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.
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.