“Never Too Late for a New Beginning”
A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church
June 3, 2012
God is at work to always bring us to places of new life.
People in Jesus’ day lived in a world where mysterious, unexplained occurrences were viewed as signs of God’s presence. In that world, it’s only natural that those who had heard of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine at Cana of Galilee (John 2) , would begin to think that such actions were signs that Jesus was a messenger from God. That was what some of the Pharisees, including Nicodemus thought. And so under the cover of night, he comes to talk to Jesus, thinking he knows exactly what the signs mean.
Nicodemus Misinterpreted the Signs
Nicodemus, a devout, faithful, practicing Jewish leader is certain that he and some other Pharisees knew what the signs they’d seen from Jesus meant. “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.” I have a picture of Nicodemus in my mind. He is a middle-aged man whose hair is thinning and stomach slightly bulging. He looks distinguished and confident.
But, if you look at the worry lines etched into his forehead and gaze into his eyes, you see something that makes you think he’s not completely satisfied with where his religious tradition is at that moment, nor is he satisfied with himself. He is not a bad person. No, he is a faithful person, a moral person, a caring person. He is the kind of person you’d be happy to have as your pastor or lay leader. He is earnest, thoughtful, and conscientious in the practice of his faith and in his involvement in the religious community. He’s a person whose judgment you trust and whose opinion you respect. Being at mid-life, he is perhaps like some of us who reach that point in our journey and begin to ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there something more?”
Richard Rohr wrote a book I read recently entitled Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. At the beginning of the book Rohr says that from his observation most of us spend the first half of our lives establishing our personal identity (which often gives us a sense of superiority to others) , creating various boundary markers for ourselves, seeking security, and perhaps linking our energies to what seem like significant people and projects. Quoting the Greek philosopher Archimedes, he says we’re all seeking “a ‘lever and a place to stand’ so that we can move the world just a little bit.” But, he says there is a further journey. Embarking on that journey is not merely a function of reaching mid-life, because some people in their 20’s and 30’s recognize its importance. This journey involves understanding the real meaning of our individual lives. It involves hearing an invitation, a call, a summons to live our lives not just for worldly success or approval by others, but in search of the joy that comes from knowing we are a beloved child of God and beginning to live our lives from that center and not simply in response to other people’s—or our own —assumptions about a successful life looks like. This second journey often begins because of some discomfort, some disappointment, yes even some suffering that throws us off balance and causes us to examine the meaning, purpose, and direction of our lives. He sums up the dynamics of this journey of the second half of life with a quotation from the great psychiatrist, Carl Jung. “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”
Though he was certain in his own mind, John makes it clear that Nicodemus has made some false assumptions. Jesus talks to him about being born again or born anew if he is to understand and enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus can’t even connect Jesus’ words to his own tradition, a tradition where Jeremiah talked about God writing a new covenant not on stone but on human hearts, a tradition from which the prophet Ezekiel saw Israel as a valley of dry bones being formed into a new, living creature. His vision of what constituted the power and presence of God in the world was inaccurate. He thought the miracles told him what he needed to know about Jesus.
He came to Jesus at night, no small detail in John’s gospel, for throughout this gospel the night, the darkness signifies spiritual ignorance and blindness. The dialogue that ensues between Jesus and Nicodemus and Jesus is rich and nuanced. We could spend hours looking at the words Jesus uses with double meanings and the way Nicodemus, smart and spiritually trained as he is, fails to grasp who Jesus really is and what he is really all about. The signs Nicodemus had noticed didn’t mean what he thought they meant.
Our Attempt to Find Signs
We are always looking for signs. Signs show us the way. Some of us look for signs to make plain the course our life should take, so we read horoscopes hoping to find direction from the stars. Some signs show us a safe and correct path to a city, or through the woods, or a channel of water. Some signs come from people through a smile, facial expression, or tone of voice letting know whether or not we are being perceived with favor or judgment. And some signs we think reveal to us God’s will and purpose for our lives—a closed door here, an open one there. Some people look for signs to tell us whether or not the world is about to end, or whether a person has real faith.
The Washington Post on May 29 carried an article by Julia Duin (“Serpent-handling Pastor Profiled earlier in Washington Post Dies From Rattlesnake Bite”) about a preacher in West Virginia who handled snakes in worship. For years, he’d handled snakes, put them around his neck, carried them with him, kept them in his house, laid down beside them in church. He, like some others, believed that Mark’s gospel’s words that promised protection to Jesus’ disciples from poisonous snakes were to be taken literally and included in the Sunday morning liturgy. The problem for this preacher, was that though he’d been bitten before and survived, supposedly a sign of real faith, this time the snake bite killed him. And the obvious question is, “What is the meaning of this sign of handling poisonous snakes? Does it display courage or presumption, faith or arrogance? Does surviving a bite from a poisonous snake demonstrate faith? Does the fact that someone dies handling a poisonous snake demonstrate a lack of faith?”
