GUEST POST: Becky Frazier delivered this sermon at the All Saints Church of Christ on March 12, 2017. Becky is an M.Div. student at Lipscomb University. Thanks for sharing, Becky!
In this passage, we meet a man by the name of Nicodemus; he’s a Pharisee, and a well-respected leader, possibly even a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a good Jew. He’s very well read, and knows the scriptures backward and forward. And he’s likely heard some of the inflammatory things that Jesus has said and seen the miraculous works that he has done.
So he comes to talk to Jesus, and John tells us that he does this at night. Most scholars will agree that he’s coming under cover of darkness so no one, specifically his Pharisee friends, will catch him talking to Jesus. He addresses him: Rabbi- Teacher- a sign of respect, saying “we know that you are from God, because we’ve seen the signs you do.”
Jesus’s response to this is “Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is confused; after all, he hadn’t asked what he needed to do to see the Kingdom of God. He hadn’t asked anything at all. Really, he had just come in and said a respectful hello when Jesus responds with this statement about being born again. Though it might seem like Jesus is abruptly changing the subject, I don’t think he is. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Nicodemus asks “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Jesus tell Nicodemus, “Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, 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 despite Jesus’s admonishment not to be, Nicodemus is surprised and says incredulously “How can this be?!”
In other places, Jesus tells his followers and the crowds that the Kingdom of God is like salt, or light, or leaven, but here, Jesus tells Nicodemus, you can’t even SEE the Kingdom of God until you take a step back and come at this from a different angle, until you see if from above.
It’s important to understand that the phrase that we translate as “born again” actually has a dual meaning in the original Greek. It could mean born again or it could also mean born from above. Nicodemus, the great scholar that he is, choses the most basic meaning of this phrase “born again” and doesn’t consider the possibility of a deeper, more spiritual understanding of being “born from above”.
You can see why he would be so oblivious. After all, he’s a prominent Jewish teacher. The text refers to him as THE Teacher of Israel: Well-read, highly knowledgeable, respected in the community. He has all of the right letters after his name, went to the best school, attends synagogue every week. He doesn’t even need to be born again physically. He’s a Jew. He was born right to begin with. He was born into the covenant community, into God’s chosen people.
Even today, the term “born-again Christian” refers to someone who has a great conversion story. Someone who left behind a life of drugs, or alcohol, or another type of addiction. Someone who was sexually immoral. Someone who was on a self-destructive path but has now come to know Jesus and turned their life around. But Nicodemus is exactly the kind of person that does NOT need to be born again and he knows it.
So, back to my earlier point, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we can see that you are a teacher come from God”, and then abruptly Jesus tells him that he needs to be born again, to be born from above, Jesus is not introducing a new subject to their conversation. What he’s saying is, Nicodemus, you don’t need another teacher. You don’t need another book to read or another idea to discuss and develop. Nicodemus, you don’t need more education, you need a savior.
Jesus references a scene from the old testament where poisonous snakes are sent to the Israelites who are wandering in the desert. Moses petitions God to save the Israelites from this terror and so he made a bronze snake on a staff and anyone who had been bitten just needed to look at the snake and the poison would vanish and the victim would live. Jesus is comparing himself to that snake, and foreshadows his own death on the cross. Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed to be saved from the poison that was spreading inside him, but this poison didn’t look like a life of sin and debauchery. It looked like a life of strict conservative religion that had lost the plot somewhere along the way.
In the words of Tim Keller, Jesus isn’t calling Nicodemus to morality and religion. He’s challenging the established morality and religion. He’s reminding him that God loves all of his creation and has always been trying to move us closer and closer into relationship with him. Verse 16 is probably one of the most well-known verses in the entire bible: children in Sunday school memorize it, athletes write it on their faces, it’s on bumper stickers on our cars: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”
You see, Nicodemus’s, like his other Pharisee friends, had been guilty of trying to put the Spirit into a box, to contain it and give it structure and pass judgement on who was allowed to have it. Jesus says, “No, the Spirit is like the wind, which blows wherever it chooses.” If you try to close all of the doors and windows to keep in the wind, it’s just going to end up musty and airless in the room while the breeze dances with the trees outside. The same is true when we try to box in the Spirit and put rules around it, and keep it for ourselves.
Many of the Jews, like Nicodemus, had forgotten that their entire purpose, the whole reason that they were God’s chosen people to begin with was to be a blessing to the world, as we saw from the reading in Genesis earlier. But they had gotten so focused on being special that their navel-gazing kept them from this holy work. I think I may identify a bit too much with Nicodemus here. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of thinking that “those people” need a rebirth, need salvation, but not me. I grew up a Christian. I read the Bible. I’ve never done anything too bad. I’m going to school to be a preacher and I’ve done a lot of reading about God. I wonder how many times I’ve hindered the work of the Kingdom by thinking that the Spirit couldn’t possibly work in that way, or in that place, or in those people.
It seems that Nicodemus ended up having his re-birth after all. We hear of him again briefly, twice more in the book of John. In one case, he was standing up to the Pharisees who were trying to arrest Jesus. And, after Jesus’s death, we see him one last time, bringing oils and spices to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. His re-birth from above came when he truly saw Jesus and what he had come to do.
This week, as we see signs of spring and rebirth all around us, I hope that you will be challenged by Nicodemus to see what areas in your life need a rebirth from above. Maybe it’s in how you view other people. Maybe it’s in how you view your call, your part in the work of the kingdom. And maybe it’s in how you view God and what he can and is doing among us to bring about reconciliation and redemption to the whole world. Birth isn’t easy. It’s long and painful and scary and just when it’s over, the task of nurturing that new life is just as long and painful and scary, but when the end result is that we are finally able to see the Kingdom of God, we know that it was all worth it in the end.