March 5, 2023 - The Second Sunday in Lent
When I gave birth to our first-born child, it was a long labor. Twenty-three hours long, to be precise. At the end of the whole ordeal, when George had presented himself to the world, and I, too, was presentable, my brother ushered my father into the birthing suite.
Now, because it was a complicated birth, there was a team of 11 medical personnel in the room. Not to mention my sister and my sister-in-law. With a cooler. For snacks. In case the thing went on—which it did.
So, there is this priceless footage of my father taking in the scene. As he scans the birthing suite, sees the room full of people in white coats, the monitor, my own doctor, our family members, myself, and a very new George, as he sees all this, his facial expression goes from a smile to an open-mouthed gasp. As he walked back down the hall, he pronounced to my brother, “No more babies in my lifetime.” As if that were up to him.
Sometimes, we are just not ready for new birth. It’s messy. It’s scary. And, it’s mysterious.
Nicodemus was not ready for the new birth Jesus described to him. How could he have been? It made no sense. For an old man to go back into the womb. What did that even mean? What he wanted was eternal life. He did not go into the night seeking new birth, but rather, to extend the life he already had. Or perhaps to deepen the spiritual quality of his life.
But, the only way, Jesus told him, to extend his life was to be born again. It was a heavenly thing, Jesus said, not an earthly thing.
John 3:16 is one of the most over-exposed portions of the gospel we can find. Like a photograph left too long in the developing solution in the old days before digital cameras, this gospel has been exposed to the point at which its original image can hardly still be discerned.
To hear this text, we must peel back the layers of overfamiliarity with it. And approach it with wonder.
There is a painting of this scene between Nicodemus and Jesus painted by an artist in Cameroon, Africa. In it, Jesus, robed in red, responds to Nicodemus. The most notable aspect of the painting for me is the light. It moves across Jesus’ face and upper arm, making the unseen candlelight evident.
I appreciate this detail because it brings the viewer back with one glance to the initial context of the exchange, namely a secret meeting in the night by candlelight. A meeting for the purpose of seeking wisdom.
Little is known about Nicodemus. He appears only three times in the New Testament. Here, then later to argue that Jesus deserved a trial before being condemned, and finally, as the one to anoint Jesus’ body at death.
While Nicodemus, a learned man, could not risk meeting this simple rabbi in broad daylight, his fascination drove him to seek Jesus out in the secrecy of the darkness. In the flickering candlelight, he seeks to understand the mystery that is pulling him toward this controversial teacher. So, what does Nicodemus glean?
“For God so loved the world that he gave.” Had Jesus ended there, it would have been enough, we might argue.
The foundation of this text is there in the first phrase. “God so loved the world.” So much that he gave. Jesus tells Nicodemus that at the heart of the Divine human relationship are two things: love and gift.
And the next phrase--"his only begotten Son.” Not just any giving. “Begotten” is a phrase used in both Greek philosophy and New Testament writings to mean, at the very least “unique.” God gave, then, that which could not be repeated or replaced from within his own being. The most intimate gift.
“That whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
This is the tricky part, which has come to mean, if you give some sort of assent to the premise that Jesus is God’s only son, you will live forever. Otherwise, you will perish. And more recently, has been added—and you’ll burn in hell.
The context for this verse appears two verses earlier when Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the servant in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This is an allusion to Numbers 21 where the serpent bit the Israelites after they complained. When they looked up at the bronze serpent, they could live. Jesus on the cross will become the completion of this image.
Belief in him has to do with keeping one’s eyes fixed on him in the midst of persecution, trusting that his gift of himself can save you. The image of the serpent helps us get this because the Israelites were saved, as long as they were looking upon it. This isn’t like holding your breath in a tunnel—where, if you let up for one second, you’ve lost the dare. It is, rather the path of giving oneself, one’s full being and attention, to that which transforms one in the midst of a real challenge. This understanding of belief is akin to being focused, being intentional.
There may not be any single thing more important to our spiritual health than developing the capacity to keep our eyes on God in the center of real challenge.
Three years after my father visited the birthing suite and declared, “no more babies in my lifetime,” I went to see him. “Daddy,” I said, “I’m afraid I must defy you.” “What?” he asked. “Well, three years ago, you declared no more babies could be born in this family in your lifetime. And, I’ve got to tell you, another one is on the way. And I want you to be here for the birth.” Eight months later, John was born. And my father lived to see him into this world.
