| Genesis 12:1-4
|Sun, March 3, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Night. It is a place of danger, a time to fear. Humans have been afraid of the dark from the beginning of time. It is the home of terrible creatures and horrible stories. We understand when Elie Weisel titles his childhood experience of deportation to Auschwitz with this single word: "Night". Just look at concerns on campus. Right up at the top of the list is the night ... lights at night, escorts at night, danger at night. Every woman knows that the night is a time of danger, a time of fear. And not only outside, but inside as well ... inside their well lit homes, behind their deadbolted doors, wondering what kind of a mood he is in tonight ... worried that the slightest misstep might bring on another night of bruising rage. It is no accident that we 'moderns' call past centuries of terrible violence the 'Dark Ages'. We know that the night is a place of danger, a time to fear. We only wonder if future generations will look back on our 'modern' twentieth century civilization and summarize it in a word: 'Night'.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. It is no accident. John's gospel describes the world in a word -"night" - and the gospel in another word - "light". Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, drawn by the light of the world, yet relying on the cover of darkness to protect him from trouble. The night, place of terror and fear, can also be a place to hide. For people like Nicodemus, who live on the margins of two different communities, the night provides a kind of safety. Because if the others discover that he has taken up with Jesus then he will have to burn his bridges, there will be no turning back, they will not have him. He is like the woman who quietly requested that Bible studies be held on Tuesdays whenever possible ... and that they be over before 9:00 pm. It seemed a strange request to some ... she wouldn't tell them why ... but over the phone she quietly said: "He's out with his friends every Tuesday and doesn't come home til 9:30. If he ever finds out that I am at the church then I'll never be able to come back". Once it was out in the open then she would have to make a choice, a choice she wasn't ready ... or able to make. But she is not alone ... and women are not alone. There are more than a few men who darken the church doors under cover of the night. More than a few who know that if the truth of their lives were known they could never go back to the family as it was. Those who have been abused and who have abused come to Jesus by night. We come out of the terror of the night ... and under the cover of night. With Nicodemus we wonder aloud how we might grab hold of the presence of God.
Instead Jesus grabs hold of us. That's right - 'us'. Jesus isn't talking to some long dead Jewish leader here ... he is talking to you and to me. You see, he replies to lonely, singular Nicodemus in the plural. In that turn of phrase Jesus reveals his Southern roots: "Amen, brother Nicodemus. Y'all cannot glimpse the home of God without being born from up above. No one can cross into God's homeland without being born of water and Spirit". Well, by the sounds of the babies wailing around here we have had enough births lately to grasp at least some of what he is saying. Face it. Every one of us and of our children are born of water ... when that amniotic home breaks we are delivered into another world ... there is no turning back, for infant or for mother. Birth is never something we choose ... or control. We are born, whether we like it or not ... born of a human mother, says Jesus, and born of a Spiritual Mother. You did notice, didn't you, that at the heart of this oh-so-familiar text lies an image too long hidden in the church. What kind of a Spirit gives birth from above? Why, a feminine One, of course. This is not a text or an image - or a God - that we can control. As much as some would like to prescribe the 'born again' experience it cannot be done. "It's like the wind", says Jesus, "you can hear it and feel it but you cannot control its origin or its destination." The life-changing presence of God is a mysterious gift. It cannot be grasped in some obvious signs here or some predictable experiences there. The church may have the keys to the Kingdom ... but it does not have the lock for the Kingdom. We cannot, no matter how hard we try, get a hold of it. It gets a hold of us. God's realm blows through totally unsuspecting peoples and in the most surprising of movements. We who are offspring of Sarah and Abraham's unlikely future ... not to mention descendants of Martin and Catherine's Reformation and of the Wesley's Revival ... we, of all people should know this. But, like Nicodemus we resist, we don't understand - we don't want to understand - that we will be refashioned ... reformed ... reborn from top to bottom. We resist because we're afraid.
