Happy New Year! At least that’s my prayer for you on this first Monday of the new year. Of course, we Orthodox started our New Year back in September, so this secular change of the calendar is just one more step for us as we celebrate the Church Year and learn the wisdom of our calendars being “Christianized” by our Purposeful Orthodox Faith!
This brand-new devotional is a good start in mining the deep wisdom of the holy scriptures AND the daily, and seasonal, commemorations that all dovetail together to give us the fullness of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This wisdom is supposed to shape us, form us, inform us, and change us into mature followers of Jesus Christ. Is that happening in your life? Why, or why not?
If you’re like me, the answer to that question is “It depends!” In some ways, I am growing in the Faith, and in other ways, I am still stuck in stubborn places in my soul! But be of good cheer! There is a remedy for all of us IF we have the humility and courage to be formed by the fullness of the wisdom preserved for us in the Church. Let’s make 2023 a year of growth, maturity, and spiritual freedom! Are you ready? Good! Let’s go!
Look at our first lesson for 2023 in John 3:1-15:
At that time, there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nikodemos, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nikodemos said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, and you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nikodemos said to him, “How can this be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen; but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And 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.”
To launch our annual spiritual journey the Church gives us this scene in the early ministry of Jesus to change the whole creation! It’s so familiar to us, isn’t it? Jesus is visited by a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a member of the Sanhedrin Council, which is the highest religious and legal governing body for the Hebrews of Jesus’ day. It is made up of wise and politically savvy men. And this member of the Council is a Pharisee. You see, there were several “groups” within the Hebrew nation at this time. The times were tough for the Hebrews because their nation was forcibly incorporated into the wider Roman Empire of the day and that made a lot of people angry. They wanted their religious and political freedom from Rome. But there was no consensus on how to do that!
The three, biggest groups were The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. There was also a small group of political rebels called the Zealots, but they weren’t getting very far in their actions. One of the Lord’s disciples was from that group, Simon the Zealot. The Pharisees were the most popular group because they were considered to be very pious. The Sadducees were the religious “liberal” elite, usually the wealthiest and the most well-connected of the groups. The Sadducees only followed the first 5 books of Moses, the Torah, and they didn’t really believe in anything they considered supernatural, like angels or life after death. They were the pragmatists of the day. And they were not very sympathetic to the “God, guns, and Bible” crowd!
But, as I said, the Pharisees were seen as the pious ones because they read the whole of the Hebrew Bible and believed in the mysteries of angels and eternal life and miracles and the like. In other words,l they were the “good guys” during Jesus’ time!
So, with all that background, you can see why St. John includes this event in his gospel. This clandestine meeting would serve to explain why Nicodemus also shows up to help bury Jesus after His crucifixion!
Jesus tells Nicodemus that humans need to be “born from above” if they really want to be faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To be true “chosen people” means to embrace the message of transformation by God’s grace to become “like Christ.” And, like many in our own day, Nicodemus misunderstands!
This is already getting too long so, in a first-ever happening, we are going to continue this talk tomorrow. In fact, we may just spend the week unpacking this treasure of a passage! In any event, we are going to see that Normal Orthodox means being born from above and transformed into a person who can live forever!
P.S. In the running waters of the Jordan River, on this day the Lord of all crieth to John: Be not afraid and hesitate not to baptize Me, for I am come to save Adam, the first-formed man. (The Forefeast of the Theophany of Jesus Christ)
A Special Message from Fr. Barnabas: Did you miss the chance to give a gift by the end of the year? Well, we are still a bit short of our financial need to help us launch the new Video Podcast called “Normal Orthodoxy,” so help us close the gap by donating at https://faithencouraged.org/make-a-donation/! You can even make it a monthly gift to help us all year round!