Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 30 May 2021.
• First Reading: Isaiah 6: 1-8 (The Lord’s commission. ‘Here am I, send me!’)
• Psalm 29
• Epistle: Romans 8: 12-17 (Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God)
• Gospel: John 3: 1-17 (For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him)
If we wish to understand the secrets of particle physics, we will have to apply ourselves to a lot of study, and to listening to the designers, operators, interpreters, and regulators of the sophisticated equipment that they operate, such as the Hadron collider and other nuclear establishments.
If we want to understand any other complex system such as the human body or the planning system then again we will require a lot of study and contact with the designers, operators, regulators, practitioners and financiers of our systems for health and medicine, and for planning and land.
In these areas of human endeavour we will need a great deal of commitment in order to make any sense of our chosen speciality.
I make this point because the accounts we are given of the approaches to God of Isaiah and Nicodemus are both intensely personal and yet they are wholly dependent on the time and attention given to them by God and by Jesus.
In both cases these were senior members of the religious establishment but when presented with the reality of God they were quite helpless and their learning and their status did very little for their understanding.
In the case of Isaiah, he was reduced to a cry of despair: “Woe is me! I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!”
Isaiah was reduced by his vision to a state of utter need and dejection where all his learning and commitment counted for nothing in his place before the throne of God. He could claim nothing and was wholly dependent on how God would deal with him and what He would give him.
For Nicodemus, the setting was far more prosaic, for he had gone to see Jesus, secretly at night. But even so, this member of the ruling elite was still reduced to astonishment as Jesus told him, “You must be born again.”
Now for a Jew it was possible to be ‘born again’ several times: at his coming of age, his marriage, his rising to the standing of teacher or Rabbi, and his elevation to the ruling council or Sanhedrin.
But when he was old? What was left? “Ah”, said Jesus, “That is where the action really begins.”
In Jesus one would have to let go of the things of the past and find that new identity and purpose which only Jesus can grant. It is to receive a new spiritual identity and being, and it becomes a year Zero as life begins again.
To be born again does not mean that family, education, nationality or pastimes no longer count for anything but their significance changes. Now there is a new kinship with fellow believers while even that sense of unity in the family has to be reinterpreted and re-understood. For some there is a sharing at a level that is deeper and more intimate than was ever there before.
For others there is a growing sense of separation and divergence. There will almost certainly be some misunderstanding and maybe even opposition.
But to be born again is indeed a reality, maligned and abused by many who do not comprehend it and yet it is honoured and cherished by those who do.
Yet Jesus’ time with Nicodemus was a time of sowing and probing. Jesus pointed to His own passion and death by referring to the serpent in the wilderness that Moses had raised up in order to provide an escape from a plague of snakes in camp. Jesus would be far more than this yet as an illustration, it would serve. Jesus would be the remedy that none other could provide.
But secondly Jesus was there to provide atonement and not condemnation. If Isaiah had seen his situation before God and despaired, then Nicodemus had been granted teaching so that he might live, and live again for eternal life.
For all their learning and standing, both Isaiah and Nicodemus were left only with their humanity. Nothing else counted. They were shown just how little their exalted standing really mattered.
And this is where Paul’s teaching of the church in Rome comes in. To be in Jesus Christ is also to be in the Spirit for the Spirit of the Lord is given at baptism. It is to be incorporated into the kinship of God, and made a child of God.
It is to be released into a new vocation of life – a calling to live in the sight of God and yet in the midst of a world and community that may be quite, even wholly hostile to the life of Jesus Christ.
This is a place where the agenda of God is different, and yet where the mystery of God is revealed, at least in part. It is the life of a new relationship with God and so with one another. It is also a life sharing with one another the incredible depths and riches that God has bestowed upon us.
It is to be a new creation, and even when beset by trials and sorrows, these will never have the last word in our lives.
It is a place where we can claim nothing and yet where we have access to all things.
It is a place where our life is lived and our prayers are offered to God the Father, through the person of Jesus Christ and under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.