NEW TESTAMENT READING John 3:1-17
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.
For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God
unless they are born anew ([or “from above”]).”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked.
“Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered,
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God
unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
8 The wind blows wherever it pleases.You hear its sound,
but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.
So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?
11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen,
but still you people do not accept our testimony.
12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe;
how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,
15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but to save the world through him.
SERMON Born Again
We’ve been here before … you may remember from Sunday school, or from another sermon the story of Israel’s journey through the wilderness, when poisonous snakes infested their camp. God—it was clear to the people—was punishing them for their sins, but offered a way out. To look upon the serpent—the fruit of their sin—lifted up on a pole for all to see.
In this third chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus alludes to that story of the serpents. And so we have known John 3:16 as the completion of God’s saving work within history through Jesus, lifted up on a cross, that all who look upon him should not perish, but find there eternal life.
We have been here before. But we may, by the gift of the spirit, see this old scripture with new eyes.
We have been here before, at professional sporting events, on cardboard signs, and more recently etched into the eyeblack of frighteningly athletic men and women. And so we have known John 3:16 as the definitive summary of the good news that God gives to the world in Jesus—the gospel in its fullness … in less than 144 characters. We have been here before—for most everyone, baptized or not, could recite the words behind the sign. Yes, we have been here before … but we may, by the gift of the spirit, see this old scripture with new eyes.
For as often as we hear John 3:16 quoted; for as many of us as there are who know it by heart … we so seldom consider the literary context of the lone 16th verse.
Sometimes seeing with new eyes requires only that we look for what is really there … not just what we want or expect to see.
The third chapter of John’s gospel begins abruptly, introducing us to a new character named Nicodemus—a pharisee, we are told, and a member of the Jewish ruling council.
Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus, but fears being publicly associated with him, and so he comes to meet with Jesus under the dark cover of night, when the other Jews-of-status are not likely to catch him in the act. Darkness, in John’s gospel, is a clear sign that things aren’t going to go well, and so we anticipate misunderstanding and unbelief from this new character.
A teacher in the Synagogue himself, Nicodemus can’t afford to be seen fraternizing with Jesus, the rogue rabbi who has been developing quite a reputation for challenging the status quo. Just hours before, Jesus made a whip of cords and cleansed the temple of the money changers, protesting what has become another corrupt institution masquerading as a 501(c)3. The other three Gospel writers all situate this scene at the end of Jesus’ ministry, but John almost leads off with it—only the wedding at Cana precedes the protest scene in John’s Gospel. And it is in response to this public protest—it would appear—that Nicodemus comes to see the new teacher in town.
Is the Jewish leader impressed with Jesus boldness? Taken in by the allure of his growing movement. Does he want to follow Jesus, like the others?
We never really get an answer … possibly because Nicodemus doesn’t come with a question, or even a request … he comes full of knowledge; full of understanding.
“I’ve seen the evidence” he says, “I know who you are!”
Jesus cuts him off … “let me stop you right there … maybe it’s time to re-examine your so-called “evidence” with new eyes. If you want to see the world that God is bringing forth, you have to be born anew … or born again … or born from above.” The Greek word, anothen, could mean any of those things, but of course, Nicodemus is certain that he knows which meaning Jesus intends:
“How can a man be born after having grown old?” he retorts, assuming that “born again” is the clear meaning of Jesus words.
You can almost feel Jesus rolling his eyes from here.
Have you ever been in a class or a meeting with someone who thinks they know everything? A person who raises their hand not to inquire about that which they do not understand, but to impart their own expansive wisdom to the room? Nicodemus strikes me as such a character, arriving in the presence of this new teacher, and immediately telling Jesus what he knows. Nicodemus has been here before.
In his autobiography entitled, The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton writes, “The life of the soul is not knowledge; it is love, since love is the act of the supreme faculty, the will, by which man is formally united to the final end of all his strivings—by which man becomes one with God.”
