Preached at First Lutheran Church in St Peter, MN on Sunday, March 16. Gospel Text: John 3:1-17
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
In today’s episode of frequently misunderstood Bible passages, I present to you: the story of Nicodemus and the one conversation with Jesus that has done more to divide Christians against one another and all other people than almost any other verse in all of scripture. Let’s open up this story a bit.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a group of Jewish men who were religious and political leaders in Jerusalem. Nicodemus would have been very familiar with all the ins and outs of what it meant to be Jewish, he would have been closely following what Jesus was up to in his ministry. It is not entirely clear as to why Nicodemus wishes to see Jesus, but he comes to see him in the darkness because as a member of the Jewish elite, it just wouldn’t do to be seen keeping company with this unkempt radical who just got done throwing the money changers out of the temple, upending tables, and shouting that the temple has been turned into a marketplace. Then Nicodemus does something bold: He confesses that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and that he is filled with the presence of God because of the signs that he has performed.
But then Jesus answers a question that Nicodemus is not asking. Jesus says, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (or as some translations have it, born again or born anew). Nicodemus was not asking, “how can we be sure you who are you say that you are?” So, it is actually Jesus who begins this confusing conversation. Nicodemus asks a very logical and literal question, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter their mother’s womb again?” Jesus counters with, “do not be astonished. No one can enter heaven without being born of water and Spirit.” Again, Nicodemus speaks for all of us who are still confused, “How can these things be?” And Jesus is almost impatient with him, “How can you be a teacher of Israel and not understand these things? We, presumably meaning Jesus and the disciples, tell you what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not believe. How then can you believe about heavenly things?” Then Jesus utters some of the most well known words in all of scripture, “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.”
That is John 3:16. It’s on t-shirts. It’s on billboards It’s on that guy’s sign who attends football games wearing a rainbow wig. It has become shorthand for Christians to identify one another. It has become a way to identify who is in (that is, who believes the “right stuff”) and who is out.
John 3:16 is one of those Bible verses that we have heard so many times that we think that we know what it means. And we as humans like this verse a lot, because we think that we hear a command for us to DO something to provide for our own salvation. You know, “whoever believes in him may not perish.” We just have to believe and we will be saved, and that seems simple enough. We don’t have to be like Nicodemus, who is cast as some kind of bumbling idiot, who just doesn’t get the most obvious thing that Jesus is trying to say to him. We grab onto the one word in this verse that allows us to get involved, believe, the verb where we are the subject. Yet, we miss so much of what is going on here.
The real subject of this verse is God. God Loved. God Gave. And we hear in John 3:17, which is what should REALLY be on billboards and t-shirts, “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.” God Saved. We are not the ones doing the work here and it is not some exclusive club of saved people. It is the whole world, no exceptions.
What does it actually mean to be born again or born from above? I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be born. Two of my dear friends back home in Denver had a baby girl on Ash Wednesday. Little Willa Rose did absolutely nothing to bring about her own birth. Just as all of us gathered here today did absolutely nothing to bring about our own birth. Our mothers labored and brought us forth into the world out of love. Being born again of water and the spirit means that God is laboring to bring us into new life out of pure love for us.
We Christians like to think that we are not like Nicodemus, because we know the rest of the story. We know that Jesus will be crucified and raised from the dead for the salvation of the whole world. But I think that we are more like Nicodemus in this particular story than we would like to admit. As Lutherans, we do not have a theology that mandates that we make a personal decision to be “born again”, but as humans, we have an innate and overpowering drive to want to orchestrate our own lives. We do not necessarily make a decision to “choose Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior” and thus save ourselves from eternal suffering or some other such thing, but we do want to have a hand in controlling the outcome of our lives. We say that we understand that we are born again through water and the word, and that our baptisms mark our new life in Christ, but like Nicodemus, we still come to Jesus in the dark of night with questions that we cannot answer on our own. “How can these things be?”
The sort of questions we face when having faith becomes hard. When we face illness or uncertainty. Living with overwhelming grief or suffering. When we beg God for a sign of how to move forward with an impossible decision and hear deafening silence instead. We ask…“How can these things be?”
I think our hope lies in the season of Lent. In the season of Lent we are journeying towards Jerusalem with Jesus. We are contemplating who God is as fully human and fully divine, as Christ crucified on the cross. But we cannot talk about the promise of birth, without it being accompanied by the certainty of death one day as well. We boldly confessed this fact on Ash Wednesday, as our foreheads were marked with ash. But death does not have the final word. We have a God who loves us so much as to actually die for our sake, so that we might never be separated from God in death ever again. The season of Lent and the crucifixion show that God is never absent in our suffering, because God knows, on a physical, visceral, literal, level what it means to feel pain and to die. I recognize this might sound kind of odd, that this is hopeful. But bear with me. In the holy work of pastoring, we pastors get the privilege of accompanying so many people through the last days of their lives. We pray, we sit, we sing, but most of all, we proclaim that death on earth is not the end. And in these holy places of dying, the thin places where the here and now meet the hereafter, the presence of God is palpable. That even in dying, there is a rebirth happening as well. That is the Gospel.
Let us pray…God, thank you for birthing us into new life every single day. We trust in the promise of new life and we trust that you bear with us even in death. Amen.