Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3: 1-17
Who here is familiar with the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?” Well, I can honestly say, in some instances I’m a case in point. If I hit the wrong button on the TV/cable remote, I’m out of luck unless one of my kids are around to set it right. I can’t do dropbox or copy files into the i-cloud unless Forrest is there to coach me on. Forget about if a virus has infected my computer, something funky happens with email or on occasion the screen goes blank. I’m stuck until a someone younger can press a few keys to make it all right again.
It's all about handling change. Times marches on. Some of us can keep up with it, most of us struggle to embrace the brave new world. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it, “the only constant thing in this world is change.”
The scriptures speak to us about embracing change, particularly change that comes as a challenge to those of us set in our ways. It’s about teaching old dog new tricks. We can safely say the Bible is a book about change. Of lives being upended. Of new insights gained. Cultures adapting. Tensions flaring between the old way of doing things and the new. The truths of the bible may be eternal, but every new generation must encounter the challenges of the word of God and how to live out the promises of God, interpret and understand the word of God as it speaks to every age.
Our lessons today are a case in point. We encounter three old people Abram, his wife Sarai, and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Each of them is established in their ways. Abram and Sarai are 75 years old, retired from the hard labors of life. They have earned their rocking chairs on the porch. Their routines are predictable. They are looked up to and revered as the elders of the clan. They can take it easy; life has settled and is predictable for them. Then out of the blue, God speaks without any explanation or warning:” “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land I will show you.” Leaving home is hard enough when your young, strong, and full of dreams and energy. Packing up and saying goodbye is always hard no matter what your age is. Add to that having to travel hundreds of miles away, learning new customs and new languages? To not even know the destination ahead of time? That would be more appropriate for someone on the cusp of adulthood. God thinks elsewise. Here, God sends old people to do a young person’s task. God says, I’m not finished with you yet. Old dogs learning new tricks.
In our gospel lesson, we are introduced to Nicodemus, an esteemed elder and prominent Pharisee. The title Pharisee means the ‘separated one.” The Pharisees separated themselves from all things considered foreign, all things considered unholy or unclean in order to keep scrupulously every detail of the Jewish law. The Pharisees believed that only by observing the law strictly could one be deemed righteous, saved, right with God. Only by strict observance of the law could one please God and be justified before God.
What is very important for to know is that they not only strove to the written law, the Torah, but also the oral law which was believed hand down at the same time as the written commandments. The oral law were the explanations and commentary on the law of Moses given to help people understand and obey the commandments perfectly. It was widely believed that two torahs were handed down on Mt. Sinai - the written torah “The Law of Moses” and the oral torah. The oral torah was also passed down from teacher to disciple from parent to child that enabled the observer to obey the law in its truest meaning.
The oral torah, which often was stricter or at times even changed the meaning of the written torah often incurred the anger of Jesus. Take, for example, Matthew 15:36: Jesusanswered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, Honor your faith and mother, or whoever speaks ill of father or mother must surely die. But you say, whoever tells father or mother whatever support you might have had from me is given to God then that person need not honor the father. So for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” Or listen to Jesus in Mark 7:3-4: …Now in holding to the tradition of the elders, the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat until they wash their hands ceremonially. 4And on returning from the market, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions for them to observe, including the washing of cups, pitchers, kettles, and couches for dining.”
The oral Torah had laws about daily living with the goal to keep the observant Jew separate from non-observers, sinners and foreigners. Very often people couldn’t keep the oral torah, and they were deemed unclean. Jesus constantly broke the rules of the oral law, earning him the ire of the Pharisees and elders of the law.
So, the esteemed Nicodemus was a strict keeper of the oral and written laws. No doubt he believed and taught that such strict observance made one right with God, justified by God, pleased in the sight of God. He followed these beliefs all his life. But now Nicodemus sees something in Jesus. Nicodemus says, Teacher, we know you are a teacher sent from God, because no one can do the miracles you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answers dismissing Nicodemus’ honorifics, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot be in God’s kingdom.” Born again, can also mean born from above.
The chapter goes on to depict this prominent and distinguished elder struggling to understand what Jesus was saying. For Nicodemus and other Pharisees, God’s kingdom was reserved for people who scrupulously kept the law of Moses as well as the oral torah. Jesus sweeps away centuries of belief by declaring, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born from water and the Spirit, you cannot enter God’s kingdom. … Don’t be surprised when I tell you, ‘You must all be born again.
With one sentence Jesus cancels decades of Nicodemus’ learning. He blots out centuries of teaching by the Pharisees. Nicodemus, used to sparing with the best of teachers, struggles to understand Jesus’ “How can this be?” “how can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” he fumbles. He’s an old dog struggling to learn new tricks.
Jesus fundamental teaching is this: bottom line: followings hundreds of laws meticulously doesn’t make you right with God. The only right that sets us right is faith in Jesus Christ. Being born again means faith in Jesus which brings the Holy Spirit in our hearts. That alone enables us to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus describes nothing less than being spiritually transformed and remade by God’s grace. Through Jesus our hearts are regenerated and we begin to follow the law of love. Through Jesus we are able to follow the paths of righteousness instead of rigid rules and regulations that keep us separate and apart. Being born again or born from above seeks instead to unite us, to bring us together with others, not keep us apart.
Being born again, born from above, can happen when we are very young, it happens when we are very old. It happens whenever we set aside human presumptions and judgments and seek to instead seek Jesus only, knowing there is nothing we can humanly do to earn the love and forgiveness of God. It’s there for the asking. We don’t have to follow rules to gain God’s goodness or to please God. We don’t gain righteousness through self-efforts. We gain righteousness solely through accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior, who in turn enables us to do good works in keeping with the kingdom of God.
No matter our age, many of us are stuck in our ways. We’ve kept all the rules, did all the right things we were taught, but still feel empty inside. We still feel like we don’t measure up. We feel there’s nothing more we can do. Or worse, some of us feel self-satisfied. Some of us think we’re right with God without having surrendered our heart to Jesus. Jesus is clear, as he was with Nicodemus: Nothing we do, nothing we achieve, nothing we gain, nothing we buy, nothing we give away or take, can earn us love. We need to do only one thing this Lent, to open our hearts to the transforming spirit of God, the powerful mercy of God and be born again.
Accept Jesus as Lord and Savior today. Free your hearts Cast aside the old: learn something new: Be born again. No matter how many times you have confessed this, confess it again. Let us pray:
Lord, we’ve tried it all, but yet we have failed to achieve righteousness. We cling tenaciously to our pride. Open our hearts today. Touch whoever is present here today and needs to know you exist that you love us, that you forgive us. Free us from sin and all pre-conceived notions of the truth that we hold onto. Give each of us the grace to turn to you, accept you as Lord and Savior, and be born again through the power of the holy spirit. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for doing this mighty work in our hearts today. amen