Lent 2A’20
8 March 2020
John 3.1-17
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
North Little Rock, Arkansas
The Rev. Carey Stone

“God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is. Amen.”

                              – Sr. Macrina Wiedehrkehr 

All the major world religions have stories that attempt to give us information about who the Higher Power is, information about where our species originated from, and who we should strive to be. Many of our nursery rhymes, myths, and fairy tales also reinforce them and tell us who we are and how we should act.

While thinking about today’s Gospel reading, I was reminded of one of the classic tales of western literature. Not having it on my bookshelf I turned to that great compendium of wisdom and knowledge, Wikipedia and of course, there it was!

Once upon a time:

a mother duck’s eggs hatch. One of the little birds is perceived by the other birds and animals on the farm as an ugly little creature and suffers much verbal and physical abuse from them. He wanders sadly from the barnyard and lives with wild ducks and geese until hunters slaughter the flocks. He finds a home with an old woman, but her cat and hen tease and taunt him mercilessly and once again he sets off alone.


The duckling sees a flock of migrating wild swans. He is delighted and excited, but he cannot join them, for he is too young and cannot fly. Winter arrives. A farmer finds and carries the freezing little duckling home, but he becomes frightened by the farmer’s noisy children and flees the house. He spends a miserable winter alone in the outdoors, mostly hiding in a cave overlooking the lake that partly freezes over. When spring arrives, a flock of swans descends on the lake.


The ugly fowl, now having fully grown and matured, is unable to endure a life of solitude and hardship anymore and decides to throw himself at the flock of swans deciding that it is better to be killed by such beautiful birds than to live a life of ugliness and misery. He is shocked when the swans welcome and accept him, only to realize by looking at his reflection in the water that he had been, not a duckling, but a swan all this time. The flock takes to the air, and the now beautiful swan spreads his gorgeous large wings and takes flight with the rest of his new family.[1]


“The Ugly Duckling” by poet and author, Hans Christian Andersen was first published in1843, and it tells us the truth about who we are, but it also tells us that none of us are able to see ourselves for who we truly are, that is unless we are able to experience a powerful transformation that enables us to see and then become who we were created to be.


The tale also reveals that there are many obstacles to our transformation, like falling into the wrong crowd with a bunch of ducks who can’t see him for who he really was, or because of his inability to fly, then there is the taunting and teasing cat, the flock of mature swans who fly by but he is unable to join them, he is then frightened by the farmer’s children and has to run away and find a cave to hole up in a cave until the spring thaw.


Only when he becomes willing to face his own death by throwing himself into a flock of Swans does he discover the truth of who he is, and has been all along – a Swan!


Now enters the main character in today’s gospel story, Nicodemus. Nicodemus represents all of us, for he is someone who doesn’t know who he really is. Because of his family background he had fallen in with a religious group of individuals who are collectively known as “Pharisees,” who are a strange flock indeed. There are many rules that must be followed in order to be a part of this group, and there is a pecking order that determines the rights and privileges of each member. Nicodemus had gotten so good at keeping the rules that he had become a leader within the group. But oddly, after becoming the ‘best of the best’ of the pharisees he found at his core a sense of deep discontentment. Like the one who climbed the ladder all the way to the top, only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall!


Oddly again, he finds himself being drawn to an iterant rabbi who came to town, who had been teaching some new material, and healing the sick. Finally, he can’t stand it and has to go and see for himself what all the buzz was about, so he goes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness. He certainly wasn’t disappointed with the visit. He got to meet the rabbi, and to hear teaching he had never heard before, but sadly, it sort of flew over his head. Jesus told him: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus asks a question that reveals he is in need of transformation: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus is stymied by this new teaching, “How can these things be?” Jesus again confronts his blindness to who he really was, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus goes on to share his true identity as the Son of God and Nicodemus’ true identity as a child of God destined for eternal life.


Interestingly, Nicodemus doesn’t go forward at any altar call and becomes saved on the spot! The truths that he had been confronted with by Jesus would have to be pondered and prayed over, salvation would be a process for him. There two later appearances of Nicodemus in John’s gospel where we see progress, and finally at Jesus’ death do we see Nicodemus joining with Joseph of Arimathea as an undercover disciple, and together they see to it that Jesus is properly embalmed for the tomb.

Like Nicodemus, we don’t truly see ourselves as God sees us, there are obstacles in our path, but faith holds the key that unlocks the door to our salvation. And, like the ugly duckling, it isn’t in becoming something we are not, but by becoming more fully who we are –  wonderfully created, deeply, and magnificently loved daughters and sons of God!  


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


This gift of eternal life and the awareness of who we really are, comes when, like the ugly duckling, we are willing for an old life to die so that a new life can be born – not a natural birth, but a spiritual birth.


As the writer Richard Bach puts it:           

“What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly.”

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ugly_Duckling