Scripture: John 3:1-17
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
You’re in a classroom. Students filling the chairs all around you.
The teacher at the front of the room – talking on and on…. until it stops.
Oh no! The teacher is looking right at you.
Your eyes connect…
And your name is called.
Silence fills the room.
Heads and bodies shift to face you.
All eyes…. on you.
You blank. You do not know the answer.
You flush red. Blood pounding through your body.
Your heart races.
You know that normal amount of time has passed that you could wait.
You have to say something.
You blurt out… a word, some word, not the right word.
You can sense it. Disappointment all around. The bodies and eyes slowly move back up front. Just in time for everyone to see the teacher’s look of disappointment in you.
* * *
This is a recurring dream for me — nightmare, I should say.
Being in this particular moment. Heightened energy. My nerves and heart racing.
Unable to come up with the right answer. The one the teacher expects. The one the whole room expects.
My heart goes out to Nicodemus in this story. In the moment when Jesus says to him:
“You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things?
“How can this surprise you?” Jesus says.
I imagine the look of pain in Nicodemus, acknowledging his failure, his wrong answer…. and Jesus’ disappointment in him.
Nicodemus is a Jewish leader after all. People look to him for the answers. They follow him. He’s used to asking the right questions and giving the right answers.
It’s a good thing Jesus, the teacher, keeps talking after such a low blow. Going on to explain the right answer.
I imagine Nicodemus needed some time to recover. Time to pick his ego up off the floor. Dust it off a bit.
* * *
What do we know about Nicodemus?
We know that Nicodemus is a wise and careful Jewish leader.
He has heard about Jesus’ signs – healing people and performing miracles. Maybe he has even seen a few from the crowd himself…
And he decides to go meet Jesus. To see for himself if it’s possibly true… That this man is the Messiah.
I say Nicodemus is cautious and wise because he goes by night – when it’s dark – so that no one will follow him. Or worse, judge him.
Nicodemus as a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, takes quite a risk to meet Jesus. Meanwhile the other Pharisee leaders are busy gossiping and conspiring against Jesus in the temple.
And when he meets Jesus… he barely gets a word out affirming Jesus’ connection to God when Jesus pushes him further than he expects to go.
Instead of confirming Nicodemus’ inquiry if he is the Messiah…
Jesus responds with bigger plans.
Jesus wants Nicodemus to see and understand the FULL picture of who God is and what God is doing for him.
And Nicodemus fails to keep up.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born again? … when they are old?”
But Jesus is pointing to birth in the spirit. What is offered to Nicodemus and to each of us through the triune God.
I wonder if Nicodemus was an older leader in the church… wanting to get it right, but scared at the change it might entail. Perhaps wondering and confused as to if even he could be birthed anew.
Its a lot to think about when Jesus goes on…
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
Wind blows where it will.
Only those, only those, Jesus says, who are born again, birthed by the spirit can see the kingdom of God.
It’s no wonder that Nicodemus stumbles in this theology.
Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish synagogue, knows about God the father. “Abba.” Creator, God of Israel.
And he knows his scriptures well enough to expect a Messiah. God born into the flesh.
But he doesn’t know about the spirit. The Holy Spirit. He doesn’t quite understand how Jesus being here and about to be resurrected will have huge implications for his life.
It will indeed make his life brand new. Different. Not the same as before.
* * *
The second to last verse – John 3:16 – is for most Christians the summary of the gospel.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
But I’ll tell you, it’s become watered down. Most Christians just glaze over it without holding onto its great meaning and depth.
We have to pay attention a little more – like Nicodemus – to what Jesus is saying to understand how God is taking root in our lives and hearts and rebirthing us. Making us new.
Theologian George Stroup says this:
“In John’s gospel… being born from above or believing in Jesus has less to do with our mind as it does with our life and our heart.”
What God has done and is doing for us in salvation is making us a completely new person.
Being born again is just that – a fresh start – a completely new life in which we are centered on Jesus Christ and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. We start over again and we intentionally live for God in our new life and not for ourselves.
The gospel – our salvation – is not and cannot be a mental exercise. An attribution to a theological doctrine memorized in one verse.
In order for the gospel to take root in us, to TRULY believe in Jesus – we have to live it out in our lives. In our actions.
* * *
This week I heard a musician on the radio talk about his reason for writing a song. He shared that his teenage son was diagnosed with a rare kidney failure. In just 6 months his 16 year old lost half of his kidney function.
The onset of the disease put his whole family in turmoil. The greatest questions of life came to the forefront.
How will we spend our time?
What do we value?
What are we currently taking for granted?
Those questions helped his family see that they wanted to put all their time left toward being together, laughing, hugging, saying “I love you.” Those moments were what he was taking for granted…and they were the most important – of most value – to his life.
The song he wrote is about taking time every day to show our love. To not take it for granted. To give a hug, or a smile. In each decision, in every day to ask whether it is worth your time and energy because there are so many things and people worth that precious time and energy.
This man’s story got me thinking about what life anew looks like.
What this rebirth Jesus talks of is really like….
It made me consider what the joy of new life in Christ looks like for me and why I wouldn’t do everything in my power to live into it today.
* * *
Living for Christ means worship. Not just once a week or once in a while, but worship every day. Giving thanks and praise to my creator. For my life.
Living for Christ, life anew, means caring for creation. For my neighbor. For my family. For myself. It means seeking to help those in need because Jesus says so.
Living for Christ, life anew, means seeing the kingdom of God. Looking for the ways the spirit is birthing new life. Expressions of joy and creativity. Within us. Around us.
I see us reclaiming this new birth in baptism.
In water and spirit, we are born from above and welcomed into the family of God.
In baptism, we claim each other as God’s claims us and we open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our ENTIRE LIVES to Christ.
We proclaim this biblical truth:
For God so loved the world,
For God so loves US
that God gave us God’s very self.
So that we would not be condemned, but saved through him.
Let us truly believe in the gospel by living our new lives found in Christ. Let us be born of the spirit and see the mystery of God’s kingdom with us now and forever.