A few years ago, my husband was in a car accident. Fortunately, no one was hurt. In fact, he was hit while sitting idle at a stop light! But, as anyone who has been involved in an automobile accident can tell you, the experience leads to endless documentation and telephone calls with insurance agents and claims adjustors and body shops. And so it was with us. On one such conversation with the at-fault driver's insurance company about the damage to be repaired, the adjuster said, "This car has surely been in other accidents! At least two of the dents in the passenger door could not have been caused by this accident." We were surprised. The car, although relatively worn and old, had not been in other accidents and we did not remember any prior damage. After much discussion about this matter, it became clear that the insurance company would not pay for what they called "prior damage" and, therefore, would only approve a partial repair of the damage from the accident.
I was the one who handled that particular conversation; and when I hung up and shared the result with my husband, I found myself frustrated but at the same time smiling, almost giggling, at the absurdity of the situation. Our car would return from the body shop partially repaired because a portion of the damage had not been deemed "worthy" of a remake. Reflecting theologically while humored by the situation, I felt a profound sense of gratitude toward our God who does not function like insurance companies. However, it did get me thinking about God's relationship to body shops.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he knew enough to know that Jesus was offering a new kind of body repair. The temple, priests and traditions had for good Jews been the place to seek repair work. Now Jesus' language implied there was a new fix, a new kind of repair needed for the faithful. Nicodemus came to Jesus by night to check it out.
The Pharisees, we remember, came into being in the 3rd century B.C.E. as a reaction against Hellinism, the increasing Greek influence over thought, practice, philosophy, and religion. The more zealous Jews separated themselves as the pure and pious ones. They became a distinct class, rigid defenders of Jewish tradition. They had grown to positions of power during Jesus' day and often abused that power. They had something to lose in these new concepts and teachings of Jesus, but they also could not resist trying to understand this prophet in greater ways. We meet Nicodemus with this kind of curiosity.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly, at night, and begins a private conversation. But it is important to note that in Greek the "you" becomes plural when Jesus begins speaking. All of a sudden Jesus is talking to more than just Nicodemus--although it's the middle of the night! Jesus knows that he is talking to a larger crowd, is fighting a larger battle, than just an evening conversation with Nicodemus.
Nicodemus represented a rigid kind of thinking about laws and traditions and rituals but also about the basic work of God. Jesus wonders how Nicodemus could be such a trusted teacher and not know the inner workings of God's Spirit, not know the power of God's Spirit. Nicodemus, and the Pharisees, had such clarity about the things of God that any entry of new ideas or expressions was too much to grasp. They seemed unable to bear the weight of the perceived consequences that might come from acceptance of such thinking about the holy.
So, let's return to my Toyota Corolla. After several days in the body shop, you will be interested to know that the car was returned to us completely repaired, no sign of the dents the insurance company insisted were there. I laughed some more. My conclusion was that the guy at the body shop thought a lot more like God, and less like the insurance adjustor. You can't fix almost all of the damage! It must be completely remade! Or, as Jesus would say, "born from above."
What Nicodemus had such a hard time understanding was the concept that God did not want a detailed inventory of every dent, scrape, and scratch on the hearts and lives of the faithful. What God wants is to remake each and every one of us. God doesn't demand a story behind each fender bender. God doesn't pick and choose which sins are forgiven and which ones remain. God gives us new birth with water and the Spirit and remakes us into new creations. Through this new birth, our relationship with God, through Christ, takes on a deeper and more complete meaning as the experiences of our lives are seen through the lens of God's gracious and forgiving work of love.
When our daughter was born, she came home from the hospital within 48 hours of her birth, like most newborns. I introduced her to the basinet and rocking chair and gave her a bath. Within a couple of days we were at her first doctor's visit--the precautionary one, just to make sure she was doing well. The doctor discovered her bilirubin levels were extremely high. She had jaundice. An immediate return to the hospital was required, without even a stop at home to pick up some essentials. For the next several days she and I would remain at the hospital to endure the unforgiving process of sleeping under bright lights and constant bilirubin level checks in order to determine when she was healthy enough to return home. We finally did so after four days.
When I look back at photos from her first couple of days at home, it is so obvious that she was sick. Her face was glowing yellow! I feel a deep sense of guilt each time I see those photos. How could I not have known she was sick? Why didn't I see the signs and call the doctor? I wish I could take that part of her birth story back and change that first week of her life--and my first week of parenthood. But, of course, I can't.
I cannot go back and re-birth our daughter's less than ideal first two weeks of life. And hers hardly compares to so many difficult stories of weeks and months in the NICU that so many new parents experience. Neither can we go back and re-do so many of our difficult trials and adversities in life: loss, addiction, disappointment, heartbreak. We are filled with guilt, regret, and longing. And we often want to hold tight to those feelings, even when God is ready to take them away, giving us a fresh start and a new paint job. Christ's sacrifice would ultimately remake the way in which our lives are given meaning and purpose. Christ's sacrifice will make us new, a forgiven and whole people.
No, we cannot go back and wipe away our past. What we can do is be reborn of water and the spirit. Jesus doesn't promise to re-do our first birth. No, we don't climb back into our mother's wombs to be reborn. It is a different kind of birth--one that allows our spirits to overcome whatever blows the physical world has dealt us and live freely, fully remade, with knowledge and experience of the living God.
Significantly, the late night conversation with Nicodemus the Pharisee begins to wrap up with these famous words, "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." Why is it significant that the encounter with Nicodemus came just before this most beloved scripture? Until Nicodemus believed that one truth, it would be difficult--dare I say impossible--for him to hear or believe anything else. The same God that offered the people of Israel the beautiful laws of the prophets that the Pharisees so dutifully upheld, also offered this greatest of gifts--love.
Eugene Peterson, in The Message translation of scripture, translates verse 17 with these contemporary words, "God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again."
Please pray with me. O God of the day and of the night, come to us with the power of your Holy Spirit. Give us new life by water and the Spirit. Remake, reshape, and renew us through your sacrificial love in Christ Jesus. Amen.