During the season of Lent, I will be talking about individuals who had somewhat personal encounters with Jesus.
Encounters where Jesus responds to their particular circumstances.
The kind of thing we all seek from Jesus at one time or another.
An encounter where Jesus responds to our particular circumstances.
Today, we meet Nicodemus.
John 3: 1-17
3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.2He came to Jesus 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.’ 3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born [again, anew], from above.’ 4Nicodemus 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?’ 5Jesus answered, ‘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.’ 9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’10Jesus 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 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.
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.
18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’
All of us here have been students.
However far we went.
Many here are or have been teachers, too.
And so we have all heard – or said – this:
“There is no such thing as a ‘stupid’ question!”
We are told we should ask questions if we don’t understand something.
Nobody falls for that line.
Because what you don’t want anyone to know is that you don’t understand something.
It might not be a stupid question, but it makes you feel stupid.
So, instead of raising your hand in class, you become part of the “after” or “between class” line of students who want to talk to the teacher privately.
To confess your lack of understanding only to the teacher.
To ask for help.
To seek understanding.
That is what is happening in our text today.
This is an encounter between someone who does not understand Jesus, and Jesus.
It’s the kind of conversation each of us would like to have with Jesus.
So we can ask our … well … many questions.
And try to understand what means to follow Jesus.
Let’s start with what brings Nicodemus to Jesus.
Let’s set the scene.
Jesus has been baptized, gathered some disciples, prevented a wedding disaster at Cana, and threw some rascals out of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Along the way he has taught many lessons about God and performed many “signs” to back up his authority.
One group of people who have been watching Jesus are the Pharisees.
Some of the Pharisees are religious rules of the people, teachers of Israel and members of the Sanhedrin.
Which brings us to our text.
It is night.
Jesus is done for the day.
Maybe hanging out with his disciples around a fire.
There is a rustle in the bushes and out of the darkness steps Nicodemus.
He is a Pharisee.
They can see by the way he is dressed.
Maybe Nicodemus saunters over to Jesus and asks if he might have a word with Jesus in private.
“Certainly”, Jesus says, and off they go to be alone.
Nicodemus is prepared for some type of debate and uses a rhetorical tool to begin the conversation.
He compliments Jesus.
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 is thus described as a divinely gifted teacher as is evidenced by these signs of yours.
But Jesus does not seem to be interested in pleasantries.
He gets to the point.
“Why are you here Nicodemus?
Are you trying to understand who I am?
Well, here is what you need to know if you want to understand:
‘[N]o one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’”
So now we need to digress.
This is the passage where we get the term “born again”.
The Greek word translated as “again” is “anothen”.
It has several meanings.
Or as the NRSV translates it: Born from above.
There is no single English word that includes all of these.
But the Greek word does and is intended to include all of these concepts in one word.
Each has its own nuance but the word must be understood as including all.
None is preferred, but only one can be selected for translation purposes.
The others are invariably in footnote.
Back to Nicodemus.
When Jesus describes this “rebirth”, he seems to be describing an event of time and place.
The time is when someone encounters Jesus.
The place is from where the new birth comes – from above!
The result of this rebirth is a new way of life.
It’s an illustration.
Nicodemus misses it.
How does that work?
I’m an old man.
How can my mother give birth to me again?”
So, Jesus responds.
“OK. Let’s try this.
It’s not a real birth, Nicodemus.
It’s kind of like at my baptism.
I was taken into the water and when I came up, the spirit of God came from heaven and rested on me – and stayed.
It started a new way of life for me.
That is what the rebirth is like.
The Spirit of God descends on you and your life becomes new.
And by the way, Nicodemus,” Jesus seems to say, “if you find this difficult to comprehend, don’t feel bad.
This spirit of God is like the wind.
It touches everyone.
It can’t be controlled.
You can feel its presence, but you can’t predict what it will do.
But you can see the result.
Lives that go in unexpected directions and do unanticipated things.
How does it work?
It is a mystery, Nicodemus.
Get over it.
But when it does touch you, you understand who I am.
I am the Kingdom of God.
Do you see the Kingdom, Nicodemus?
