March 8, 2020
Second Sunday of Lent, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
So, how are your New Year’s resolutions doing? I had some good intentions. I planned to exercise more consistently, eat more vegetables, send more letters to my political representatives. But the year didn’t getting off to a very good start. There was a death in the family during January, and then I caught that cough which kept me in bed and out of commission for too much of February. I didn’t even feel strong enough to try to start a Lent discipline.
I wanted to be consistent from the beginning and just get something fully right this time–but since I didn’t get started– it almost felt pointless. Why bother starting now? I might as well wait until next January.
But what if we had permission to start all over again today? Not just with resolutions and exercise routines, but everything. What if we could start life over from the beginning? What if we could begin again, avoiding any of the troubles that ever caused us to mess up, and keeping clear of all the people who told us we weren’t good enough to make it? What if we could know better than to fall for those false starts, those unsuccessful endeavors?
And what if we could begin without prejudice, without being defined by societal expectations, and without having any special privilege? What if we could make all the right choices this time, find all the right relationships, treat everyone the way we want to, not take any of the wrong turns, and just get it right?
From out of Ur, God calls Abram and Sarai to start anew[i], to start out fresh and never look back, to begin again, to be blessed by God to bring blessing to the world. We hear very little about what they left behind, only that they started out fresh, a brand new beginning of carrying God’s goodness into the world.
Most of us don’t feel like we get that chance. But I wonder if more of us aren’t sure we’d accept it if we were given the opportunity.
“How can anyone be born after having grown old?” Nicodemus asks Jesus[ii]. How can you teach an old dog new tricks? How can I ever get started again?
Too often, we allow our past to dictate our lives. I grew up in the suburbs, I’ll say, so of course I’m going to have certain opinions or biases. I went to a college in the Midwest. I’m simply a product of my past. Sometimes we even pretend a distant heritage is formative. My ancestors came from Germany, I might say, so.… Have you ever wondered about that? What does the homeland of our great grandparents matter? Does it mean I must like lederhosen or bratwurst? Does everyone who currently lives in German wear lederhosen or like bratwurst?
In today’s conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus invites us to let go of the past, and be born anew. I suspect Nicodemus has allowed his past to define him, and can’t imagine how someone with his background could follow someone like Jesus.
Nicodemus is a leader of an educated, upright, religious group, undoubtedly well-respected and with some regard in his community. He is credentialed, he is well-connected to others, he has authority, and he is normally safe in his community. But he and his friends have noticed Jesus, and have discussed his work. “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He comes to talk with Jesus at night time, maybe because he is too busy during the day, but also seemingly, because he doesn’t want to be seen.
According to everything Nicodemus knows, Jesus shouldn’t have the authority or capability to do signs, unless he’s connected to God, but how can he be? And yet, Nicodemus is drawn to this new teacher. There’s something in Jesus that appears to be life-giving, powerfully wonderful, like plain water that has turned to wine.
Jesus invites him to imagine being born anew, for his own life to be miraculously transformed. Jesus proposes that he allow himself to be defined only by the breath and power of God, blowing through with fresh insight, holy purpose, and divine love.
I wonder whether Nicodemus actually wants to live in that love, but doesn’t know how to apply it to himself. Maybe he could have joined us in our confession this morning when we admitted, “We hunger for love, but turn away from what is offered to us. We hunger for community, but ignore our neighbor in need.” Maybe Nicodemus is afraid to give up his place in society, the respect he feels he has earned the privileges he enjoys.
Because clearly, if the Spirit blows where it will, and no one knows where it comes from or where it goes, then we can’t predict or control or decide who gets included in God’s love.
This could be frightening if we’ve been under the false impression that we’ve somehow earned our privilege and social status. But it could sound like very good news if tyrants or mistakes or prejudice have ever defined us as less than the people we’ve wanted to be.
How often do we allow whatever has happened to us keep us from who God is calling us to be? How often do we allow societal expectations or descriptions of acceptability dictate who we will be, whom we will love, what we will do, or what should make us happy? Do we allow the bully’s taunts on the playground to shame us into fear? Do we allow a parent or supervisor’s disregard for us to determine our self-worth? Do we allow one grade in one challenging class, to imply we can never succeed in a desirable profession? Do we allow the abuse we experienced at a young age to prohibit us from loving today, from succeeding now? Do we allow our past mistakes to continue to define us as losers?
And how willing are we to allow God’s love to define us instead, outside of our past? What if we weren’t a product of our past actions, mistakes, expectations or successes? Could we begin, even now, to let go of the prestige or honor, shame or regret we’ve earned for ourselves? Could we allow God’s Spirit to breathe into us with the assurance that we are no more and no less, than a beloved and included child of God, just like everyone else.
Jesus invites us to be born anew, to start again, and this time, to allow the Spirit to claim us for deep, abundant, abiding life with our neighbor. Jesus invites us to be shaped only by the love of God, given for us, given for the whole world. Jesus invites us, whatever the calendar says, to believe that today is the first day of our resurrected life. This is the day we receive blessing that we share with the world. Today is the day we can start to live anew.
You may have seen a video of the Wartburg College Choir singing a beautiful rendition of an old spiritual, Ain’t No Grave[iii]. It’s a fantastic anthem they included in their concert set a few years ago using sign language to help them sing. The song proclaims boldly that no grave can hold us down. No shame, no fears, no past, no social mores, or names we’ve been called, no presumptions we or others have made about ourselves, will ultimately get to hold our body down underground.
We believe, when the trumpet sounds, ain’t no grave can hold us down. The love of God is stronger and has a more definitive grasp on our lives than anything else.
The choir sings the theme that runs throughout the entire gospel of John. In Jesus, God has come to restore us to life, to raise us to resurrection, to bring us life in its fullness, so that we may become children of God[iv].
Jesus doesn’t define us by either our status or our shame, our success or failure, our past or our presumptions. Ain’t no grave gonna hold any of us to any of that. Rather, God loves the world, loves the world in its entirety and comes, not to condemn, or judge, or punish it, but to claim it, to redeem it, to save it, to free it for life, life abundant, life eternal, deep and satisfying life in community, life with God.
The choir uses sign language to help them sing the song, as if they know that their body needs to be convinced of the truth, that simply singing the words might not be enough.
Perhaps the “sign language” we use here, signs for peace and welcome, signs for forgiveness and or the sign for generosity we use as we pass a plate, signs of a heavenly banquet wrapped in a tiny morsel of bread, maybe all of these signs help our bodies lean into the promises which our hearts so long to believe: that the whole world is defined and shaped and claimed by the love of God, and ain’t nobody can hold us down.
Nicodemus doesn’t admit to it here, but I wonder whether his body is already leaning into the promise of new life too. We’ll meet him again in a few chapters when he debates with his colleagues whether Jesus deserves at least a trial before he is condemned[v]. And after Jesus’ death, it is this leader of the Pharisees who comes now in the light of day, to bring 100 pounds of spice to the prepare Jesus’s body for burial[vi]. I wonder whether Nicodemus hears a choir of angels singing to him as he lugs those spices, hinting even then of a future beyond the tomb, echoing that no grave will be able to keep Jesus’ body down, and that even here, God is inviting him to trust that love is stronger than death. Amen.
[i] Genesis 12:1-4a
[ii] John 3:1-17
[iv] John 1:12-13
[v] John 7:50
[vi] John 19:39