It’s No Wonder Nicodemus Wondered… Revisited

Below you will find a re-working of a post which was published on this site in 2012. I have had an unusually full week with multiple hospital calls and a couple of funerals and I simply haven’t had the time and space to dwell deeply in the lessons for Holy Trinity. In addition, I fly out today to join friends and colleagues at the Festival of Homiletics in Washington, D.C. Perhaps some of you will be there as well? If you would like to connect, email me at janet@dancingwiththeword.com
God bless your proclamation in the days to come.
It was on the Wednesday before Memorial Day that I stopped at the cemetery.
It was too many years after my dad died we finally got around to getting a Veteran’s marker for my dad’s grave.  Perhaps you know what I’m talking about — the kind you simply push into the ground that holds a flag. I stopped by as I wanted to get it in before Memorial Day. 
Now normally when I stop I am alone in that vast windy place.  This time though, a couple of afternoons before the holiday, there were others.  An older man and a couple of older women were kneeling at a gravestone several yards away, cleaning it off and putting new flowers into the vase.  And just two stones down from my dad’s was an old man.  I glanced in his direction as I adjusted the flag in the stand. And then I looked again for I realized that he was down on all fours and he wasn’t getting up easily. So I stepped toward him and asked if I could give him a hand.  He hesitated as he looked up at me but finally he rather sheepishly agreed that he could use some help.  Only even between the two of us we couldn’t quite make it.  After several attempts, I asked him to wait and I ventured over towards the threesome and asked if they wouldn’t help.  They quickly dropped what they were doing and the gentleman walked ahead and using both arms managed to steady the old man and get him to his feet.  One of us reached over and handed him his cane and the two older women began clucking over him, assuring him that the same thing sometimes happens to them as well.  As they went back to their own loved ones’ graves, I paused to visit with the old man before we parted ways.  He showed me the silk flowers he had placed on the graves of his aunt and uncle and on those of his parents. Then he walked a step away and we paused at the grave of his wife, Ruth. As I looked down at the place where he would someday lay beside her and noted the date on the gravestone, I realized that he was 96 years old.  In the same moment he said, “I guess I must be getting old.  I really do know better than to get down like that anymore…”
I’m not quite there, of course, for he has more than 40 years on me, but on most days I find myself rolling over to my knees when I’m getting up from the mat in my exercise class for my joints are also simply not what they used to be.  In fact, I cannot imagine that even knee replacement (which, no doubt is somewhere in my future) will make them as resilient as they were before I started regularly hitting the gym floor with them in high school volleyball.  No, while we can delay aging with regular exercise and a healthy diet, the years do still catch up.  And much of the time it appears there is no turning back.
And so it is we meet up with Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson for this Holy Trinity Sunday.
  • Nicodemus who is sneaking around in the dark trying to get to Jesus without anyone else seeing him.
  • Nicodemus who is apparently so curious he can do no other.
  • Nicodemus, who is evidently not so young himself, whose knees might just be creaking, too.
  • Nicodemus who responds with wonder or skepticism, “How can anyone be born again when he has grown old?” when Jesus says, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” 
  • Indeed, is it any wonder that Nicodemus wonders?

To be sure, Nicodemus’s question was entirely logical.  There is a normal progression to things. In fact, contrary to all appearances, I am told we begin to age as soon as we first breathe on our own. We know from hard experience that knees and other body parts wear out and there comes a time when there is no turning back. We know that where I met a 96-year-old tending his family’s graves is where we all one day will be.  Indeed, what Jesus speaks of here simply does not fit with much of what you and I have learned from hard earned experience.  The hope he offers runs contrary to most everything else the world has taught us to be so.  

And perhaps it is so that it is impossible to comprehend the promise Jesus utters now. Impossible unless we have already begun to come to terms with the certain truth that what Jesus speaks of now is not our own doing, but God’s. 

For being born again, whether it be that first physical birth we all experience but cannot remember, or the small and large re-births that happen along the way in minds and hearts and spirits, this ‘being born’ is not something we do, but is something that must be done to us and for us.  It is always, ever, the work of God, the gift of God.  

For think with me of times when we have known the truth of this:

  • Indeed, don’t we know something of this in the easing of pain after a long suffered grief?  To be sure, we can do all we can to heal, but in the end we know it is a gift far beyond our own doing.
  • And again, don’t we know something of this in the wonder of physical wounds healed?  Oh, we can follow doctor’s orders, but we know the healing which often seems to come ‘naturally,’ has nothing to do with anything we could do.
  • And oh,  I expect I knew something of this that Wednesday afternoon in a cemetery some years back when I was lifted out of my own private thoughts to see the plight of another. And perhaps others experienced something of this as well as they were invited to tend to the simple needs of a stranger, reminding them that we are all bound up with one another in ways both simple and profound. It seemed to me that some sense of hopefulness was born again between us in that moment as  simple kindness was shared and it seemed all beyond our own doing, our being together for that purpose in that single moment in time.

And this gift, this being born from above?  It is so much more than a hand up to stand on legs weakened by time and age.  It is the gift of new life and renewed hope and fresh beginnings. Not only in the next life, but in this one right now today. 

Births and rebirths?  We can only receive them, celebrate them and seek to lead lives worthy of them.

And oh, we cannot know for sure, but I like to believe that Nicodemus eventually did just that as evidenced by his spending a small fortune on the spices in which Jesus would be wrapped for burial within a linen cloth. (John 19:38-42)  Certainly Nicodemus eventually did just that.

  • What do you make of Nicodemus’s question?  What questions might you have asked if you had been present for that conversation with Jesus that night?
  • Who are the curious ones, like Nicodemus, who risk to come to hear about Jesus where you live and serve?  What words are needed to help make sense of these gifts of God for those for whom this story is new? 
  • What does ‘being born from above’ mean to you?  When and where and how have you experienced this gift of God?

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