A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

John 3:1-17

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying… Amen.

Michael Mayne, former Dean of Westminster Abbey, and author of the book we are spending time with in our cathedral this Lent, has written on his memorial stone in the Abbey nave, the following words, “You are my journey and my journey’s end.” The words are also found in the first chapter of our book.

“You are my journey and my journey’s end.”

Michael Mayne is speaking to God, I think, and these few words give insight already to the strangeness of the one who invites us to be companion. Dean Frank, in his sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, lay before us the theme of journey and at least two of this morning’s readings would encourage us in to explore this further.

We see two characters Abram and Nicodemus, invited to explore the possibility of God as our companion, our guide, and their responses could not have been more different. Abram, whose story is told in Genesis, is simply told by God, “Go.”

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. (Genesis 12:1-4)

Abram is being asked to leave everything – everything that gives him his identity. His country, his family, his family home. God who asks much also promises much, great blessings. We would have to agree with the Apostle Paul, I think, some of whose Letter to the people of Rome we heard read this morning. Paul honours Abraham’s faith. Paul remembers him as the great one of faith, in going where God bid him go, in trusting that he could walk away from all that gave his life meaning. “Go”, said God and Abram went. A little later in the story, honouring Abram’s faith, God gives a new name, Abraham, a new identity, the father of faith. God said “Go’ and the one who became Abraham followed.

Nicodemus, clearly senses something about Jesus. He is a religious leader and he comes to Jesus “by night’. Symbolism is very important in John’s Gospel, light and dark, in particular. In the Prologue, that echo of the creation account in Genesis, we hear Jesus described as the Word and words said of Jesus:

 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

We are alerted early on in the gospel that Jesus comes to shine as light in the darkness and that that darkness will not win out. We are no strangers to the idea that religious leaders in Jesus’ story do not get what is going on. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. And the encounter between them is not easy. Nicodemus wrestles with Jesus and by the end of our gospel reading, he does not seem to have been enlightened at all. All through their conversation, Jesus and Nicodemus seem to be talking on two completely different levels.

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (John 3:2-3)

Nicodemus takes Jesus literally and wonders how such a second birth is possible. Jesus is speaking on a spiritual level.

‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:5-6)

Nicodemus simply asks “How can these things be?” Jesus seems aghast that a religious leader can have no idea what he is talking about.

Jesus goes on to speak about the way God loves the world. He speaks about his coming to earth from heaven and about the fact that he will embrace death.

One spiritual writer, John Shea, reflects on this:

“Humans are bitten by death. The Son of Man, the one who comes down from above, becomes death, death on a cross. He is lifted up so people can see him. If they see him and believe, eternal life will flow into them. What are they to believe? They are to comprehend how divine life has entered into human life precisely at the point where human life is failing [at the point of death]. …Eternal life both suffuses and transcends temporal life, and this truth is realised by looking at the crucified one.”[1]

Jesus goes on to say the words that are well known and well loved.

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. (John 3:16)

One of my lecturers told us that this means not that God loves the world SO much … but that God loves the world “in this way”. This is the way God shows God’s love, lives out God’s love for the world. God sends God’s son.

John Shea concludes:

“This is the inner truth, the truth at the centre. … We are beings who are grounded and sustained by an ultimate Mystery, but we do not control or comprehend this Mystery. … We are gradually led to a spiritual knowing … that the essence of that Mystery is self-giving love dedicated to human fulfilment.”[2]

God’s love is self-giving love dedicated to human fulfilment. God sends Jesus that we might thrive.

In his conversation with Jesus, though, Nicodemus fails to thrive. He fails to come to any spiritual knowing, to any understanding of what Jesus is saying. For Nicodemus, it is still night.

This scene, though, is not the end of Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. They meet one another on two more occasions in the Gospel according to St John. Towards the end of the Seventh Chapter of the gospel, some religious leaders ask the Temple police why they have not arrested Jesus, given the things he is saying and doing. One of those leaders is Nicodemus. He says, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ (John 7:51) Nicodemus is clearly still puzzled, still wondering about Jesus. He wants to hear him speak more.

And right near the end of the gospel, just after Jesus has been crucified, and there are no more words to be said, we hear that Nicodemus enters the Jesus story again.

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. (John 19:38-40)

Nicodemus brings the spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus helps place Jesus’ body in the tomb. Nicodemus has encountered Jesus in death and we might wonder if he at last finds eternal life there, finds himself born again there, and we might wonder if Jesus’ words do not ring in his ears.

God loved the world [in this way]… he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“You are my journey and my journey’s end.”

Michael Mayne said.

God calls us, each one of us, says to each of us, “Go.” This is expressed a little differently in the gospel accounts for Jesus has come, has descended from heaven, as this morning’s passage puts it and so he says not so much “Go” as “Follow me.”

Abram responded utterly and fully in a story told in just four verses of the first book of the scriptures. Jesus’ presence addressed Nicodemus in such a way that he reached out to him and, yet, Nicodemus’s story of coming into the light took almost the entire text of John’s Gospel to tell.

Journeys are often this way. Few of us are as courageous as Abram or see God as clearly as he did. We might, like Nicodemus, come close for a little while, withdraw baffled and come close again. The journey of faith is rarely straightforward.

We find ourselves in a time of uncertainty with an illness spreading across the globe in a way that may affect all our communities. Our Archbishop reflects with great wisdom on this in his recent letter to clergy:

 Life is fragile and actually we don’t know for sure what any day will hold when we wake up in the morning. The question then is how to respond when the transitory nature of so much of our normal life is made obvious once again? How to respond when we feel anxiety creeping into our feelings and thinking?…

 What looks permanent and dependable very often is not at all. Unexpected change is often just around the corner. We can however in the midst of the turmoil and change and uncertainty depend on the love and strength of God rather than fall into panic.

We know that the one who made us and the one who sent his son that we might know his love is alongside us and strangely goes before us, as well. We know that we journey with one another in this precious family of faith.

Yes, God is our journey and our journey’s end.

[1] John Shea On Earth As It Is In Heaven pp111-112

[2] John Shea, p112