This is why Jesus does what he does; indeed, it is his whole purpose on earth—that we might be one with God. But we do not arrive at this oneness by knowledge. Jesus is no more concerned with what we know than he was with what Nicodemus knew. Even more troubling for some of us—what we know is precisely what must be tossed out if we hope to see the kingdom of God.
The life that we have learned to master—the striving after material possessions; the incessant faith in competition, and lack of faith in cooperation; the individualism; assumption of self-made success, and its accompanying distain for those who seek out help—all of this must come to a stop … and a new life—the life from above—must begin at infancy.
It is the life that Nicodemus knows that keeps him from coming to Jesus in the daytime—and it is this life that blinds him to the new vision that Jesus offers all who come seeking—rather than possessing—understanding. Nicodemus knows how things work in the world. There are people on our team, and people against us … there are winners and there are losers.
Nicodemus has indeed seen this kind of thing before; he knows that the protestors don’t fair well … that the resistance movement is always put down by the powerful arm of authority … and so he comes at night … but he does come.
If we assume that the Jewish leader actually finds something compelling in Jesus—which is how I read this passage—then it is only the fear of downward mobility that keeps him from fully and openly embracing the life that Jesus has to offer.
Instead, Nicodemus wants to have his cake and eat it too—he wants the life of a disciple, but none of the social or political consequences that he knows come with it.
What is fascinating to me about this passage, as it goes on, is that after having spoken of being born from above, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “I’m talking about earthly things and you don’t understand? What’s going to happen when I start talking about heavenly things?”
Did anyone one else do a double take when you heard that? I’ve been here before, and most of the talk I’ve heard about being born again—or born from above—has to do with heaven. But Jesus says it has to do with earth.
We’ve been here before—“born again” has crossed many-a-lip as a way of proclaiming our personal and eternal salvation, which we earned by believing the right doctrines about Jesus. But if we have not cast aside the earthly life that strives after things of the flesh in favor of an equally earthly life, but one concerned with the things of God’s Spirit—love and charity; gratitude and joy, and peace—then we have not seen the Kingdom that Jesus desires to show us.
Now … as we approach the old familiar text, pray that we might see it with new eyes.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “no one has seen heaven except for the one who descended from heaven.” In other words, if you want to know what it looks like to be born from above, look no further … Jesus is the only picture of that we get.
The rogue Rabbi goes on: “and just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so I must be lifted up.”
Whether Nicodemus could understand this or not, we do not know … but we understand what it is for Jesus to be lifted up. It is, paradoxically, to be descended into the hell of human power gone awry—it is the cross. For Jesus, to be lifted up is the ultimate downward mobility—but it is also the height of heavenly love: For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish—no matter where you stand on the social/political ladder—but have eternal life. For unlike the powers of this world, the power of heaven does not come to condemn, but to save.
For my seminary theology course, we used a textbook by a professor from Princeton named Dan Migliore. He wrote the book late in his life, after having earned all sorts of accolades for his prolific and learned publishing and teaching career. Migliore has a wealth of knowledge about God, and the church … about humans and creation … philosophy, psychology, and sociology … and the title of his magnum opus is this: “Faith Seeking Understanding.” Like Albert Einstein, who said “the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know,” Migliore has spent years and years chasing after the Truth, and the apex of his learning is that God will always exceed our grasp … we will never understand fully what it means that Jesus died for us … that all of life is a gift … that grace & justice can and do co-exist in him … But neither can we ever stop seeking. We must, again and again be born into the mystery of God’s love for this world.
Nicodemus does not fair well in this meeting … he arrives puffed up with knowledge, and misunderstands—if not mocks—Jesus’ invitation to be born from above. But he does not stop seeking; the Jewish leader will appear two more times in the course of John’s gospel, and with each new encounter seems to understand more fully the Good News that Jesus brings: You are not what you know … you are what God made and loves.
We have been here before … and we will certainly be here again … may we always come seeking understanding … may we always be surprised by the mysterious love of God.