Lent 2        John 3:1-17

The bigger picture in Lent

My first thought when I read this Gospel was, "Why have they chosen this for Lent 2?" I expect those of you who read the documents that liturgical commissions put out can tell me the answer. I prefer to think of my own. Last week we heard about Jesus' temptation in the desert and were reminded by the preacher of the significance of giving up chocolate and taking on other Lenten disciplines. That is good. However, there is always a danger in Lent that we are focussed on the wrong thing: the agony of going without gin, the strain of getting out of bed early, even the joy of spending more time in prayer and we can be counting the days till the next time we can pour a decent drink, or eat some chocolate.

Today's Gospel makes us look at the big picture. It starts by pointing us to baptism in water and the spirit, that whole mystery of being born again which we all know is not simply a single event but a process that is going on throughout our lives. Lent may be to us a reminder of the baptism which brought us into the body of Christ and of our need to reclaim that, or renew our commitment to it, or renew our promises, as we shall do on Easter day. We cannot think too much of the mystery of baptism, not just what happened several years ago when we were baptised but how that continues to change our lives today. To be born again...Those of you who remember the Greek will remember that the word translated usually as 'again' can also mean 'from above'. There is a real and intended ambiguity there. To be born again can be seen as a one off event, something that took place in a particular day at a particular time but to be born from above is something that is going on all the time as we enter into the sacraments of confession and communion and allow the presence of Christ within us to transform us slowly and steadily into the kind of people who will one day find our place in the nearer presence of God.

That would be quite enough to cope with for one Lent but our Gospel today paints us a bigger picture. It quickly tells us the story of Christ: one who has descended from heaven, one who has ascended to heaven, one who has been lifted up on the Cross (very Johannine that lifted up in glory, not humiliated), that he might save the world and give us who believe eternal life. That quickly is the whole salvation story, from incarnation, to passion week, death on a Cross , resurrection and ascension into glory. Lent must not be focussed simply on the lenten fast, on the things we do now. To make sense of the Lenten fast we have to look to where it is taking us and that is the glory of Easter and all that goes with it.

Some years ago I spent a fair amount of Lenten time in Romania talking with the Romanian Orthodox about why they go to confession and why they fast. Now, fasting amongst the Orthodox is serious. It puts us to shame; not just giving up chocolate and maybe coming to compline. They give up meat and all dairy products for the whole of Lent and add quite serious devotions as well. Yet there is no sense of dread amongst them as Lent approaches; no whinging about how aweful it will be to do without chocolate for six weeks. For them, Lent is exciting; it is part of the battle against sin, the world and the flesh; it is a preparation for that marvellous moment when they will confess their sins and receive their Easter communion. It is not just the Cross that casts its shadow over Lent, it is the rising sun of Easter that provides the light that makes the shadow, a light which reassures us that however dark the shadow gets it is not the end. There is always light beyond. So today, in this Gospel which takes place in the darkness, in the middle of the night, Christ who is the light begins to cast his light unto the darkness of Nicodemus' mind. Nicodemus doesn't yet understand, but he will when the light has pushed back the darkness.

Can we draw this picture a bit bigger? I believe we can. We have taken a quick look at the whole story of Christ our saviour but the story gives us the whole Trinity. It is God who sends his Son, not the Son doing it off his own bat perhaps to sneak up on an angry Father. Whatever is done happens through the Spirit that Spirit which blows as he chooses and no one sees where he goes or from where he comes. No wonder Nicodemus doesn't understand. Does Jesus really expect him to? The whole point of the Spirit is that we can't see it any more than we can see the wind. We can see its effects, clouds scudding across the sky, trees bending in its path; we can feel its effects, air beating against our cheeks. So it should be during Lent... we won't see the Spirit but we should feel his action and see the fruits of his work, if we pay attention. One of the few really good books I have read during Lent was Martin Smith's "Season of the Spirit." We don't have to wait until Pentecost until we can celebrate the Spirit. This is his time too.

Finally I must come back to Nicodemus, dear good Nicodemus. He is one of my favourite people in the Gospel. He is a good man, a good Jew, a Pharisee but one who earnestly strove for the Kingdom of God. We sometimes mock him because he came to Jesus by night when no one could see. Yet he came and Jesus listened to him and talked to him and Nicodemus stayed on until the end and tried to defend Jesus in the Sanhedrin and, later, helped take him down from the Cross. Maybe the point of Nicodemus today, for us, at the beginning of this Lent, was that he didn't understand. He was a good, faithful, learned man, a teacher of Israel but he didn't understand what Jesus was about and perhaps he couldn't understand until he let go of all the things he had been taught and let this Spirit that blows where it wills, come into his mind and teach him completely new truths about God.

Aren't we like Nicodemus or should we not be like him and ask, Do I really understand? I have been faithful for many years, I have tried hard, learned much, become much respected perhaps by others. I thought I understood but have I really? Can this Lent teach me that I haven't really understood the things of earth? Can I begin to understand the things of heaven?

Nicolas Stebbing CR