We do not control birth. You and I cannot control God’s gift of a new spiritual birth any more than my father could control another physical birth in his family.
It comes as gift—a gift from above. And, it comes not in a neat package but rather in the center of hard labor, of messes, in the center of our fear and unknowing. There, where we are cracked open. In those places, when we keep our eyes on God and our hearts attuned to his love, we receive the gift of new life.
We do not see Nicodemus cracked open on this night when he questions Jesus. I imagine he was not entirely unlike my father—just wanting to declare that this new birth of which Jesus spoke was not going to happen in his lifetime.
But there comes another night, one where he again meets Jesus in the darkness. This time, he meets Jesus’ lifeless body in the tomb. With spices and oil, he anoints him. There, in his grief, in his wondering what would happen next. There, in the night, tending the body of this one he had come to love, perhaps this is when the words Jesus had spoken to him on a night long ago finally made sense. When we meet our grief with full presence and open hearts, we make room for new life.
There are times, like Nicodemus had in his first encounter with Jesus, when we want to declare: “This makes no sense. Times when we want to say, like my father said, “no more babies in my lifetime.” Or, put another way, “no more birth.” It is simply too messy, too much risk, too hard.
But, it doesn’t work that way. We are born again not because we are ready, but in spite of our disbelief, our fear, our resistance. Still, God’s new birth breaks in, shattering our preconceived ideas, upending our orderly lives.
You, my beloved friends, know a thing or two about being present in the nighttime, wondering how on earth a new birth could be possible after such loss and division. You have walked with courage in the night for many years. You have loved this church; you have grieved the division in this community. You have, truly, anointed the body of Christ, grieving the death of so much that could have been.
And I wonder if through your loving, tender anointing, even through tears, through anger, through messiness and confusion, I wonder if through your tender presence to this community you love so well, you have found the new birth Jesus gives to all who love him.
“For God so loved the world that he gave.” Had Jesus ended there, it would have been enough. For he has loved us. And he has given, more than we could ever ask or imagine. And you have done the same. Here, for years.
But he does not stop there. He goes on… “He gave his only begotten son.” That which was most precious to him. You have walked in this way, giving what is most precious to you, for so very long. Even in the center of your own pain, still you have showed up to this community and you have given.
So, I want to say as we worship together for the first time in this beautiful historic church, keep doing what you are doing. Keep loving this world of yours as God loves you, and keep giving. And know, that while you may wish to declare in the spirit of my father—“no more babies in my lifetime!” No more messy birth—be forewarned. The Holy Spirit will defy that wish. And He will give you the birth from above over and over again in this beautiful place we call Cheraw.
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent offered at St. Mark's, Port Royal (February 26, 2023) and at Porter-Gaud School (March 2, 2023)
One of my favorite memories from our son George’s toddler years was an afternoon when things got very quiet in our house. Now, when things are too quiet and there’s a toddler living with you, that’s not good. So, I went hunting. “George, where are you?” I called. No answer. I ascended the stairs and opened the door into our library. There, sitting on the floor cross legged, buck naked, was George. Scattered around him were tiny silver wrappers. Hershey’s kisses wrappers. A whole bag’s worth. George looked at me, his face and hands covered in chocolate. He said nothing. He looked at me, eyes wide open. He waited to see what would happen next.
Welcome to Lent. Welcome to the wilderness. The place where God sees our moments of abandon, our moments of ache, our moments of questioning. The place where we wait to see what will happen next.
In our gospel lesson today, we find Jesus in the wilderness. There, away from all the usual props of life, Jesus is tested. He stares down Satan, who tempts him with all manner of shortcuts and diversions from his life purpose. Turn these stones into bread, hurl yourself from this cliff, kneel down and worship evil.
Just before the wilderness, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. And God said, as Jesus rose out of the water, “Behold, my son, my beloved one. With him I am well pleased.” Then, right after this intimate moment between the Father and the Son, Jesus is hurled headlong into the wilderness.
One moment, Jesus is shining and full of promise at his baptism and the very next moment, Jesus is tested, challenged, in the wilderness with temptation lurking.
There is a beautiful whole between these two stories. In the first, story, baptism tells us where we begin this journey. It is the moment when we are marked by the Holy Spirit, sealed as Christ’s own forever. A moment when the people we love are so proud of us Then, the wilderness is where we test the strength of that love. It’s where we wonder if they really do still love us, now that we have failed them; now that we have done this thing, or not done that thing they expected of us. Wilderness is where the love becomes real.