Fearful of the prospects we put up blocks. Afraid of the changes God proposes we raise questions: "How?". That's what Nicodemus wants to know. That's what Abraham and Sarah want to know. That's what we want to know. "How?". It sounds like a silly question. It sounds like Nicodemus misses the point, like he doesn't understand a metaphor when he sees one: "How can you expect an old man to re-enter a mother's womb? After all, at my age I have trouble getting into a cab - let alone a womb!" But it's not a bad question. Remember Sarah. When it is suggested that she will give birth in her barren old age she laughs ... that's right, from under her veil she laughs in God's face. "How", she is asking, "How can this be?". We peruse the landscape of a church aging before our eyes - closing down congregations, cutting budgets, preparing for the worst in a society that would rather shop and ski than sing and serve. "How", we ask, "how can we be reborn". But the question 'how' conceals a deeper question ... a scarier possibility ... the one we Nicodemus People are afraid to ask: "What if we are made new ... what if we are transformed ... what if we are being delivered into a new world and a new life?". Then things will change.
Then things will change for women. They will be born into a new life, a life of safety and of freedom and of community. They will be delivered from danger and servitude and isolation. It sounds so wonderful, so right. But it is not so simple. Like Nicodemus, we do not find it easy to let go of the known world for another that is unknown. The woman who sneaks surreptitiously to Bible Study must eventually choose between the cycles of violence she knows so well and the apparently safe sanctuary she is invited to entrust with her life and with the lives of her children. And people wonder why so many women stay at home, under cover of night.
Then things will change for men, too. And they know it. Look at them all, all of the young men wearing t-shirts that read: "No Fear ... No Fear". One thinks they 'dost protest too much'. Who, after all, in our world is most afraid of the laborious changes that are taking place? It is young men ... young men formed to be strong and independent and in control ... young men who know that they are not strong enough, that they cannot survive alone, that they are losing control. Their slogans and their struts shout it out so loudly that it hurts: "Full of Fear ... full of fear". And people wonder why so many of them lash out in violence, in the middle of the night.
And, yes, then things will change for God's church of women and men. Who knows how it will change? None of us do. Not the men or the women. Not the aging PhDs or the fresh-faced Revisionists. "The Spirit blows where it wills", Jesus says. It scares Nicodemus. What if the Spirit doesn't blow where we would will it? What if the rebirth is not what we have in mind? What if we were to loose control of the agenda? And people wonder why so many of us in the church live in fear of the future ... and afraid of each other ... in spite of the light.
Fear. Fear of the unkown. We talk about it a lot in the preaching class I teach. We preachers fear the response of the congregation and of our peers. We fear that we will get it wrong, we fear our inner critic and we fear sinning against God, in the name of God. Then last week 'voice coach' Bill Buck comes to speak with the class about our voices. He says that there are no tricks to learning how to speak. He says that everyone has a good voice, that there is no such thing as a bad voice. It is fear, he says, fear is the problem. The voice is a lie-detector ... it reveals fear. To speak well you only need to discover what it means to trust ... to trust the words, to trust the people, to trust yourself, to trust God. Once you speak out of a place of trust, he says, your voice will be trained ... and it will be wonderful. Sarah and Abraham know about fear of the unknown. They know, too, about the gift of trust ... trusting the words of unbelievable promise, trusting themselves, trusting the God who says 'Trust Me'. With Nicodemus we know all about fear ... fear of the darkness and fear of what the light will reveal. Like Sarah and Abraham ... and with Nicodemus we are laboriously called out of the darkness, one contraction at a time, to discover life as children of God ... life lived in the passionate embrace of God ... God, who loves the world so much that even the ends of the earth ... even a pitch black day and an ugly hill strewn with crosses ... is not too far to go to deliver us from evil. And look here, the amniotic waters of our Holy rebirth splash in the font for all to see. This is a community being born anew. This is our nursery, our sanctuary - a safe house for women ... and for men. Here we discover what it means to trust the God at work in Jesus Christ - in this healing circle - with our stories and our fears and our bruises. Here we discover courage that carries us out into the beloved world, going as God goes, to take back the night. There are no theological tricks to learn, no religious secrets to uncover, no "JN 3:16" slogans to unfurl at every sporting event. It is as easy - and as hard - as remembering that each one of us has a voice that need not tremble in fear. No matter how old or how young, no matter how laden we are with hurt or with guilt each one of us has a voice ... a good voice that can speak, grounded firmly in an ancient faith ... a wonderful voice for sharing the incredible news: "Listen, God is giving birth ... new birth ... to you, to me, to the earth. Look here <at the cross> ... here is One you can trust."