Newman was conservative, in the truest sense of that term. Newman strongly opposed change simply for the sake of change.
But Newman also recognized that we are called to grow, individually and as God’s people, and we are called to continue growing right up to the very end.
Growth looks different for a twenty-year-old than for an eighty-year-old. But no matter how old we are, no matter how much we may have grown to this point, no matter how hard it can be to change, always we are called to keep growing.
Our readings for this morning give us examples of the process of growth from each end of human life.
Our Old Testament reading comes from Isaiah’s youth. It is Isaiah’s “call narrative”—a description of the first time God called Isaiah to be a prophet.
In the year that King Uzziah died, roughly 742 BCE, Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on a throne surrounded by seraphs—a kind of angel—singing a song we recite in slightly different words virtually every Sunday: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Isaiah is terrified. Who wouldn’t be? God is so big, and the vision is so intense. Plus Isaiah knows that normally anyone who sees God will die because the glory of God can literally burn them up.
Luckily for Isaiah, a seraph takes a coal from the sacrificial altar and touches Isaiah’s lips, blotting out Isaiah’s sin, protecting Isaiah who would otherwise die from the unmediated presence of God.
Then comes my favorite part of this story. God says, presumably to a seraph, I have a message to deliver, but who will deliver it? Delivering messages is a big part of what angels do. But God does not want an angel to deliver this one. As I imagine the scene, God looks meaningfully at Isaiah.
Isaiah takes the hint and volunteers. “Here I am; send me!” It is the enthusiastic response of a young man eager to please his Lord.
At that first call, God does not actually give Isaiah much of a message. But the collection of prophecies that come from God’s call and Isaiah’s faithful response make up the longest book in the entire Bible.
Nicodemus, the main character in our gospel reading, is at a very different stage of life than the young Isaiah. Nicodemus is old enough and established enough to have emerged as a leader of the Jews and a teacher in Israel, old enough to wonder how an old man could possibly be born again when Jesus calls him to new birth and new life.
Nicodemus struggles with the idea of new birth, particularly for an old man. And I get that. How could such a distinguished man, a man who has devoted his life to following God and to teaching others about God, how could a man like Nicodemus possibly contemplate starting over, opening himself up to the new thing God wants to do in his life?
Not surprisingly, it takes old Nicodemus a little more time than it took young Isaiah. Nicodemus could not immediately say to Jesus, “Here I am, send me.”
But Nicodemus did experience new birth. And when he does, Nicodemus shows real courage in his quiet way. At Jesus’ arrest, the disciples fled. While Jesus suffered on the cross, they mostly were absent. After Jesus’ death, they mostly remained in hiding. Jesus’ own disciples had not yet experienced the gift of the Spirit and were not yet capable of following Jesus to the end.
Into the breach stepped Nicodemus. Along with Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus buried Jesus. Nicodemus showed solidarity with Jesus when that meant being suspected of blasphemy and treason and quite possibly getting executed.
In their different ways, consistent with their different life situations, both Isaiah and Nicodemus accept God’s call and follow God into a new future. Isaiah and Nicodemus show us the possibility of change and growth at any stage of life.
These readings invite us to think about Isaiah and Nicodemus in terms of our own lives.
When I was a young man, I spent several years uncertain what to do with my life.
My father got so worried that he paid for me to meet with a vocational consultant. After a couple of tests and an interview, the consultant told me that I did not know what I wanted to do. He was right, but not particularly helpful!
Not long after that, I felt God’s call to teach. It was my Isaiah moment (though considerably less dramatic!). I became a young man with a sense of calling. Here I am; send me!
Some of my friends, who were making considerably more money than I was, envied that sense of calling. They were right. I loved having a direction and a purpose. I pray that my children will discover their own callings in good time.
But by mid-life, that calling had run its course. I went through another period of anxiety. That was my Nicodemus time. I was a teacher in Georgia, but I needed another birth from above.
I was blessed. I got the new call I needed. It took me roughly a decade to fully shift from teaching to preaching. But now my formal teaching days are over, and my calling is to be here, at Saint David’s, serving as your priest.
In between my call to teach and my call to preach, I had other callings. We all do. I was called to become a husband, then a father. I was called to service at my Church. I was called to begin acknowledging my own aging, particularly as my children became teen-agers.
Those were all Nicodemus moments, moments when I was invited by God to enter into a new calling, a calling that inevitably changed my life, that normally involved some sacrifice but also a new set of rewards. Sometimes I heeded the call. Sometimes I did not.
My next obvious Nicodemus moment will come when Benjamin leaves home for college. Sooner than I like, Nicholas will follow him. It will be hard for me as God invites me and my family to adjust the patterns of our relationships. It will be a strain. It will offer new rewards. Hopefully, over time, my family can respond like Nicodemus, with courage and faithfulness.
If we are lucky, we set out like Isaiah. But we can be sure, we will all have Nicodemus moments along the way, moments when our familiar patterns are upset, moments when our comfortable habits are challenged. No matter how old we are, the Nicodemus moments keep coming. The last ones of all are an invitation and a challenge to accept aging and death gracefully.
Take a few minutes this week to think about your most recent Nicodemus moment, the most recent transition you have experienced or the most recent call you have sensed. Think about how it went for you. What was good? What was hard? How was God at work? What can you learn for the next one? Because it will come.
Not many of us will respond to our next Nicodemus moment with the enthusiasm of young Isaiah. But we can and we should respond like Nicodemus who, in his old age, was able to hear Christ’s invitation and enter into new life.
My we do the same. In the name of Christ, who constantly calls us to new birth by the Holy Spirit. Amen.