Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent

Preached at St. George’s of Middlesex Centre, 17 February, 2007
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (Jn 3:3)

Does it make a difference to you, where you were born and who your ancestors are? My guess is that most of us would say “yes, it does”. You may, like many residents of this parish, be someone whose ancestors go way back in this part of the country, and that may matter a great deal to you. If you’re descended from one of London Township’s settler families, you likely know a great deal about those who went before you, and that would probably make a great difference in how you saw yourself and your sense of place in this community and in this church.

What would it be like if you didn’t know much about your ancestors, or who they came from? Would you think any the less of yourself? Probably not, but I think you might feel that you are missing some part of yourself. I think one of the fascinations of genealogy for so many people is that the act of filling in a family tree might tell us more about who we are in the here and now. One of my brothers, for example, is haunted by his inability to locate our paternal grandmother’s birthplace in Scotland. Would that missing knowledge make him a more complete person? In my brother’s case, I think it might.

In a new world country like Canada, genealogy is primarily a pastime. Our ancestries don’t give us status or privilege (though Justin Trudeau is a possible exception). We don’t worry about the breeding of whoever our children might be dating or marrying. In an old-world country like England, pedigrees can still count. I’m currently reading The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown’s biography of Diana, the late Princess of Wales. It’s a very engaging book, but also a very sad one. Brown describes a very small world where pedigree and ancestry made all the difference.

Diana was one of a tiny handful of young women who would have made a suitable bride for the Prince of Wales. As Brown puts it, Diana’s family, the Spencers, had “dollops of royal blood” going back to the 1600s. Growing up in her family home of Althorp, Diana could look at portraits of generations of Spencer women who had been married into royalty (pp. 57-58). Marrying the Prince of Wales seemed to her to be the fulfilment of a fairy-book destiny, practically a birthright. The tragedy, of course, was that Diana married into a family where duty and breeding ruled with a heavy hand, and that became a great burden to her. The other tragedy, as Brown describes it, is that Diana the aristocrat craved the attention of the media which made her real to millions of commoners as “the People’s Princess”, and that media attention would destroy her.

In our gospel today, Nicodemus, who visits Jesus under cover of darkness, has more than a little in common with the class-ridden world of Charles and Diana. Tom Wright notes that Judaism in Nicodemus’ time was all about being born in the right family. In our first lesson, we heard in Genesis how God had sent Abram and Sarai out of their homeland and promised to make of them “a great nation”. In Jesus’ day, that great nation was the Jewish people, both in Israel and Judea and wherever else they were scattered in the Mediterranean world. As one of the Jewish orthodox known as Pharisees, Nicodemus would have taken pride in tracing his ancestry back to one of the original twelve tribes of Israel and before that to Abraham himself. Like his fellow Pharisees, he would have known who he was descended from and where he came from (to see an example of this sort of pride, compare with Paul’s account of himself in Philippians, before his encounter with Christ – Phil 3:4-6). Nicodemus would have known that he was the spiritual equivalent of the Spencers, “the right sort of people”, entitled to salvation through his bloodline.

Nevertheless, Nicodemus is curious about this teacher Jesus. The fact that he comes in the night shows that he doesn’t want to compromise his daytime prestige and position with the Pharisees. He is willing to admit that Jesus is “a teacher come from God” (Jn 3:1) but Nicodemus isn’t willing to be seen with him. What Jesus says in return is rather startling: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn 3:3). Nicodemus doesn’t get it, because he thinks Jesus is talking about a literal second birth. Sometimes I don’t think we get it either, because when we hear Jesus talk about being born again, we might think in our sometimes fusty Anglican fashion that Jesus is talking about worship styles (hands waving in the air and all that). But really it’s much bigger than Nicodemus or ourselves can imagine.

Jesus is talking about God creating a new family “from above”. In this new family, birth and class and the right breeding won’t matter any more. Jesus is talking about God letting his Holy Spirit blow as wide and free as all that clean white powdery snow blowing over the roads and fields last Sunday. Jesus is talking about blowing the doors of God’s kingdom wide open, saying come one come all, come if you know your family tree way back or come if you don’t know a thing. Come if you’re from a good family or if you’re from the wrong side of the tracks. No pedigrees. No right sort of people or people like us. All you need is a hunger to know God and a need to know God’s love.

This message is an example of God’s incredible generosity, a generosity that Christians call grace. It’s the way God works, from the very beginning. Our first lesson was full of grace. Abram didn’t do anything to deserve being singled out. Everything that happens in this story comes from God: “I will make”, “I will show”, “I will bless”. All Abram has to do is go and God will do the rest. Paul picks up on this in our second lesson by noting that all Abram did in the story was to have faith in God, faith to go where God would send him. Everything else, Paul says, is the work of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16). When we think of it, these readings make an amazing story of generosity and good news for the traditionally austere and sombre season of Lent.

We don’t hear how Nicodemus takes this news. He comes in the dark and presumably he leaves in the dark. When he shows up two more times in John’s gospel, there are suggestions that he got the message. How do we receive this message? How do we feel about being born from above?

As I said at the beginning, I asked you if it was important to you to know who your ancestors were and where you came from. It may be very comfortable knowing that we belong to a place and to a family. Our family relationships can indeed be a blessing to us, just as Abram received a blessing. However, our sense of identity can also limit the possibilities in front of us. If I say “I know who I am and where I am and where I came from and I’m fine with that”, we risk missing what God might do with us. Our lessons today suggest that God doesn’t care who we are or where we came from as much as he cares about who we will be and where we will go. God wants to make you new. God wants us to be “born from above”, “born again”.

I think that we have born again several times in our lives. First, at our baptism. Later, when we took on new lives and responsibilities as spouses and parents. You may have been born again when you buried a quarrel with someone, when you reconciled with a parent or with a child. You were born again when you worked up the nerve to return to church after a long absence. You were born again when you took up a new ministry in the church, like the parishioners I saw working at the meal program at St. James last night. You may have been born again when you first went on a retreat, or embraced a spiritual practice, like keeping a holy Lent. You were born again when God called you out of an old life and into a new one, like Brad from Dunbar Homes being ordained as Father Brad at the end of this month.

These are some ways that God can take us and make us new, blow new life and new direction into us through the work of his spirit. Who knows what else God wants to do with us? Who knows where God will lead us and what God will do with us? This Lent would be a good time for us all to ask these questions. What new relationships is God calling us into? How is God wanting to make us new? What possibilities might we be open to? How might we relax our grip on who know ourselves to be and allow God to make us into the people he wants us to be? Jesus said that no one can see the kingdom of God unless they have been born from above. Who knows what new and wonderful things we will see if we ask God to make us new?

©Michael Peterson+ 20007

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