Sermon, March 20: “How can these things be?”

Rev. Stacy Swain

 “How can these things be?”

Scripture:  John 3:1-17

           It was clearly addressed to me.  The letter said that I had been chosen for a once in a lifetime opportunity.  All I needed to do was to call the number at the bottom of the page.  The vacation package was mine.  Round trip air fare for me and one other person; a five day stay in a luxury resort, and complimentary breakfast every morning.  The timing could not have been better.    I was sick and tired of the dark, and cold, of being hemmed in by snow banks.  I wanted out and this looked like just the thing – it was too good to be true!

          But then I got thinking, How could it be really true?  What was really going on?  I called the telephone number at the bottom of the page to learn that I had not actually won, but that I could win but if I had to agreed to this and that… and on and on it went. 

          I almost believed it.   It sure looked good, but it turned out to be nothing more than a cleaver way to getting my attention.     

          Nicodemus is not going to be taken in. He too, thinks a little fact checking is in order.  There may be something special about the Jesus of Nazareth.  He may be as the people are saying, the messiah, the son of God, here to deliver the people! But it sounds a bit too good to be true.  He wants to check it out for himself.  So he goes to see Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness.   Nicodemus, you see, is an important man.  A well respected leader, a member of the Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin.  He is a careful and considered thinker.   He has his reputation to look out for.  Yes, better to go under the cover of night.  He would not want anyone thinking he was becoming a follower.    

           But, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind that the hour is late.  He receives  Nicodemus without question.  Now I bet that Nicodemus had rehearsed what he would say to Jesus.  I am sure he had thought it over and decided, it would be best to engage Jesus in a collegial conversation, to speak to him as he would a peer, a teacher, just like himself.  So Nicodemus begins by complimenting Jesus on his teaching style.  Saying that Jesus’ use of signs is really quite impressive.  It is clear that Jesus must be a Holy teacher for only someone from God could use signs so effectively, such a cleaver way of getting the people’s attention.

          Jesus, however, does not miss a beat and quickly lifts the conversation to a totally different plane.   Jesus replies “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus seems to be implying that Nicodemus has missed understood the signs of Jesus teaching.  For the signs are not gimics.  The healings, the feeding of thousands, the casting out of demons are signs that point to the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God that those who are delivered into new life are able to see.  Nicodemus cannot see the kingdom of God in the signs, Jesus suggests because he is not yet born from above. 

          With Jesus’ words, Nicodemus plan of rational discourse between two teachers unravels.  Nicodemus’ head spins as he tries to take Jesus words and fit them into this limited way of seeing.  He stammers on, but “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus persists, “Very truly, I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’” 

           But Nicodemus is astonished.  What exactly is Jesus saying?  The full meaning of the words cannot yet penetrate the fortress that Nicodemus has erected around his heart and mind.  And so he makes his way back homw, down the dark streets muttering to himself “How can these things be?  How can these things be?”

          Now for some of us, like Nicodemus, this language of being born from above may sound like nothing more than a cleaver way of getting our attention.  For others it may even be a little off putting for we cannot hear it without its contemporary overlay which in some cases smacks of self righteousness and judgment.  Being born again, can becomes a yard stick measuring out those true Christians from the rest of us who are still groping in the dark of doubt and disbelief.  But if we can set aside whatever negative associations some of us may have, and hear Jesus invitation afresh, it strikes me that being born is something that none of us have any control over.   Being born is completely out of our hands.  It is something that happens to us, not something we do.  By the grace of God we are knit together in our mother’s womb, to use the words of the Psalmist, and by the grace of God we are delivered into the light of life.  

          Nicodemus gets himself all tied up in a bundle of confusion over how it is that one is suppose to engineer one’s own rebirth and in doing so completely misses the point that rebirth is something that comes from above.    It is the work of the Spirit that as the Apostle Paul says intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.  It is Jesus laboring on our behalf.

          But, while we cannot bring about our own rebirth, we certainly can impede it.  Nicodemus’ skepticism and rigid mind set, may  have kept him from experiencing the new birth that Jesus was offering that night.  And I wonder if there are things in us that may be impeding Gods work in our lives? 

          Last week we started this Lenten Journey.  In children’s time I illustrated our Lenten work by dragging over to the steps a large bag that was very very heavy.       I asked the kids to reach into the bag and to show us what may be weighing us down.  There was the weight of Fear. There was the weight of grudges. And the weight of shame. If you look up at the altar you will see that there were other stones in that sack as well, burdens that we may be carrying – Burdens of needing to be in control; of cynicism, of being hard of heart and judgmental; of being enslaved to addiction; burdens of rage; or hopelessness.  We use these stones to create barriers around ourselves that we hide behind, defenses that we think protect us.

          Now sometimes that which is walling us off is clear to us.    But far more often, we may be unaware.   Like Nicodemus we may think that we have it all figured out and that we are just fine – that there is nothing we are hiding behind.   

          And that is why I believe that we need the quiet of prayer group on Monday mornings, or the stillness of the Sanctuary on Wednesday evenings.  Why we need to find time perhaps just before we fall asleep or right after we open our eyes in the morning, when we can really look within, really look for the stone that may indeed need to be rolled away so that God may lead us up and out of stuck places and into newness of life.

          And I would also say that as we begin to envision our life next year and in the years to come,  as we approach the end of our church year and the annual meeting in June when we celebrate all that has been this year and plan for and dream about all that is coming in the years ahead.  And as we move towards our stewardship campaign that will begin our first week of May, a time when we recommit ourselves to what God is doing in our life together.

          As we do all of this, I ask that we also take a deep look into us as a community.  Are there things that we are hiding behind?  Is there fear?  Are there grudges? Disappointments? suspicion? Is there anything in our life together that is keeping us down?  Keeping us from being open to the life that even now God is fashioning in for us? And, if there is, let us with intention and humility and set it down on this our Lenten altar.

          Howard Thurman, poet, pastor, and spiritual thinker of the 20th c. gives us what I consider to be a very compelling image for our Lenten labor.  Hear his words:

My ego is like a fortress
I have built its walls stone by stone
To hold out the invasion of the love of God

But I have stayed here long enough. There is light
Over the barriers. O my God–
The darkness of my house forgive
And overtake my soul.
I relax the barriers.
And in the great silence of this moment,
I alertly rest my soul.

As a sea gull lays in the wind current,
So I lay myself into the Spirit of God.
I let go.
I give myself
Unto thee O my God. Amen.


          When we are able to set down that which walls us off, the love of God rushes in and begins to deliver us into newness of life.   

          As we set down our grudges, by the love of God, we are delivered into forgiveness.

          As we set down our fear, by the love of God, we are delivered into hope.

          As we set down our shame, by the love of God we are delivered into compassion for ourselves and for others.

          Stone by stone, as we dismantle the fortress around our hearts, we will find that the love of God catches us up into the kingdom and delivers us into new life.  Nicodemus came to Jesus at night though he went away still unable to comprehend the new life that was being offered to him.  In the end, he did experience something of this birth from above, for not only does he see the kingdom of God but he enters into it.  The Gospel of John tells us that it is Nicodemus that argues in Jesus defense before the Sanhedrin when all others seek to condemn him and it is Nicodemus who with Joseph of Arimathea, who receives Jesus broken body from the cross and lovingly prepare it for burial with a wealth of spices fit for a king.

          So this Lenten season, let us take time to look honestly at those things that may be impeding God’s labors of new life for us, and let us have the faith and courage to set them down, to come out from behind the barricade into the new life that even now God is fashioning for us.  This good news is not too good to be true.  In this good news we can believe.  AMEN