Thoughts on the Second Sunday in Lent

Starting-Over
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In 1992, the movie Wayne’s World gave the world of pop culture a phrase that many people have sincerely felt, but never quite expressed in the manner of Garth Algar. When the evil producer Benjamin asks Garth, “How do you feel about making a change?” Garth replies in succinct deadpan, “We fear change.”

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It remains one of the more popular jokes in the movie, probably because the most popular jokes, in general, have a significant kernel of truth at their heart.

We do fear change, and for many people, the security of the present—even if uncomfortable—is preferable to the uncertainty of change.

Harvard Business Review lists “10 Reasons People Resist Change

    1. Loss of Control
    2. Excess Uncertainty
    3. Surprise, Surprise!
    4. Everything Seems Different
    5. Loss of Face
    6. Concerns about Competence
    7. More Work
    8. Ripple Effects
    9. Past Resentments
    10. The Threat is Real (It Can Hurt)

and Forbes offers insight on how to “Overcome the Five Main Reasons People Resist Change

    1. Fear of the Unknown/Surprise
    2. Mistrust
    3. Loss of Job Security/Control
    4. Bad Timing
    5. Predisposition Toward Change

Life with God is a life of change; at 75 years old Abram is called into change, going “to the land I will show you…so that you will be a blessing.” Jesus invites Nicodemus—and with him those of us who would be the Church—into change. Life with God is a life of change—changes in perspective, changes in perception, changes within ourselves, and—like yeast in dough—bringing change to the world.  Rebirth is change; repentance is change. Life with God is a life of change, and the Scriptures don’t offer us “Shortcuts to Overcoming What You Hate About Change.” What the Scriptures do offer is the presence of God in the midst of that change.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. He is curious; he sees God at work in the signs that Jesus is doing, but he still comes at night “when he can keep his faith [or his doubts, or his questions] secret, separate from the rest of his life.” He comes at night because Nicodemus knows, deep down inside that if it is God at work in Jesus, then odds are pretty good that he can’t walk away from this meeting the same person that he was when he walked in.

After all, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, he is a teacher of Israel.  He knows the stories of Abram and Sarai; he knows the stories of the transformation of Israel in the wilderness; Nicodemus knows that life with God is a life of growth and life of change. So he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, protected from prying eyes and curious inquiries.

“Rabbi we know you’re a teacher who has come from God…” Nicodemus says, and Jesus replies, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or born anew or born again).” You see something at work, but you can’t quite name it because it may mean rethinking what you know of how God works.  The beginnings of your faith are there, Nicodemus, I can see it. Just open your heart a little bit more and you’ll be right there with work that God’s doing.”

The thing is Nicodemus is confused by that “born anew” thing that Jesus says.  “I’m old, how do I go back to the womb and re-enter the world?”  Maybe it’s because we don’t really understand what Jesus means that the Church has simplified the statement “without being born from above (or born again or born anew)” into a transactional spiritual exchange between the sinner and Jesus.  Maybe it’s because leaning into the mystery of being born by water and spirit is so much work, we’ve reduced it to a moment of repentance at a church altar, getting our ticket to eternity punched with “the straight and narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting’s (our) reward.” (Delmar O’Donnell, O Brother Where Art Thou?)

One afternoon, during the summer session at Humboldt State University, I was on my lunch break from the Registrar’s Office and a couple of students from the Campus Bible Study group came up to me.  I was reading a book by St Theophan the Recluse called The Path of Salvation.  I was a relatively fresh convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, eager to absorb some wisdom from the early church Fathers; and it was my lunch break and I’m an introvert, so sharing my time with young students fine tuning their evangelism skills was NOT something I was all that patient to endure.  “What are you reading?”  I showed them my book. “So you’re a Christian?” “Yes….” “So would you say that you’re born again?” “Um, I’m a Christian, so….yeah.” “Well, I mean have you had a born again experience?” “Look. I’m a Christian.  I was baptized just recently after coming back to the church. I spent most of my teens and early twenties not as a Christian and chose, as an adult, to be baptized FOR THE FIRST AND ONLY TIME in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  I was dunked three times, immersion, in the name of the Father, and in the Name of the Son, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. So, yeah, I think I have being born again covered. Thanks. I have to go back to work now.”

