Sunday, March 20, 2011

Third Sunday of Lent

John 3
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’* 4Nicodemus 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?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.* 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You* must be born from above.”* 8The 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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

St. Patrick didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland.

I know this will be difficult for some of you to hear, particularly those of you basking in the glow of Thursday night. He did many things, including giving Christianity her best foothold in a pagan land, but on the topic of snakes, it is definitely snakes 1, Patrick 0.

Snakes, you see, are not indigenous to the island. They were never there. But such is the stuff of myth, taking an obvious absence and making it into a good story. 1,600 years on, who’s to know, except those pesky scientists who figured it out. It does remain one of the better Patrick legends, pictured in a parade banner I saw this week, with a smiling snake and the caption “Saint Who?”

It seems that the mythmakers and the chroniclers knew what Nicodemus knew long ago: people desire a sign. Nicodemus, the religious leader and secret admirer of Jesus said as much when they met by night. “It is your signs that impress us most,” he said to Jesus, “it proves that you come from God.”

Never one for flattery, Jesus said this in return: “Truly? The only genuine sign of God’s reign is being born again.”

But poor Nicodemus doesn’t get the metaphor Jesus shares, he is painfully stuck in the literal, saying: “Grow old? And re-enter the womb? How is such a thing possible?” The dialogue continues, one of the longest in scripture, with Jesus introducing new metaphors and Nicodemus struggling to understand. Jesus finally tells Nicodemus that there are things of heaven and things of the earth, and some will simply not understand heavenly things. Then he says something about a snake and a pole, which helps me tie all of these things together.

Poor Nicodemus, he has trouble with metaphors, and clearly Jesus loves them, so we have a problem. When one participant in a conversation is busy weaving the finest metaphors and the other participant cannot hear them, there is really no conversation at all. Nicodemus came to Jesus as an admirer of signs, not a seeker of metaphor.

So what are these things that Jesus is continually crafting, and why does metaphor seem to be his preferred mode of communication?

Robbie Burns said “My love is like a red, red rose. “ I know I’m moved from Ireland to Scotland, but I’m trying to be inclusive in my examples. Burns gives us a simile, which a really just a primitive form of metaphor, comparing one beautiful thing to another. In other words, if you struggle to understand the depth and complexity of love, them look no further than a red, red rose.

Robbie Burns is masterful in metaphor too, my favourite found in the “Address to the Haggis.” If you have ever tasted it, I am sure you will agree with Burns that the haggis is the “Great chieftain o' the puddin-race!“ Or maybe you don’t. Whatever your opinion on what is little more than an overgrown sausage, you can still admire that among Scots it is considered the most important sausage of all.

But how is it metaphor? It is metaphor because to takes two seemingly unrelated things (a high rank among people and a type of meat pudding) and throws them together. It uses a poetic device to answer the question “how important is haggis?” It is the “great chieftain.” But wait, for Burns has added a bonus metaphor, hidden in the first metaphor. He calls the haggis the “great chieftain of the pudding race,” using a human form of classification (race) and applying it to meat pudding.

So how does it work? The theory is that our example, the haggis metaphor, creates tension in our mind by throwing together two things that seem in conflict. If you were entirely literal in hearing, you might say to the Bard, “wait a minute, you took a rank that only applies to humans and applied to baked sheep innards. That’s just not right.” Oh, but it is, because in the tensional theory two unrelated things thrown together have the potential to create an entirely new meaning. Two ideas, and all the associations we bring to each, thrown together, creates new associations and new meaning.


You might say that if you were looking for the favourite metaphor among conservative Christians, you would need to look no further than “born again.” They talk about it, they put it on billboards, they pass it out in little tracts, they make the “cost of admission” to truly join their fellowship. It is the theme of the traditional “alter-call,” where the invitation is made to come forward and give your life to Jesus once more, something some have been known to do week-by-week.

“Born again” is so familiar to our hearing that it has become what is known as a “dead metaphor.” We are so familiar with it, and we understand it in a very specific context, that it has lost it’s power to evoke anything. It is not a dead concept, which I will explain in a moment, but metaphors go, this one no longer teases the imagination, it is dead.

Another example would be “love is blind.” The first time someone said it, the people around said, ‘good one, because the experience of being in love causes you to overlook your lover’s obvious flaws, cool.’ But then it died, because “love is blind” was killed by a thousand pop songs and became so familiar that the tension simply went away.

Another example of a dead metaphor is the phrase “nation-state.” We use it to describe countries, such as ‘Canada is a nation-state,’ when, in fact, it is metaphorical concept. It brings together the idea of nationhood (common history, language, culture) and the idea of the state, a form of government. When we accepted the idea that people with a common history, language and culture should govern themselves together as a distinct entity, the metaphor lost its power and died. But if it remains a metaphor, that means we see it as an idea and not a fact, as some would have us believe. Col. Gadaffi would argue that his nation-state is sovereign and untouchable, while the UN prefers to use a variation on the idea (metaphor) of nation-state. If you attack your own people, the reasoning goes, you forgo the sovereignty you think you have, and thank God for that.


So “you must be born again” flies right over the head of Nicodemus and has become so central to a religious approach we tend not to share that it misses us too. So we have a teaching that is central to the Gospel and a fine metaphor and we have largely surrendered it to others and regard it as a source of embarrassment. Some of us try it on from time to time, but the fit is uncomfortable, and the fabric itches, and so we set it aside. Even the NRSV, the scholar’s Bible, sets it aside, choosing “born from above” as a way to breath some new life into the metaphor and make it more relevant to a mainline Christian audience.

Born from above is a good try. But we can see from Nicodemus’ response that the intended metaphor was “born again,” that Jesus did compare entering the Kingdom to exiting the womb once more, and that only by reclaiming the phrase can we possibly understand the conversation.

What Jesus is really asking is that we dwell in the land of metaphor. He does this primarily by describing what the land of metaphor is like:

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.

There is wind, there is wind direction and there is wind speed, but the wind itself is as mysterious as the land of new meaning made through metaphor. Yes, a scientist can tell you about the source of wind, the way wind interacts with the world around us, or even that the wind will come largely from one direction. But a scientist cannot tell me when the next gust will come or how long the gust will be sustained. In other words, there are limits to the scientific and the literal, and that is where the metaphorical and the symbolic come in.

Jesus says “you must be born again,” meaning something like reinventing yourself, restarting yourself, reimagining yourself, or any other “re” that fits your situation in life. The metaphor is no longer a dead metaphor if we hunger for change in ourselves. Now maybe you don’t think you hunger for change. I’m not sure Nicodemus did: he was looking for proof or some confirmation of divine authority. When you’re not looking for change, the metaphor doesn’t work, because ‘born again’ seems unnecessary. But when you’re hungry for change, for renewal, for a new life with God, the metaphor ‘born again’ can be alive once more.

I encourage you on your Lenten journey toward newness and rebirth. May we all be renewed, to live by the Spirit and see the Spirit in others, Amen.


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