A number of years ago down in South Carolina an Episcopalian church placed three crosses draped in purple on its front lawn for Lent. After a week or so, the Chamber of Commerce called to complain about these three crosses.
“This is a big season for tourists,” they said. “We think those crosses could send the wrong message to visitors at the beach. People don’t want to come down here for a vacation and be confronted with unpleasantness.”
The church stood its ground. The crosses stayed. “It’s Lent,” said the church. People are supposed to be uncomfortable.”
Folks, here we are in the fourth week of Lent. Do you feel uncomfortable yet? There’s a lot of good stuff that we teach and preach about in Lent. Things like repentance. Confession of sin. Forgiveness. There is honest talk about temptation – and how hard it is sometimes to say no to temptation. You know. Lent stuff. Stuff that – sometimes – makes us feel – uncomfortable. Stuff we need to be aware of all year round to be sure, but – some stuff that maybe you’d rather not want to deal with.
Here’s the problem. I – well, you and I – we – live in a success oriented – grab all the gusto – what’s in it for me – I’m entitled and deserving – feel good kind of world – am I right? Where things that make us feel uncomfortable aren’t always welcome.
You see – when we stop — and when we focus – on the things that Lent demands that we focus on – there is an acknowledgment – or at least an awareness – that there’s something not quite right – or maybe it’s better to say – there’s something incomplete – with this success– oriented, feel-good culture that we live in. Well – there’s something I find empty about it.
And so I say to myself, there’s gotta be something else. There’s gotta be a better way. Listen. If you’ve ever felt that way – for whatever reason life feels empty – that there’s got to be something more – well then, I’m here to tell you today folks, that there is a better way. And in today’s Gospel lesson, we learn what that better way is.
So – enter a man by the name of Nicodemus. We first meet Nic here in the third chapter of John’s Gospel. He comes to Jesus at night. When it’s dark. Perhaps he doesn’t want his friends and companions to know that he has come to talk to Jesus. The Bible says that Nicodemus is a leader of the Pharisees. Again, the Pharisees are the super religious guys of the day. And of course, the more we read the Gospels, we find the Pharisees butting heads with Jesus. Over and over again. And each time they butt heads, Jesus reveals more and more of their hypocrisy.
So Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. Apparently Jesus is working the night shift – and Jesus and Nicodemus have a little conversation. A little conversation with great results.
May I suggest to you that the first reason Nicodemus comes to Jesus is because he recognizes that God is at work in Jesus. He calls Jesus, Rabbi, or teacher. He says, “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Now the first thing that I want you to notice is that Jesus takes charge of the conversation. Jesus moves beyond the flattery he has just heard. Why? Because
· Jesus’ purpose – his mission – is NOT to be known as just another rabbi or teacher.
· Jesus’ purpose – his mission – is NOT to be known as a miracle worker.
His purpose – his mission – is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. To bring all people into the Kingdom of God.
So Jesus invites Nicodemus to catch a new vision – a new understanding – of what the Kingdom is all about. You see, it’s more than miracles. It’s more than teachings. It involves a vision of something else. And it offers Nicodemus a better way.
Now we need to remember that Nicodemus – as a Pharisee –is a religious man. And may I suggest to you that that’s the second reason why he comes to Jesus. You see, his is a religion of rigid rules and ritual. But I’m guessing that Nicodemus just isn’t finding these to be satisfying. They aren’t enough. He knows there’s gotta be a better way. And Jesus offers him the better way when He says, “You must be born from above.” You must be born from above. Most of you know the phrase better this way, “You must be born again.”
Of course, good old Nic doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. “Can a person enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born again?” he asks. “No, no, no,” says Jesus. “You’re not getting it. Before you can enter into the Kingdom of God, a new birth must take place. A spiritual birth. What’s born of the flesh is flesh. But what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Do you see what Jesus is telling Nicodemus?
· When you discover that the old way of life isn’t working – that’s when Jesus offers a better way.
· When you discover that that old religious system of do’s and don’ts – of trying to please God by being good enough just isn’t good enough – that’s when Jesus offers a better way.
· When you discover that acquiring wealth for no other purpose than just to have it – when you discover that acquiring more and more toys and things won’t bring you the satisfaction you thought they would – that’s when Jesus offers a better way.
To fully understand what Jesus is talking about, Nicodemus has to understand that something akin to a new birth has to take place.
To be born of the Spirit – to be born from above – to be born again – means that we take on an entirely new identity – an identity that marks us as a child of God. Inheritors of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus says that we receive this new birth – our new identity – through water and the Spirit. And that is why we baptize. That is why we say – no, why we proclaim at baptism, “Mary – Frank – Joan – Tom – child of God – you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
It is something that God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit does for us. It is the better way. It is a new you. With a new identity. The better way.
And the life we now live, we live by faith in Jesus Christ, trusting the promises God makes to us. To love us. To be with us always. To walk with us when life is throwing all kinds of junk at us – but also to celebrate with us at the high points of our lives. And finally to give us the gift of eternal life with God now and forever.
And the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to do a thing. We don’t HAVE to give up anything for Lent. You can if you want to, but you don’t have to. As our reading from Ephesians 2 tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is a gift from God so that no one may boast.” Do you believe that? And isn’t that a wonderful thing! Simply believe that these promises of God are true, and that they are for you. I mean, even the fact that we can say, “This I believe,” – those words spoken from a heart of faith are themselves a gift from God.
And that – brings us back to Lent. And I don’t know. Maybe Lent does make you feel uncomfortable. But if Lent – if Lent does nothing else – it should serve to remind us that the activity of God’s Spirit does not end at our baptism. And if Lent helps us to refocus our attention on our walk with the Lord – then it will have served its purpose to remind us that we are born again and again and again – each time we come to the Lord in prayer and repentance. Each time you hear that your sins are forgiven. Each time you experience an “Ah-ha” moment that reveals to you something of who God is, and who you are in relationship to Him.
It’s a total transformation. A total body transformation – and heart – and mind – and spirit. And it’s good. Being born form above – being born again – is all about new life in Jesus Christ. It’s about your new identity. A whole new you!
So when you find that the old way no longer works, and you want to talk – come talk to me. Because I will tell you as I’m telling you now – Jesus shows you a better way. When we turn our hearts and our lives over to him – Jesus shows us a better way. If you let Him, He will touch your heart. He will change your life. With Jesus – you are never the same again.