March 16, 2014
During Lent, the Gospel will be presented in worship as dramatic readings before the sermon.
Narrator: Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus by night and said to him,
Nicodemus: “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: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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: “How can these things be?”
Jesus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16For 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. 17Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
What boggles our minds about the material universe that interferes with grasping more profound spiritual realities?
Without getting into the creationism debates, the studies about the origins of the universe are at once fascinating and incomprehensible. Everything from black holes to Higgs boson particles prompt pondering. What was there before the big bang? What is outside of the universe? We ask questions: How did we get here? How did I get here?
Everything from evolutionary theory to human genome study asks what it means to be human. Who are we? Who am I? Why are we here? Why am I here?
Everything from the expansion of space and the burn out of the sun to climate change anticipates the eventual demise of the universe. What is our destiny? Where are we headed? Where am I headed?
British preacher C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) is reputed to have said that John’s Gospel was “Shallow enough for a child to wade in and deep enough to drown an elephant.” Starting today and for Lent, we will be listening in on conversations with Jesus in John. Spurgeon’s observation certainly applies to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Jesus explained how being born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe.
Sometimes Nicodemus is portrayed as timidly sneaking into see Jesus at night and not bright enough to understand Jesus’ spiritual basics. But Jesus called him “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10 – not “a teacher” as in some English translations). Certainly one of the leading teachers among the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin, he was probably checking Jesus out for them, but informally and not officially. I think he picked up from Jesus, this uneducated country rabbi, something deeper than more than a millennium of Hebrew scholarship could grasp. I think he wanted it for himself.
Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can perceive the Kingdom of God without being born “from above.” Nicodemus’ responses indicated he understood Jesus to say “born again.” Jesus was speaking about the source of our birth and Nicodemus about the number of times we are born. The same Greek word can mean both, so here is a play on words. Jesus and Nicodemus were speaking Aramaic or Hebrew that would not have the same play on words, so whatever went on between them, John captured cleverly. Nicodemus was not so dense as to think Jesus meant physically going back through his mother’s womb, but thinking he was too old and set in his ways, making a spiritual rebirth as impossible as a physical rebirth. What he wanted was unavailable.
Nicodemus was a late bloomer or slow learner. When the Sanhedrin began its open opposition to Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up for just and fair due process for Jesus (7:50-52). Along with Joseph of Arimathea (identified as a disciple in Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-53 and some women per Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55) Nicodemus assists with Jesus’ burial, indicating a faith even at the point at which Jesus’ mission and message seem to have failed. (19:39-40) Only being born from above could bring that insight.
To be born from above is to live a reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe. Scholars continue to debate what Jesus meant when he said that entering the Kingdom of God required being born of water and Spirit. I think the simplest answer is that they describe what is involved in being born from above.
Nicodemus was certainly familiar with the recent ministry of John the Baptist. He called people to show their repentance by being baptized, just as Gentile converts to Judaism were baptized. The religious leadership, of which Nicodemus was a prominent leader, was offended at the very idea they needed to repent and be baptized like an unclean Gentile. To be born of water (from above) is to turn from the sin of life below and humbly begin anew in the life from above.
As the teacher of Israel, Nicodemus knew that in Ezekiel 36:25-28, God promised to sprinkle clean water to cleanse from sin and to put a new spirit within to follow God. Throughout Hebrew Scripture, water is associated with the Spirit of God. The promise of the prophets was that God’s Spirit would one day empower the righteousness that always seemed to elude them.
Spirit brings another word play that works in Greek and Hebrew, where the same word in each language means spirit, breath and wind. Jesus emphasized to Nicodemus the freedom of the wind and the Spirit. The Spirit of God is not limited to a pious or theological elite, or confined to established traditions. The most unexpected people, under unexpected circumstances are born from above by the life giving power of God’s Spirit.
When Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” (v. 9) he wasn’t expressing incredulity but a hunger to know how he could be born from above. Jesus responded with a story from Numbers 21. As punishment for revolting against Moses, poisonous serpents swarmed and bit. At God’s instruction, Moses made a bronze serpent and raised it as a sign for people to look at and be healed. Jesus compared himself to the bronze serpent, pointing ahead to the cross. God’s redemption was a great reversal. The object of punishment became the means of restoration. All that was required was to trust that a simple look brought wholeness. To be born from above, look at Jesus with faith. Those who are born from above find answers to life’s persistent questions.
Who am I? Where did I come from? I am created in the image of God. My life comes from the Spirit of God who lives in me.
Why am I here? What is my purpose? As Jesus gave himself for me, I give myself so others can receive his love too. Jesus did not come to condemn but to give eternal life. My purpose is to invite people to be included, not to decide who’s excluded. Martin Niemöller was one of the founders of the Confessing Church that opposed the Nazis in Germany. After World War II he said, “It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn’t even hate his enemies.”
What is our destiny? Where am I headed? I am on my way to the Kingdom of God, which Jesus calls eternal life in John’s Gospel. Having been born from above, I am already living eternal life as part of the Kingdom of God, the reality more profound than the most mind boggling research about the material universe.