It is right here in front of you.
Talking to you.”
Nicodemus is still having trouble understanding.
“How can these things be?”
You can almost picture Nicodemus with his hands open in front of him, eyes wide, maybe shaking his head.
“I just don’t get it, Jesus!”
Jesus tries again.
Jesus starts with a rebuke.
“Aren’t you a teacher of Israel?
Why aren’t you getting this?
Just be silent and listen.
This is who I am and why I’m here, Nicodemus.
I am the one from God.
You said so.
It’s like this story you know well.
[J]ust as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
That is who I am, Nicodemus.
I am the one to be lifted up.
I am the testimony of God’s love.
‘For God so loved the world [cosmos, Nicodemus – everything and everyone] that he gave [yes Nicodemus, I am a gift] his only Son, [that’s me Nicodemus,] so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
There it is Nicodemus.
Believing in me is like looking at the snake.
Look at the snake and live.
Believe in me and live.
And your life will be an eternal one.
I know what you are thinking, Nicodemus.
What’s eternal life?
God’s the only eternal thing, right?
Eternal life is living God’s life.
You start that the moment you start living it.
Now you are thinking, what does it mean to believe?
How do I believe?
Belief is not entirely mental.
It’s mainly physical.
It is something you do.
Feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
House the homeless.
Welcome the stranger.
Care for the sick.
Visit the jailed.
It depicts a sacrificial love for everyone.
Like mine, Nicodemus.
God so loves you that I will die in your place to save your life.
That’s God’s way.
It’s, my way, Nicodemus.
I am a light shining.
Lighting the way to God.
It enlightens God’s life.
Some come to the light.
Those who do are reborn and live changed lives.
Those who don’t, well, they don’t.
That is who I am and why I am here.
I am that light.
Live the way I live, and you will live.
Living in the light means you are living the way I live.
Others do none of these things.
It’s their choice.
If you choose to live in the darkness, that is your choice.
You have judged yourself.
Condemnation comes from you, not me.
I came to save everyone.
Everyone who wants to be saved.”
So, what does Nicodemus choose?
John says nothing here, but we do see Nicodemus again.
We see him next when the Pharisees of the Temple accuse Jesus of being false prophet.
Nicodemus defends Jesus and demands that the Pharisees hear Jesus out before they judge him.
Last, we see Nicodemus after the crucifixion.
With Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus prepares Jesus for burial and puts Jesus in the tomb.
What do we make of this?
I read it that Nicodemus encountered Jesus, chose to live in the light, defended it, and loved it.
And was reborn into the Kingdom.
So what does all this mean for us?
We are all like Nicodemus at first.
We have an encounter with Jesus, most of us in private – no alter calls in the PCUSA, right?
We want to know who he is, why he came and what it means for us.
Jesus’ response is the same.
Feel the presence of the spirit.
Choose to live in the light.
Live in the light and be reborn, born again, born anew, born from above.
See the Kingdom right now.
Be part of the kingdom right now.
Start God’s life right now.
The choice is yours.”
But now I must digress.
The events of this week cry out.
Seventeen students and teachers killed in Parkland, Florida.
This is a terrible and awful thing.
Theologians call this theodicy.
I have preached and taught on it so often I am frankly tired of having to do so.
Why do bad things happen to innocent people?
Why do terrible things like this happen in a redeemed world?
Well, it’s like this.
While we are redeemed, we are still broken.
There is still darkness.
And there are those who choose it.
And live in it.
And act out of it.
Why they make that choice, we cannot know.
It is a mystery.
All I can say is that Jesus offers a way out of the darkness, for anyone who chooses it.
To live in the light – to live the Jesus way.
Pray with me please.
We are tired. We are so tired of the darkness we see all around us. We confess that we contribute our share to it. We want creation to be reborn as a whole so that all the darkness is scattered. Lord, send your spirit again into this dark world to enlighten us and encourage us to change our lives so that we live your way, the Jesus way. Help us to enlighten others so that they, too can leave the darkness and enter your light, so that the world can be as you would have it, redeemed and reconciled to you. Amen