March 8, 2020
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
One of the real challenges for any preacher, but particularly those who have the discipline of sticking to the lectionary, is trying to find that elusive “fresh perspective” or “new insight” into the assigned Biblical text. In fact, the more familiar the scripture, the greater the effort, sometimes bordering on desperation, to find something “new” and “fresh,” something novel and unique to say about it.
The challenge is especially keen every Christmas and Easter. Just try to find something “new” to highlight within those well-known texts. Or worse, ending up with a sermon that sounds like it was inspired by a Hallmark card.
But Christmas and Easter are not the only challenging texts. A prime example occurs this morning with John’s Gospel, chapter three, verse sixteen: “For 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.”
Martin Luther declared this one verse to be “the Gospel in a nutshell.” And for many, it is the one Bible verse they know by heart: “For 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.” Good luck trying to add some fresh perspective, or unexplored or undiscovered new insight to that!
But then, maybe that’s not the point.
For as pervasive as John 3:16 is in our culture — emblazoned on billboards, bumper stickers, hats, pillows, signs at professional sporting events, to name a few . . .
Perhaps the preacher’s task in proclaiming this familiar text is not to find a fresh new approach or illustrative story. No, maybe the task is simply to return the focus – for both the preacher, and the listeners - to the text itself.
While John 3:16 is well-known and often-quoted, how many of us could go on to quote John 3:17? Who among us knows Nicodemus’ backstory? And if we’re being honest, how many of us could even identify Nicodemus as the one to whom Jesus speaks these famous words?
While John 3:16 has rightly earned its place among the most memorable and hopeful verses in all the New Testament, when placed back into its larger context it reveals itself to be a powerful witness and testimonial statement to the love of the God we meet in Jesus.
Nicodemus, John informs us, was a leader among the Jews. In public, Nicodemus’ loyalties were clearly devoted to the Jewish authorities and aligned with the Jewish establishment. But in private, it seems that Nicodemus may have had his questions and his doubts. And so, he visits Jesus under the cover of nightfall.
“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, “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.”
To put it another way, Nicodemus observes that Jesus was a good teacher and acknowledges him to be a knowledgeable interpreter of Torah, but Nicodemus also perceives something more.
In addition to his knowledge and wisdom, Jesus is also filled with God’s life-giving Spirit. And Nicodemus apparently wants that same kind of deep relationship with God.
Then, as Jesus so often does, he says something that utterly astounds – and confuses - Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
In other words, glimpsing the Kingdom of God isn’t a matter of praying a certain way, or believing a certain way, or following a certain set of liturgical customs, or even meticulously obeying all the tenets of the extensive Jewish Law code. What is required, Jesus informs us, is a complete rebirth and realignment of our entire existence! We must be born anew to live a new life.
On hearing this, Nicodemus asks an honest question that seems almost laughably quaint and naïve to our 21st century ears. In fact, he may have even laughed at the absurdity of Jesus’ suggestion: “Just how, may I ask, can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” And while he may not have said it, his tone, no doubt, expressed how utterly and completely ridiculous this prospect sounded.
But for as off-the-mark as Nicodemus’ question might seem to us, the Gospel story again demonstrates something important about the way God works. God’s plans are often vastly different from how we would operate. As the psalmist writes: God’s ways are not our ways.
Consider, for example, Abraham and Sarah. Despite their advanced ages, God calls them to leave their home and relocate to another land. They are obedient and follow God’s call to leave their family and property and all they have and emigrate, becoming foreigners in a foreign land. To reward their faithfulness, God promises this childless couple a son. The ancient scribe matter-of-factly clues us into the dramatic irony surrounding this promise, writing flatly, “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Upon hearing this totally absurd promise of a child, when her husband is nearing 100 and she is far beyond child-bearing age, Sarah erupts in hearty laughter! And nine months later, even the name given to this promised child — Isaac — means “he laughs.” God’s ways are not our ways.
And what of Moses? God speaks to him through a burning bush, proclaiming that he would be God’s agent in delivering the Hebrew people from their Egyptian slavery`. Moses’ response: “Who, me? You can’t mean that! Surely, you must have the wrong guy! I don’t even know your name!” But God’s ways are not our ways.
Perhaps most astonishing of all is the moment God decides to convert the Apostle Paul. The Book of Acts recalls that Paul – still bearing his pre-Christian name, Saul - was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” when God sends a dazzling bolt of light that temporarily blinds him, and then calls him to become an apostle. Again, God’s ways are not our ways.
