Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
The Gospel reading for today features a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus came to Jesus, looking for some sort of tidy formula or neat checklist about how to be a part of the kingdom of God. What Jesus gives him instead is a birth metaphor.
Nicodemus’s discomfort with the whole thing is almost tangible. You can practically picture him…standing there in his well kept robes, shifting his weight back and forth, and blushing as he sputters, “But how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
You see, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And as such, he was well acquainted with Jewish law. For Jews, blood and birth were ceremonially unclean. And,in accordance with Leviticus 12, any woman who had given birth had to undergo apurification process before she was allowed to be present in the sanctuary,before she was even allowed to touch any holy thing. And yet, here Jesus is, talking about being reborn as theway of sanctification. Talking about birth as a way of being made whole and holy.
Nicodemus incredulously asks more than once, “How can these things be?” Because birth didn’t fit in with his image of holiness. Birth is bloodyand corporal. It’s earthy and loud. Birth is messy. It’s real.
This Jesus, the one who gives us a birth metaphor, is a far cry from the sanitized, commercialized Jesus that we so often see today. We like to clean Jesus up, and package him so that he comfortably fits into our lives. We’ve tried to contain this scandalous, shocking Jesus into convenient sound bites like “John 3:16”. We see John 3:16 appear out of context, showing up in our football stadiums, on billboards, on shopping bags, on bumper stickers. This shiny, plastic Jesus seems a little more “fit for consumption.” I think this Jesus, this contained, safe Jesus, was a little bit more what Nicodemus had in mind. Something orderly, holy, ethereal. Something disconnected and removed from things like earthiness and grit.
But that squeaky clean Jesus isn’t the Jesus we meet today in the Gospel. No, this Jesus is well acquainted with human realities like dirt and birth. An outrageous Jesus who is wholly unafraid of “real”. Who freely enters into our messy lives, who inhabited an earthy, corporal body, and who, in a few weeks, we will see, displayedhanging on a cross, bleeding very real blood. Blood, that like birth, gives wayto new life.
At the beginning of this Lenten season we were reminded of our own earthiness. As we came to the altar to receive ashes with the low murmur of “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”, we were reminded of our mortality and our fragility as humans. And in the midst of that difficult truth, we were marked with the cross of Christ on our foreheads. A Christ who plainly sees our messes, failures, and limitations and who loves us anyway. A Christ well acquainted with the grittiness of our lives.
And isn’t that the good news? When we know that Jesus has seen us at our lowest and our most frail and that he has still freely chosen to come for us and to call us his children, when we know those things are true, we are released from the prison of our perfectionism.
There’s this great quote by Anne Lammott, that talks about the way we use perfectionism as a tool to try to control our lives. She says, “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.”
But on Ash Wednesday we were reminded that we WILL die. That we are mortal. That we are not God, and that without God, we will perish. That there are just some things that are out of our control, no matter how tightly we try to hold on to them.
Sometimes I feel that way. I feel like I have to hold the whole world together. That if I make one wrong move, one mistake, the whole thing will fall apart. Lent is about releasing that fear. Because if I stop trying to have it all together, I am free to let me be me and let God be God. I am not God, I don’t have to be, and that is Good News.
Because, if God is God and we are not, we don’t have to keep up this charade of having it all together, we don’t have to conceal our failings and weaknesses. God knows all those things. And despite those things, God has still marked us and claimed us and promised us a life eternal.
Can you imagine what it would be like if we built our churches around this truth? If we truly made our sacred spaces safe places for honesty and vulnerability? Then on Sunday mornings, we could meet God and each other in peace and share our lives with boldness and without shame, knowing that because God has claimed us, nothing can touch us. We could be free to tell our stories. That sort of authenticity would be revolutionary. It would be Christ-like. It could not be contained.
This Lent, I pray that we may be willing to let go of our fear-based desperation for control. May we allow ourselves to be raw and real before God and before one another. And may we give in to the reality of an untamed, scandalous Jesus who cannot be sanitized or controlled. A Jesus who will not be content to relegated to the places where we think he fits comfortably. A Jesus who will not be contained by a sound bite or a catch phrase. A Jesus, who, at the end of these 40 days will show us, that he will not be scared off or contained by anything. Not our failings.Not our weaknesses. Not grit. Not blood, not death. No, he will not be contained by anything. Not even the grave.