Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Lenten Reflection for February 20, 2013

Furthermore the Lord said to me, “I have seen that this people is indeed a stubborn people. Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and more numerous than they.” (Deuteronomy 9:13-14)

“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’” (John 3:7)

The ancient Hebrews angered God when they turned away from him. He had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and promised to gather them into a new land where they would be his people. This would fulfill what God had intended through the patriarch Abraham, when he told him “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). Now, just as hope was on the horizon, the people were about to be obliterated by God. God was willing to start things all over again with Moses.

Moses debated with God and God decided to give the people another chance. Yet, hundreds of years later, Jesus looked upon the people and didn’t see much improvement. They were still a fractured, divided people. They were suffering under the boot heel of Rome and fighting to keep some kind of ethnic and religious identity, and doing it well. With that in mind, Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being “born from above.”

We usually translate this text to mean that Nicodemus needs a personal “born again” experience. While that may have been so, there could be something bigger going on here. In the Greek of the New Testament, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus as an individual (“Do not be astonished that I said to you”—the you here is singular), but then moves to a statement that suggests something beyond Nicodemus (“‘You must be born from above’”—this time the you is plural). Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, but his “born from above” statement appears to refer to a plurality of people: The nation of Israel.

In God’s conversation with Moses, a complete do-over was on the table. The people needed to be destroyed and a new start needed to happen. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus observes the same thing, but speaks of a new birth rather than death and destruction. But once again, the people of the nation will not die in order to be reborn. Jesus will do this on their behalf through death and resurrection. A new people will be born from above, but not without a dying first. Jesus will represent all of Israel—and the world—through death and resurrection.

It is astonishing to consider that a people called out by God as people—a people who would not exist simply for themselves, but rather for God and for the world—would fail at that calling and require death and resurrection. The question inevitably comes: Could that ever be the case with us, with the ones who are called followers of Jesus? Having claimed the security of our individual new births, will we ever need to die as a people in order to be resurrected? Will I?

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

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