Gospel: John 3:1-17
A curious Pharisee visits Jesus by night to learn from the teacher his friends reject. Jesus speaks to him about life in the Spirit and the kingdom of God.
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus 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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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.”
If you live with a small child, you know that questions are a part of life. And I’m not just talking about “Where do babies come from?” Or what happens when we die. It’s the daily, what does a yellow light mean? Why do cats have whiskers? Why do we need to use soap? What does FBSHRUTW spell? Or what does that sign say? Or if I finish my dinner can I have 6 girl scout cookies for dessert cause I’m 6? The daily onslaught of questions that I don’t always have an answer for while I’m navigating parkway traffic.
But if I’m being honest, as a pastor – I love when people ask me questions. Because questions mean someone is thinking. Now it’s taken me a long time to be ok with the fact that I might not have all the answers – or that my answers might not be the answer someone is looking for. But I get so disheartened when I hear that folks presumed they were not allowed to question the pastor – or question church teachings – or God forbid, question the bible.
And as pastor, I have to ask questions too. Particularly as an interim pastor. To get to know a congregation and its history and its people, I have to ask questions that are both ordinary and difficult. Why do you do it this way? What happened? How did you react? In asking these questions, I have upset people, usually because they believe my asking comes from a place of judgement rather than curiosity. Questions are how we learn, and if I’m doing it right as a pastor – how we deepen relationships and deepen faith.
Now let’s take a look at Nicodemus’ questions. He starts with a statement of what he knows to be true. We know that you are a teacher, Jesus – and we know you have done some miracles, shown some signs – therefore I deduce that you must be from God – because only God can do the sorts of things. Jesus’ response is a bit of a non sequitur. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Now Jesus’ words are tricky for us to grasp 2000+ years of translation later. Some bibles will translate Jesus’ words as “born again” which is certainly one way of interpreting the greek. While this phrase born again, has specific connotations in our 21st century religious landscape – for now, let’s just interpret it as Nicodemus asking about being born a second time. Which is why Nicodemus follow-up questions make sense. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? But here’s what I think Jesus’ answer means…
Don’t be surprised. Just the fact that you are observing these things Nicodemus, you’re on the right path. You have come into a new understanding of God and of your place in the kingdom – and this was revealed to you not by your great amount of studying and diligent work – but by the holy spirit. You know your stuff Nicodemus, but something else is being revealed to you, from outside of your experience, and that’s going to set you on a new path. It’s going to help you see the kingdom all around you, not just where you expect it to be – the whole world is full of it. Because God loves the world.
which is funny – because Everywhere else in the Gospel of John the word for “world” (kosmos in Greek) describes that entity that is at complete enmity with God. The world is where Jesus’ ministry happens, but is always categorized as opposed to it. For example Jesus’ prayer just before his crucifixion: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:14-16). The world’s ways are not God’s ways. The attitudes and behaviors of the world we live in rarely match up with what God wants for God’s creation, and we actively work against creation through our lack of stewardship, our selfishness, and power hungry instinct to preserve ourselves at any cost.
This gives John 3:16 a bit more punch: “For God so loved the God-hating world that he sent his only Son … ,” we might translate. Apparently, at least according to Jesus, God really, really, really loves the world. But how can these things be?
By believing in the Son, and trusting that he’s telling the truth about his mission, the Holy Spirit works in us to show us the kingdom, right here and now – God breaking into this world with love, not condemnation.
But How can these things be? How could all of this possibly be true – how could god love THIS world? The answer is unconditionally.
Nicodemus asks another question – which we may echo from time to time. How can these things be?
When we can keep asking the questions, we keep ourselves open to the answers. To not just be content with what we know to be true – but to be open to the Spirit blowing where it will, and carrying us along with it. Born of water and the Spirit, involves going with the flow – not a complacency with the flow of the world and its injustices – but with the flow of what God is breathing into our world. It may shock us and upset us. It might run counter to how we think things should be or have always been. May we continue to ask the questions that help us think and trust more deeply.