"Picasso and O'Keefe," by Rev. Fred Kinsey
Is there a difference between growing up, and growing old? Between growing into ourselves and being born anew?
I remember in college, reading about the difference in the careers between Hegel and Aristotle, how Aristotle was famous at an early age, while Hegel didn’t write anything important until well into his 50’s. Or Picasso, who first painted Picador at the age of 11, while Georgia O’Keefe slowly matured in her painting career, after her marriage and her move from New York to New Mexico, working and receiving awards, right up until her death at the age of 98.
I always felt like I would be more like Georgia O’Keefe and Hegel, than Picasso or Aristotle. I would grow into who I was along the way, not immediately springing up and flowering into the full understanding of who God was calling me to be. I would not worry about growing old, or past my prime, because I felt the strong call to faith and ministry that was well grounded and that was a life-long walk.
Most of us are probably that way, I suspect! Most of us are not, precocious girl- or boy-wonders, and geniuses. And the good thing about realizing that, is that we can then be open the where the wind is blowing in, around, and through us. “7Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'” Jesus said to Nicodemus. “8The 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, it turns out, would be a late bloomer too. He had grown up in the school of the Pharisees that were very attentive to the foundational teachings of Judaism, and were good at forming people to be followers of God’s Word. They produced strong leaders like Rabbi Gamaliel whose grandfather was Rabbi Hillel, and of course, whose most famous student was, the Apostle Paul.
During these next five Sundays of Lent, we move from our appointed Year A Readings in the Gospel of Matthew, to reading from the Gospel of John, which has a whole different feel to it than the other three synoptic gospels. Some of John’s gospel stories are quite long, but also quite good in wrestling with God’s Word, illuminating where the Spirit is blowing today! In the early church, centuries ago, they were used, to prepare candidates for Baptism. And they are still a good catechism for those preparing for baptism today. At the Great Vigil of Easter service, on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday service, we will gather around the font, not here, but in the back gathering area of the sanctuary, for the Affirmation of Baptism, remembering that we are a baptized people. (Who knows, maybe we’ll even have a baptismal candidate come forward by then?!)
In our gospel reading today, Nicodemus isn’t ready yet for being re-born. He was a leader of the Judeans and a Pharisee, and came to Jesus by night. Now, night, after sundown, was the time when Shabbat, the Sabbath, started, and often the time for reading Torah, the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. But here, the emphasis seems to be on where Nicodemus is in his faith journey, viz. a viz., Jesus. He is a hesitant believer at best. He says that he knows Jesus is a teacher, or Rabbi, who has come from God, but everything Jesus questions him about, he doesn’t seem to have a clue about! Coming in the darkness is more about his struggle to understand, his inability to see Jesus very well, his susceptibility to stumbling, and his fears.
Nicodemus thinks that because of the signs Jesus has done, like changing water into wine, that this proves Jesus has the presence of God. This is one reason Nicodemus is coming to him now. But Jesus was clear that, although he wouldn’t turn anyone away because they were attracted to him for the signs he did, faith depended on something deeper, over time. Signs would not be enough to sustain us in our journey of faith.
“Very truly, I tell you,” said Jesus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above – or, born again.” That’s a good place to start, with someone new to the faith. But even that starting line is confusing for Nicodemus, who says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?” Ha! I’m not sure if this is John’s humor or just plain confoundedness on Nicodemus’ part. But this is not what Jesus means! “5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.’” And he continues with his beautiful image of the wind blowing through the trees as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. We can’t see the Spirit, but by the eyes of faith we can see how it works in the world, how the Spirit is really the life force of the presence of God. This is how it is with everyone who is born again, born a 2nd time, born through Baptism, of the spirit!
Nicodemus will still be in the dark when his conversation with Rabbi Jesus is over. But he will return again in John’s gospel, once more in the middle, when he sticks up for Jesus as the Pharisees and Temple Police are debating about arresting Jesus. And finally, at the cross, Nicodemus is the one to bring 100 pounds of burial spices to lovingly help lay him in the stone-hewn tomb.
Nicodemus is a late bloomer, he comes to faith in Jesus, towards his end. It is a journey that starts in darkness and many unanswered questions. But he never gives up, even under difficult and challenging circumstances. It is never too late to come to Jesus with our questions, and to be honest with where we are in our life of faith. Sometimes we can become old too soon, without continuing to be open to the presence of God, and where the Spirit is calling us now, each and every day. But we can be reborn from above at any time, and any age.
One thing that has helped me stay locked-in on the calling of the Spirit, and attentive to the grounding of faith, is the recognition that faith must take a risk, even when we feel afraid. Fear paralyzes, and tempts us towards settling for what the world says is important. But taking a leap of faith, based on the Spirit’s calling, even when we feel like we’re entering unknown territory, is being born from above, born again.
Like Nicodemus, all of us start our quest by stumbling in the dark towards Jesus! So, our models for our faith journey must be solid, because they are often not ordinary or popular. Following the latest fad, or chasing after the latest “thing” will usually not get us where we want to go. That’s the road that craves for being liked, as we desire to see ourselves through the eyes of our friends, or the image of the newest star. Nicodemus was attracted to Jesus, but had a difficult time letting go of the way his fellow Pharisees might see him, and so, he was confused by Jesus’ teaching that he should be reborn by the Spirit.
See yourself through the eyes of the kingdom and realm of God! Not through eyes of your self-consciousness, you’re need to be liked. God created us good, and our spiritual journey is a life-long walk down the road of discovery, finding our self-image in the image of Jesus the Christ, who lived in the presence of God. It’s a growing into yourself, each and every day, with the help of your community of faith.
If we’ve stopped growing in the Spirit, and avoid taking the risk and leap of faith, we simply grow old. But if by our Baptism, we are daily reborn of water and Spirit, we are alive and well, no matter how old our age tells us we are.
Let us never grow old of diving deeply into the waters, and spirit, of baptism!