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John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Have you ever gotten to a place in your life where you needed a do-over? You just wanted to start over.
How do we begin again?
There are an infinite number of answers to that question. It’s a great question.
It is, in essence, what Nicodemus is asking Jesus, though at that moment he may not understand what he’s asking. The important thing is that he IS asking.
Nicodemus is a pharisee, a teacher of Jewish law, who probably comes to Jesus at night because he’s taking a risk. Maybe Nicodemus has a gut feeling about Jesus. Maybe Nicodemus has been reviewing the writings of Moses and the prophets and thinking deeply about how Jesus fits.
In John 3:2, Nicodemus initially greets Jesus with a statement: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He says, “We.” So maybe Nicodemus is the one with the most curiosity and courage, and so he’s the one who volunteers to go talk to Jesus.
One of the things I love is that Nicodemus doesn’t just accept what Jesus says first and walk away. He admits he doesn’t understand and asks more questions. Pharisees are used to having deep discussions about the meaning and application of the Torah, but Nicodemus could have been embarrassed to admit he doesn’t understand. I have been embarrassed to ask, and later regretted it. Years ago a boss gave me a long explanation about how to do something…too long, so I lost track, and by the time she was done I realized I had no idea what to do. But I was afraid to say so, so I didn’t. She went off expecting that I would now do what she’d asked, and was quite upset to come back and find I hadn’t. Then I had to admit I didn’t get it, and she explained again. Thankfully she was gracious about it, like Jesus is with Nicodemus.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again[or born from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It’s an encouragement. Nicodemus says he sees God at work in Jesus, and Jesus says that Nicodemus can see that because the Holy Spirit is working in Nicodemus.
But Nicodemus doesn’t seem to know about spirituality. Nicodemus knows the law. So Nicodemus fixates on the literal meaning of Jesus’ words. “What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” (John 3:4) Jesus is being metaphorical, speaking about an entirely different kind of rebirth, a spiritual rebirth.
Nicodemus shows us the value in asking questions and wrestling with Jesus’ teachings, so that we move beyond literal meanings that get stuck on the “how to” of getting into the kingdom, and toward a deeper understanding.
We don’t know whether Nicodemus fully understands Jesus in that moment, but we do see Nicodemus again, standing up for Jesus in a council discussion, asking “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” (John 7:50) And he helps Joseph of Arimathea to care for Jesus’ body after the Crucifixion (John 19:39).
How do we begin again? Ask questions. Keep on asking. Nicodemus begins again by going to Jesus with his questions.
The Bible is full of stories about beginning again. We see one in Genesis in the story of Abraham. Genesis 12 says:
The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.
How do we begin again? Just do it. Leave. Go. Start.
Abram left Haran, his home, and went to Canaan. How did he get from Haran to Canaan?
As the Chinese proverb says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
In these first steps the Holy Spirit is working. Jesus said in John 5:17 NLT, “My Father is always working, and so am I.”
That’s why history is full of new beginnings like the Renaissance and the Reformation – Sort of like Star Trek…
I don’t know if you have ever thought about this, but it seems like every Star Trek movie ends with the starship Enterprise sustaining heavy damage in a fight that the Federation nevertheless ultimately wins, and so the next movie usually begins with a rebuilt or redesigned Enterprise. Rebuilt one piece at a time. After all, it’s not Star Trek without the Enterprise. It says so in the opening credits of every episode and every movie:
Space, the final frontier
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise
Its five-year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life
And new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before
I think the Holy Spirit is carrying us forward similarly. So, I made us our own version:
Life & Death – the final frontiers
These are the voyages of the Holy Spirit
Its eternal mission:
To explore strange new people
To seek out new life
And new congregations
To boldly go where no one has gone before
It could work…
How do we begin again? Just do it…One step at a time. (Like eating an elephant…)
And how else? We trust God.
