You can only know what God is doing in Christ when God gives you new birth to see, hear, breathe, and walk in God’s love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday in Lent, year A
Texts: John 3:1-17; Psalm 121; Genesis 12:1-4a
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I don’t remember, but I wonder if the light shocked me.
Embraced inside my mother’s warm darkness for nine months, her heartbeat flowing through me, the light I saw as I was born probably surprised me most. I imagine this because even today I don’t like to wake up to bright lights. I much prefer a gradual increase of light as I awaken.
But really, coming from sound muffled through my mother’s body to hearing with my new ears directly in the air, or breathing air into new lungs that had never been asked to stretch until now, both could have also shocked my relatively new existence.
That’s what Jesus invites you to consider when you think of where God is in your life and what God is doing. Jesus says to Nicodemus, it’s like being born. Birth is an enormous threshold from one existence to another. But it’s the only way Jesus can answer what Nicodemus is really searching for.
There’s a reason Jesus is hard for Nicodemus to understand.
Nicodemus is an important man in his society, privileged, respected. He’s an authority, serving on the governing council of the Sanhedrin. He’s come to Jesus by night, maybe because many of his colleagues, other men in authority, dislike Jesus, are offended by or even fear him. He’s intrigued, though, wants to know more.
But Nicodemus comes with his teacher’s perspective, his authority, his credentials, to find out if Jesus really comes from God. Surely only God could give Jesus the teaching authority he has or the power to do the things he does.
But Jesus says something utterly confusing to Nicodemus. He tells him, “you really can’t understand anything about me if you don’t start seeing God as your mother.”
Jesus says, “Your question isn’t whether God is with me or has authorized me. Your question is whether God is with you. And to answer that, you need to be born, Nicodemus. From above, from God. God will have to mother you into this truth, give birth to a new you.”
Jesus isn’t insulting Nicodemus when he asks how he, a teacher of Israel, doesn’t understand these things.
He’s saying, “your frame of reference doesn’t work with what God is doing here. Your privilege, your authority, your questions, won’t get you anywhere. God is doing something simpler yet more profound than you think. You need to drop your credentials and let God give you new birth.
“You will need newborn eyes to see what God is doing in different ways, Nicodemus. As radically different as what your eyes saw in the dark of your mother’s womb compared to the light of day they saw at your birth. You will need newborn ears to hear what God is doing in different ways, Nicodemus. As radically different as the sound you heard through your mother’s body compared to the brightness of sound as you began life in the air. And you will need newborn lungs to breathe the Spirit’s life and be filled with what God is doing, Nicodemus. You’ve lived and breathed God before now as if in the womb, but the unused lungs inside you need to stretch and open to the breath of the Spirit, and take that breath into your very life for good.”
Can you see why this was hard for Nicodemus to understand?
Knowing God as mother isn’t an alternate image. It’s absolutely central to how Jesus understands what God is doing in the Spirit.
You can’t understand the third chapter of John without this. God births children into new life in the Spirit. New eyes, new ears, new lungs. To know and live in God’s expansive, astonishing motherly love.
A love for the cosmos that is so wide and deep that no one, no creature, no piece of creation, is outside of it. A love that, as Jesus says today, moved the Trinity to send the Son from the inner dance of God’s life to rescue the creatures of this planet, so none will be lost. A love that comes to heal and save, not to judge. A motherly love that cannot imagine life without all her children in her embrace.
A motherly love as in Psalm 121 today, that, like so many of our mothers, never sleeps deeply after her child is in the world, but is always awake to their movement, their life. Their going out and their coming in. Who fiercely protects them in the sun of day and in the moon of night.
Nicodemus’ image of God makes him wonder if Jesus is authorized to do and say what he does. If Jesus can be approved as officially God’s servant. Only by letting go of all of his preconceived notions can Nicodemus grasp the Mother’s heart within the Trinity Jesus deeply wants him to know.
Only by letting his eternal Mother give him new birth can Nicodemus see and hear and breathe in the heart of God’s astonishing and expansive love for him. And for all.
This is your promise, too, you know.
Birth is an enormous step from one existence into another. A step into the unknown. A step like Abraham and Sarah were asked to take today. A step like Nicodemus took. The only way Jesus can describe God’s abundant life for you is by calling you to a birth from one existence into a completely new one.
Luther often spoke of baptism as a daily death and resurrection. That’s a wonderful image. But today Jesus invites you to think of your baptism as a daily birth in water and the Spirit. A daily moving from one reality into a new life God births in you. And even though the new birth, the new reality is into the unknown, mysterious, unexperienced-yet, your heavenly Mother will always be with you in it, leading, guiding, loving. Not falling asleep.
This is the joy Jesus longs for you to know, to seek: letting the Spirit give you new birth every day.
New eyes to see God, so you can see where God is and where God is leading you. New ears to hear God, so you can hear God’s voice of love calling you, guiding you. New lungs to breathe God anew and let the oxygen of God’s transforming grace enter every cell of your body, every corner of your reality until you are a new creation. And new feet and hands, to learn to walk and touch – baby steps at first, small gestures at first – in ways that transform your world with God’s love.
And at first it’s going to be a bit of a shock, the light, the sound, the breath, the steps. It might be painful, too, this move from one identity to a new one. These things are always part of the birth process. Just let go, let your heavenly Mother’s embrace, your Mother’s breath of the Spirit, surround and fill you.
You won’t be led astray. You are safe in God’s arms. Because remember, in God’s maternal love no one gets lost or left behind. Not you. And not those you meet who might need you to draw them toward the birth God longs to give them.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
Note: in this week’s video we’ve included the singing of the Hymn of the Day to connect with this sermon. (The silence after the sermon and the chorale prelude before the singing are not included.) The hymn is in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, no. 735. Text by Jean Janzen, based on Julian of Norwich.