2nd Sunday in Lent
March 9, 2014
John 3: 1-17
This story contains what may be the most famous Bible passage of our day. We see it inscribed on signs held up between the goal posts at major football games and at the finish lines of marathons. We’ve seen and heard it in so many contexts that we’ve almost lost the story that it goes with, a condition that I hope to address today.
Actually the readings we have ahead of us from the John’s Gospel are some of the most famous Bible stories, and tell us about some of the most interesting encounters of Jesus in the Gospels. These stories are all stories that you won’t find in the other Gospels. In them, Jesus will meet an important Jewish leader, a forbidden foreigner, a disabled agnostic, and some of his dearest friends. Through these encounters, the Evangelist will reveal something about God and the Son of God that will change them and us. So here we go:
Nicodemus comes by night. We don’t know whether that means that the after dinner hours are customarily the best time for a deep discussion, or whether he doesn’t want to be seen by any of his big important friends talking to this disturbing teacher from the country. John is always telling us what time it is, the time of day, the time of year, the Jewish festival. We see that Nicodemus comes in the dark, the dark of his own understanding of who God is and what makes you one of God’s people. In his conversation with Jesus, he sits beside the Light of the World, asking for answers. John’s narrative trick is that he starts those conversations making clear to us that the questioner underestimates who Jesus is – by a longshot. We are in on the secret at the beginning, knowing that Nicodemus’ description, “we know that you are a teacher come from God,” is an underestimation. But Jesus jumps right to the point; the things he already knows and understands will never be enough to answer his questions. He will have to enter a whole new realm of living and experience to really get who Jesus is.
Jesus tells him that he needs both to be reborn and to be born from above – translations that you will find either in the text or in the notes in almost every translation of the Bible. Nicodemus doesn’t get it. It’s just not possible. But Jesus claims that the Spirit’s work is to reopen lives to new understanding and new experience. It is hard enough to understand how earthly mysteries work, much less how heavenly mysteries work. It is only through the Spirit working in us that we can experience the new reality of God’s presence with us.
Jesus references the story of the Children of Israel in their desert years. As poisonous snakes were sent among them as punishment for apostasy, God directs Moses to craft a bronze serpent to post up on a pole. Anyone who looked at the bronze serpent would be healed. All through John’s Gospel, Jesus sees his work as being lifted up to save all who are suffering from evil and lost to the love and grace of God. And then he tells the reason why he is here with us. “For God so loved the lost and suffering world that he came in person, the one and only unique person of God himself. All who trust that this is God at work to reclaim the world will be saved by that trust. Because God did not want anyone to be lost to God’s love and forgiveness, all who trust that this is God’s way come to new life that lasts forever.”
This knowledge is not just something that you add to what you know of the world. This knowledge changes everything that you know about the world. Suddenly you are not just another stranger striving to be a better person. You are someone that God has invited into a vibrant and revolutionary relationship. Your striving is unnecessary to earn you the affection and permission to connect with the Cosmic Creator. You have been approached, called, accepted, embraced by God’s own self, as evidenced by God’s presence in the lives of the writers of our Scripture and our own experience of God’s presence with us now, both in Word and in each other. C. S. Lewis says that when you begin to accept the Christian message, you think that you can just add belief in Jesus to all the other things that you know and believe. But Jesus won’t have it that way. He wants to start you all over again, with himself and his love and forgiveness at the very center of your life. You see the world’s hurt and injustice now through the eyes of a God who loves sinners with a careless crazy love, and who wants everyone to thrive. You see your own ability to care, to bless, to help, to share with new eyes because you know you have received those gifts from God yourself. In some ways it’s just too easy. And in some ways it’s killer hard.
We don’t know what happened to Nicodemus. He shows up again in John’s Gospel in the background of incidents that suggest that he did finally come to understand about being born of the Spirit, and that he came to trust that Jesus was more than just a teacher/miracle worker. John doesn’t seem to think that what happened to Nicodemus is as important as what happens to you when you meet Jesus. Where are you in the dark these days? Where can looking at Jesus reassure you that you are being called into something new and life-changing? How are you being invited to get beyond guilt or remorse to step into a life of trust in God’s steadfast love and mercy? How will you respond to that invitation? Amen.