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Lent 2: Cathedral – Sunday 12 March 2017

As some of you may know, I had a three week holiday in New Zealand in February.  One of the benefits at the time was being able to sit very lightly to the news. Various members of our group would keep abreast of what was going on and tell the rest of us, but after the first two or three days we made a pact not to mention Donald Trump before midday,  because it was too upsetting in the early morning for the 5 Americans in our midst. Coming back into normal life last week only served to highlight how the certainties of our lives have been shaken in recent months. The political earthquakes of Brexit and the American Presidential elections are still delivering their aftershocks,  and there are as yet no clearly signposted pathways on the map of our future. We may have a very good idea of the paths we don’t want to follow, but negotiating the way ahead in our political and social economy will have to cover some very tricky ground.

Whilst in New Zealand I confronted the reality of physical earthquake and its terrifying impact. In the Te papa museum in Wellington there is an earthquake simulator in which the point is brought home that we are completely powerless against the earth’s forces. And in and around Christchurch there is evidence all around of its destructive force, roads and bridges destroyed, buildings cracked and damaged in the November earthquake, les than six years after the disastrous 2011 earthquake. Living with the possibility of earthquake is an added dimension to life there. And yet there are signs of hope, one of which is the Transitional Cathedral in Christchurch, a beautiful, light, colourful and prayerful place of worship.   After the 2011 earthquake, a woman priest there, Sandie Ramage, wrote:

 “Living with uncertainty is the reality of existence. We pretend otherwise by constructing systems and traditions that look reliable, until we are stopped in our tracks by a disaster such as that which has struck Christchurch. At times like this, when all our usual reference points have disintegrated, people can react in unusual ways. When trouble overwhelms us it is instinctive to call out to God. It matters little what your theology is, or if you believe in God or not. What matters is the ability and freedom to express powerlessness in the face of tragedy and ongoing uncertainty....”

She continues: “Despite our best efforts, hope can remain elusive unless we downsize expectations. There is a distinction to be made between unreasonable and reasonable hope. (and here Sandie Ramage refers to the work of Kathe Wenigarten, an American professor of Psychology).  Unreasonable hope is when we think God will save Christchurch, or that anything is going to be the same again after thousands of quakes. Reasonable hope means we become realistic, sensible and moderate, directing our attention to what is within reach instead of what is desired but unattainable.”

What is within reach is the hope given us by the cross of Christ. The basis of our hope, the sign for Christians and we pray for others in our disordered world is that Jesus, the Word of God made flesh and living among us, has already embodied the life of God in historical form; through the Spirit we believe that all human lives will one day be united to the eternal Word.  Nicodemus, that rather enigmatic figure, comes by night to seek out Jesus because he wants to see him as sign of God’s presence and meaning, he is, if you like, testing the waters.

The first part of John’s gospel, the first 11 chapters, is sometimes known as the book of Signs.  Jesus in chapter 2, has just performed, reluctantly, the first of his signs, the changing of the water into wine at the wedding at Cana. Here we are in chapter 3. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the important religious people of Jesus’ time.  He’s heard about Jesus – well, I’m sure everyone in Jerusalem has heard about Jesus, because he overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and accused the temple authorities of turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves.  I doubt if a good story like that could have been kept quiet. But Nicodemus is curious about this man.  He wants to know more about him, and so seeks out Jesus in order to have a serious conversation.  

He starts by admitting that he knows that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God.  But then he is baffled by Jesus’ response to him.  It seems that he couldn’t get his head around the idea of a kingdom that was not material or political, and the implied impossibility of seeing or entering it.  His thought patterns, formed by the Jewish teaching, couldn’t allow for it. Can Jesus really be the longed- for Messiah?  Jesus tells him that understanding God’s ways requires being born into a new dimension. 

Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees are clinging to the law as their anchor and when that was threatened by Jesus in his signs – like the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath, the healing of the man who had been blind all his life, and above all the raising of Lazarus -  then the religious establishment rejected him entirely.

Nicodemus, like all of us who read John gospel, has to choose. We too have to ask ourselves whether we are too weighted down by the inheritance of church tradition to be open to the Spirit of God trying to move us on in our individual and collective pilgrimages.  We’re always tempted to cling to the familiar, especially if we’re living with the aftermath of metaphorical earthquake and its aftershocks. So often we narrow our God down to something we would like to control and confine – but God is so much greater than anything we can imagine or comprehend, and we cannot presume to impose conditions on his love.  God in Christ stretches out his arms on the cross to save the world, not just a few like-minded people who think they know who God is and what God is like.

As Jesus so forcibly tells Nicodemus, there is only one way to find out what  God is like, and that is to commit yourself to the Son of Man, whose lifting up on the cross is to be the true sign of God’s loving design. Nicodemus cannot go home pretending to be baffled by what Jesus has said. He has to decide. We don’t know at this point what he does decide.  But when we meet Nicodemus again it is at the foot of the cross. He has now decided, and he has brought with him a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds; in other words he has brought spices fit for the burial of a king. 

Putting aside our anxieties and uncertainties, may we, this Lent, be open to the Spirit of God, so that we too may recognise Christ as king, king  of our hearts and lives, a source of hope for all the world.

Thanks be to God who 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.   

Amen. 

The Reverend Canon Celia Thompson

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