Sunday 12 March - Lent 2 - Eucharist - Sarah Kilbey

Which of the disciples do you identify with? Impulsive Peter, so keen to do the right thing
quickly that he often tripped up and got it all wrong? Are you a worrier, doubting, like
Thomas? Or maybe you are secretly hoping for success and recognition, like James and
John? (When I think of him I recall a young academic we once knew who solemnly
announced once to us he was going to get there by the time he was 30! I wonder if he
did!) Seriously, though, have you thought about Nicodemus because many of us, trying to
follow Jesus, are probably more like him than we care to imagine, so we should look at
him more closely.


In fact, the whole encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is a bit baffling. What did he
come for and why does Jesus tease and test him so? He arrives by night so, clearly, he
doesn't want his visit advertised. All the same, he's being quite brave for he is a leader of
the Jews, a strict adherent of the Law, and the conflict between Jesus and the Religious
Leaders is already underway. Nicodemus then, is coming to test the waters. He's heard
about the signs that Jesus has been performing and he is impressed. What's more, he is
impressed for the right reasons, because he interprets them correctly as revealing God’s
presence! Could Jesus use this to get his message into the enemy camp? No way!
Instead, Jesus begins the puzzling conversation with Nicodemus about the need to be
born again. Nicodemus is irritated and frustrated. He is not receiving the treatment he had
been expecting. He had come, a bit smug, perhaps, thinking Jesus would be impressed
because he had shown interest, But instead, he is being mocked for his ignorance. You're
a leader, a teacher, says Jesus, totally familiar with the Scriptures and yet you profess
ignorance of all those prophecies in Ezekiel and Isaiah, talking about the new birth, a
new heart, linking water, cleansing and new life in the spirit? It would be better for you if
you were to start all over again, like a little child. you're just prevaricating. Nicodemus had
begun by talking about signs, But Jesus was all always ambivalent about them. What
really counts is the change in a person's life and this can only happen when he is born
again. Nicodemus pretends not to understand but, really, he didn't want to. He couldn't
face up to the challenge he was being offered, and went away.


What is this passage saying to you and to me about the need for rebirth, and what might
that involve? Well, the reading suggest something entirely new, momentous, turning
around through 180° but it's not something we do for ourselves. It's the action of God
within us by water and the spirit, which involves cleansing and a powerful action, effecting
change. The initiative is God’s for the power comes from above, as the gospel states. In
addition, the luxury of sitting on the fence, hedging our bets, which was what Nicodemus
was hoping for, is not on offer. There's only one way to find out what new birth really
means, and that is, to try it! We have to respond to the invitation and commit ourselves
totally to the son of man, trusting we will be upheld. Let go and let God, but Nicodemus
held back.


An interesting question for me is this; is being born again a-oner? We hear of individuals
referred to as “born again Christians” but, somehow, that sounds so static, not like being
on a journey leading to change, which involves conflict, disappointment sometimes, as well
as excitement along the way. Paul didn't think of it as a “one off” I'm sure, when he says in
Philippians chapter 3, “I'm not there yet. I haven't yet attained salvation but I press on,
hoping to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”. It seems that the
Christian life involves a life-long struggle to hand ourselves over completely into Gods
hands.


I wonder whether it is legitimate to talk of Jesus' baptism as being re-birth for him?
Certainly it was momentous occasion, a turning point. God did something amazing when
the holy spirit descended upon Jesus, as he came out water, and he was unequivocally
affirmed. as Gods beloved Son. So momentous was it that Jesus was driven to respond,
going straight way into the wilderness, away from all distractions, even food and drink, so
that he could work out what it meant. 40 days later he emerged, and set out on a totally
new course. We too experience crisis points in our lives; the birth of a baby, a
bereavement, a new job. Lent calls us to take time to work out with God what changes we
now need to make so that we continue to grow in faith. In fact, we have to be prepared
to change, to be born again, again and again; always willing to heed the Spirit, who is
often more like a powerful gannet than a nice peaceful dove, Being ready to get down into
the water and so, turned around. Why, otherwise, are we given repeated opportunities to
renew our baptismal vows? We hear about Nicodemus again, later on, but he remains on
the sidelines, never quite managing to accept Jesus ''Invitation.


I'd like to suggest three possible reasons.


Firstly, it seems he was scared to let go, and get down into the water, trusting in God's
power to carry him along. It was as though he couldn't let go of his independence and of
being in control. He had met Jesus at the river bank, as it were, but the water was flowing
fast. As he got nearer, the prospect seemed more terrifying so he found himself flaying
about on the river bank, grasping at tree roots, anything to save himself from having to
jump into Jesus's arms, who is the water of life. Nicodemus was being offered an all or
nothing choice but he wanted to have it both ways. It takes real courage to get down into
the water and trust. Do we have courage?


Secondly, however, even if we are willing to trust ourselves to the water we still have to be
watchful. When we used to have Diocesan Clergy Retreats at Dunblane, I loved the walk
along the Allan Water in the afternoons and would happily play Poohsticks with myself.
What I noticed was how often my stick would land up in a backwater, helplessly going
round and round. That's a metaphor for life, surely. We can start off right, only for the
things of this world; money personal ambition, even our reputation and position in the
church to block the spirit from working in us. Martin Smith, who was Abbot of the
Monastery in Boston, recalls a memory of his childhood in Sussex. A keen student of local
history, he set off on his bike one day with a spade, determined to discover the site of a
medieval Holy Well. There were meant to be many in that area but they seemed quite
elusive. He got off his bike at one point to consult the map; the day was so hot and dry.
Suddenly, he noticed the corner of the field where the cows were was extremely muddy.
He fetched his spade and began shovelling mud furiously and there, beneath his feet, a
spring bubbled up freely! We have to take care to free up the fountain of the Holy Spirit so
she can work in us. What is clogging me up I wonder?


Thirdly, the water and the spirit, the metaphor for new life, new birth, is pure gift, We
cannot earn it in any way, but we find that so hard to believe. Somehow, we've got to try
harder and harder to achieve eternal life, but, of course, we fail repeatedly and
disastrously. Yet God is saying “Ho every one that thirsteth come ye to the warers and he
that hath no money come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And
today's Gospel emphasises that God gave his only Son so that all who believe might have
eternal life. That's all it takes; why can't we just accept it? John, a retired miner in
Armadale, started coming to my deaf Service, where we usually have Communion twice a
year. When it happened the first time John kept his hands tightly closed and did not
receive. Afterwards he explained, “I just couldn't Sarah, I'm not good enough.” But I said
“John, none of us are good enough, it's a present from God, he wants you to have it.
Thereafter he always received.


Today's readings and the season of Lent invite us to reflect where we are. Is it time for me
to change direction? Are we ignoring the challenge to be reborn? Will we heed it instead,
finally recognising there is no need to struggle anymore and trust ourselves to the fast
flowing river, which is Jesus Christ? That's just the start, of course, the beginning of a
relationship involving plenty of falling down, even falling out with God, but that's okay
provided we let go, for God is always there with us holding us up and supporting us.


Amen.