Second Sunday in Lent (Year A)

A Sermon from the Church of  

Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida

Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 5, 2023 (Lent 2A)

There was a big trend a number of years ago — starting in about the mid-1980s — towards so-called seeker services. The premise was that there were large groups of people who were curious about the Christian faith, but not fully committed to it. Perhaps they used to go to church but just didn’t feel like it was relevant to their lives, or maybe they hadn’t grown up with any religious tradition, but were seeking some sort of a connection with God.

Seeker services tried all sorts of different ways to draw people in. The thought being that the traditional liturgy and music of the church either didn’t resonate or was just too old-fashioned and boring to be relevant to today. No one could ever really agree about what would entice these seekers to come to church and get them to stay. But many of these services were full of contemporary music or praise bands, the clergy didn’t wear vestments or clerical collars, there were no vested choirs, the sermons — or talks, really — were informal and relied heavily on multimedia presentations. Now if this all sounds amazing to you, you might just be in the wrong place this morning.

But the prevailing wisdom was that unchurched people were turned off by tradition and formality, and so churches tried to create alternative worship experiences, with an emphasis on popular culture, coffee bars, and comfortable seats. Now, that part doesn’t sound bad.

But I think these efforts minimized the fact that, at heart, we are all seekers. Whether this is our first Sunday at church in many years, or we’ve been faithfully coming every Sunday for generations, not a single one of us has it all figured out; we are all seeking answers to life’s deepest questions. Jesus says, “Seek and ye shall find.” And that is a large part of our job as Christians. To keep seeking answers, to keep seeking Jesus. And I trust that that’s part of what draws us to this place. To stand at the intersection of ancient tradition and cultural relevance. And   together, to seek out the one who calls us each by name and and loves us unconditionally and with reckless abandon. 

This morning we encounter Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus was quite clearly a seeker. He was intrigued by what he’d heard about Jesus and wanted to learn more. He was a seeker of the truth, a seeker of the meaning of life, a seeker of a deeper spiritual connection to God.

He also, very significantly, came to Jesus at night, by cover of darkness. As a leader in the Jewish community, Nicodemus wielded both religious and political power. He was a member of the establishment, a Pharisee, and it would have been rather scandalous for him to be seen with Jesus, this man who was upsetting the status quo and turning tradition on its head. People in Nicodemus’ circle were certainly talking about Jesus, and the talk was not positive. He was a threat to their authority, a loose cannon, someone who often broke religious norms in order to make God more readily known. All of that healing on the sabbath and eating with the wrong people — and not only that, he was popular! Crowds were drawn to him, people were listening to him, which undermined the Pharisees’ grip on religious authority and made people question the long-standing traditions of the religious elite. 

So, at one level it would have been easy for Nicodemus to just stay in his own world, certainly safer. He was a big shot, after all, with a lot to lose. But something was sparked deep in his soul when he first heard about Jesus. And he wanted to learn more. He didn’t want to necessarily risk his standing in his own community, but still, he was drawn to this new teacher. A new truth was emerging, and Nicodemus was seeking after it.

I think we can all relate to Nicodemus in the sense that we’re sometimes hesitant to fully commit, to fully give our lives over to Jesus Christ. Because we know if we do, it will lead to sacrifices. To fully be a disciple of Jesus, we need to give some things up — control, for one. “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Comfort, for another. Jesus so often calls us out of our respective comfort zones, out of our insular and safe worlds. He challenges our assumptions about the world and the people around us. But also the way we live and order our lives. Because to follow Jesus is to constantly be examining the priorities of our lives; it forces us to think about the ways in which we interact with other people. 

And, here’s the really hard part, we can’t make life all about us; rather it must be all about God. And that runs counter to so many of our instincts. So, while we crave control and comfort and continuity, Jesus calls us out of all that. To a place of deep connection with the divine, to a place of hope and meaning and love. And ultimately, that’s what we all, like Nicodemus, seek. That yearning is what makes us seekers. Seekers of Jesus. People who seek to follow Jesus. People who often stumble along the way or make a mess of things. But then the one who calls us each by name, invites us to keep seeking after him. Day after day, month after month, year after year.

You know, while we may not have a praise band or a giant video screen, I still like to think of what we do here as a seeker service of sorts. Not because we’re trying to use market research or consumer trends to figure out what people are looking for in a worship experience, but because we all remain seekers of a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. And this place, through architecture and music and liturgy, through the relationships we have with one another, this place helps orient us towards God. It captures the mystery of the divine presence in our lives, which is something that can never be contained or quantified. 

When I was a dashing young curate at Old St. Paul’s in downtown Baltimore — the ‘dashing’ part was a joke — we did start what was basically a seeker service. But in light of what was happening in mega churches around the country, we thought of it as something of an anti-seeker service. It was a short 30-minute service of ancient chant led by a small schola of singers, with candlelight, and just a hint of incense. There was very intentionally no sermon or collection.We called it Vespers and it basically followed the structure of a sung service of compline, the  church’s night prayers. We held it on Sunday evenings and advertised it in the local paper with the tagline “God’s Not Just a Morning Person.” I’m not sure if they’re still doing it, but it really resonated, especially with younger folks — students and people living downtown. I’m not sure what that might look like in this context, or if it makes any sense to try something like that, but Nicodemus at least got me wondering and pondering. So, who knows?

In the end, of course, Nicodemus leaves the cover of darkness to follow Jesus. He walks boldly into the light as he very publicly removes Jesus’ body from the cross and lays it in the tomb. He is no longer a secret follower of Jesus, but a true disciple. He remains a seeker, as we all do. He keeps seeking after Jesus, as we all do.


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