February 17, 2008 Second Sunday in Lent (RCL Year A) John 3: 1-17
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.
And again this Lent: wideness, kindness, welcome, grace, mercy, healing. And God to Abram, and a promise for this Lent and all of us: "that you may be a blessing."
To me the most arresting moment in this most-famous section of St. John’s gospel, as Robin read it for us a few minutes ago, is the question Nicodemus asks Jesus, obviously with deep sincerity, “How can a man be born when he is old?” Which is a question fundamental to us all, I think.
Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Is it all hopeless? Am I condemned simply to repeat the same mistakes again and again and again, world without end? Work, relationships. On the individual level or as a society. As a husband, a parent, a child, a friend? The surfaces change, but the deeper patterns simply persist. Like one of those rashes that seem to go away when we use a skin cream, but that appears again as soon as we stop. Which is profoundly where we are, I think, most of the time. Stuck. Fighting the same battles, falling into the same familiar patterns. Political candidates talk about change, all of them, but of course deep down we know that it’s all just a recipe for more of the same. La plus ca change, la plus ca meme chose. It is a deep cynicism, a sense of radical distrust. “I hear what you’re saying, Jesus, and it all sounds great. Sure it does. But you and I both know the truth. The sun comes up tomorrow on the same planet. We are what we are. That’s reality.
Which is all behind Nicodemus and his question. This deep assumption. But we can hear in the music behind the words this yearning as well. And striking up overtones in us. Surprising us in that. No new tricks for old dogs—we know that. Of course. A given. But what if? What if?
And something starts stirring. At least for me. How is it in your life? Have you given up entirely, or is there some glimmer of something that you catch sight of sometimes? It’s a hypothetical question of course. This moment when you think just for a minute-- I might be willing to let go. The image of the kid on the high dive at the town pool for the first time in his life, hanging at the edge, not sure, ready but not quite ready to give up the certainty of the board under his feet for the uncertainty of open air. But of course you want to be there, you want to believe it’s true. That the old certainties and the old grievances and all the peculiar collection of successes and failures that have made us who we are up to this moment—that we can step out one more step and really and truly leave them behind. If only it were so. Old dog? New tricks? How does that work, exactly? Is there a manual, a guidebook, some consultant we can hire to help us get that done? Even when we do make some adjustment, some change, it’s hard.
I remember Moni McIntyre once some years ago at a Lenten service preaching about the deep frustration that we feel when we think we have grown, changed in some ways, and then the people around us refuse to adapt to that new reality, continue to make all the old assumptions, to keep us in the same boxes. And we wonder, have I really changed, or am I just kidding myself? I know that I’m a different person now in so many ways than I was, say, when I was 17. At least I think I am. But for some members of my family, that change just doesn’t sink in. They look at me, after all these years, and the person they see is the person they’ve always seen. Not the person I am now, or think I am. One of us is mistaken, but which? And maybe we all do that to each other. “I thought I knew him.” “I thought you knew me.” “I thought I knew myself.”
All which is the question for Nicodemus, and for us, and which is the word before us this Lent. This word from Jesus, “be born again.” Or as in the translation we have today: “be born from above.” Not about tweaking things around the edges, a few minor accommodations, a little airbrush on an old photo.
We’re just here this morning and if we’re 15 or 50 and 80 or somewhere before or in between or beyond—to say that we’re just here to find out what might be possible. Where the limits are. What are the boundaries of hope. Hope for ourselves, for each other, for the world.
And Jesus says, come with me and see. Come as you are. A Lenten invitation. Don’t take my word for it. Why should you? Talk is easy. Come as you are, come with me, and let the Spirit swoop down from the high heavens and surround you and enfold you and make you into something new. Make you into something new. Be born again, born from above. Not a haircut and a change of wardrobe. Not just wishful thinking. Something altogether, brand-spanking new. A transformation, a healing, taking you apart and putting you back together the way it was supposed to be from the beginning. It’s scary and it might be hard, but it’s all good. Believe it or not.
It’s changing from the inside out and being changed, so that all that hurt stuff and all that broken stuff and all that bad stuff that never seemed like it would ever go away can all be gone, and you can stand up straight, and see straight, and love as if you were loving for the first time and laughing with joy as if you had never once before in your life had so much as a smile. It can be all good. It will be all good.
The message of this Lent is that the cross isn’t a mirror, but a window, isn’t a wall we run into at the end of our journey but a door and a gate and a wide and expanding entry to the best that God has in mind for us. The way home for us, to the place where we belong. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, for this reason and for this reason only. It’s poetry, the vision of the mystics, the mystery of the sacraments, the pouring of water, the bread on the altar. It’s hard to understand, but do we feel this yearning? Can it be true? Is there hope for us after all? We see our image in the mirror. Is anybody really in there? Who is it? Who is it really? "There's a wideness in God's mercy." And Nicodemus secretly in the night, secretly to find Jesus, so no one could see, to ask about heavenly things, and however we come to him, in the imagination of our hearts, in this Lent of our lives, asking what we ask. Hoping for what we hope.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.