Do you know what I like about the Gospel passage this morning?
I like the fact that Nicodemus wasn't afraid to ask Jesus to explain what he meant. Nicodemus was a respected leader of the Pharisee community. By the words and actions of Jesus, Nicodemus recognized that, at the very least, Jesus was a man of God. He also realized that coming to hear the message Jesus had would not be acceptable to his own contemporaries. So he came to Jesus after dark. His curiosity, his search for understanding, was so strong that Nicodemus ventured out of his comfort zone to seek answers. Even sitting with Jesus, he didn't just nod and smile and pretend to take it all in. It is obvious from the story as it is recorded that Nicodemus didn't "get it". So he kept asking Jesus questions - he kept asking for clarification.
Many of us have questions about what exactly it means to live in God's kingdom. Often times when our lives are not on the smooth and easy, those questions come to us in the middle of the night. In the dark of night when Light seems so far away, we ask God the hard questions - the why, the how - questions. The questions that we are almost embarrassed or ashamed to ask because maybe, just maybe, that by asking, it might mean we are not good enough Christians. Those are the questions that come from deep within our sorrow, our fear, our torment.
But hopefully we also have questions that come in the Light of Day. Questions that come out of what we hear, what we read, and what we see in the world around us. I am thankful that in the Episcopal Church we are not only allowed to ask questions but in fact are encouraged to ask questions. The Book of Common Prayer sets forth a pattern of questions and answers. Our Baptismal Covenant follows that pattern. The Catechism, located near the back of the Book of Common Prayer, is set out in a series of questions and answers.
I think that one of the most important questions we, as Christians, can ask is how do we make all of what we learn from the Old Testament readings and everything we hear about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection relevant to our lives right here and now. This is the sign of Christians striving to answer the call we have been given to live as holy men and holy women.
Some of the questions we often shy away from are those questions we fear the answers to. Questions that we already know the answers to but we don't want to admit we know the answers.
Answers that may make us squirm or call us out of our comfort zones. Questions where we reveal our innermost desire to share in the work God has given us to do.
God, what would you have me do today?
God, how do I love that person the way you love me?
God, how do I feed the hungry or clothe the naked when my own resources seem so few?
God, how do I strive to seek and serve you in others?
God, how do I respect the dignity of all when I so often do not feel respected?
It seems to me that the season of Lent is a very appropriate time to ask ourselves those questions - to ask God those questions.
Today is only the 12th day of Lent. Easter is still four weeks away.
On Ash Wednesday we were invited into a Holy Lent. How has it been working out for you?
Do you wake up in the morning thinking how this is just one more day when you will have to struggle to survive without chocolate or caffeine or time on the computer or whatever it is that you decided to give up for Lent?
Or do you wake up on these Lenten mornings full of anticipation of the new vistas that will open up before you as you walk this journey with Jesus towards the cross and beyond?
I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with giving something up. It isn't the giving up or the self-denial that is important though. When we do give up something or when we take on a Lenten discipline - and I hesitate to use the word discipline - what is important about that act is the desire to seek a new nearness with God - to seek out a different path that leads us closer to where we want to be and who we want to be.
We are learning a new hymn here at St. Andrew's during this Lenten season. Each week we are singing two verses of Hymn 145 'Now Quit Your Care'. The words were written by Percy Dearmer. The second verse which we are singing today contains these words:
To bow the head in sackcloth and in ashes,
or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent's goal;
but to be led to where God's glory flashes,
God's beauty to come near.
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear;
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.
I believe that we humans have a pretty good idea of our own wretchedness. Sometimes we may be fairly accurate in that assessment and at other times we may over-exaggerate just how wretched we really are. What-ever form of self-flagellation we use to beat ourselves up over our failure to be perfect, I don't believe that is what God desires for us. God loves us so passionately and so profoundly that despite our human weaknesses, we are called into relationship with God over and over again. God asks the question of us - Will you walk with me?
To quote Scott Gunn and Tim Schenck - whose names some of you might recognize from Lent Madness - which is one of my favorite ways to observe Lent - I offer the following:
"This season of Lent is about the journey. We won’t get it all right, but in trying, we will gain something for ourselves. Above all, we must remember that this season is about recommitting to following Jesus, to follow him with lives of worship, prayer, study, and service to others. Lent invites us to set aside unimportant things and to focus on what matters most. The Book of Common Prayer describes Lent as a season to “prepare with joy for the Paschal feast.”
I would also like to share several excerpts from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Shori's pastoral letter for Lent.
"The word “Lent” means “lengthen” and it’s about the days getting longer. The early Church began to practice a season of preparation for those who would be baptized at Easter, and before too long other members of the Christian community joined those candidates for baptism as an act of solidarity.
It was a season during which Christians and future Christians learned about the disciplines of the faith - prayer and study and fasting and giving alms, sharing what they have.
But the reality is that, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, the lengthening days were often times of famine and hunger, when people had used up their winter food stores and the spring had not yet produced more food to feed people. Acting in solidarity with those who go hungry is a piece of what it means to be a Christian. To be a follower of Jesus is to seek the healing of the whole world."
Bishop Katharine continues: I invite you this Lent to think about your Lenten practice as an exercise in solidarity with all that is - with other human beings and with all of creation. That is most fundamentally what Jesus is about. He is about healing and restoring that broken world. "
As we ask God the questions of what would you have me do today - what would you have me do during this season of Lent, we might be particularly attuned to answers that call us to stand in solidarity - to stand out of love - with our brothers and sisters.
Perhaps those answers might mean extra items placed in the food basket, Perhaps what we are called to give up are angry words and snarky comments. Perhaps the answer to the question might be inviting someone to come to St. Andrew's with you. Perhaps it is actually mailing a card or making a telephone call to someone rather than just having the good intention to do so. Perhaps it is holding out our hand and saying Yes, God, I will walk with you.
We hear of Nicodemus only twice more in John's Gospel, which is the only Gospel in which Nicodemus is mentioned. When plans are being made to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus questions the pharisees about their intent to judge Jesus without first giving him a hearing as was required by law. Then again we hear of Nicodemus after Jesus has been taken down from the cross. Nicodemus brings myrrh and aloes with which to prepare Jesus' body for burial.
We don't know anything of what happened to Nicodemus or how he lived his life after that brief period of time in which he was affected by Jesus' ministry.
But I would like to think that he continued asking questions and seeking to understand what it meant to live God's kingdom.
I would like to think that he perhaps joined a first century version of EFM where study and reflection help make connections between scripture, church history, theology and every day life.
I am certain of one thing, that his questions to Jesus on that dark night forever changed his life.
I join with Bishop Katharine by saying "May you have a blessed Lent this year, and may it yield greater light in the world."