Change reading to “born again!” Honestly — in some ways our lessons today are real jokes. We enter into a humorous story about two old people, Abraham and Sarah, who are sad that they have had no child together; no child to carry on their name and inheritance. But they were realistic about the situation; they knew that Sarah was way past childbearing age.
But our reading today is rooted in the context of God telling the couple that Sarah would indeed bear a son in her old age, and through him they would become the ancestors of a mighty nation. “What a joke,” Sarah and Abraham thought, as they laughed at the very idea. And considering how sad they were about the situation, it was not a very good joke at that.
Today’s Gospel incorporates another joke. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God. “What a joke,” Nicodemus thought. He must have laughed as he asked, “Can one enter again into his mother’s womb and be born again?”
Despite what might have seemed a joke, God did call Abraham and Sarah to follow and have faith in the impossible. And have faith, they did. Through that faith, and the power of God, their offspring did indeed produce a great nation, as God had promised. Faith led them to a glorious new day — aday of such greatness that they could not even have imagined it. In today’s Old Testament lesson we have the part of the story when Abraham took Sarah on an initiative to a new land where they didn’t even know anyone. But it was where God led them. They followed into a new life. What an unlikely couple to be the forerunners of a great people. What a joke it must have seemed!
These stories and the outlandish jokes they involved are actually intended to produce a new kind of thinking; what some people call “thinking outside the box.” Thinking in new and innovative ways can lead to ideas that are not confined by experiences of the past or norms of the present; ideas that can lead us to act “outside our comfort zone.”
Jesus was trying to get Nicodemus to live outside the box of his old perceptions. He said to Nicodemus, as he says to us: “Come and be renewed with a new birth that will transform you into a new person.” Jesus says to us all: “Come and be renewed with a new birth that will create a regeneration for a renewal of your being.” Jesus says: “Come and be renewed with a new birth so that the Holy Spirit can work in you.” Jesus says: “Come and be renewed with a new birth so that you may regain for yourself the image of God that we lost in Eden.”
Think about this: if we are born again, we must also grow up again. Think about your life. What would you do differently if you had the chance? How would you grow up differently? How would you “re-edit” the narrative of your life? Jesus invites us to be reborn again — to rethink our assumptions with an altered perspective. Jesus challenges us to look to the future through the eyes of better possibilities.
How might our lives be different if we were born again? How could our lives be altered if we believed that God loves us with a sacrificial love that makes us worth dying for? Lent is a time to rethink our lives, seeing our past and future through the eyes of the one who loves us in that way. The new birth involves an exercise of faith — a risk. Nicodemus was ready to take a little bit of risk in coming to see Jesus, but he tried to minimize the risk by coming at night — so no one would know.
Abraham and Sarah were people of faith who were willing to risk. They responded to the call of God and set out by faith toward a land they had never seen.
God also asks us to risk; to risk what it takes to be born again to a new way of loving and caring. To embark on a new way of focusing on the values of God’s Kingdom; a new way of acting on the belief in a deeper and more meaningful way that puts to shame our materialism and greed and reliance on ourselves alone.
Despite what may be a common perception, Lent is not a time for suffering or misery. That is not what giving up things or taking on new challenges is all about. The purpose of all of this is renewal. Lent is about remembering Abraham and Sarah and heeding their example of faith and moving into the unknown by following Jesus wherever he may lead us. Lent is about hearing and heeding the words Nicodemus heard from Our Lord: that to enter into God’s Kingdom, we must be born again; born anew to a way that turns upside down the values of our world.
There is a joke that some in the world will laugh at. It is this: in the face of a materialistic country, the richest in history, in a time with drugs and with surgery that can heal hundreds of previously incurable diseases, in an environment in which success and power and fame and prestige reign supreme, in the midst of all this and so much more, what really matters is God’s love and forgiveness. This represents a power so attractive that once we accept it, we cannot fail to give away what we have for the sake of others. Other folk may laugh at what may seem the absurdity of this, but any who are willing to be born again will see the light of Christ and be saved through him.