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The Second Sunday of Lent, Year A

Welcome Spring!

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

Today is the first day of spring. According to the Farmer’s Almanac it will happen at precisely 7:21 pm. When we consider the coming of spring we think in terms of growth and new life. Already around us we see the signs. This past week we have felt its warmth. Daylight is coming earlier and staying longer. In the warmer spots in the garden shoots are beginning to appear. The earth is warming up and preparing for the growth that marks our spring weather.

The word ‘lent’ although quite properly associated with fasting and penitence literally means ‘spring’. It is a very good way to consider the season, for just as spring is a season of growth so Lent is meant to be a season of spiritual growth, a time of re-awakening. It is a season of great hope. It gives us time to reflect on change and transition in our lives.

Not that change is easy for any of us! When our lives change we are often faced with a new awareness of how attached we are to our old ways. We find it difficult to put down new roots that help us grow in new directions. That takes more trust than most of us are able to muster.

That is why the story of Abraham is so important to us. For it is a story not only of the great faithfulness of God, but also of our human ability to trust in that faithfulness.

In a time of migration of peoples about four thousand years ago, Terah travelled west with his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarah and his grandson Lot from Ur near the deltas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. They settled for a time in Haran, but after Terah’s death God called Abram to leave his homeland and set out to a strange place. It was a time of hope for this band of people, for Abram received God’s promise of new life. His descendants, God promised, would become a great nation if he trusted in God.

Amazingly Abram did not hesitate. He acted on God’s promise. He went where God led, even though it meant living as an alien resident. It is the touching story of a family leaving a homeland in search of a better life. Being uprooted and displaced, whether by war, disaster or choice is part of our human heritage. It is the experience of millions of people living as refugees in our own times. It is the story of many people in this parish. But of more importance to us today, seeking new life is a part of our faith story.

It is the story of Nicodemus in the Gospel. He came to Jesus by night, sneaking in the back way so that others wouldn’t see him. After all he was a devout and learned leader in the Jewish community. It would not have been good for his reputation to seem too interested in this upstart young revolutionary. He had witnessed some of Jesus' miracles. He wanted to check them out. He had some faith, but his faith was based on wrong assumptions about what Jesus was about. His wrong assumptions left him with some burning questions about Jesus. Who was this man? How was he able to perform such amazing miracles? What was he all about? He wanted to understand, and yet when Jesus explained it to him, he kept taking it literally. When it comes to faith, literal, concrete explanations simply won't do. Faith needs to be experienced. Nicodemus needed to get beyond his intellect; he needed to have a change of heart. He needed to begin to rely on God’s grace.

Nicodemus learned, that night what we all need to learn. He discovered who Jesus really is. He began a lasting relationship with Jesus. This is just the first of several times that we meet Nicodemus. He later defended Jesus against the Pharisees. He brought spices to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Was he amongst the faithful who saw the resurrected Lord? I suspect so, for he discovered what we all need to find out. He learned that knowing Jesus, coming into relationship with him, is about accessing God's free gift of grace. He learned that it is not about carrying a heavy load of guilt around with you, but about unburdening your load and letting God's forgiveness take effect in your life. He learned what it means to be born from above. He learned that life abundant and eternal is a gift from above. It isn’t something to be earned or achieved. It isn't something that can be claimed or proven. It isn't a reward for being awfully good or studying the scriptures.

That is something that each one of us needs to understand. We really need to take it in. “God so loved the world”, John says, “that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.” That is about having a relationship with God. It is about being born again, converted, transformed, saved. I recognize that for many Anglicans such language is often foreign. Whatever language you wish to use to describe it, every one of us needs it, no matter how we arrive at it.

For some people conversion is an earth shattering and dramatically sudden change in perspective. Take St. Augustine for example. In his “Confessions” he relates the following. “I was weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when I heard the voice of children from a neighbouring house chanting, "take up and read; take up and read." I could not remember ever having heard the like, so checking the torrent of my tears, I arose, interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book and read the first chapter I should find. Eagerly then I returned to the place where I had laid the volume of the apostle. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: "Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in licentiousness and lewdness, not in strife and envy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts." No further would I read, nor did I need to. For instantly at the end of this sentence, it seemed as if a light of serenity infused into my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” There is no doubt that the experience changed his life. His conversion led to his devoting his life to his faith.

We do not all experience that dramatic change in our lives. Many of us meet God in a quiet way, through the beauty of our world, through prayer, through meditation, through a blessing, in a sermon, in a conversation, through a personal relationship. God even meets us at the least expected times when we think our lives are crumbling around us. God is there at times of loss in our lives. All of the ways in which God meets us are times of grace. Such times of grace meet particular needs at particular moments. They all answer God's command to "love one another even as I have loved you."
The grace of God accomplishes great things in our lives. Through the grace of God working in us, great things happen. Jesus said that if we have the faith of a grain of mustard seed we could move mountains, mountains of hatred, of indifference, of pride, of suffering. Through the grace of our efforts, through prayer, through the sacraments, through the word read, spoken and preached, we receive sufficient grace to move those mountains, grace sufficient to our needs. We reach out, we touch, we use. Grace increases.

John’s gospel focuses on our relation with God. It is a relationship modeled and embodied in Jesus Christ. It is a relationship of love flowing in all directions. To be born again means grasping God’s great gift to us, the gift of this relationship and allowing it to bring new life into our darkness. Let this Lent be an opportunity to grow in new directions, to come into a deeper awareness of God's grace at work in our lives and to know God's abiding presence in our lives and the life of the world. Let it be a time to move out of the darkness into God's own gracious light.
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