Rev. Danielle K Bartz March 5, 2023
John 3:1-17 “Seeking: How do we begin again?”
When I was a kid, I was a fan of the ‘choose your own adventure’ books. For those not familiar, these books were usually written in the first person, meaning the main character was the reader. You would read one chapter of the book that ends with a question – do you do ‘A’ or ‘B’? If ‘A’ turn to page…if ‘B’ turn to page….and the story would go on from whatever option you chose. I had a habit of deciding how I wanted to the story to end after the first chapter and would make choices that I thought would lead me to my desired outcome. If I started to read option ‘A’, for example, and it wasn’t going where I wanted, I would go back and pick option ‘B’. And after I finished the story, whether or not it ended the way I wanted, I would start all over again – picking different options along the way, trying to create an entirely new story. By the time I was done, I had always read every word of the book, creating several different story arcs for myself.
Moving into adulthood, I have often looked back at choices I have made and found myself wondering how my life would be different if I had chosen differently. What if I went into social work instead of ministry? What if I accepted that offer from a church in Washington instead of this one? What if I had purchased that other house instead of mine? What if I had said this instead of that? I certainly know that I am not alone in sometimes wondering what it would be like if I could start all over again. For those of us privileged enough to be presented with choices to make, it is natural to imagine ‘what if’.
But of course life is not like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. We can’t make one choice, see how it plays out, and then go back in time to make a different choice to try something new. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ample opportunities to begin again – to start fresh, carrying with us wisdom from experience. There is no wiping the slate clean, time doesn’t work like an Etch-a-Sketch, where we can just shake it up and every is blank again. We always carry with us everything from yesterday into tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean our yesterday’s are the sole determinant of our tomorrow’s.
It is unfortunate, I think, that this lesson from today’s encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus is too often cast as “evidence” that it is possible, even required, for us to completely start fresh, carrying nothing with us from our past into the future. It is likely no surprise to you that this scripture is the one that is cited in the Born-Again Christian movement. A relatively recent phenomena of the Church, born-again Christians, often referencing a single powerful moment of conversion, try to craft an entirely different life for themselves. In fact, many revivals point to this as the goal – to create an experience for people that will lead them to be born again of the spirit and recreate their lives from scratch.
Perhaps some of you have experienced this, a moment of such God-driven transformation that it was like you started completely fresh. And for those who can experience that change while at the same time holding onto all of the wisdom of the past, the wisdom that can only be gained by life-experience, well that is a wonderful thing, truly. But I too often encounter people who, days and weeks after that moment, find themselves struggling to understand why their life isn’t different. I remember a patient I had while I was a hospital chaplain. Their illness required a lengthy hospital stay, so I was able to get to know them better than most patients who I interacted with only once or twice. This patient described themselves as a born-again Christian, and after several visits was comfortable enough to tell me that they couldn’t understand why the life they experienced after that conversion, or new birth, was so similar to their life before. They thought that to be born again meant everything from their past, all of the lessons, the pain, the joys, would be erased. The patient expressed genuine surprise that the trajectory of their life hadn’t drastically altered. They worried aloud to me that somehow they got it wrong, that God decided they weren’t truly born fresh of the Spirit.
In a ‘choose your own adventure’ novel, if you go back to the first chapter and pick a different choice, nothing that happened before actually happened. And too many revivalists, charismatic Christian leaders, try to convince people that is possible in real life. That if they are willing to be born again, then nothing from before matters. Citing the lesson that Jesus tells to Nicodemus, that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” the born-again Christian movement creates an impossible expectation for people. And what that does not only creates an impossibility for people of faith, but it also diminishes the lesson of Jesus and the journey of Nicodemus.
This encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus does not end with a verse saying something along the lines of “And Nicodemus took this lesson to heart, was born again fresh and new of the Spirit, and went on to lead an entirely different life, leaving behind everything.” In fact, the encounter ends without a real conclusion. Jesus finishes his thought, and we don’t hear from Nicodemus again. The narrative just goes on by saying, “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside…” It is remarkably unsatisfying. But, if we keep reading, through nearly the entirety of the Gospel, Nicodemus comes back in just one verse. We read in chapter 19 that Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea, prepares the body of the crucified Jesus for burial. We don’t know what happened to Nicodemus afterwards, his name is not mentioned again. And we don’t know what happened between that encounter in the night with Jesus and the burial, but we can guess.
I like to imagine that Nicodemus went home after speaking with Jesus more confused than ever. This is not a stretch because it is clear that he doesn’t comprehend what Jesus is telling him. The idea of being born again is not something that makes sense to him, and the questions he asked are perfectly reasonable. I like to imagine that Nicodemus went back to his life and livelihood as a Pharisee, continuing to teach the ancient and established traditions of Judaism. I like to imagine he continued to worship in ways that were familiar, and that he continued to pray in ways that were familiar. And I like to imagine that the lesson that Jesus taught him that night continued to roll around in his mind. That he continued to wonder what it meant to be born of the spirit, after being born of the flesh. I like to imagine he found other people to talk to about this, people who were willing to allow him to wonder aloud and gave him permission to question. I like to imagine that he continued to keep his ears open for news about Jesus, and spoke up for him amongst those who were plotting his death. I like to imagine him in the crowds at the crucifixion, heart breaking that this unique leader and teacher was being killed for no other reason than because he dared to question the status quo. I like to imagine that, once again in the night, he and Joseph of Arimathea quietly went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. I like to imagine that preparing his body for burial, Nicodemus was demonstrating that even though he didn’t fully understand the lesson that Jesus taught him, that his life was different now, and that something transformative did happen, and with a series of small choices along the way, his life started anew.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about Nicodemus, though he is one of my favorite characters in the Gospel. He didn’t drop everything and follow Jesus like the first disciples. He didn’t have a perfect understanding of Jesus’ lessons. Instead, like the rest of us, he was simply willing to ask questions, he was willing to consider new things, and he was able to use all of the wisdom from his past to make choices for his future that slowly, but surely, aligned him with the life that he wanted, a life that God wanted. It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t sudden. It wasn’t a scorched earth idea of faith, destroying everything in order to build something entirely new. It was a life of flesh and spirit intertwined. He began again each day.
This is what I think it means to be born of the Spirit. It is not flashy. It is not sudden. It is not a ‘choose your own adventure’ novel. I think to be born of the Spirit is gradual. It is to begin each day new, with a hope to hear God’s will. It is about accepting mistakes as lessons, using that wisdom to make a different choice next time. It is moving with the flow of creation, instead of clinging to a rock being buffeted by the current. It is about beginning again, over and over, with God. During this season of Lent, we are exploring encounters with Jesus that provoke questions, that give us permission to seek something new. The question for this week is ‘How do we begin again?’ The great miracle of our faith as Easter people, is that new beginnings are the cornerstone of our faith. New life is always possible, in fact it is promised. None of us, I expect, will experience anything particularly stunning. But that doesn’t mean transformation is not already working in our lives, slowly and with subtlety. So, how do we begin again? With each day. Amen.
God of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, you have created for us a miraculous life full of wonder and opportunities. For this life filled with possibilities, we are grateful. And it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
Loving God, over and over again we encounter choices that you have created us to make. Help us, we pray, to make those choices which lead us closer to you. Help us to make choices that intertwine our flesh and your Spirit, drawing us closer to your Kingdom. And when we encounter others faced with their own choices, give us the wisdom to take a step back and give space for their lives to develop, providing support and encouragement along the way.
One of the ways we can hear your voice as we wonder where to go from here is through prayer. In these moments of silence, we open our hearts and spirits to you, listening for your still-speaking voice…
Great and Good God, this creation of yours is truly a gift and we seek to encounter it with grace. We do this in the name of Jesus Christ, a teacher and guide, our friend and savoir. We pray all of this in his name and now in the way he taught…Our Father…