Are you ready?
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “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 Has Amnesia of the Heart
Abraham was given a cosmic-sized promise, Lord.
More often than not, we just want little things in comparison:
Healing for Brad, peace in our nation
Safe streets, good schools
Honest work, food for hungry mouths,
That you would remember only the good in us
And erase the bad.
They seem little in the grand scheme, but mean the world to us.
If you will, Lord, make us the answer to our prayers today,
That we might be saved through Christ.
The brilliant and beautiful British poet, Denise Levertov has this multi-stanza poem, The Cold Spring, that brought me back to myself on Wednesday. I found myself reading it as I was holding in my heart the many places in our lives, here at church and otherwise, in need of the kind of subversive strength that poetry provides. Holding Brad from afar. Holding the memory of Frank and prayers for the Kuhars. All a mix of prayer and heartache, beautiful and broken.
It feels like a lot. One of the things I’ve promised myself as a preacher is not to pretend to be something I’m not; not to say anything from the pulpit that I didn’t myself hold true; to be vulnerable because we have a vulnerable God and if we’re ever going to be able to talk about God in any real way, we have to be vulnerable: to change, to heartache, to being reshaped, to loving and losing.
In The Cold Spring, stanza iii, Levertov uses this wondrous phrase that jumped out at me. She wrote, “In this amnesia of the heart…” and I didn’t go on with the rest of the line, because this one so grabbed me.
Amnesia of the heart. What does that mean? Why does that feel so real right now?
I think one of the reasons it feels so real right now is because I feel like there’s a lot of confusion. My “to do” list for the week became a “to don’t” list.
Don’t obsess about that small detail, it doesn’t matter. There are more important things.
Don’t fuss with that project today, Tim. Hug your babies.
Don’t neglect to pray and meditate today, that paperwork can wait another week.
Don’t fret about filing your taxes. The government will get their share, and hearts need to be tended and given their share.
I’m not saying that God is encouraging procrastination. For most of us, I don’t think we need any Divine encouragement to procrastinate.
What I’m saying is that, sometimes in life it can feel as if your heart has amnesia: it forgets, and therefore forgoes, what is important for what is immediate or obnoxious or in demand.
When Nicodemus comes to Jesus, flattering him by calling him “Rabbi” and seeing confirmation in Jesus’ specialness through his miracles, the scriptures say he “comes by night” which is an indication that he comes in great confusion, probably spiritual confusion.
In the Gospel of John in particular, all things that happen at night or in darkness are spiritually confusing: the woman washing Jesus’ feet, the last supper, the crucifixion and burial in the tomb.
It is clear that Nicodemus has amnesia of the heart. He thinks faith is about lists and getting things right and miracles and flattery and doing something to get in the “kingdom of God.” In fact, in the Gospel of John, it could be said that all organized religion has amnesia of the heart.
Glad organized religion has cleared that up…
Nicodemus isn’t clear anymore what it means to be near to God, and so he flatters Jesus in the hopes that Jesus will flatter him with some secret insight. Jesus instead flatters him with an impossible task: be born again. The Greek here is fun, it’s punny if you will, because anothen, the Greek word used here, can mean “born again” OR “born from above.” Nicodemus obviously thinks Jesus means the first way, when Jesus really means it the second way.
It’s funny, though, because according to Jesus being “born from above” is not something you can do. It is something that God does to you. For you. With you. On you. All of that and more.
It is a new way of looking at the world. It is taking off your glasses that show everything in terms of right and wrong, good and bad; it’s about taking off your score-keeping spectacles, and seeing everything through glasses of wholeness and grace.
Don’t give me that confused look. The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. Don’t you understand these things?
No. We don’t. Because it’s not something to be understood like a math equation. So much of faith has been reduced to a math equation these days. Say this prayer, believe the right things, and you shall be saved is the message we send so often.
It’s the same message that the faith in Jesus’ day sent, too.
And Jesus changes that message, hence why they threw him on the cross. This is part of that “where did the cross come from,” question.
Jesus does not say to Nicodemus, “You so loved God’s word that you gave your heart to it so that everyone who does this God grants abundant life.”
Jesus instead says, “God so loved God’s world that God gave to us the Son, that whoever trusts that this happens has abundant life.”-my own translation from the Greek.
What grace. What a gift. Why, Beloved, do we keep trying to earn by flattery and confirm through miracles what is so obviously ours already?
You know, Jesus has amnesia of the heart, too, thank God.
Jesus’ heart forgets all of our Nicodemus sides that try to curry God’s favor, who still think deep down that by following some set of rules we’re storing up righteousness.
Jesus’ heart forgets all of those moments where we love ourselves but not our neighbor.
Jesus’ heart forgets our own forgetfulness and replaces is with the only memory that God seems to have sometimes: the memory of how God so loves the world that God doesn’t want to condemn, but only redeem.
Where our hearts seem to have amnesia when it comes to what is important and remember those things that curse, Jesus’ heart seems to have amnesia when it comes to the curses, and only remembers that we, by God, are important.
Being born from above, Beloved, means that kind of amnesia of the heart: seeing the belovedness all around you. Nicodemus, to be born from above, needs to let go of his flattery and attempts to get it right, and instead see everything in the light of God’s grace.
And this is a grace that doesn’t gloss over our cracks and failures, but rather just seems to have come to the consensus that none of that is fatal in the eternal end.
I wrote in Friday Faithprints about all the times I could recall where I could say I’ve been born again, or born from above as the translation is better known.
All of those moments were broken and beautiful: births, deaths, encounters that changed and forged me and brought awareness to not only my amnesia of the heart and my ability to forget what is important and focus too much on what is immediate or loudest or obnoxious, but also brought assurances that Jesus had a remarkable way to not mark my moments spiritual confusion as something fatal, but a part of a beloved creation.
This is what Nicodemus, what we all, need to remember but so easily forget.
You know how the story ends, right? We see Nicodemus again, if we keep reading the Gospel of John. Nicodemus comes back, again by night, in the last chapters, to take the body of Jesus off the cross and place it in the tomb. Spiritually confused Nicodemus was probably most confused at that moment, when it seemed like death had won: the miracle worker couldn’t keep from dying. It seems Jesus’ heart was vulnerable after all to the strain of life and death.
All of our hearts are.
But, well, you know the story. Jesus’ amnesia of the heart was well intact even then, Beloved, even as his heart stopped beating, because his heart, you see, seems to have forgotten it was dead after a few days, and burst forth, alive and redeemed, sloughing off the curse, dragging all of us and our confused, vulnerable, amnesia-ridden hearts into new life and resurrection glory along with him.
Broken and beautiful, spiritually confused, Beloved people: God did not come to condemn the world…God’s heart seems conveniently to forget condemnation…but only to redeem and resurrect and give grace upon grace.
And I don’t know about you, but I long to look at the world through those glasses today.