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Birth and Death

Salisbury Cathedral silhouette at night
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 16th March 2014

Sermon by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

(Genesis 12.1-4a; John 3.1-17)

Excuse me for beginning on a highly personal note, and putting what I say rather starkly. I have spent all of last week, since a phone call 7 days ago, waiting for my mother to die. In the same week, my sister has been waiting for the birth of a grandchild who was due 10 days ago. In the event, our mother died yesterday morning, 24 hours after the birth of her 7th great grandchild.

I don't say this to evoke sympathy, though I must thank my colleagues who have offered me much, and who have taken in the slack of my sudden unavailability; and, in truth, I suppose we been saying our farewells to our mother progressively for several years as her mental and physical faculties have declined. Chiefly I mention it, because by coincidence this morning's familiar gospel passage quite naturally focusses our attention on birth and death, and the nature of real life, and so you can see of the intensity with which such matters have formed the background to my thinking this week.

But the prelude in this service to our thoughts about John chapter 3 is set by that short passage from Genesis in which Abram simply responds to God's call to abandon everything which makes people secure - 'your country and your kindred and your father's house' - and to go away a place he will be shown, all on a promise. You can see why St Paul subsequently uses Abram as an example of faith; someone who puts everything aside and goes into a new and unexpected life; and who does so on that promise which is not to him alone but universal - 'in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed'. A trusting response which puts all of life on the line, embraces insecurity, and has consequences for good far beyond one's own circumstances.

Contrast that response with Nicodemus. He comes under cover of dark; he is a leader; he has intellectual grasp, realises the importance of Jesus. But he can't get a grip of the elusive conversation which then ensues with this teacher he has come to see. Jesus talks of being born, of the wind, of ascension to and descent from heaven, of the Son of Man being lifted up, and he, Nicodemus, makes neither head nor tail of it.

The problem for Nicodemus, what leaves him floundering, is not rooted in his intellectual capacity, but the condition he is in. In this passage there is a kind of mockery about the descriptions of his status: he is a 'leader' who comes alone in secret; he is a 'teacher' who does not understand. He is confronted with the notion of being stripped right back to babyhood, with losing almost everything which makes him what he is. He is confronted with the image of the heaven-sent Son of Man lifted up, echoing Moses lifting up the image of serpent to save God's people in the face of death in the wilderness; but in this case evoking the lonely powerlessness of the crucifixion.

A snake is a smooth and slippery thing - I know, we have one in our living room - and when Jesus talks of being born his language is also slippery. There is quite literally a pun here in John's text. Does he mean we must be born again, or that we must be born from above? We will make the same mistake as Nicodemus if we expect to be able to pin God down, to confine him, to define him. What binds earth to heaven is not understanding, or definition, or position - not that kind of human certainty - but the action of God: being alive in the Spirit. That requires being vulnerable in ways which we see starkly at moments of life and death, moments when we are least in control of our circumstances.

John's gospel is in many ways one of christianity's most subtle and complex texts. But it actually points us to the simplest and most universal of human experiences as signs of God and humanity, and the concepts could hardly be more primordial. He is the giver of life, there from the beginning. He is light; we flounder in darkness. He is food; we are hungry. He is water; we are thirsty. He has given us birth; he gives us a different kind of birth. He is the source of everything, and the means to everything; all we have to do is believe.

The example of Nicodemus shows that this can be easier to say than to do, or rather to be. We are born out of love, both in human, physical terms, and in spiritual terms through the creative power of God. If we are locked like Nicodemus to the things within our grasp and control, things like knowledge, power, status, possessions, we close ourselves off from the love which is the very source and meaning of life. Truly to know that, we have to be as feeble and unknowing as a baby or a man dying on a cross.  Truly to be alive, is to let that wind of God blow through our lives, not to grasp, but to respond, to trust, and to love.