Saturday, March 15, 2014

New Beginnings

Genesis 12:1–4a; John 3:1–17

We continue on our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross. Today we encounter Abram, who will be renamed Abraham and his wife Sarai or Sarah. And, we encounter the Pharisee Nicodemus. These biblical characters all face new beginnings.
I love this little story about Abram and Sarai. They are happily living in Ur, planning their family, though no children have come yet. They have relatives nearby, they know where the shops are, they know every part of their land.
Suddenly, God appears to Abram and says, “Go home and tell your wife to pack up and move. When you get where you are supposed to be, I’ll tell you to stop traveling. If you choose to do this, I will establish a covenant with you, giving you land, fame, and so many children you won’t be able to count them.” I wish I had been there to hear Sarai’s response.
They did move, and move again, and after many adventures, they had a child named Isaac, who had 12 sons and at least 1 daughter. They became famous, and acquired lots and lots of land. 4,000 years later, give or take, we still know their story! Their new beginning was also our beginning as people of faith.
Jesus challenged Nicodemus to try a new beginning. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, who came to see Jesus at night. We are accustomed to hearing that all the Pharisees were against Jesus and everything he preached and taught. But not all were his enemies; some of them wanted to believe he was the messiah and wanted to give him a chance.
Pharisees were the legal experts when it came to religious practices. They were the canon lawyers of their time. Each time a new situation arose, people would go to the Pharisees and ask for a ruling. For a modern example, is it work to answer a cell phone on the Sabbath? The new rulings were built on the interpretations of old rules. With so many rules, it was difficult, but not impossible to change the rules.
Nicodemus begins his conversation with the statement “We know you come from God.” Who is the “we”, we wonder. Probably, it was some other Pharisees, including Joseph of Arimathea. Nicodemus says, “We want to know more, but we don’t want the others to know that we are talking with you.” 
So, then, Jesus and Nicodemus have this curious conversation about being born again – or born from above. Nicodemus takes Jesus at his literal word – born again, and can’t imagine going back into the womb to be reborn.
Jesus tries again. The Spirit is like the wind, blowing wherever it will. Amazing things happen when we watch the wind/Spirit. In the same way, you must be born again, of the Spirit.
Nicodemus still doesn’t get it, and Jesus is frustrated. You are a learned man, and you can’t figure this out?! I assure you that we preach the truth, a truth for today which is a continuation of the truth from the past. Everyone who believes in this truth will have eternal life, life in true relationship with God.
Nicodemus left Jesus at this point and went home to ponder what Jesus had said. The bible doesn’t tell us, but I assume he shared his conversation with the other Pharisees who were willing to give Jesus a chance.
In John, Chapter Seven, he argues with the leaders, saying that it was standard practice among Jews to give all people a fair hearing. He lost the argument. Immediately after the crucifixion, Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathea, asking for Jesus’ body. There is no record of Nicodemus after this, but I like to imagine he is part of the church in Jerusalem.
Nicodemus has gone from questioner to defender to believer. Getting to believer took time, as he reasoned out what he knew. It took an open mind, a willingness to think in new ways about old beliefs. It also took the Holy Spirit, blowing through Nicodemus’ mind and heart to bring him from questioning to believing. Nicodemus experienced a new beginning when he went to speak with Jesus.
During our lives, we usually have many little moments of new beginnings. We look at a sunset and are reminded that God is the creator of us all. We look into the eyes of a newborn, and we can see the hand of God in the shaping of this beautiful child. We fall in love, and give thanks to God for the gift of this person in our lives. We read a passage in the Bible and gain a new understanding of how God works.
Occasionally, we also have major experiences of new beginnings. We attend a retreat or church conference and gain new insights. We spend enough time away from the worries and busyness of this world that God can open our hearts and minds. The Spirit is free to work in our openness and we are made new.
Each encounter we have is an opportunity for a new beginning. The people we talk with can learn from us, and we can learn from them. We can open our hearts as we listen to others. We can ask ourselves, “What is their experience of God? What does Jesus mean to them?”
Since each of us has a unique story, we all have unique experiences of God. If we share a bit of our own stories, those we are with will almost always share a bit of their story. In the sharing of our stories, we all have a chance for a new understanding, an increased faith, a new beginning.
This week I read an article [in Outreach Magazine, Nov-Dec 2013, paraphrased] about Ravi Zacharias. He is a well-known speaker and preacher. Born in India, his ancestors were high-ranking Hindus. He did poorly in his exams at age 17, and attempted suicide. In the hospital recovering, someone gave him a Bible, opened to John 14. The verse that most got his attention was “because I live, you also will live.” This verse led to a new beginning for him.
“The fact that the Lord cared enough about me in my desperation to have a person bring me a Bible, this was the most compelling thing,” Zacharias says. He found Christ as his Savior, and it changed his life – it was a new beginning. His new beginning transformed his family and his friends as he began to testify about his experiences to them.
Zacharias’ father was hostile to the change in him, but eventually he also was transformed by the Good News of Jesus in his life. Zacharias’ wife says, “When I look at photographs of your father, I can see when the transformation came. It was such a significant difference.”  
Imagine sharing your faith story with someone else and making such a visible change in their life. Imagine leading them to a new beginning. Trust the Holy Spirit to be present as you share your story and to be present with your companion to hear your story, and to lead you both to a new beginning.
    Please pray with me: Lord, we give you thanks for beginnings. Guide us to new and renewed beginnings in relationship with you and with those you place in our lives. Amen