March 12, 2017
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
On this second week of Lent we move away from Matthew’s account of Jesus life and to the gospel of John.
By the third chapter in John, Jesus has some key followers, he has changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana, he has driven the animal sellers and money exchangers out of the temple during the large religious event of Passover, and then during that time in Jerusalem during the Passover, Jesus did many more signs that are not described in any detail for us.
So Jesus has been doing really public ministry for about a week and we come to Nicodemus.
As I read the passage I want you to keep your eyes on Nicodemus.
How do you imagine him? Is he afraid? Is he curious? Is he baffled and confused? Why do you think he comes? What is he looking for?
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
2 He 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.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
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.
7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
8 The 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.”
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 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.
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.
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.
Let’s imagine Nicodemus in two different ways.
In the first, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness because he is ashamed and afraid. Jesus had just offended a lot of people by disrupting worship during the biggest pilgrimage of the year. Jesus made it so no one could go into the temple and make their sacrifices and pay their temple tax, so in other words, no one could worship. The Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, were livid. This country zealot of a rabbi needed to get out of town with his little band of followers.
Nicodemus is afraid of what his colleagues would say if they knew he went to see Jesus. When Jesus tells Nicodemus about being born again or anew or from above (the Greek here has a couple different meanings), Nicodemus takes him way too literally: “How can someone be born again when he is old?” He is dense and unimaginative and worse, doesn’t understand who Jesus is at all. And so we place him in the category of people who don’t get it, and move on.
Let’s try to imagine him another way.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, because that is when the work of the day is done. The crowds that follow Jesus around looking for another miracle have dissipated. It is quiet and there is time for a conversation.
Nicodemus begins with what he has been mulling over in his heart, “I know that you are from God because the miracles tell me that, and I know that you are a teacher.”
It is a statement that is open-ended – perhaps God is saying something new through this new rabbi.
And Jesus’ reply is honestly baffling: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
I think because I am now a student again with a professor who makes me read books that are really challenging to understand, I have greater compassion for the situation Nicodemus finds himself in.
He is a smart man, not only a Pharisee, a religious leader who has spent his life learning the torah and teaching it to others and arguing about it with his colleagues, but he is a leader of Pharisees, a member of the Jewish ruling council.
Can we imagine him wanting to understand but finding it really difficult to wrap his mind around that Jesus is saying, and so he asks questions of his teacher: “What does this mean? How can this be? How can someone be born again? This physically doesn’t make sense to me.”
This is what it looks like when we bump up against something new that we really want to understand. It can be baffling, confusing or frustrating, but we have the sense that if can wrap our minds around this new thing, it will change us for the better.
This is what happens when we move to a new place in our understanding. We ask questions, and we don’t always arrive at the answer all at once.
This is how I see Nicodemus: a man who is open to the possibility that God is teaching him something new. Jesus tries to tell Nicodemus that in order to understand the kingdom of God, and see what God is doing through Jesus, it is like being born all over again, that’s how radical the change is. To see the kingdom of God and to understand who Jesus is, you, Nicodemus, have to change.
Jesus is saying to Nicodemus (but I’d like to think we can hear it too), “You have a neat filing system for understanding God and you thought you could come here and find more teaching to fit neatly in a box that you can put on your shelf, but I am telling you that you have to throw out your shelving system and start anew. The Spirit of God is not contained, it is a free thing, and it is wild like the wind and it can blow you to new places and you can’t always tell where it will take you, and that is what happens when you are born anew.”
This is what spiritual journeys look like. We thought we had a handle on things. We thought we understood who God is, we believed in Jesus, and then we run up against a barrier, a painful experience that challenges what we believe, or a question we can’t seem to answer with our old information. And we struggle, and ask questions, and look at the problem a different way, and talk to faithful people and pray, and time goes by, and then we realize that something has changed, we have moved a little bit in a new and surprising direction
I can relate to this feeling. Recently I’ve been wrestling with what the Bible is for me and for us. This is the topic of my studies this semester. What is the Bible and how is it holy and what is it for and how does it work and how do we read it? Sometimes I feel like I am starting over from the beginning and building a new understanding. And I am on a journey, and it is work, hard work. The Bible is a collection of ancient documents that were collected up, and these were letters and stories that were important to the early church. These were documents that told them about who there were, and what Jesus said and did, and what was important to the early church. They took these various pieces, and the Jewish scriptures which for many of them had been an important way of understanding what God was doing in Jesus Christ, and they bound them together and called them God’s Word to us – the church said these are the words that shape us and tell us who we are, and remind us what God has done and what God is doing and will do, these are the words that teach us who Jesus is. The Bible wasn’t handed to us fully formed, but the pieces were all important enough to be brought together for us to read them together and learn why they are important. These words are for us as a church to read together, to wrestle with, to learn from and to be transformed by.
We don’t know what Nicodemus was thinking when he left the conversation with Jesus. We do know that he didn’t leave his life behind instantly to become a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus didn’t ask him to.
Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s account of Jesus’ life. When the Pharisees want to have Jesus arrested and the temple guards don’t want to because they are in awe of him, the Pharisees retort, “You mean he has deceived you also? Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law – there is a curse on them.”
And at that point Nicodemus, who was still one of their number the text tells us, questions whether they can condemn Jesus without first listening to him. This suggestion is not well received.
And then after Jesus is taken down off the cross, Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimethea and brings the burial spices, and wraps Jesus’ body for burial. Both times John the writer describes Nicodemus as “the one who came to Jesus.”
And perhaps this tells us something important – our journeys will all be different. We sometimes think of this language of being born again as implying some sort of instant radical transformation. But that was not Nicodemus’ story.
In the Revised Common Lectionary today one of the other readings is this beautiful parallel of a journey — the story in Genesis of Abram, who is living on good land in Haran with his family, land that he will farm and pasture his flocks. He is settled, and God calls to him and tells him to get up and leave the safety of his land and tribe and his father’s household, and go to on a journey to a place he has not seen yet, but God will show him where to go.
God calls us on journeys of many different kinds. Sometimes our journeys are physical ones; like Abram we are moved to go to a new and unfamiliar place. Sometimes our journeys happen all inside us; like Nicodemus we are up against something we are struggling to understand, and it will take us a while to sort it out. Either way we aren’t sitting still, the Spirit of God is moving like a wild wind, but God goes with us. Psalm 121 is the psalm assigned for today and it ends with these words: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”
In all our journeys, every time we are challenged, afraid of what is ahead, every time we feel the wind of the Spirit blowing, every time we leave the comfort of what we know, every time we realize we are changing, in all our journeys God is with us.