In Romans 4, the apostle Paul uses Abraham as his example of trusting God for new beginnings. Long before there was the law of Moses, the Torah, Abraham believed God and trusted God enough to do what God called him to do. Romans 4:13-14 says:
“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void…
Beginning again, rebirth depends on faith. It depends on grace and not on following the law. (v16) We share the faith of Abraham when we too believe that God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17)
Sometimes our ability to envision renewal and rebirth comes through fiction that helps us see possibilities. This is how Star Trek helped NASA to begin again after a horrible tragedy in 1967. The very first Apollo mission, the three crew members got into the cockpit of the rocket and began their countdown checklist. But then spark set their oxygen-enriched cabin on fire, and all three of them died.
When that fire happened, NASA had only been sending rockets up for six years. That same year, the Star Trek series was released, set in the future, in the 23rd century. Star Trek was quite popular with the people at NASA, many of whom participated in a national group that held an annual dinner named after American space pioneer Robert H. Goddard. The dinner recognizes people and institutions that have made outstanding contributions to space science and technology. That year they wanted to honor Star Trek. Leonard Nimoy who played Spock agreed to come.
That evening, at the dinner, people were enabled to look beyond what had happened with the Apollo fire. “While Nimoy shook hands and signed autographs, those attending the dinner saw not just the actor, but Mr. Spock, a representative from the future who knew that what they were doing in their century might have been painful but was necessary for them to move forward in exploring the final frontier of space.”
Nimoy wrote about the event to the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry: “I do not overstate the fact when I tell you that the interest in the show is so intense, that it would almost seem they feel we are a dramatization of the future of their space program, and they have completely taken us to heart…they are, in fact, proud of the show as though in some way it represents them.”
The fictional show helped those scientists and engineers to trust that what NASA was working towards was possible and worth pursuing. It was more than just getting into space – it was about working to create a better world, to go beyond our differences and work together on bigger things.
How do we get there? By asking questions, taking steps, trusting God, and practicing.
Practicing is sort of what Lent is about. 40 days of focused practice at seeking God. 40 days of practicing listening to the Holy Spirit and letting her take us where she will. And in doing so, we find freedom. Theologian Paul Tillich says
“The more one is reunited with his true being under the impact of the Spirit, the more one is free from the commandments of the law. . . In so far as we are estranged, prohibitions and commandments appear and produce an uneasy conscience. In so far as we are reunited, we actualize what we essentially are in freedom, without command.”
The more we practice listening to the Holy Spirit, the more we naturally become more and more like Jesus without having to focus on legalism. Without having to think so much about it.
Practice makes a difference. I learned this in a new way when I started trying to play music from charts instead of notes on a staff. A chart just has the name of the chord, so to play the right notes for that chord, you need to know which flats and sharps are in that key. I’d had music theory in my piano lessons, but in some ways I hadn’t fully tried to put it into practice until I tried to play from charts, and discovered I didn’t know key signatures as well as I thought I did. So I went back to the basics, back to practicing scales, this time not just to get through them because my teacher had assigned them, but because I needed them to be engrained in my brain. I’m still not great at it, but I can fake it well enough to play without hitting too many sour notes, because I don’t have to stop and think about what flats and sharps are in a chord anymore. It just happens as I play.
There’s probably science to explain why that happens, but to me it’s about as inexplicable as Jesus telling Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit blowing us around like the wind.
Every day is a chance to begin again. How do we do it? We don’t start out trying to be great at anything, really, except in trusting the work of the Holy Spirit to help us begin again and again, and to help us to share the love of God to help others begin again and again and again.
 Upper Room. The Upper Room Disciplines 2023: A Book of Daily Devotions (p. 115). Upper Room Books. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Akua Sencherey on Unsplash
 Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash
 Unknown photographer – RMY Auctions Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy as Spock on Star Trek tv show. Public domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Enterprise_(NCC-1701)
 Yunt, Jeremy D.. Love, Gravity, and God: Paul Tillich and the Existential Depths of Reason and Religion (p. 89). Barred Owl Books (Santa Barbara, CA). Kindle Edition.