Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
Ephesians 3:16-20a, from The Message
How can these things be?
That was Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ mystical, straight-out-of-left-field discourse about being born again—all that business about Spirit and flesh, water and wind, kingdom of God and someplace above.
Whoa, says Nicodemus. Really, Jesus, I was just coming to check you out, to see if you might be the real deal.
“You’ve gotta be born again, Nic,” Jesus says, adding, “from above”—as if that explains anything, as if being born from above is a thing.
Say what? the ever-literal Nicodemus asks again. How is that possible?
How can these things be?
It’s a question that is asked again and again throughout our scriptures—throughout human history, really. And in our lives, too.
Think Abraham and Sarah, ages 100 and 90, being told they would have a son and, eventually, more descendants than stars in the sky. Of course, they laughed!
Think fugitive Moses being recalled to the scene of the crime to liberate his people; brother-cheating, father-scamming Jacob being made father of a nation, foreign widow Ruth giving rise to the very shoot of Jesse that will produce Jesus; shepherd-boy David becoming a king; on and on and on until a young girl named Mary asks, How can this be?; and another Mary, previously demon-possessed, becomes the first preacher of resurrection.
Who could have imagined such twists of fate? Who could have predicted the seemingly impossible coming to pass again and again and again?
Think itinerant prophet, healer, and teacher executed by the state. Fast-forward 2,000 years and witness his church still proclaiming an extravagant, ever-expanding love, his human body— hands and feet, eyes and hearts and ears and elbows—still feeding the hungry, serving the poor, working for justice and peace, loving, loving, loving.
On that dark, deadly Friday, who would have thought? Who could have imagined it? How can these things be?
We forget sometimes that our history, our very existence, is made from an infinite number of unlikely events and a multitude of unremarkable but faithful characters who refused to listen to the hordes of naysayers telling them what couldn’t be done, that they should accept things as they were, that they didn’t belong, that they were just plain wrong.
Okay, maybe some of them were desperate, maybe they didn’t have many choices. Maybe times were tough and some of them had nothing less to lose—though Abram and Sarai seemed to be doing just fine, thank you very much. But still they took a leap of faith, not knowing where they were going or what it would take to get there. Still, when God promised some utterly preposterous thing, they listened.
When God told the brokenhearted exiles she was doing a new thing, they began to look for it. When God told the people walking in darkness they would see a great light, they went out and bought sunglasses. When God promised weary wanderers that every valley would be lifted up and the rough places made plain, they put on their walking shoes and headed for the door.
From time immemorial, faithful, surviving, world-changing people have somehow managed to trust that something better was possible, that something new and different could happen, that their mistakes could be forgiven, that their hearts could be healed, that they could start over—even that they could be born again. By God’s grace, they imagined a new day and a better way
Friends, it seems to me that we are in dark times. Some us feel we are in exile, strangers in a suddenly strange land. In this scary new world of alternative facts, executive orders, Muslim bans, immigration crackdowns, health-care repeals, science denials, transgender protections removed, and justice rolled back at every turn, it is hard to keep up. Some of us are weary already
As we struggle to resist injustice, as we organize to protect the vulnerable, as we try to discern what it means follow Jesus in this time, and as we journey together through a Lent in which the cross feels ever-present, we need not just survival strategies but also thriv-al strategies. We need spiritual practices that will keep us grounded us in what is real and true, connected to God’s story, rooted in love, nurtured in community, plugged in to Spirit power.
We began the season by giving up, an appropriately counter-intuitive method for seeking new life. Last week we spoke of the importance of consistently choosing life—intentionally turning away from the passing pleasures of power, pride, and possessions to take hold of what gives life and love, hope and peace. We were encouraged to tell better stories than the shame-inducing, misery-producing narrative many of us were given.
This morning’s scriptures remind us that we must also practice imagination.
Now, you might think we don’t hear the words imagine or imagination in the stories of Abram and Sarai and Nicodemus. But surely they are there. Surely they are implied in the attitudes and actions we associate with important churchy words like faith, belief, and trust. After all, what is a leap of faith if not an act of imagination?
What is trusting in the Lord if not imagining something different than what is, something new and better that comes not by our doing but by the grace of God?
Imagination takes practice. Imagination requires letting go and opening up. Imagination calls us away from what is to what could be; it challenges us to consider not who we are but who God would have us become.
Imagination is hard, especially when we are just trying to survive, when it takes all that we have just to get by, to make it through another day. Imagination requires a rejection of the story of empire, the narrative of win-and-lose, the same tired patterns of reacting and responding to the latest outrage. Imagination calls us out of our heads and into our hearts.
That journey was a bridge too far for poor Nicodemus. Jesus tells him new life is possible; Jesus offers him a fresh start. Maybe Nicodemus wants a king. Maybe he’s looking for three-pronged strategy for overthrowing the Romans and 10-point plan for making Israel great again. All Jesus says is that he must be born again.
Right then and there, Nicodemus has a failure of imagination. How can these things be? he asks.
The problem is not, of course, with the quite-reasonable question, but with our demand for a clear, straight answer.
We want to know how, and God says, in so many words, trust me.
We want to know what, and Jesus says give up.
We want to know when, and all the stories are pretty unclear about that.
We want to know where, and Jesus says follow me.
You must be born again, he tells Nicodemus. You must leave what is before you can arrive at something new, God tells Abram and Sarai, Moses and the enslaved Israelites, Jacob and his brothers, Ruth and Naomi, Mary and Joseph, and pretty much everyone who’s ever lived.
You must imagine something different. You must trust that God holds you in her heart. You must die to what is false, to all that wounds and enslaves, and be born again to the truth, wholeness, and freedom that no no earthly power, White House, Supreme Court, or health care bill can give.
Faith, trust, and imagination are far more than spiritual practices for tough times; they are essential practices for life—and they become only more critical, more absolutely necessary when times are tough, when conditions tempt us to simply put our heads down and muddle through, to focus on surviving rather than living.
Faith, trust, and imagination are holy gifts of the God who made us in their image. They are necessary not only for the fullness of life God promises to each of us, but also essential to the healing and well-being of the world that God so loves.
Go from what you can see, go from all you know, God tells Abram and Sarai, to a land that I will show you, a home you cannot yet see, a place you can only imagine. Trust that I will bless you, so that you might be a blessing. We will be partners, you and I, in making peace and doing justice. We will be partners in love.
Be born again, Jesus tells Nicodemus.
In a life that loves to remind you of your mistakes, know yourself forgiven and free. In a world riddled with brokenness, know yourself whole.
In the face of an administration that seeks to divide and conquer, imagine yourselves one with all creation and all humanity, with people of all faiths and no faith, people of great means and no means. In a culture that labels some people as “other,” see all people as beloved children of God; imagine Christ’s face in the eyes of everyone you see. In a value system that says you are weak and powerless, imagine yourself strong in the power of the Spirit, victorious in the face of death.
Because you need new life, and the world needs people who have come alive to what is possible in and through God. The world needs a church that is more focused on imagining God’s new and better life for all than simply surviving according to the old ways.
Go, God says. Be born again, Jesus says.
And then they put the world in our hands.