Transformed in the Dark

Who here is or was a gardener? When we built our house, we had perennial beds put in and each spring it’s like magic, especially the crocuses and hyacinth! The earth is still cold and dark… and yet somewhere locked inside the DNA of those flowers is the call to reach for the light. There is energy in the dark… there is wonder in the dark… there is life in the dark… Where there are things going on beneath the surface and you have NO idea what might spring forth. Where its cold and dark and yet there is this urge to go towards something… even if you are not sure what yet.

The Bible is full of stories of God calling people into an unknown future. The one you are about to hear takes place when Abraham and Sarah are old, 75 I think. It’s written in Genesis 12:1-4a:

12:1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 12:2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 12:3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 12:4a So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

Rev, Rob Bell, in his book, What is the Bible? emphasizes that God’s blessing to Abram—to lead a new nation through which all the earth will be blessed—is a new and radical idea in a culture in which tribal identity and preservation were brutally protected. Abraham’s tribe, also known as Israel, exists not just for its own purpose, but for the purpose of blessing others. When does a new beginning invite you to be a blessing to others? (Commentary in A Sanctified Art)

Do Abraham and Sarah argue with God and say, “We’re too old… we have too much stuff to pack… we are comfortable here…” Sound familiar? 😉 We don’t know… what we do know is that Abram and Sarah packed up and set out on a journey… a journey into an unknown land. They were blessed to be a blessing. How are we blessed to be a blessing in our time? What is our call to bless our community? How is God inviting us to journey into an unknown future? Does this time of Interim Ministry feel like a bit like God calling us into an unknown future? Of course it does… I haven’t come with preconceived ideas of what the end result is going to be for St. James. What I do come with is processes and practices to help you find the way forward that God is calling you to now. And sometimes that may feel as if we are groping in the dark a bit. But just like crocuses, hyacinth and all the other early spring bulbs, there is life to be found in the dark.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark and we’ll get to his story in a minute.

On Wednesday, the Spiritual Deepening group did an exercise called Blackout Poetry, in which we took the gospel reading for today, we spent a few minutes reading it and circling words or phrases that popped out at us or grabbed our attention. Then we took a marker and blacked out the rest of the words, the words that were left were our poems. None of us had done this exercise before and we all found it quite profound. I have permission from one participant to share hers.

Not know
Not understand
Not believe
Lifted up
Eternal life

Let’s listen to the full reading as found in John 3: 1-17

3:1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 3:2 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.”

3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

3:4 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?”

3:5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 3:8 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.”

3:9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

3:10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 3:11 “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. 3:12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

3:13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 3:14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 3:15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 3:16 “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. 3:17 “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.

I want you to put yourself in Nicodemus shoes… You are a religious leader… respected in the community… And yet something about Jesus intrigues and fascinates you. And so you come… by night… to Jesus. Was he, as a Pharisee, afraid to being seen with Jesus, a leader of the people who seemed to have turned so many of the teachings upside down? Was he, as a Pharisee, a learned scholar, hesitant to admit his ignorance? Or was he simply, a man who was seeking to understand more fully the way of God?

It seems to me that there is something of all of those elements in each of us as we are faced with an idea or concept that we do not know. There may be fear. There may be embarrassment. There may be shame. But there also may be an over-riding curiosity.

I suggest that we are ALL Nicodemus sometimes. And it is in darkness that we often voice our more vulnerable, important questions. Only daring to voice them under the cover of darkness of privacy.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book entitled Learning to Walk in the Dark. She weaves together metaphors of light and dark, challenging the notion that darkness is dangerous and evil, and examining the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of our society’s addiction to light. She wonders what wisdom and knowledge is disappearing because so few of us experience any real darkness.

The Bible is full of metaphors of light and dark; often darkness is portrayed as something bad. And yet, not all references to darkness in the Bible are negative. It is in the darkness that God speaks to Moses. It is in the darkness of the earth that the seed germinates. It is the darkness of the tomb that the resurrection is made possible.

In this passage, Jesus says that we must be “born again.” The term “born again” makes many of us uncomfortable. We tend to associate it with fundamentalist faiths and we are self- conscious of professions of faith or personal testimonials of faith. But what if we think about being born again as having an experience of being changed by God? An experience of growth. A experience of transition. A experience of becoming something different from what we were. A story of being born again. Some of us have had life changing experiences that do alter our perception of God in an instant. An experience of wonder or majesty or fear. Some of us have had more gradual changes. Small changes that perhaps occurred over a great length of time. Changes that happened so slowly that we didn’t notice them until one day we realized that we were not the same people we were five or ten or twenty years ago. Both of those experiences are of being born again. I believe that it doesn’t matter that we do not understand how we are reborn in the light of God’s love. It just matters that we are understand that we are. And that we are open to the possibilities of being reborn. Birth is a journey that we undertake without rational thought.  Being reborn can be the same or it can be very intentional.

The image of birth helps us to understand how life can be seen as a divine process of transformation. In birth and new life there are times of struggle, and pain, and letting go.

When giving birth, there is a stage in the process of labour which is terrifyingly unpredictable. Any woman who has given birth is familiar with this, as well as many men who are with their wives through the process. This period is known as the transition stage and it signals the culmination of labor and the beginning of the actual birth.

We are at the beginning… and I’m going to close with a poem called For A New Beginning, by one of my favourite poets, John O’Donohue:

In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream,
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

My friends, the world awaits us… a different world that what we imagined… but like Abraham and Sarah who set off on an unknown journey in their old age, like Nicodemus learning anew what it mean to be a person of faith, we are always accompanied on the journey.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of following Jesus, amen.

Lent 2 – John 3: 1-17 – SJUC – March 5, 2023

Rev. Catherine MacDonald


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