Lent 2, A
One author tells this story: Once upon a time, there was a woman who decided to discover the meaning of life. First she read. Everything. History, philosophy, psychology, religion. She became a very learned person. She did not discover the meaning of life. She sought out smart people and asked them about the meaning of life. They had long, lively conversations, but could not agree on the meaning of life. In desperation, she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. She travelled to South America, to India, to the Holy Lands, to the European seats of learning. Everywhere, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, only they were not sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country on earth until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house–a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line.
She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.
“Yes?” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. She thought she would die of happiness.
“I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”
“Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.
“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”
“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened, and listened, and listened. As she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.
She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.
“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”
“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.” (adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation)
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. We don’t really know why it was in the night. Speculation abounds. He was a member of the pharisees, the most powerful, most orthodox group of Jewish leaders; a group that was beginning to get an inkling that this peace-loving, leper-healing, love-preaching crazy Jesus person might represent not only a disruption to their way of life, but a threat to their power. Perhaps he needed the cover of night to protect him in his curiosity quest. On the other hand Jesus was hanging out at the margins of society, essentially homeless – “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head”. Nicodemus would have been clean, groomed, proper, and he was known – “a leader of the Jews”. He openly spoke to Jesus, in complimentary tones. He would have stuck out like a sore thumb. He would have no secrets on this venture. He would have studied primarily at night. Perhaps the questions burned too deeply – he just could not wait until morning and ventured out through the darkness to find answers. Perhaps the Gospel writer John just couldn’t resist the symbolism of the Light of Jesus shining through the darkness.
Who knows why Nicodemus came, but come he did. Full of questions, full of knowledge, full of the law. So full, in fact, so very full of the law that fit his life, the life that fit his knowledge, the knowledge that fit his world, that the spiritual nourishment Jesus offers splashes to the ground.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” John 3:16. I’m not so sure it is a scripture verse for us anymore, so much as a cultural icon. It is on T-shirts and billboards, graffiti and pop music, it is printed on fast food cups and on the faces of athletes.
Jesus invites Nicodemus, invites us, to believe in him. This is not command to say the words “I believe” louder, better, or more often than the next guy over. It is not a demand that His words be blazoned (in properly abbreviated form and bold font) across our chests, our billboards, our faces. There’s nothing particularly wrong with those things, it just isn’t what he’s saying. His challenge to Nicodemus, to us, is to turn our cups upside down. Let go. Trust in Him. Ride the wind. Be born anew. Today. Tomorrow. Everyday. Become Water-Flesh-Spirit-Wind-Breath-Newborns (thanks for the phrase to D. Mark Davis)
We all love newborns. Babies turn us all into cooing, babbling, happy idiots. The babies in turn burble and suckle and smell of powder. But that is the sanitized version. That’s afterwards. In reality, brand spankin’ new life is not pretty or easy or clean. That life is squeezed forcibly into the world, molded and slimy and screaming. Spiritual rebirth is emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, and practically messy. It is easy to stand with Nicodemus, asking the practical down to earth questions and declaring the whole notion ridiculous.
Canadian theologian Jean Vanier rephrases Jesus’s proposal another way, “In the face of the certitudes, the “we know” of Nicodemus, Jesus proposes another way: they way of “not knowing,” of being born from “above.” That means becoming like a child again, a child of God, a new person, listening to the Spirit of God and letting ourselves be guided by the Spirit. … We do not know where she is leading us.”
Nicodemus appears twice more in the Gospel of John; interceding on Jesus’s behalf with the other Pharisees, and finally caring for Jesus’s body along with Joseph of Arimathea. I like to think that by the time he was risking reputation, status, life and limb to speak and care for Jesus, whose mission he could not possibly yet understand, he had emptied his cup and learned to be born anew.
To Live With the Spirit
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a listener.
It is to keep the vigil of mystery,
earthless and still.
One leans to catch the stirring of the Spirit,
strange as the wind’s will.
The soul that walks where the wind of the Spirit blows
turns like a wandering weather-vane toward love.
It may lament like Job or Jeremiah,
echo the wounded hart, the mateless dove.
It may rejoice in spaciousness of meadow
that emulates the freedom of the sky.
Always it walks in waylessness, unknowing;
it has cast down forever from its hand
the compass of the whither and the why.
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a lover.
It is becoming love, and like to Him
toward Whom we strain with metaphors of creatures:
fire-sweep and water-rush and the wind’s whim.
The soul is all activity, all silence;
and though it surges Godward to its goal,
it holds, as moving earth holds sleeping noonday,
the peace that is the listening of the soul.
-Jessica Powers 1905-1988
Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers