In John 3:4-6 a man named Nicodemus asks Jesus one of the most theologically challenging and debated questions of all time: “How can I be born again?” Nicodemus was a Pharisee - meaning he took a pledge that he would spend his life observing every detail of the Hebrew Scriptures, The Pharisees believed the Law was the perfect word of God. To add or take away from it was a deadly sin. They believed the Law contained everything a person needed to know for the living of a good life, if not explicitly, then implicitly. If it was implicit then it was the Pharisees who determined what the word of God meant. It was their life’s work to interpret and enforce the letter of the Law. In all of their interpreting and enforcing however, the Pharisees turned the overarching principles meant to establish community and sustain a sense of purpose and order within the community, and created a massive list of legalistic bylaws and regulations for everything.
Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was the high court of the Jewish community. The Sanhedrin had religious jurisdiction over every Jew in the world; and one of its duties was to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet; anyone challenging or changing what they established as law. Guess who was at the top of their list? Jesus. Nicodemus was most likely from a distinguished Jewish family; an elite Jewish aristocrat if you will. He knew people who knew people and had people who had people. Nicodemus was wealthy - we discover in John 19:39 that when Jesus died it was Nicodemus who brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body. Something not just anyone could afford. In other words Nicodemus had it all. He was smart, educated, financially stable, socially established, respected, and well known, AND YET with all that, it is believed that something must have been missing for him to feel so strongly about going to see Jesus.
Nicodemus represents an age-old human struggle: the desire and awareness of a person who longs to change but who cannot change on their own or of their own accord. We can almost hear Nicodemus saying to Jesus with a yearning in his voice, “I know that change is necessary; but in my experience it is impossible. All that I know - all that I practiced - in all that I have come to know - there are no written laws, regulations, or bylaws telling me how to do it - how to change and be transformed. Tell me how Jesus! There is nothing I would like more, but you might as well tell me, a full grown man, to enter into the mother’s womb and be born all over again. “
Nicodemus was stuck. Stuck in that place where what was and what is not yet holds a tension between his head and heart and creates a tug-of-war. He was stuck in the place of saying goodbye to that part of his old self; the part that served him well, brought him through to that point in his life, had given him meaning and direction but now was no longer enough or perhaps it hadn’t been enough for a long time. He was stuck inside a box that wouldn’t allow him the grace to consider what Jesus was offering him. This was Nicodemus’ goodbye / hello moment.
I imagine we have all been there- stuck in those old patterns, ideas, or behaviors. Stuck with what we have always known, always done, and always pursued even if it left us wanting more. Stuck knowing something needed to change but afraid to let go of what we know and reach for what we don’t know. Stuck knowing we needed to say goodbye to that which limited our experience and connection with God and hello to that which expanded our experience and connection with God. Goodbye old self - hello to new birth.
Lent is that place of goodbye and hello. Nicodemus teaches us that there are times when it is necessary to say goodbye to our old self - to who we were or who we thought we were. Goodbye to who we thought we needed to be or who others thought we needed and expected us to be, and hello to who we are in Christ. There are times when we need to say goodbye to what we were convinced was right or what we thought to be true and hello to a deeper understanding of how the Holy Spirit works. It is by the Spirit we are made new (born again) and our faith is made stronger, more resilient, and more complete.
This change that happens is what Jesus was talking about. It is the metaphorical birthing process, and being born is hard work. It is often painful, frightening, disorienting, emotional and messy work. True change - true rebirth of self is the work of you and the Holy Spirit. There may be a few of us along the way to help, but at its core, it is you and the Holy Spirit. By ourselves we can be nothing more than what we are - human; limited by our own thoughts and emotions; bound by what others say, think, or do; captive to the fear of the unknown or fear of change and yet longing for more. We are impatient, often frustrated, disheartened, and discontent. But the very essence of the Spirit of God is love and life and that energy force of Divine Love cannot be contained by any system, regulation, institution, bylaw, demand, expectation, or box we or anyone else tries to fit it in. That was the invitation extended to Nicodemus and now to us: to allow the Spirit of God, not the spirit of self or the spirit of legalism to birth something new within.
It’s hard work being born. I wonder, what is the Spirit of God birthing in you? Will you stay the course this Lent and find out? May it be so.
Pastor Jenothy Irvine