Lent 2—Year A
March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
In the Oscar nominated movie “Lion”, based on the true story from the book A Long Way Home, a poor five year old Indian boy named Saroo gets tired of waiting for his 15 year old brother to return to pick him up at the village train station, goes to look for food on an empty train in the station. He finds something to eat and then curls up on a bench and goes to sleep. Turns out this train, which is out of service, takes off and carries Saroo hundreds of miles to Calcutta where they speak a different language. He seeks protection with other street kids and then is taken in by a woman who may be trying to sell him into slavery. Finally, he ends up in a reputable orphanage, and from there he is adopted in 1987 by an Australian couple living in Hobart, Tasmania.
Saroo then flies to Tasmania to join his new family. At the airport this couple accepts Saroo. Here’s the thing: In theological and Biblical terms what they do in accepting him is called justification.
They justify him as they reckon him to be part of their family. In our reading from Romans today Paul tells us that Abraham has the same experience: God calls Abraham into God’s covenant and “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” That is, God accepts Abraham as if he were already worthy to be a member of the covenant—as if he were already a member of God’s community, God’s family.
There is nothing in Abraham that earns this or makes this happen, it’s God choice, God’s decision based on the nature of Triune God. Likewise, there is nothing in Saroo, that gets him included in his new family. The couple alone makes this happen.
Saroo does have a task, though: to practice trusting his new parents and trusting that his new status as a member of their family is real. Day by day Saroo grows in his ability to accept their acceptance. He grows up in this strange new world of safety, plenty, and great love.
It is quite hard for a five year old to make this type of adjustment, but in many ways it’s harder to make a similar transition the older we get: Nicodemus is a Pharisee and leader, but Jesus rocks his mental landscape by inviting him into a Spirit-birthed life.
“How can I start over”, he asks? I’m a leader of my people and I’ve got established habits and practices that have served me well for many years. I am content with my place in the world. I’m content with the wine of my life and the wineskins that hold it work just fine.”
“Why exchange my settled life for a life powered by the Wind of God blowing through this young rabbi?”
Maybe he says:
“Jesus I know you are from God, otherwise you couldn’t do the sign and wonders and healings you do, but here’s what I want, Jesus: I want the blessings of your kingdom but I don’t want to actually have to live in that kingdom of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
He says, “Put some fizz in my wine but not enough to pop the cork.”
“Jesus, I want the power without the program. I want new success without losing old status.”
In our language he is saying, “I want baptism without the Holy Spirit, I want confirmation without the Living Christ. I want Holy Communion without Jesus calling on me into discipleship to love the world as he loves the world.”
Nicodemus is no fool because he knows where the Jesus story is headed. In John 7 he tells the leaders to talk to Jesus before they condemn him, but they don’t listen, so Jesus ends up dead on the cross and Nicodemus along with joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus in a new tomb in a garden.
As he buries Jesus Nicodemus may be glad he didn’t get too caught up in this Spirit-birthed life. Maybe it’s better to stay stuck and safe than to be unstuck and unsafe.
In the modern church this new birth is marketed in the different ways:
Some churches market new birth in the Spirit as the end of your problems and the beginning of your prosperity. Let the Spirit run your life and it will be sunshine and roses all the way up—praise the Lord!
Other churches market faith in Christ as an administrative box to be checked that doesn’t involve anything as messy and embarrassing as a birth.
Others say you must have a “born again” experience and be able to tell the date and time that you had it. In the church in North Carolina this was exemplified by Hobart Brown, who ran Brownie Bakery where he made fantastic glazed donuts. Hobart, along with his wife Flora Belle, were leaders in the Charismatic wing of our church. Hobart knew exactly when the Holy Spirit flooded his life. He brought many men deeper into their faith in Jesus Christ. Hobart was loud and boisterous, but loved Triune God and neighbor with all his human heart.
I know others who lived the spirit-birthed life and never had one big experience, but who were faithful disciples for decades and who quietly grew toward the full stature of Christ.
I think here of Kack Hodges who grew up in the parish where her father was the church organist back in the 1940s. Kack was a traditional Episcopalian who never missed worship or a chance to serve others. She was a lover and a giver.
The point here is not to argue which path is right because both can lead to the fruit of the Spirit. As Jesus teaches, you know a tree by its fruit and not by its advertising.
Both paths have one thing in common: the desire to accept the acceptance of Christ and the willingness to surrender to the Holy Spirit as She makes us into friends and servants of Christ.
But let’s be clear, this is not a pain free adventure in an idealized utopia. When we are birthed from above into Jesus’ family, the Spirit leads us into the wilderness to face the darkness in our souls, so we can heal and become a blessing to others.
For Saroo, after 20 years this led to an inner struggle to find his home village and his mother and siblings. He didn’t remember the proper name of his village but he estimated it was within a certain distance from Calcutta, and he remembered an unusual water tower at the local train station. So he spends thousands of hours with Google Earth looking for home.
In the book and the movie The Shack the journey of new birth for Mack Phillips takes him back into the hell of his abusive childhood at the hands of an alcoholic father and into the deeper hell of the violent death of his youngest daughter. The only way Mack can make this journey is in the company of Triune God. I was blown away by the book and cried through the movie as Triune God gently leads Mack through the cave of his pain into a new life of peace and purpose.
In the summer after first grade my father got transferred from Knoxville to Atlanta so we had to move. I can clearly see that last day just before we back out of the driveway: I jump out of the car and grab onto the fence, sobbing that I don’t want to leave. My father gets out of the car, peels me off the fence, and gently throws me into the backseat with my brothers.
Most of us are willing to hang onto the pain of an old life that we think we control, instead of surrendering to a new life that God controls.
We may enjoy a cool breeze in the summer, but who wants to be at the mercy of a high wind that blows where it wills?
If we have never accepted the acceptance of Jesus Christ now is always a good time to say “Yes” to God.
If we accepted that acceptance years ago, every day the Spirit calls us every morning to believe again such a wonderful thing is true and then to take up our brokenness and follow Jesus into Triune God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish” in the darkness but may live with our new family in the radical love poured out by the Spirit.