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Second Sunday in Lent

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13- 17; John 3:1-17 ; Psalm 121 Jesus and Nicodemus, Márta Árvai, 2002 "How can these things be?" Since the beginning of Advent late last year, most if not quite all, of our Sunday Gospel texts have come from the Gospel of Matthew. This has been of course deliberate, as we annually cycle through the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in succession. But now, early on in the season of Lent, we suddenly leave for a while the comfort-zone of Matthew and his familiar stories, discourses, and parables and spend some quality time with the Gospel of John, perhaps the most mystical of the Gospels, from which in fact our text this morning is taken. Among the major themes of John’s Gospel are light and darkness; life and death; the world above and the world below; flesh and spirit; certainty and doubt, love and indifference. Jesus himself is of course the unrelenting focus of this Gospel, and he is presented unabashedly and definitively as the Son of God come to redeem the world. Many of these themes are found in today’s short account from Chapter Three, the story of Nicodemus, a figure who appears three times in John’s Gospel and nowhere else. Who Nicodemus actually was has been the subject of nearly endless academic speculation, by the way; a Pharisee with a Greek name, a bit strange in itself. Since we know so little about him, it might be easy to dismiss him as a bit-player in the Gospel, but that he is not, at least not in my opinion. In our passage today, he comes to Jesus at night, that is in darkness, obviously if not explicitly, seeking the light, and presumably the enlightenment, of the Gospel itself. Described as “a leader of the Jews,” he represents at one level all of Israel, even presuming to use the first- person plural, we, as if assuming the role of spokesperson for the entire nation and its long line of prophets and law-givers. Yet Nicodemus is as well the first person in the Gospel of John to address Jesus as rabbi, or teacher, offering him a rare token of respect, in essence affording him equal standing with, well, himself. Tellingly, Nicodemus also acknowledges that Jesus has “come from God,” no small admission for a Pharisee of the time. And in spite of the Evangelist John’s generally unsympathetic treatment of Jews, Nicodemus comes across as a kind of honest Everyman, filled with doubt yet seeking certainty. And to his credit, I suppose, Nicodemus is like that kid in class who is not afraid to ask the dumb questions on behalf of the rest of us; the dumb questions we are afraid to ask, but which often as not get to the very heart of the matter, the very heart of the truth. "How can these things be," Nicodemus wants to know when confronted with Jesus’ cryptic message about being born from above; an image or motif which, as far as I can recall, occurs nowhere else in Scripture. So, well done, Nicodemus. Very good question. After all, if you have never at some point in your own spiritual journey asked that same question of Jesus, “How can these things be,” you have probably not been paying attention in bible class. Yet at the same time, Nicodemus almost annoyingly seems to go out of his way to misunderstand or misconstrue Jesus’ message. When our Lord speaks of spirit, Nicodemus hears him speaking of

flesh. When Jesus speaks of being born from above, Nicodemus cheekily asks, “can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born," no doubt knowing full well what our Lord was speaking of. You almost want to strangle him. Everything Nicodemus ever said to Jesus, and Jesus to Nicodemus, is recorded in this short passage. And interestingly, of Nicodemus’ four utterances here, three are questions while his remaining statement, actually the first one, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” pretty much implies that questions are coming. Yet if Nicodemus is speaking for ancient and modern skeptic alike, Jesus, himself now using the plural pronoun, we, is speaking for the truth of the Gospel, indeed the truth of the Godhead. And unsurprisingly, our Lord alludes to the Cross as the paradoxical source of all Christian truth. “The Son of Man [must] be lifted up,” he says, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” At the Cross, in other words, the horizontal humdrum of this everyday life of ours is redeemed in the vertical, and spiritual, raising up of the Son of Man. In the death of Christ, we are all “born from above,” born again. Believe that, and have eternal life. Our friend, Nicodemus, doubt-riddled and slightly cynical, is nevertheless privileged to be the first person to ever hear arguably the most profound truth ever expressed, the truth of the Gospel Jesus came to proclaim, “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.” Perhaps the most widely recognised verse of the entire New Testament. . John 3:16. The Christian Gospel in a nutshell: God, love, life. What else is there? If all the rest of the Gospel was lost to history and only this verse remained, we would still understand what Jesus was all about. In fact, in my home country, the United States, known for its sometimes over-the-top religious zealotry, you can even find this scripture passage tagged by graffiti artists on urban walls and emblazoned on sports caps, of all things. Yet in spite of that, this truth cannot be trivialized and remains today as potent a message of hope as it was that dark night long ago when first uttered by our Lord to Nicodemus. How can these things be...? These are the last words of Nicodemus recorded in the Gospel of John or anywhere, although he makes a couple of other cameo appearances later in the Gospel, interestingly enough speaking up for our Lord before the Sanhedrin, the religious court of the time; and later assisting Joseph of Arimathea at the burial of Jesus. Ambiguity and ambivalence remain part of his character throughout, as they remain forever part and parcel of human, and Christian, existence and experience, whether we want to admit it or not. So take heart, Christian Friends, if you still find yourself asking, with Nicodemus, “How can these things be...?” For it was in the midst of doubt and shrouded in darkness that the truth and light of the Gospel was perhaps first ever revealed to humankind, to us. Nicodemus is with us still, standing among the shadows of our existence perhaps, but there nevertheless, seeking the light; uncertain, but open to reality and truth. So believe me: Nicodemus was no bit-player in the Gospel of our Lord. And neither are you. If you have any doubts, just remember: John: 3.16. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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