A Lenten Mitzvah

March 12, 2017

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
The 2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

(Gospel Text provided below)

Thursday a week ago I received a Facebook message from a former co-worker. In it, and the ensuing phone conversation, I learned that one of the sons of a close friend in Houston had died. Jonathan was twenty-seven. His death was tragic.

Since the family is Jewish, I knew the funeral would be quick, so within an hour I had a plane ticket and began rearranging my schedule for the weekend. I landed in Houston by mid-morning on Friday, and arrived at the graveside by 2pm. Standing in the bright sunlight, feeling the cool spring breeze, I held tightly to the yarmulke I received fourteen years earlier at Jonathan, and his twin sister, Robin’s, b’nai mitzvah.

After reflections about Jonathan’s life were shared by the rabbi, we recited Psalm 23 – Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me. We were then all invited to help shovel dirt on the plain-wood coffin that had been lowered into the ground – I went for the big shovel. By 3pm, Jonathan was laid to rest, entombed by the earth and sealed with the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

As it was Friday, the family would be attending services that evening at the synagogue, to mark the beginning of the Sabbath. You see, while the secular-world calendar day begins and ends at midnight – give or take an hour, thanks to daylight savings time – in the Hebrew tradition, the day begins and ends at nightfall. This emerged from the earliest story of creation. It says: “And it was evening and it was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5b)[i] So, for the Jewish people, their Sabbath, which is on Saturday, begins at sundown on Friday.

I joined the family that evening for the Shabbat. During this service, there are times when those who are in mourning are asked to stand, and the Mourner’s Kaddish is said by all present. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Then, for seven days following the death of a loved one – thirty days if it’s a mother or father – the family returns to the synagogue for prayers at sunset – the first prayers of the new day.

I share this to reveal how the Hebrew tradition has clearly delineated rules. Even the definition of sunset has particularities about it.

We see this in a scene from the movie Yentl – not exactly the source of all things Jewish, but one of my favorite movies, nonetheless. As a refresher, Yentl is set in 1904 in Eastern Europe. It tells the story of a young woman who wanted to study Hebrew scripture, but this was forbidden. Only men could read and study. Even so, Yentl’s father was a rabbi, and taught her secretly as she was growing up. When he died, she wanted to continue to study, so she disguised herself as a man, and moved to another town.

She took the name Anshel, and along her journey befriended Avigdor, who was a student at a nearby Yeshiva – which is a Jewish seminary. Avigdor invites Anshel to travel with him, and along the way they begin to discuss the Talmud, which contains Jewish civil and ceremonial law, and interpretation of its meaning. So, in the back of a rickety horse-drawn buggy, they begin quizzing each other on the specifics of sundown.

Avigdor asks, “When is sundown?”

Anshel replies, “Sundown is when you can see the first three stars in the sky.”  “When is dusk?” “When the light is no longer blue.”

Avigdor says, “No, that’s twilight.” Anshel refutes, “No, twilight is when all the objects are silhouettes.”

And then, thankfully, the Yeshiva appears in the distance, and we are saved!

But the point is that the Hebrew tradition is very specific about the meaning of things – especially something as important as when the Sabbath begins. When is sundown.

So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at today’s reading from John’s gospel.

We are introduced to Nicodemus, and told that he is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. He would’ve been a strict adherent to the Hebrew laws. Their particularities would matter greatly to him. Nicodemus has heard about this new rabbi in town, Jesus.

Jesus has already changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and Nicodemus says, no one can do these signs without God being with him. Yet, Jesus perceives that Nicodemus is only seeing what is happening at face value. His focus is on the signs, not on who Jesus is. So, Jesus replies by saying that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” and, as you might expect, Nicodemus is confused. With the literal and precise lens through which he sees the world, and sees how things work with God, he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

But Jesus has moved things to another plane. Jesus pushes beyond the literal interpretation of the law; their flat definitions are giving way to the broader understanding of the spirit of God. While the law of ancient times was intended to keep a chosen people together for the journey to the promised land, Jesus is saying, it’s time to move beyond that. It’s no longer just a chosen few who can be in relationship with God, but all are welcomed and loved by God.