Does that mean God designs Satan’s challenges as a proving ground for love? I don’t believe that’s how it works. I do believe there is freedom in this world, and that includes freedom for the evil forces to do their worst. God allows that freedom.
It is normal to doubt God in moments when we feel the force of that evil. It is human to doubt. God engages doubt. God will wrestle with us, as he did with Jacob. God will meet us in the nighttime when we question, as he did Nicodemus, God will greet us in our deepest sorrow, as he did Mary Magdalene. God is strong enough to handle our doubts.
When we see events like the war in the Ukraine, the shootings in our own streets and in our schools, the hatred that takes a myriad of forms around our globe, the illnesses that ravage people we love, the cost of mistakes people make, the arguments in our own families—it all can make us wonder if there is any reason for hope.
In the season of Lent, we intentionally reflect on these untamed parts of human life—the places where we feel scared, abandoned, threatened, unsafe.
Sometimes we try to tame Lent. We worry only over what we will give up or add to our lives. Chocolate being at the top of many lists. And some people add disciplines—they pray more, or study the bible daily, or exercise regularly, or eat brussel sprouts—unless you’re like me and already love them—then, it doesn’t count. Or some people commit to do something helpful for someone in need each week.
All of these can be good things to do in this season. But, not just as exercises in self restraint or willpower. Our Lenten disciplines do serve a purpose, but they are not just another form of New Year’s resolutions.
Giving up things or adding mindful disciplines in our lives serves a deeper purpose. They help us return to what really matters. Like when you stop everything to go for a long walk with a friend, or to go sit by the sea with your family.
Sometimes we go to the wilderness by choice, through our disciplines. Other times, like Jesus, we are hurled there against our will. Like, when tragedy strikes. Like, when sin or grief overcome us. No matter how we get there, in the wilderness, we find what really matters.
For, in the wilderness, we face the hard things without distraction. And the hard things bring us back to what matters most.
In our family, we’ve had some hard things this past year—loss that has brought us to our knees, illnesses that threaten the lives of our beloveds, griefs that are hard to carry. These things have indeed brought us back to what matters most. And we’ve found what matters most is really quite simple.
Simple, but not easy. What matters most is expressed well at Jesus’ baptism. “Behold my beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Cherishing. Cherishing is what matters most. It’s another way to say “unconditional love.” To be cherished, and to cherish. This is what we were made for.
In the wildernesses of this life, there is real danger. It is possible to get lost there. But it is also the place where we can find our way back. Back to what really matters.
It’s not in the moments of celebration and victory that we return to love most readily. It is, rather, when we are broken, when we are caught up short. Those are the moments when, like a toddler with a room full of chocolate wrappers, our eyes widen, our pace slows, and we wait to see what happens next.
On that afternoon in our library, when I found George, here is what happened next. Just after he looked at me, with eyes wide open, I looked back at him. My eyes grew wide, too, and then, I smiled. The beauty of that child, even and perhaps especially in his moment of abandonment to that chocolate, overcame me. And I cherished him. As he saw my smile, he began to smile. He realized all was well. This momentary giving way to the chocolate. It was okay. While the aftermath was not pretty, we both knew in that moment of our smiling at each other that we could work with the pile of wrappers, the stomach full of chocolate, and the moment of abandon that had led to the scene.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m me. Not God. Which means, for every story like this one, there are 10 more stories when I lost it. When what he got was not a smile, not cherishing.
We are, you and I, human. We are not capable of cherishing one another every single time we find ourselves in the wilderness, or facing a floor full of kisses’ wrappers. But, here is the beautiful thing: we are becoming more capable every day. That is what this Christian journey is all about—becoming capable of cherishing one another like God cherishes us.
The wilderness is where we learn how to love. It is a place of loss, a place where we doubt and rail and wonder if we are alone. It is there, at the wild edge of this life, that we return to what matters most.
So, welcome to the wilderness. May you face the things that scare you, may you sit with the grief you bear, the failure you fear, the questions you bring.
And, sitting cross legged, may you be greeted by the One who loves you just as you are, smiling at you. Cherishing you. And, in the center of all of it, in the very center of your whole beautiful, messy life, may you, with eyes wide open, smile back.
Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The Rt. Reverend Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was elected by the Diocese of South Carolina in May 2021, and consecrated as a bishop on October 2, 2021.