Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
It’s been more than forty years since its first publication, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination has lost none of its urgency. In opposing the biblically-grounded imagination to what he calls “royal consciousness”—that system of individual affluence, concealed oppression, and spiritual smugness in service to the powers of the day—Brueggemann reminds us that before we can live into the reign of God, we must first imagine what that reign might look like. This presumes, however, that we can sufficiently free our imagination from the tranze-like grip of royal consciousness to recognize and lament our fears, shared suffering, and mortality. “It is the vocation of the prophet,” Brueggemann writes, “to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing alternative futures to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
Royal consciousness conspires to numb us everywhere and always, even in this season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving meant to prepare us for the celebration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. I succumb to the power of that consciousness when I mistake Lent as boot camp for my weak and wayward will. Not that my will doesn’t need a major overhaul, something that—with God’s grace—would be a most welcome consequence of my Lenten practices. True metanoia—a change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion—however, depends far more on imagination than on the will. In order to embody God’s word and live into God’s reign, I need the necessary grace to imagine other ways of living, of thinking, and of desiring than the stale and lifeless habits of the dominant culture.
This weekend’s readings invite us to open our imagination to the contours of God’s reign.
In our first reading, a childless, seventy five-year old Abram is asked to imagine traveling to a distant land and founding a great nation. Unlike those of us schooled in the calculus of worldly practicality, Abram agrees. Later, having survived a series of misadventures and an unexpected blessing but still childless, Abram has a vision of the Lord comparing the number of his descendants to the stars. Once again, Abram “…believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). No doubt Abram had to will himself to believe that promise. More importantly, though, he had to begin, however dimly, to imagine it possible.
Then Paul builds his argument in today’s second reading. I want call attention to the leap that Paul, lifelong student of Torah, makes in imagining righteousness for the gentiles outside the law. Paul didn’t think or will his way to this new understanding. He had, instead, an encounter with the risen Christ leading to “something like scales” falling from his eyes. The imagination—as opposed to fantasy—grows poorly in the meager soil of abstraction but thrives in the rich soil of lived experience. It’s less about having the right ideas than opening one’s eyes to an underlying reality, as in the synoptic accounts of the Transfiguration where what changes isn’t Christ’s nature, but the way his disciples see him.
In our reading from the gospel of John, poor Nicodemus is left baffled by Jesus’s metaphoric wordplay. Unlike the Samaritan woman in the following chapter, he clings to the literal, the familiar, the first idea that pops into his constrained consciousness. He can’t get his head around verbal ambiguities lost to us when the original Greek is translated into English. When Jesus says gennēthē anōthen, Nicodemus hears “born again,” but not the equally valid alternative, “born from above.” The various meanings of pneuma—wind, spirit, breath—blow past him in gusts of irony.
He won’t grasp the implications of hypsōthēnai—to be lifted up or to be glorified—until Jesus is lifted up on the cross and rises from the tomb where Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea laid him. Jesus is asking him to unlearn what he thinks he knows in order to imagine the life present and readily available in God’s in-breaking reign.
Some of us familiar with faith, comfortable in the pew of our choice, are more like Nicodemus than we care to admit. Not ready to come out of the church closet where we suspect our concrete answers rest on shaky ground, we do our seeking at night, so to speak, so as not to be exposed as doubters. But the same Spirit that drove Nicodemus to risk his standing in the Sanhedrin drives us. There is something more to Jesus than our catechisms can contain or explain.
So as Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, seeks out the peasant preacher at night to ask the question that is most on his mind, “who are you?” we come with our own questions. Jesus, who is not one to give an easy answer, is surprisingly straight forward. “God so loved the world…” is all one needs to know. It is the same world (cosmos) that loving the darkness “knew him not”. (John 1:10)
The same world that John tells us hated Jesus, the world in which one will have troubles, the world from which disciples will need to be protected, etc. etc. The feel good John 3:16 on coffee cups and t-shirts and banners in the end zone cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing that the world God loves, hell bent on destruction, is not interested in anything God has to offer. It is for that reason that God allowed the world to do its worst so that in his dying the world might receive life, whether it wants it or not.
But isn’t there a choice to make? Of course there is and God was the one who made it. We live God’s choice when loving God we love the world.
It takes some time but eventually the love of God in Nicodemus sees the light of day and he risks everything to ask Pilate for the body of the crucified Christ. What he didn’t know then, but of course knows now, is that Jesus (God saves) made Nicodemus (the people’s victory) possible.
I like to think of myself as the Samaritan woman that we will hear about later, growing from narrow-minded tribalist to sower of the Word, in seven short utterances. In reality, I’m Nicodemus, forever missing the point hidden in what I think I understand, but don’t.
Lent is an opportunity to liberate the imagination, trusting in God’s power to free us from captivity to the royal consciousness. Lent offers us the gift of renewed sight, for “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
What, then, must we all unlearn in order to imagine the life to which God is calling us? What’s keeping us from seeing the reign of God more clearly? What keeps us whooping and hollering from the rooftops John 3:16, but we always leave off verse 17? These are all questions I hope you will spend time with this Lent as a way of traveling along the journey of faith with our Savior & Redeemer.