The same dynamic is at play here with Jesus and Nicodemus.
God is once again making possible what was long thought impossible. For God’s ways are not our ways.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of nightfall — John’s code for uncertainty and apprehension. Nicodemus is well aware that Jesus is a capable, insightful teacher, and he’s demonstrated his knowledge of Torah. But there’s something else about Jesus, something Nicodemus can’t quite put his finger on, so he takes a chance, comes to Jesus in the middle of the night, and asks Jesus about it face-to-face.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to see the Kingdom of God, we have to give our whole selves over to an entirely different way of being, and thinking, and seeing, and acting, and living. We have to be born anew, this time “born from above.” Despite Nicodemus’ deep faith and faithfulness, Jesus is inviting him into an even deeper relationship with the Living God.
And what is Nicodemus’ response? Is it: “Oh, yes, Lord! Sign me up! Just tell me: what do I do first?”
No. That isn’t his response.
Instead, he says: “So, let me get this straight. I, a grown man … I’m born from my mother decades ago, and you’re saying I have to be born again. That’s impossible!”
We can almost hear Sarah’s laughter, and Moses’ hesitation, and Paul’s seething rippling through the background. Can we also hear the psalmist: God’s ways are not our ways.
We may fault Nicodemus for his lack of understanding, but the truth is, if we are honest, this happens all the time among people of faith, doesn’t it? As so often happens - both in the biblical stories, and in real life as well – Nicodemus is hearing and thinking literally, and so misses the metaphor, and the symbolism, and the deeper truth that Jesus reveals to him.
It still happens - all the time . . .
Jesus says, “Do unto others” . . . and we say, “OK, so long as I know just who these “others” are. And I approve of them, get along with them, and they agree with me.”
Jesus says, “Give your life to the work of the Kingdom” . . . and we say, “How about an annual pledge? Will that do?”
Jesus says, “Love one another and forgive one another as you are loved and forgiven” . . . and we say, “Define exactly what you mean by “love”, please. And set some ground rules for us around this whole forgiveness thing.”
We question. Sarah laughs. Moses gives excuses. Paul needs dramatic persuasion. And yet, Sarah gave birth to her son anyway. Moses found the grace to accept God’s call. Paul put away his old life and devoted himself to the Risen Christ. The same is true for Nicodemus.
After he leaves Jesus, still in the dark of night, he returns to his home and his position among the Jewish establishment. His conversion doesn’t happen with a lightning bolt or a clap of thunder; there’s no instantaneous change.
But deep down - ever so slightly - something within him begins to turn.
Nicodemus’ rebirth doesn’t occur in a flash, but happens over the course of a long journey, which began under the cover of darkness when he took a chance on Jesus. He is an uncertain, fly-by-night skeptic when the change in his heart begins.
With the exception of one brief mention in John chapter 7, we never hear of Nicodemus again . . . until, that is, until the very end of John’s Gospel. And it is here that evidence of Nicodemus’ birth from above is revealed, his slowly-evolved, but complete, conversion laid bare.
In these final verses of the Gospel, we find that some time has passed from Nicodemus’ and Jesus’ middle-of-the-night conversation. Now, on the eve of Passover, outside the walls of Jerusalem, on Calvary’s hill, between two thieves, Jesus hangs crucified. And after all of the other disciples have fled for fear of persecution, there, with Jesus’ mother, Mary, and the other women . . . there stands Nicodemus at the foot of the cross, laden with myrrh and aloes and clean linens, and all the other provisions needed for a proper Jewish burial … there is Nicodemus, ready to bear the broken and lifeless body of his crucified Lord to its grave.
There, now in the full light of day, Nicodemus remembers, and finally fully understands, what Jesus had once said to him in the dark of night: “For 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.”
We can never fully know what Nicodemus was thinking as he departed Jesus’ company after first hearing these words. But we can be sure that something within him was set on the path to be changed. And little by little, his heart was broken open and he was born anew, born again, born from above. And finding his way through darkness and doubt, he finally – in the end - stands in the shadow and the certainty of the cross.
In this Lenten season, may we, like Nicodemus, find our faith and faithfulness evolving and deepening . . . may we be given the courage and the grace to meet him there at the foot of our Savior’s cross and glimpse the glory of the Kingdom of God.