3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e]8 The wind[f] 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[g] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[h] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[i]
16 “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.
17 “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.
May God Bless to our understanding the words that we hear today
This particular scripture holds some of the most beloved words in Christianity in John 3: 16, but it also, includes a concept, an idea, that make people, and I include myself on that, uncomfortable, that is being born again. Now, it would have been nice easy today to preach on the familiar, beloved scripture…for God so loved the world…but in the words of Tina Turner…we don’t ever do things nice and easy…
The subject of being Born Again is a tough one. This story of the night time visit is confusing, it is not a simple parable and because it does not feel like there is a clear meaning to it we often try to glide past this one and not think about it. Maybe we avoid it because the whole subject of being Born Again has become such a hot topic button for some folks, getting people all caught up in being SAVED and just what is saved and who is saved and how do we get saved when the reality is our story today is not so much about our being saved by Jesus as it is a piece of our journey to spiritual renewal. As part of our Lenten journey we are giving up the nice and easy and struggling with the difficult and the uncomfortable things that may be standing in the way of a reconciling relationship with God.
Will you pray with me please? May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
Imagine with me if you will that instead of it being a bright sunny chilly Sunday morning in Greenbelt Maryland that it is instead a warm dark night somewhere in Galilee. A gentle breeze is rustling in the palm branches; the sky is clear so the light of the stars and the moon clearly illuminates the path of a man who is making his way to a nearby house to meet up with a local Rabbi.
The man in question is Nicodemus, we don’t know a lot about him but he is mentioned in the book of John three different times. We do know that he is a Pharisee which means he is an influential well-education religious man. Pharisee’s spent a great deal of their time in the study and interpretation of the law of the Torah so it is not unusual that he is on his way to meet a rabbi for some religious conversation…the only problem is…this is not just any rabbi, it is Jesus of Nazareth, a known rabble rouser…a man who has and will continue to go head to head with the Pharisees over the course of his ministry…which probably explains why we find Nicodemus meeting with Jesus in the dark of the night.
As a Pharisee Nicodemus is a man who is suppose to have things figured out, the laws of the Torah are pretty black and white and so following them, following the words of God as Nicodemus understood it should be pretty simple and yet we get the sense that Nicodemus does not think they are that simple, somehow he understands that there might be more to this God business than he realized and so he arranges this meeting with Jesus.
I never found it strange that Nicodemus approached Jesus in the dark of the night to have a conversation with him. I often find that it is in the deep darkness of nighttime that I tend to wrestle with my demons, wrestle with my questions of faith, wrestle with God even, in trying to figure out the answers to my life. It is at night that we often feel at our most vulnerable, as if in the darkness there is no place to hide, for some reason when the lights are out, we seem to see ourselves, our faults, our fears, more clearly…and so it makes sense that this is the time, this night time, that Nicodemus is struggling with his own faith, his own spirituality. He comes in the night not as an adversary but as one who is potentially willing to learn, someone who may be willing to go someplace new that God calls him to, like Abram, his ancestor in faith, he finds he might be willing to go where God leads.
He approaches Jesus with respect, calling him “a teacher who comes from God.” He is aware that there was something special about Jesus, he senses that Jesus could reveal something to him that he wants to know even if he is not sure what it is himself. Jesus in turn, recognizes the spiritual hunger in Nicodemus, just as I suspect that he recognizes the spiritual hunger in each one of us. And he feeds that hunger by telling him “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of heaven unless they are born from above.”
Nicodemus lets the idea of seeing the kingdom of heaven go right past him and instead gets fixated on the idea of being born from above, or as some translations have it born again or born anew, he focuses on that image and the technical difficulties he imagines in trying to return to the womb for a second birth. He gets so caught up in this improbability; “How can an adult be born; how can we go back into our mother’s womb? What are you TALKING about Jesus?” He misses the big picture because he got lost in the details.
And honestly, I think most of the time that we do too. The message is so simple, so easy and we can’t see if because we throw up road blocks and questions and worries and fears. Nicodemus keeps naming his fears, his increduloulessness, saying again and again how can this be and what does Jesus do?
There is no comfort there, there is no coddling, Jesus keeps lobbing those fears right back into Nic’s court. Nicodemus does not understand and it is interesting what Jesus does next. He reminds Nic that he is a teacher, but that he is acting like a blind man leading the blind. In other words, he may be a great religious leader, but he isn’t leading people to the knowledge of what will save them, being born from above.
So what does it mean to be SAVED? In his book The Heart of Christianity modern day theologian Marcus Borg writes about being "born again," which in his words “is utterly central in early Christianity and the New Testament as a whole. 'Dying and rising' and 'to be born again' are the same 'root image' for the process of personal transformation at the center of Christian life: to be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being…a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God."
It was never about going back into our mother’s wombs, it IS about entering into a new relationship with God, letting the word of God reach down and change us, move us, make us be more than what we were but to do that we must give up what we were and become something new. We must become a person who follows God, who returns to God, we must be open to being transformed, that is how we are born from above, that is how we enter the kingdom of God that is how we are saved.
The process of spiritual transformation…This whole idea of spiritual transformation makes even more sense, then, when we understand that being born from above, born anew, born again is spiritual rebirth, the giving of a new heart,
Who hasn’t longed for a new heart within us? Who doesn't question God in the darkest night of fear and doubt, and hope for answers and reassurance? Most of all, who among us hasn't yearned to know that "all of this" – our lives, our world, with both our struggles and our hopes – springs from love? The same verse that has been used by some to judge us is actually reassuring us about where "all of this" comes from: a God who loves the world (not the church, but the world) so much that only God's own Beloved Son was a good enough gift for us.
I believe, deep down in our hearts, just like Nicodemus, we have the knowledge but we often don’t have the confidence, the trust and the security to trust and believe in what we know. On our Lenten journey this week, I invite you to search your heart to find your trust and your assurance of your own spiritual renewal, your own being born from above and name it and claim it for yourself.
Did Nicodemus ever claim it for himself? We are not told that part of the story, but I am going to state that he did claim it. Remember I said that Nicodemus is mentioned three times in the book of John? The last time we hear about him is in John 19: 38-42 where we will find Nicodemus at the foot of the cross with Joseph of Arimethea. Jesus is dead and Joseph has received permission from Pilate to remove his body from the cross. Nicodemus have brought 100 pounds of spices to anoint the body of Jesus before it is wrapped in a shroud and placed in the tomb. It must have been a remarkable scene, two older men, one a respected rich man, the other a respected religious leader taking an extreme, even dangerous step to show that they are followers of this man Jesus who is now presumed dead. His presence at the cross that day leads me to believe that Nicodemus did come to understand what Jesus was teaching, he did embrace his own spiritual renewal and he was there, born again, born anew, born from above. May it be so for you. Amen