Maybe in that situation all three of us needed a little more openness to what it means to be born again, but in John’s gospel “being born from above and believing in Jesus are clearly not so much about what one does with one’s mind as about what one does with one’s heart and one’s life.” (George Stroup, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2.) Jesus invites Nicodemus to participate in the signs that are happening, asking, “Is it possible that god can do the same old thing (bring redemption and salvation) in a new and different way?”

It has been suggested that “the point is not that this hidden faith is somehow faulty…the point is that it is too small. In this text Jesus suggests that Nicodemus’ kind of faith is incomplete, even immature. He likens his midnight encounter with Nicodemus to a child still safe in its mother’s womb. You are still gestating, Jesus implies. You must be born again and declare this faith (hidden in the cover of night) in the light of day.” (Deborah J. Kapp, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2).

Maybe something for us all to ponder is whether or not we’ve let our faith slip into a state where we need to emerge from our current state of gestation – maybe it’s not a bad idea for us all to consider that being born from anew is an ongoing process rather than just a one-time event.

One author asks us to consider the Parable of the Race*:

Once upon a time, in a land of boredom and drudgery, exciting news spread: “There is going to be a race! And all who run this race will grow strong and they’ll never be bored again!” Exciting news like this had not been heard for many a year, for people experienced little adventure in this ho hum land, beyond attending committee meetings, waiting in lines, sorting socks, and watching sitcom reruns.

Excitement grew as the day of the race drew near. Thousands gathered in the appointed town, at the appointed place. Most came to observe, skeptical about the news. “It’s too good to be true,” they said. “It’s just a silly rumor started by some teenaged troublemakers. But let’s stick around and see what happens anyway.”

Others could not resist the invitation, arriving in their running shorts and shoes. As they waited for the appointed time, they stretched and jogged in place and chattered among themselves with nervous excitement. At the appointed time they gathered at the starting line, heard the gun go off, and knew that it was time to run.

Then something very curious happened. The runners took a step or two or three across the starting line, and then abruptly stopped. One man fell to his knees, crying, “I have crossed the starting line! This is the happiest day of my life!” He repeated this again and again, and even began singing a song about how happy this day was for him.

Another woman started jumping for joy. “Yes!” she shouted, raising her fist in the air. “I am a race runner! I am finally a race-runner!” She ran around jumping and dancing, getting and giving high fives to others who shared her joy at being in the race.

Several people formed a circle and prayed, quietly thanking God for the privilege of crossing the starting line, and thanking God that they were not like the skeptics who didn’t come dressed for the race.

An hour passed, and two. Spectators began muttering; some laughed. “So what do they think this race is?” they said. “Two or three strides, then a celebration? And why do they feel superior to us? They’re treating the starting line as if it were a finish line. They’ve completely missed the point.

A few more minutes of this silliness passed. “You know,” a spectator said to the person next to her, “if they’re not going to run the race, maybe we should.”

“Why not? It’s getting boring watching them hang around just beyond the starting line. I’ve had enough boredom for one life.”

Others heard them, and soon many were kicking off their dress shoes, slipping out of their jackets, throwing all this unneeded clothing on the grass. And they ran—past the praying huddles and past the crying individuals and past the jumping high-fivers. And they found hope and joy in every step, and they grew stronger with every mile and hill. To their surprise, the path never ended—because in this race, there was no finish line. So they were never bored again.”

It’s not so much that Nicodemus was confused about whether or not the beginning of the race was the point, but the invitation Jesus offers to him, and the invitation to us, is to live a life of following the wind wherever it blows, listening for God calling us to a new place, to a new life, calling us from seeking truth in the dark of night to living it in the light of day.

* Brian D. McLaren & Tony Campolo. Adventures in Missing the Point. (Zondervan: Grand Rapid, 2003), 26-27.

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