Sermon Archive

Sunday March 20, 2011
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5. 13-17
John 3:1-17

For the World Weary and Burned Out

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About twenty five years ago, I glimpsed the soul of Nicodemus. A devout churchman, a lawyer, a friend and adviser about half a generation older than I (which put him at the time at the age of fifty-something), was world-weary and burned out. He decided to pack it in and literally venture out into the deep. He sold his house and his share in the law firm and bought a yacht – he was a good sailor – and he and his wife simply began to sail around the world, all the way around. It was a life-changing, two-year journey with many ports of call. When he came into the church office to say goodbye, I looked into his eyes and, as I say, I think I saw the soul of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel.

Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He was a Pharisee and one of the rulers in the Jewish Sanhedrin. He knows Jesus is from God: “No one can do these signs unless God is with him.” Picking up on that lead, Jesus speaks directly to the needs of the older man. “Truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (or born from above).” Sense the burned-out weariness in Nicodemus’ reply to Jesus: “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus spoke spiritually, and it may well be that Nicodemus responded in the same vein, speaking figuratively, meaning perhaps that when a person is grown up and set in his ways, he cannot be expected to change his nature and start all over again.

Jesus answers with a second challenge unfolding what he means by new birth from above. “Except one be born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Water means washing; spirit, or breath, wind, means fresh air, power, new life. These were well known symbols in ancient Israel, and they were to be taken up by the followers of Jesus with Holy Baptism. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit; that which is born of the flesh is flesh. Do not marvel that I said you must be born anew (from above). The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it but you do now know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus now reveals his exhaustion: “How can this be?”

Our first two lessons today concern an old man, the person who is called the father of faith, the patriarch of the people of God. God called Abraham at the age of 75 to leave his home and to embark on a journey to places he knew not where, except that God would show him as he went. We know next to nothing about Abraham before the age of 75. After that, his story is one of the most famous in the world and dominates thirteen chapters of the Book of Genesis. Billions of people of faith trace the beginning of their faith to that old man, Father Abraham. He and his wife Sarah are the parents not only of their physical descendants (which would be the Jews and the Arabs), but of their spiritual descendants (which would be all believers in God). And it is worth adding that each of them, Abraham and Sarah, had a good laugh when the Lord told them they would be the father and mother of peoples. They were of an age, in the words of Holy Scripture, which made them as good as dead. [1]

“How can this be?” asks Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not know these things?” Jesus said. Surely a “teacher of Israel” would know Abraham’s story of stories. But Jesus refers Nicodemus to another story, that of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness to heal the Israelites. The Israelites had murmured against God and Moses. “Fiery serpents” attacked them. Full of sorrow and contrition, the Israelites begged Moses to pray God to save them. So the remedy was to fashion a bronze serpent on a pole and lift up for them to see and be healed. This sign became the symbol of medicine. But Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so also must the Son of man be lifted up.” He meant lifted up on the cross, so that all might look to him and be saved. The curse of the punishment is turned into medicine for life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” The serpent on the pole is the symbol of medicinal cure. The cross, most especially the figure of the Son of man crucified, is the Church’s sign of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All this was a lot to take in, especially for a night-time visit from a weary religious leader who was afraid of being seen. But Jesus gave him what he asked for, and infinitely more than he imagined. The crisis for Nicodemus was to make the leap of faith. Abram went, says Scripture, as the Lord had told him. He hopped to it, at the age of 75. So did Moses, hundreds of years later, having settled down in mid-life with a wife, children, and wherewithal as a shepherd.

Later on in Saint John’s Gospel, Nicodemus reappears twice. At an ugly meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees seeking to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” He was rebuffed, “Are you from Galilee too?” Then, after the crucifixion and death of Jesus, Nicodemus brought about a hundred pounds weight of myrrh and aloes, joining Joseph of Arimathea, another follower of Jesus in the high priestly council, securing the body of Jesus from Pilate, wrapping it in a linen shroud with the spices, and placing it in a new tomb. (John 7:50-52; 19:38-42) By this deed Nicodemus declared himself and came into the light.

You mean to say we can be born anew, born from above? At our age? At any age, Nicodemus. Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Life depends on faith and rests on grace. God specializes in giving life to the dead and calling into existence things that were not. Take the plunge. Venture out into the deep. Put up a sail. For this sort of new start you don’t even have to leave home. Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] See for example Hebrews 11:11-12


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