Summary: As sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Series A

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2nd Sunday in Lent, February 17, 2008, “Series A”

Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, in our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus, your beloved Son, you have redeemed us from sin and death, and claimed us as your own. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to realize that our new birth in baptism continues to unfold throughout our lives, and that you will never abandon us. This we ask, in Christ’s holy name. Amen.

In his commentary on our Gospel lesson for this morning, Thomas G. Long cites that the famed preacher, Fred Craddock, often described the tendency for us humans to try to shrink the Christian faith to a manageable size, to fit it into the tiny boxes of our impoverished religious imagination.

He says that with sharp wit, Craddock tells of people who have boiled the Christian faith down to slogans, of those who have taken the spacious and infinite promises of God and reduced them to bumper stickers. For example, he says that this shrink-wrapped faith is easy to identify when the back bumper of a car reads “God Is My Co-pilot,” to which Craddock adds, “So, Mr. Driver, that must mean that you are the pilot. I think I’ll take another flight.”

And how often these boiled down slogans truly miss the point of our faith.

For instance, Craddock describes a grinning seminary student who ambles mindlessly up to the theology professor, who had just delivered a passionate, sweat-drenched lecture on the mysterious depths of God’s unmerited grace. And what does he say? “Hey prof, I guess it boils down to ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ right?” [Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions, 1999]

This morning’s gospel is a familiar text. And like all familiar stories from the Bible, we often have this tendency to presume that, since we have heard it before, we already know what it means. And yet, as I have entered the last decade of my active ministry, I have begun to take a new look at these texts, in the hope that they might surprise me with new insight. After all, as I read some of my older sermons in preparation for preaching, I don’t very often find them very helpful.

And perhaps this is where we might enter our Gospel lesson for this morning. I have found over the years that God’s Spirit is continually challenging us to expand our preconceived understanding of Scripture, to help us grow in faith. In other words, God’s Spirit helps us to break open those tiny boxes that Craddock describes, to gain a glimpse of the infinite promises of God.

And to this end, we might do well to consider how we might identify with Nicodemus. Here was a man who was highly versed in the Scriptures. He was a leader of the Jews, perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin, the group that decided issues of faith for the life of Israel. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and says to him, “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 the presence of God.”

As Thomas Long puts it, “Nicodemus establishes the conversation on grounds save and comfortable to himself: a conversation between established authorities. He gives Jesus the title “rabbi…teacher.” But he speaks as one who has power and tradition on his side. “We know…” he says, speaking for and from the established group, confident. He brings to the table a fixed understanding of what can and what cannot happen in the world and in human experience.

Thus, the very opening lines of this story present Nicodemus as the spokesperson of a fixed, immutable world, confident of its knowledge and closed to the surprising and the new. The rest of the story, and of the whole Gospel of John, is about that tightly bound world coming unraveled. At each turn in the road, Jesus confronts Nicodemus’ boxed view of reality.” End quote.

And how does Jesus confront those closed boxes of Nicodemus’ fixed understanding of the Scriptures? He tells Nicodemus that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus responds to Jesus by asking, “How can one be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be reborn? Nicodemus, it seems, is totally confused by Jesus’ statement. But then, we shouldn’t blame him. The Greek word that John records Jesus using here, “anothen,” can have two connotations. One spatial, meaning “from above.” The other temporal, meaning “again.” Thus, Nicodemus could easily have taken our Lord’s statement in earthly terms. Nevertheless, his box of preconceived ideas was shaken.

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