Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday in Lent.
I lift up my eyes to the hills–
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The Bible does not say why Nicodemus came to see Jesus.
Perhaps Nicodemus himself did not entirely know.
He comes, not even with a question, but with an observation—no one can do what Jesus does without being close to God. The comment hangs in the air. That is all Nicodemus has, in the dark of night. A sense that God is somewhere nearby.
Now Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a religious man. A scholar, someone who knows the law and the prophets, who knows the edicts of God and the rituals of the synagogue. He is the kind of man who is supposed to have it all together. The kind of man who is supposed to have all the answers.
And yet somehow, he is still lost.
We think of the wilderness as some great vast desert out there, that other people in cargo shorts or scarves and turbans struggle through. But the truth is we can end up in the wilderness even in our church clothes, even while we drive our cars straight to 710 Western Reserve. The wilderness isn’t just out there. It can be inside us, when we don’t know where we’re going, what to believe, what questions to even ask.
We say that we want to walk with God, but sometimes we’d settle just for a guidepost pointing God’s direction. Anything to show us the way through.
Journalist Sara Miles did not see herself as part of any wilderness. She belonged to a group of friends she called “cynical, hilarious, and over-educated,” middle-class San Franciscans who were mostly staunch atheists, although they might appreciate the spiritual side of yoga now and then. She did not recognize the wilderness in her own grief over the loss of close friends to AIDs, nor the sudden death of her father. She did not recognize the wilderness in her anger over the violent revolutions and wars she had covered as a journalist. She did not recognize the wilderness even in her own gratitude for the blessings in her life, gratitude that had nowhere to go and no one to be grateful to.
Until, out of a journalist’s sheer curiosity, she stepped into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, and took communion for the first time, and had what one would typically describe as a conversion moment—a real spiritual inbreaking, a sudden sense of the divine. In most stories, this would be the climax—the moment where everything makes sense, and Sara steps out of the wilderness into the bright shining sunlight.
But that is not how it went.
In her own words, her conversion was “outrageous and terrifying.”
“I still can’t explain my first communion,” she wrote. “It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. …
All the way home, shocked, I scrambled for explanations. Maybe I was hypersuggestible, and being surrounded by believers had been enough to push me, momentarily, into accepting their superstitions: What I’d felt was just a sort of contact high. Probably my tears were just pent-up sadness, accumulated over a long, hard decade… Really, the whole thing, in fact, must have been about emotion…
Yet that impossible word, Jesus, lodged in me like a crumb. I said it over and over to myself, as if repetition would help me understand. I had not idea what it meant; I didn’t know what to do with it. But it was realer than any thought of mine, or even any subjective emotion: It was as real as the actual taste of bread and wine.”
For Sara, meeting Jesus for the first time was not about escaping the wilderness but about being drawn further in. Further into her confusion, her doubts, her fear that her socially and politically sophisticated friends would ostracize her for her newfound fascination with faith. Her conversion did not answer her questions, but raised thousands upon thousands more, brought her face to face with strangers she did not like, risks she would have preferred not to take, and a wilderness of hungry people searching for scraps just like her.
There are many famous verses in this passage—you must be born again, for God so loved the world, eternal life—yet there is one we almost always gloss over. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus here is referencing one of the stranger stories from the Old Testament, from the twenty-first chapter of Numbers. The Israelites have been wandering in the desert, and despite the fact that God has fed and watered and protected and even given them military victories, they complain that there is no bread, no water, and that the food they have tastes terrible. They want certainty, well-stocked grocery store shelves, a clear path to the comfortable life, no more of this wilderness wandering.
And so God sends snakes to bite them, to remind them, I think that even the wilderness, it’s blessings and dangers, are within God’s command. Only then does their faith turn back to God, to prayer, and God tells Moses to make a bronze snake on a pole and lift it high, and anyone who looked at the pole, even if they were bitten, would live.
It’s an odd story, an uncomfortable story. The snake still did not save the people from the wilderness, from thirst and hunger and exhaustion. But it did save them from the worst the wilderness had to offer, from death, from annihilation. And so Jesus offers himself as the snake lifted up in the wilderness, a guidepost for God’s mercy, and a promise that the wilderness, even when it fills us with hunger and thirst and despair, will not get us in the end.
Nicodemus did not come to Jesus with a list of preset questions. Sara Miles did not search for churches with a sheet full of fill in the blank. They simply came, to receive whatever Jesus might offer to them.
Aside from John 3:16, the most famous phrase in this scripture is “born again,” a mainstay of the evangelical Christian tradition. I admit that I have often looked askance at those who insist on the “born again experience,” as if we all must check the same box, with cookie cutter altar calls or dramatic stories of personal salvation. But the older I get, and the more I know the world—in truth, the more I know me, the more I know I must be born again, undergo deep, soul-shaping change, over and over and over.
But the beautiful thing—the grace in rebirth—is that it is not our doing. A friend shared this week that years ago, his pastor asked him how hard he worked the first time he was born. That brought the realization that he himself didn’t work, but his mom sure did labor. The pastor then invited him to trust that God would be faithful in his new birth as well, to relax and to trust the work of the Spirit.
The winds howl something fierce in the wilderness, and they can be frightening. They whisper doubts and fears to us, ask us if we’ll ever find our way, if God is even real, if there’s any hope for this world, if we’re worth anything. But if you listen closely, the wind of the spirit blows through the wilderness too, calling and free, and what it says is that you are loved, so dearly and so much, by the God who keeps your going out and your coming in, now and forevermore.
If you are in the wilderness, I have to tell you: clear answers will not be forthcoming. Nor will fully stocked shelves of your favorite snacks, or maps with the exits highlighted in yellow. But keep going, and you might find yourself shaped by the winds and sands into a whole new person.
Sara Miles eventually opened a food pantry at her church, a ministry she sees as an extension of the communion that brought her her first taste of Jesus’ love. The people of the pantry are in the wilderness too—struggling with debts and bills, illnesses and language barriers, unemployment and homelessness. Yet she finds in their generosity towards her that she is opened up, again and again and again, to God’s big, generous heart.
In becoming Christian, Sara had learned that the questions might never be answered. That it wasn’t “an argument [she]could win, or even resolve. It wasn’t a thesis. It was a mystery that [she] was finally willing to swallow.”
I am not sure that Nicodemus left this conversation with Jesus with any more clarity than when he first opened the door. But I imagine that he was left with truths to chew on the rest of his life—truths that we are still chewing on today.
Even as we walk through the wilderness of life, we remember in God there is always the possibility of rebirth. That God’s spirit blows as wild and unpredictable as the wind. That God so loved the world—our world, this world—that he came right down into it as a carpenter’s son from Nazareth, a human with a body like ours and a heart like no one has ever seen.
Sometimes the wilderness is inside us, swirling with confusion and danger. But we take these truths like sweet manna, bits of hope and guidance that seem to come from nowhere, and we press on.
For God’s love lifted up to light our way, I give thanks. Amen.