We may not handle snakes, but don’t we strain to find signs of God’s presence in the world? And wouldn’t we like for God to give us some dramatic indication of the divine reality and presence—a great miracle of deliverance, or some good fortune like winning the lottery?
The truth is, finding signs of God’s presence is often an elusive task—and sometimes the signs we take to be signs are no signs at all.
What Nicodemus Really Needed
What Nicodemus really needed was something he didn’t realize he needed. If he wanted to discover God’s presence, he would have to let go of his certainty. Jesus told him he needed to be born again. The Greek word has a double meaning, both being accurate—born from above and born again. No, he didn’t need to become a fetus and repeat the whole journey of entrance into the world from his mother’s womb. Rather, he needed to have something happen to him that would enable him to see things in a new way. He needed to learn to see the presence of God, not in spectacular miracles he associated with Jesus, but in Jesus himself. He’d have to be born from above, born again—not in the sense of walking down an aisle at a Billy Graham crusade—nothing wrong with that—but in the sense that he’d have to be open to allowing God to make him a new person, give him a new capacity to see God in a new way. And this is exactly what Jesus offered Nicodemus, the opportunity to become a new person, a person in touch and in tune with what God was really doing in the world—and where God was doing it—in this flesh and blood incarnation of the divine presence—in Jesus!
What We Really Need
Wouldn’t it be great for some of us if we could be born again, if we could learn to see God’s presence and experience God’s love in new and fresh ways? We get cynical. We begin to feel God is far from us. But could it be that God is closer than we realize? We just need a new birth from above that would enable us to have the cataracts of our cynicism removed so that we can see more clearly. To be born again would mean that we’d see signs of God’s kingdom all around us. The true sign of God’s presence Jesus told Nicodemus was not a grand spectacular miracle. It was the cross on which he’d be lifted up. It was to be in that act of God’s letting go of this Son he loved dearly that life, eternal life, life filled with joy and meaning that begins here and now, would be experienced. And it is so often in those acts of letting go of those things that give us the most security, those things that our world has taught us to be true that turn out to be completely false, those assumptions about how the world ought to work, that we find life.
My first appointment out of seminary was to the Oak Grove South China Grove charge, just north of Kannapolis, NC. Oak Grove was a rural church with lots of strong family connections. Before I went to that appointment, I did some reading and came across an article that drew a circle where the largest concentration of activity of the Ku Klux Klan was in the United States and at the center of that circle was China Grove, NC
The chairman of the board of that church was reported to have at one time been a member of that organization. I do not know if that was true or not. I’d only been there a few weeks when I went to call on this man and his wife. He was the chairman of the board of that church and I thought I needed to get acquainted with him and learn about how that church did business before that meeting came. I don’t know how the subject came up—I didn’t bring it up—but this gentleman began to tell me what he thought about the subject of race. He became very animated as he expounded his views which were so outrageous that I’d be uncomfortable quoting them before you this morning. This was a situation which my fine seminary training hadn’t covered. As this man got more and more animated, I realized that I wasn’t going to learn anything that night about the inner workings of the Administrative Board. I got up, thanked him for his time, and left. Later we patched things up a bit. I told him that I didn’t agree with him but hoped we could still work together for the good of the church.
About a year after I’d been there, it came time for Annual Conference. I would be gone that Sunday. I still don’t know how it happened, or why I did it, but for some reason, I asked this man to speak. And when I returned, people told me that they were amazed at what he’d said. “Oh, no,” I thought to myself. “What did he say from the pulpit of that church? What kind of inflammatory message did he deliver?” But that wasn’t how it went. He’d stood before the congregation that day and confessed the prejudices that he’d had in his heart, and told them that he realized that those feelings weren’t Christian and said that he had changed. And I think he did change. Oh, he could still be cantankerous about other things, but I do think he changed.
Maybe he’d started on the second half of life’s journey. Or maybe as Jesus put it, he’d been born anew, born from above, born again. No, it didn’t happen in a moment in response to an emotion-packed altar call. It happened slowly, painfully, over time. But nevertheless, it happened.
All of us can be born again….and again…and again… God is never through with any of us. God is always at work to bring us to new places of understanding and into new ways of living and loving and relating to other people.
In our tradition, we are audacious—or careless—enough, however you look at it, to open our table to anyone who wants to come. One of the reasons we do that is that our founder, John Wesley, believed that if a person was genuinely and sincerely seeking the grace and mercy of God, there was no better place to come than to this table where grace is freely offered. This grace offered freely has the power not only to sustain you on your journey with Christ, but to transform you, to remake you, so that you could rise from this altar knowing in your soul that you have been, are being, and will be—by God’s grace—born again, born from above!
 Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), Kindle edition.
Ibid., “The Invitation to a Further Journey.”
 Ibid., p.1