This would be a jarring notion for Nicodemus. He has understood his whole life, and the intention of his tradition, as being separate from the Gentiles – a catch-all label for all non-Jews. Living a life that is set apart, intentionally – by diet, living arrangements, and ritual – indicates a specific relationship and chosen-ness of the Hebrew people with God.

But the words of Jesus convey a message that while the water of purification central to the Hebrew tradition is good, while Moses is legitimate and his work was Godly and righteous, it’s now time to embrace a fuller spirit of God. God is being opened-up to be in relationship with all who want it.

The author of John’s gospel challenges the hearer to be transformed from seeing things in earthly, static terms, to seeing things in a new way. But, to Nicodemus’ defense, heavenly things are very hard for earthly beings to understand. They are truly beyond our grasp, intellectually. We have no idea what happens next – after this earthly life. We don’t know what eternal life really means. These are heavenly – other worldly – things that are beyond our grasp. The most we can do is speculate – hope for – believe in – a particular thing.

The challenge in our life is to be willing to live with that unknown, and continue to live as God would have us live. In spite of the unknowing, we are empowered to choose to live a particular way in this world. Today’s reading ends with the familiar passage:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Many of us have heard and shared this John 3:16 verse. Some use it as a way to make themselves a new “chosen people.” That now it’s not the Hebrew people that are chosen, but those who believe in Jesus. When we do this, I challenge that we aren’t reading what is actually provided in the verse – it doesn’t say —

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that ONLY THOSE who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It simply says that everyone who does believe WILL HAVE eternal life. It says nothing of others. It goes on to say that Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world, but to save it, through him. That is, through his message of inclusion.

Jesus is shifting Nicodemus’ way of understanding the limiting nature of literal rule-following, and exclusive access to God. I think this message still resonates today. I don’t need everyone in my life to be a Jesus-follower just because I am. I know that God is bigger than that, and God can handle all the ways we understand the Divine.

I’m a Jesus-follower because of what I’ve learned about Jesus in my life. I embrace his message of love, servanthood, and relationship-building. He led a life of actionable-compassion and insisted on justice for all people. That works for me. What’s more, he invited others in – those who had been outcasts – and in so doing, welcomed me to be at the table with him. For that, I am thankful.

If I can live into a fraction of that way of being, to embrace all people, those who understand God differently, understand Jesus differently, and understand the world differently – I believe I will be embracing the spirit of God in my life.

I’m guessing since you’re here today, you have your own reasons for being a Jesus-follower, or perhaps you’re still discerning what this Jesus-thing is all about. You are not alone.

I think that’s what Nicodemus was trying to do – figure out what Jesus was saying and doing and how it might fit into his life. He’s mentioned two other times in John’s gospel. A little later in the gospel, he spoke up for Jesus when the Pharisees challenged an act of healing on the Sabbath. And, in the end, we see Nicodemus showing up with 100 pounds of myrrh, when 1 pound would do, to help Joseph of Arimathea anoint Jesus’ body after he was lowered from the cross and laid in the tomb.


John’s gospel includes no proclamation that Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. He may have simply been a faithful Jew, caring for the dead – laying him to rest before sundown on the Sabbath.

By the graveside last week, Jonathan’s father reminded me that this is one of the greatest mitzvahs – good deeds, – to care for those who cannot repay you.

May we share our own mitzvahs this Lenten season, caring for those who cannot repay us, thereby living into the spirit of God’s love for us, and God’s love for all people.


Gospel Text:

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:1-17)

[i] The Jewish Day, Chabad.org, Website: http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/526873/jewish/The-Jewish-Day.htm, Accessed March 10, 2017.

2 Responses to “A Lenten Mitzvah”

  1. marcy said

    thank you Jody – this was beautiful

  2. jg3potomac said

    Another thought provoking masterpiece. You bless us.


    Dad James “Jim” Greenwood III 1306 B Potomac Houston, TX 77057-2063 (713) 468-8102 (primary) (713) 898-2293 (mobile) jmgrnwd@aol.com


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