Now there was a pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 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?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 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. If I had told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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. 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. 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.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
There was a pharisee named Nicodemus and he came to visit Jesus at night. As a leader of the Jews it was probably best to visit Jesus under the cover of darkness, and when they met together Nicodemus began to ask Jesus about all he had seen and heard. “Teacher, it is clear to us that you have come from God because no one can perform the signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” “You’re absolutely right,” Jesus replied, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
“Now wait a minute Jesus, how can anyone be born after having grown old? Can someone re-enter their mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus calmly answered, “Listen Nicodemus, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised that I told you that you had to be born from above. You know very well that the wind blows where it chooses, 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.”
“But Jesus how can these things be?!” “Nicodemus, are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? If I had told you about earthly things you would’ve believed, but now I talk to you about heavenly things and you do not believe. No one has ascended into heaven expect the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. Just 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. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. 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.”
Last week we looked at one of the most well known stories from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve in the Garden. Today I could not help myself from proclaiming one of the most well known New Testament scriptures: John 3:16. In the entire biblical canon, both the Old and New Testaments, there must be few, if any, scriptures that have been so remarkably loved by so many as this text. It is simple and to the point. It opens up endless possibilities. It embodies the hope of all Christians. It is beautiful and appealing. It begins with the beginning and stretches into the far reaches of eternity. It proclaims that which is most fundamental to our faith: that God loves us.
But the scripture today is about so much more than just that one isolated verse. I am thrilled that so many of us have memorized John 3:16, but we cannot forget about the inquisitive soon-to-be disciple named Nicodemus.
What do you make of this pharisee who came to see Jesus in the middle of the night?
On Tuesday morning, after gathering with the UMW, I made my way outside onto our back parking lot. After months of cold weather, with mounds of snow continually piling up, the Pre-School was finally able to play outside again. Now, let me be clear: I am just like those children. Having been cooped up in this church all winter I was just as, if not more, excited to run around and play outside. The children all had their plastic cars and bikes, some were running around in circles, others were using the fake gas pump to fill up the cars, (capitalism at its finest) when I saw a box of sidewalk chalk.
I silently made my way to the middle of the black top with the biggest piece of chalk that I could find and I began to draw. Without saying a word, or drawing attention to myself, the children began to congregate around me in a large circle. “Pastor Taylor, what are you drawing?” I heard one them mutter behind me, and I replied, “You’ll see in a moment.” As I stepped back the children moved with me, and there on the blacktop was a giant head with a wide open mouth. Why? I have no idea, but its what I drew. And without really understanding what I was doing I told the children that I was going to jump in the mouth of this mystery person made out of chalk. If I had said that to any of you, you would have thought that I lost my marbles. But with the children, they believed me, they looked into my soul, and some of them even begged me not to do it. But there I stood crouched with my hands at my side, and I jumped in. Of course I acted as if I was falling in and some of the children laughed, and when I was done, I encouraged some of them to jump in. There was a moment when the first girl stepped forward to the edge of the face. As I saw her prepare to jump in I realized she was unsure of what would happen to her. While rocking her hands back and forth I could see the sense of wonder and imagination brewing within her as she jumped right in.
Thats what Nicodemus was like. Jesus is known for having said that whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Nicodemus had a childlike and inquisitive faith. When confronted with the man of many wonders, Nicodemus wanted to jump right in to learn more about this new kingdom. While his contemporaries scoffed at the new teaching, Nicodemus’ imagination allowed him to see deeply into the truth of Jesus.
The other leaders of the synagogues were already muttering with irritated resentment regarding this so-called teacher who was beginning to develop a following. They disagreed with his strange ways, his strange teaching, and his strange disregard for authority. Nicodemus, however, felt there was indeed something strange about Jesus, but it could not be dismissed so easily. To Nicodemus, God was still speaking through people, and to his ears there was something in this new proclamation worth considering.
So, under the cover of night, Nicodemus went to learn more. He wanted to see for himself, he desired to hear from the man himself, to question and to learn. Instead of giving into the rumors, Nicodemus wanted to base his understanding on first hand experience. He could not settle for hearing about the man, but instead needed to jump straight into the abyss of the Son of Man.
In his willingness to question Christ we discover that Nicodemus was a great man who possessed enviable qualities. While suffocated by the surrounding culture and religions assumptions and expectations, he somehow managed to exhibit an open-mindedness that broke the chains of religious limitation.
Moreover, Nicodemus is one of the best examples of discipleship. By the end of the gospel account Peter will have denied Jesus in a shameful panic, the rest of the disciples will have scattered or run off into hiding. For all practical purposes, the story had come to a close. But Nicodemus, this strange pharisee from our story today, openly stood forth as one of Jesus’ only remaining friends. Nicodemus dared to risk the punishment of superiors, the resentment of his peers, by paying the last loving rites to the dead body of Jesus that would have been treated as trash by anyone else.
Nicodemus is an understatedly important figure in the Gospel for us in the life of the church. He is so familiar to us, because he is just like us. He asked the kind of questions that many of us would have asked, had we been there with our Lord.
If you take a step back from the account, what Jesus was talking about sounds impossible. How can someone be born anew? Jesus simply responds to our misunderstanding and confusion; its not about being physically reborn as a child, but about being born anew in such a way that you can reorient your life. We must be born anew. Our prayer and our hope should be rooted in the desire to be recreated. Make me another kind of being from what I am. Renew a steadfast spirit within me. Create in me a clean heart. Do all this, O God, so that I can lead a different life.
The whole point of the gospel is that God can achieve the impossible. Just as God can raise Jesus from the dead, God can achieve the impossible with you and me. And he does it! We see it happening in other peoples lives, our wayward friends who reorient their lives for the better. We have experienced it on some measure in our own lives however small or large. How does God change us? Ah, says Jesus, that is part of the great mystery. The wind comes who knows how, cleansing, refreshing, and then before we know it, its gone.
For God all things are possible. We can be born anew. We can find a new orientation for our lives no matter how young or old we may be. But even greater than this, is the promise of eternal life.
Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus with the, now famous, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Martin Luther, the great protestant reformer once said, “If I were as our Lord God, and these vile people were as disobedient as they are now, I would knock the whole world to pieces!” We consistently make a mockery of God’s love by continually disobeying his commands, and by ceasing to love others as we love ourselves. How can God love us when we ruin everything he created including ourselves?
God loves us, because God is love. God loves the world; his foolish, blundering, wayward, and sin sick world. This love utterly breaks through our foolish conceptions of what love means and is; God’s love runs out to lengths that sounds incredible to our human ears because we could never return that same love.
God is like that remarkable parent who continues to love a child through all the wrong decisions and failures. Picking them up from the police station, driving them back to rehab, sitting with them night after night helping with homework, loaning them money when they fall on hard times. The only difference being that when our love for our children fails, his love for us remains steadfast.
God proves his love toward us by doing all that God can do, and giving all that God can give to help us; stretching himself even to sacrifice his only Son, and hold back nothing.
Thats what Nicodemus learned from his time with Jesus. That in the impossible mystery of God’s created order, God’s love knows no bounds, was made manifest in Christ’s death on the cross for you and for me and for the whole world.
Let us all strive to live like Nicodemus. Let our faith be inquisitive and exciting. Let us all prepare to jump into the unknown, to fearlessly step into a relationship with the triune God, and above all remember that great scripture: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. To God be the Glory.