What am I Forgetting?
When the sun is shining and the roads are cleared of snow and salt, I try as best as I can to ride my bicycle to work several times each week. On these days, I pack my laptop, keys, and a change of clothes, stuff my lunch into my bag and buckle my helmet. I climb the hill adjacent to my house, cruise down the streets of Madison’s west side, and turn on to the Southwest Commuter Path, setting a course for downtown. Soon, I am at my office, ready to begin the new day. Having missed the slow-moving traffic of the Beltline, and having avoided the hunt for a coveted Isthmus parking spot, I arrive feeling refreshed, awakened, renewed.
But not every morning bike ride is idyllic. As I am sure some here can relate to, I am a notorious forgetter of important things.
For my job, I need to remember my laptop. I’ve left it sitting on the kitchen table. I need a key card to get into my office. I’ve left it sitting on the nightstand. I need the key for my bike lock, I’ve left it sitting in the garage, I need my lunch so I can try to eat healthily, I’ve left it chilling in the refrigerator. I need clothes to change into, I’ve left them in the closet, I need my phone so I can call for a ride if my bike breaks down – I’ve left it plugged into the charger. I don’t forget something every day, but every day I worry about what I have left behind. So if you should be driving your car on Manchester of Pilgrim on a weekday morning around 7 AM, don’t be surprised if you see me, frantically searching through my backpack, trying to verify that I did indeed remember my keys. And don’t be surprised if you see me with a frustrated expression on my face, turning back towards home to retrieve something forgotten yet necessary.
Turning back to retrieve the important things I have forgotten is never easy. I know that it adds extra time to my commute, which means that I will feel hurried, and may even be late for my first meetings of the day. But it’s also a physically difficult act. Usually, by the time I have realized what I have left behind, I have conveniently reached the top of the hill that runs through my neighborhood, putting myself somewhere next to the water tower just south of here. This means that I will have to repeat the exertion that it took me to reach the top of the hill. I’ll have to redo the huffing and the puffing, I’ll have to put my tired legs back to work. Still, I turn around. I arrive back at home. I retrieve what I had left, double-checking that I did not forget anything else. And I start again.
The Challenge of Starting Over
It seems that there are few acts more challenging than turning back and starting again. Whether mentally anguishing or physically taxing, a new start is seldom easy. Few of us want to hear that we need a new start. We would prefer to rest in the assumption that we are well on our way, that we are secure in our sense of direction, that our destination is closer than our point of origin. Those of us who would rather not start again will find Jesus’ words today particularly challenging.
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says to the Pharisee Nicodemus, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
It’s important to pause here and consider what Jesus meant by “above.” The word “above” comes from the Greek “anothen”, which can be translated as “again.” “Above” isn’t a direction like up or down. “Above” here functions more like a repeat sign in a piece of music. Nobody can see the Kingdom of God without starting over, without being born again.
We’ll come back to Jesus and Nicodemus in a moment. But because we live in a culture that ascribes a singular meaning to the phrase “born again,” it’s also important to reflect a bit on this phrase. Popular media frequently uses the phrase “born again” to describe a particular type of Christian. But being “born again” is in fact a daily practice that calls us each day to faithful reflection.
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther connects being “born again” with our Baptism. After asking what baptizing with water signifies, Luther responds, “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Baptism is an act of starting anew, of turning around, of choosing a different direction.
For Luther, this act of starting anew, of turning around to retrieve our forgotten identity as children of God, takes place daily. We are born again in the moments when we remember that we belong to Christ, when we turn away from the false promises that the world proclaims and turn back towards the only promise we can always trust. Christ continually calls us to turn around- no matter how far along we are on our journey, no matter how secure we may feel. As we pause on Sundays and all of our days to listen to that still, sacred voice of God, we hear God’s faint yet irresistible summons: to mindfully pause, to contrast the fleeting with the eternal, and to orient our hearts towards God’s Word.
And so this morning we hear from Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-17). One of the first things we learn about Nicodemus is that he was a Pharisee. For those who have skipped ahead to the end of John’s Gospel, we might see the Pharisees as somewhat villainous – the author of John casts some from this group in a leading role in the conspiracy to convict Jesus.
A Reset for the World
But as was the case with many groups in first-century Judaism, the Pharisees were actually a quite diverse group. What they shared in common was a passion for extending the experience of God’s mercy beyond the Temple walls. By learning, knowing, and living out God’s law, the Pharisees believed that one could draw nearer to God whether one was in the Temple courts or anywhere else! Their thinking would go on to become a compelling idea in a time of chaos and confusion after the destruction of the Temple. So let’s not think of the Pharisees as villains – let’s think of the Pharisees as experimenters and innovators. Let’s think of Nicodemus as a dynamic leader, one who was likely fluent in the scriptures and likely quite compelling in his preaching and teaching.
And yet – Jesus instructs Nicodemus to turn around, to turn back, to be born again. Despite all of Nicodemus’ knowledge, despite his social standing, despite his learnedness and expertise, he must turn back from the course he was on, and start again.
Why does Jesus give us these instructions? Why shake us from our sense of security and complacency with a difficult message that some would rather not hear? Not to punish, nor to prove a point. Jesus summons us to be born again so that we might believe, so that our lives might be transformed, so that the world might be saved.
We know this because of the lines we hear at the conclusion of today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus offers us the central thesis of our faith: “For God 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.”
That’s why we turn back. That’s why we start again. We know that though the road may be difficult, it is in fact the road to salvation.
An End to Coasting
Perhaps my single favorite Bible verse is John 3:17, that which immediately follows John 3:16, a verse that I wish would be printed on as many signs, bumper stickers, and T-shirts as its predecessor: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus takes all of us, the sinners and saints, the scholars and learners, the experts and beginners, and demands that we be born again – not just once, but daily. Christ beckons us to turn around and retrieve the important things we have forgotten, by living into a counter-cultural way of being, a way that prioritizes mercy and reconciliation in a world that would sometimes prefer neither.
This is the work that this season of Lent gives us the space for, the work that we take up through practices of prayer, silence, study, and contemplation. Lent is a season where we squeeze the brakes, where we stop our downhill spiritual coasting. Lent is a season where we remember that which we have forgotten to take with us, where we turn around and reclaim the promises that Christ gives us each and every day.