Nope. Not today. At that point, some births are medically induced. Some require surgery. Some are just postponed another day or two, or longer, until the labor begins again.
Failure to progress might be the way to describe poor Nicodemus’s late-night visit to Jesus[i]. He senses Jesus is on to something miraculous. He’s seen the signs. He’s watched the response of the people, and he’s curious. But then again, he’s been faithful to the teachings he’s known throughout his life, and Jesus seems to have found some truth from other directions. He’s not sure he should trust it. How can this be?
Jesus describes the life he has come to share as a new birth. He invites Nicodemus to be born from above, be born of water and spirit, be born anew. Jesus invites his friend to be pushed into new life, but perhaps Nicodemus isn’t ready to face the light. There’s too much change. This path into life and light looks too scary and unpredictable. Maybe he would prefer to just stay put.
Abram was being born into a new life, too[ii]. Leaving behind the worldview he had known, he’s invited into a covenantal relationship with God, urged into a new journey toward an unknown future.
It’s not clear whether Abram and Sarai had a choice. In their day, leaving one’s tribe and land of origin was a frightening prospect. Travel to distant lands, with unfamiliar languages and encounters with unexpected warlords, can’t have been a very encouraging invitation. Yet they go with God with this simple promise: “You will be a blessing.”
The travelers do not know where they are headed, or whether it will be safe or comfortable, but they are told that God will bless them, and that in them, all the families of the earth shall be blessed. This is the whole purpose of God’s invitation; they are called into a journey of faith, because God will use them to be a blessing. God will bring goodness, healing, loving-kindness and mercy into the world through them. To whomever they meet, wherever they go, they will pass along God’s blessing of love.
If you read the rest of their, you find that there will be plenty of setbacks in their journey. It will seem as if their own plans fail to progress They’ll meet with plenty of suspicion from those they encounter. They’ll carry plenty of deception on their part as they try to fit in. And most confusing, for many years, no child to call their own. It’s not an easy birth.
But the promise of blessing never leaves them. The generations that follow Abram and Sarai will continue to cling to that assurance. God brings healing and wholeness to the world through them.
In fact, God was breathing blessing into all creation from the start, even long before Abram. In the beginning, as the Spirit moved over the waters, God called forth life. There was light, and there was life, vegetation and living things, and humans. God filled the first humans with breath, with Spirit, to bring beauty, bounty, diversity and blessing to the earth.
I suspect it’s this image of creation that Jesus is referring to as he tries to assure his friend Nicodemus in the night. Just as all of creation comes into being as God’s spirit breathes over the waters in the beginning, so Nicodemus is being born of water and spirit as God births him into life. It’s what God has always been doing.
And just as all creation is made from that breath and water to be a blessing, so Nicodemus is being called into blessing. In John’s gospel, rather than use the term blessing, Jesus just calls it love. The reason Nicodemus is being born into new life, the purpose for which the Spirit hovered over the water at the start, is the same reason that Abram was called, because God so loves the world, in fact, the cosmos. God so loves the whole creation. Jesus has come to share the blessing and the life and the very love of God with Nicodemus, and with the entire cosmos. Jesus invites Nicodemus to carry that same blessing of love with him.
It hasn’t changed. We too are birthed into life to be a blessing for the world. We began today’s service with the Spirit moving over the waters of the font, as we were reminded of our baptism. The Spirit is here breathing forgiveness and restoration, bearing us into new life, calling us into a journey in which we will bring blessing to the world.
Like Abram and Sarai, we don’t know where the journey goes. Some of us feel God is calling us into an unknown future now as a congregation. That can be unsettling. Some of us are feeling it in other ways, too. Perhaps you’ve lost a job, and are wondering where you will be landing. You or a loved one may have received a life-changing diagnosis. Perhaps you or a young person in your life is struggling with anxiety or depression. You may have retired recently, and can’t imagine how you can use your gifts now. Or maybe you’ve ended a long relationship, and can’t quite picture your life on your own.
The landscape of our futures seems to have shifted. Perhaps some of you wonder whether this shift carries the blessing of God, or whether it instead carries a curse. The life you’ve imagined for yourself seems out of reach now, like your labor has failed to progress into the future you were expecting.
But trust this: God is still with you. God has promised to make a blessing of your journey even yet. In fact, the Spirit is still acting as midwife, helping you be born again into a new future. No matter what has happened, no matter what hardship you are facing, no matter where your labor has stalled, God so loves you, and is here to push you into life again.
This world is waiting for love to be born, straining just to lean over or crawl out of malaise. We get to bear that love into the world. Even a tiny act of kindness, every tender expression of care, or loving word uttered breathes God’s blessing of mercy, justice, or hope into the world. God so loves the whole cosmos, so that you are being born into a new start.
We’re left without knowing about Nicodemus. We’ll meet him a few more times in John’s gospel, but it’s never clear how he has responded. Perhaps his birth into the life God is bringing him fails to progress for some time.
But his pregnancy doesn’t last forever. In just five more weeks, regardless of how Nicodemus or anyone else responds to Jesus’ ministry angels will declare to us that there is a new life born for us, as Christ is risen. Jesus will be raised to bring the blessing of new life and blessing to this whole cosmos.
God so loves us all, Abram and Sarai, Nicodemus, each one of us, the whole creation. It’s time for us to be born. There are blessings to carry to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen
[i] John 3:1-17
[ii] Genesis 12:1-4a