Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent
8th Mar 2020
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent Year A
Jesus and Nicodemus
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Where do you come from? This question has a huge impact on the way in which we relate to people, how we ‘see’ them. It beckons the opening up of the human heart and an attentiveness to the reality of the other person. It forms part of the subtext to the conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus (John 3.1-17) in this morning's Gospel reading.
And so where do you come from? There is also another question ‘…so where are you really coming from?’ In this morning’s Gospel Reading, John points out that Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader, a religious teacher, a son of Abraham. That is who Nicodemus is, this is where he comes from. He is a high class, knowledgeable intellectual and he is interested in status, and so we find he gives Jesus status as one ‘come from God’. ‘We know you are from God’ says Nicodemus ‘because of the signs you perform’. ‘I know you are of God because no-one could do the things you do unless God were truly present’. 'I know...' But does he?
Jesus will show Nicodemus that he comes ‘from God’ in a quite unique way. He will remind Nicodemus that it is not the place and position of your natural birth that determines your relationship to God’s kingdom, but a new birth, a birth from above. The opportunity to see the kingdom of God does not depend on coming from the right place, whether by natural privilege or status or by chance, but upon God’s free gift of new birth and His offer of new being, through the Spirit. The initiative and purpose is always His.
This is unnerving for the Nicodemuses of this world, and those who in Oscar Wilde’s words ‘…know the price of everything and the value of nothing’. But it may well be good news for those who feel that life has dealt them a tough hand, for those who feel trapped by circumstance, those whom society tells they have been born in the ‘wrong’ place. Jesus proclaims that God is able to break open the seemingly closed boundaries of the present, creating hope for many. So like the wind, which 'blows where it wills', people from every walk of life are coming to see the Kingdom of God (v8). This very point was picked up by James Cone, distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Writing on the powerfulness of the slave or negro spirituals, he argued that the slaves discovered a new sense of dignity in the promise that their relation to God was not defined by the circumstances in which they found themselves, or by cold fate. The luck or otherwise of birth had no influence on their relationship to God. This didn’t mean that their roots were unimportant, but that the closed circumstances of their slavery did not have the final say on who they were. They could give vent to the full range of their emotional power under great duress and could express the hope for a new kind of world articulated so powerfully in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.
Even if we begin to accept Jesus' promise of new birth in the life of God’s Spirit, the question remains as to how this new birth occurs, how this new identity is received. Jesus words tell us that in fact it is very simple. He offers two responses in this passage. Firstly, he suggests that he comes from God in a unique way (v13). His words call to mind the Word of God in Isaiah 55 that comes to earth and returns to God bearing fruitfulness. For Jesus, the same result will see his being 'lifted up' on the Cross. Jesus refers to a story in Numbers 21 in which the Israelites are afflicted by poisonous snakes. Moses is commanded by God to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole in the camp. Any who looked at the bronze serpent would be healed. All they actually had to do was to look at the bronze serpent. All they had to do was to trust in God’s promise. Nothing elaborate, nothing especially complicated. Simply trust in God.
This is how Jesus now begins to portray himself. This is truly where he is coming from. Like the bronze serpent, he too will be raised up (v14), in his crucifixion. All that is needed is for Nicodemus and for us to look to Jesus and trust. That is the heart of our salvation. We could say more prayers, we could read our Bibles more and more, we could engage in penances. None of these things would be bad, but Jesus shows us that salvation, the heart of the Gospel, is much simpler; simply look to Jesus, especially his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and trust in him. This is where our Gospel Reading is taking us this morning. To a place of new understanding and of conversion. It was difficult for Nicodemus and it is difficult for us because it suggests the laying aside of unhelpful defence mechanisms and a letting go of cherished and small securities.
The writer James Cone showed that for many of the slaves, the sense of their Christian dignity fuelled a real and subversive resistance and energised their struggle for freedom. Christ’s spirit secured for them a real dignity, out of reach of the fickle hands of human circumstance and the capricious rage of the tyrant.
Actor and singer Paul Robeson performed "Deep River" accompanied by a large male chorus in the 1940 movie The Proud Valley.
"Deep River" is one of the five spirituals included in the oratorio A Child of Our Time, first performed in 1944, by the classical composer Michael Tippett (1905–98):
D E E P R I V E R
Deep river, my home is over Jordan.
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land where all is peace?
Oh, deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.