A Sermon from Sherborne
Change for God
A sermon for the Parish Eucharist, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 12th March 2017 by the Revd Lesley McCreadie, Associate Priest
If you had the opportunity to have a conversation with Jesus, what would you ask him? Many Christians have thought about this scenario many times. A gospel song called “I Can Only Imagine” poses the question what would we do or say in the presence of Jesus; fall to our knees; be still; would we be able to speak at all. If Jesus were to knock on your door and have a cup of coffee with you, what would you talk about? Would you ask him about the future? Would you ask him about loved ones that have left? When I taught I often gave this as a discussion exercise and the questions were often very thoughtful and brave. I wonder what it is that you would ask?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem at the beginning of his ministry and overturns the money changers tables. After the confrontation at the Temple, Jesus became a well-known figure; one to be reckoned with. Everyone was asking questions about this young teacher from Galilee. Who was he? Did his message come from God? Was he the Messiah? Most of the Jewish authorities began to see Jesus as a threat, but one in particular, Nicodemus, a teacher himself, became very interested in what this rabbi had to say and seeks him out to ask some questions.
By day Nicodemus knows who he is. He has an identity. He is a Pharisee. He has a role and a reputation as a leader of the Jews. He knows and applies the law. People listen to and follow him. He has a particular place in society. He fits in. He has security and power.
By night, however, Nicodemus is lost and confused. He cannot see or understand. Nothing makes sense. He’s in the dark, as we say. His work, accomplishments, reputation, and place in society no longer provide stability or answers. Everything has changed. He’s stumbling in the dark. Daytime certainty has given way to night time questions. “How can these things be?” By day he keeps the faith. By night, however, he is not so certain.
The Jewish people at the time of Jesus, and especially the Pharisees, were almost obsessed with the study and the keeping of the letter of the law. The Ten Commandments were a good starting point, but these commandments lacked the detail that the Jews were looking for and so they came up with a supplement to the Book of the Law which was called the Mishnah. This book put into incredible detail the laws of the land. For example, the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy was too vague and so details had to be added. For example, you could not sew or remove more than two threads from a garment. You could not carry anything with you, even a bed mat, we remember the man that Jesus healed on the Sabbath and told him to pick up his mat and go home. The man got into trouble with the Jewish authorities because he was working on the Sabbath. The Jewish people believed their salvation depended on the learning and keeping of the laws set forth by God. They were concerned about the physical world and their actions in this world.
Straight away Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus stands this traditional view on its head by telling him that no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born from above. In other words the old order must change and he must enter into a new experience of the spirit, allowing the Spirit to blow upon him and raise him to new life. The powerful message of Ezekiel in the valley of the Dead Bones may have come into Nicodemus’ mind as he listened to Jesus, when Ezekiel sees the dead Israel raised to new life by the wind of the spirit. Now Nicodemus needs to grasp this prophecy for himself and enter ‘new birth’ by committing himself to following Jesus.
But Nicodemus reacts as I suspect most of us would have done at that time; ‘how can this be?’ he asks. Jesus reminds him that he is a great teacher and yet he does not understand. For Nicodemus the challenge is too great and he goes away in the dark. He goes away not disbelieving, but to think on what he has heard; to study the scriptures and eventually we know that his thinking bore fruit. He makes two more appearances in the gospel; in chapter 7 when the Pharisees want to arrest Jesus and in chapter 19 when he buys spices with which to embalm the body of Jesus and helps Joseph of Arimathea to place Jesus in the garden tomb. This would suggest that if he had not become a follower of Jesus, he was at the very least sympathetic to what Jesus’ ministry had been about.
Today’s lectionary readings present us with the challenge of change – a great Lenten theme. The Old Testament reading reminds us of the way Abraham gladly accepted the change necessary to obey God’s call to leave his home and move to Haran. Abraham simply responded in faith and set out into the unknown. Nicodemus is challenged to change his understanding of the scriptures and to discover the reality of the Messiah in his own time.
Lent is a time for us all to deepen and redirect our response to Christ: to listen again to him, to study his word, to pray for his Spirit, and be ready to discover anew our faith. Change can be scary but sometimes we need to just strike out and see what change or new start God may be calling us to begin. That is when we can move as Nicodemus did from the dark into the light of Christ.