- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – John 3:1-17
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Do you remember Carl Sagan? Maybe you watched his series Cosmos on TV. He was an astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, and astrobiologist, perhaps best known as someone who could communicate scientific advancements to a popular audience. He wrote the science fiction book Contact, which became the basis for a movie about the possibility of contact with extraterrestrial life. And in real life, he assembled the first physical messages sent into space – the Pioneer plaque and the Voyager Golden Record, what he hoped would be universal messages that could be understood by extraterrestrial intelligence that might find them. His accomplishments were vast, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, a Pulitzer Prize, Emmy Awards, and the Peabody Award. The world lost a great mind when he died in 1996.
I’m embarrassed to say that what I remember most about Carl Sagan is not any of his particular contributions to human learning, but rather how he was depicted in a Far Side cartoon. The cartoon shows a boy and a girl out in a field at night, away from the city lights, looking up at the stars. The boy is pointing up at the infinitely vast night sky, and he says, “Just look at all those stars, Becky… there must be hundreds of ‘em!” The caption reads, “Carl Sagan as a kid.” What makes it so delightful, of course, is that it portrays the vastness of space through the limited imagination of a child who would one day show us that very vastness.
That silly cartoon came to me this week as I spent time with good old Nicodemus. He’s one of my favorites, and the story of his encounter with Jesus is very dear to me. What a powerful image of a Pharisee, a religious leader, seeking out Jesus by night so that he will not be seen. He comes in secret, saying “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 has caught the attention of the religious establishment. And Nicodemus wants to know more, not just officially but personally, a religious leader in search of a truth he is already supposed to possess. I sympathize with his search. And Jesus responds with strange teachings about being born from above and eternal life and God sending the Son to save the world. Poor Nicodemus doesn’t understand. His imagination can’t stretch that far, at least not on that night. He leaves his encounter with Jesus like a child who, having been shown an infinite night sky, still only sees a few hundred stars.
The story is written in such a way that invites us to see beyond the limits of Nicodemus’ religious imagination. We have the chance to see more than he did. I worry, though, that we can easily repeat the same mistake and read the words of Jesus too narrowly, fitting these strange teachings too quickly into smaller categories that we can understand. Take, for example, the idea of being born again. Jesus said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above… (and) no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The strangeness of those words was enough to make Nicodemus stumble, yet how quickly we try to simplify and explain them. We have domesticated the unusual teaching of being born again into a belief that our salvation is dependent upon some private moment of accepting Jesus as a personal savior. Which, I think, is another case of seeing only a few hundred stars.
Maybe it’s never a good idea to reference the original Greek in a sermon, but I think it matters here. To be born “again” in the Greek has multiple meanings – including what we might translate as above, again, and anew. We don’t have an equivalent word in English to capture those multiple meanings at once. I think Jesus is being intentionally ambiguous in order to get Nicodemus to look beyond the literal to new possibilities. And while I’m at it, I should mention that when Jesus says “you must be born from above,” that you is plural – meant for all the people of God. So we begin to see that this being born again business isn’t easily explained, nor is it a private matter of salvation. Our imaginations are meant to be stretched.
So let’s stay with this ambiguous teaching and follow to where Jesus leads next. “The Son of Man must 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.” Let your hearts and your minds be stretched here. We’ve just entered the strange territory of divine gift. Again we could reduce the words to something manageable. These verses are often used to say that you must believe in Jesus to spend eternity in heaven. But the night sky is bigger than that. The gift is far more vast.
Notice that love has now entered the conversation. God so loved the world that God sent the Son as a gift. The God revealed in Jesus is a God whose love knows no bounds and who asks only that we receive the gift. And if one receives this gift, one receives eternal life. Eternal life should not be translated simply as endless human life in heaven. To have eternal life is a way of describing life as lived in the unending presence of God. To receive the gift of eternal life is to have our life reshaped and redefined by the love of God in Jesus. And, this gift is meant not just for some category of people who get it right, but for everyone. The whole world has entered the conversation. “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.”
At the risk of elevating Carl Sagan to the level of gospel, I bring him back into this sermon with something he said. “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” I think Nicodemus believed this when he came to Jesus by night. And Jesus showed him where to look – to the cross – and what to look for – for the vast love of God. Nicodemus’ imagination faltered. He stumbled when invited to see more than he already knew, which happens to all of us. But if we stay with this Jesus, and look to where he points us, even our imaginations can be stretched to greater understanding. And when that happens, we can finally stop measuring the grace of his truth by small, countable units in exchange for the actual number of stars in the infinite night sky.