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 have 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. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” John 3:1-21 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, the Messiah, who is Christ, the Lord. Amen.
I like to go to the theatre. My apartment in Los Angeles was very close to Santa Monica Blvd. This boulevard, as it runs through East Hollywood, is home to a number of very small theatres. Average seating is around 25-30. They’re very intimate. They’re also very cheap. For $10-15, one can see a wide variety of plays, some very new and avant garde. Others more traditional. Every so often, I would trek to this area to see a play.
So, as I was preparing for this Sunday’s sermon, I read a commentary by Lindsey Trozzo, who is a professor of biblical ethics and rhetoric at Baylor University. In her opening paragraph, she suggested thinking of the Gospel of John as a multi-act play or a TV mini-series. That caught my attention and helped me re-think not only our story today, but also what we’ve already heard so far in the Gospel.
Think about it. By the time we get to today’s story, we’ve already witnessed a poetic opening monologue from the narrator of the Gospel. “In the beginning, was the Word…”
We’ve visualized a few short scenes that portray Jesus’ first interactions with John the Baptist and with the disciples. And we’ve experienced two rather heavy-hitting scenes that establish the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and as the One to initiate a new era of God’s work in the world--to usher in a radical shift. One who will challenge the status quo. One with the authority to challenge the status quo.
Last week, at the very end of the scene of Jesus’ cleansing the temple, we heard these closing words: “When [Jesus] was in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival, many believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs that he did. But Jesus didn’t trust himself to them because he knew all people. He didn’t need anyone to tell him about human nature, for he knew what human nature was.”
Blackout. End of scene.
“Jesus didn’t trust himself to them...for he knew what human nature was.” What can we expect to hear or see in the next scene--in today’s scene--in chapter 3?
As the lights come up on the scene in John 3, we are invited to eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Now, Nicodemus, our story tells us, is a “Pharisee...a Jewish leader…[who comes] to Jesus at night.”
These details are important. They are important because this story of Nicodemus and our story next week of the Samaritan woman at the well are intentionally placed together by the Gospel writer. These two characters are unique only to John. They could not be more different.
Nicodemus is male. He’s a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee, likely a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jewish people, having authority not only the religious life of the Jewish people, but their everyday lives, as well. He has a name. And he comes to Jesus by night.
In contract, our next week character is female. She is a Samaritan. From the Jewish perspective, an enemy and a nobody. She is nameless. She meets Jesus at the well at noon--the brightest, lightest time of the day.
John places their stories--their scenes side-by-side. Purposefully. So, that we can see the contrast. The unique differences between them.
So, Nicodemus--this person on the inside of society with substantial power and authority--comes to Jesus in the dark. Remember that in John, darkness is synonymous with unbelief. Already, we have the idea that, if this is a nighttime conversation, the chances for a positive result will probably not be good.
“Rabbi,” Nicodemus says, using a title of respect. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. Because no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
With this dialogue that opens our scene, it seems that Nicodemus has come to seek understanding. To learn from Jesus. But, Jesus’ response is confusing. Perhaps on purpose. His responses are often misunderstood or misinterpreted. But, as has happened before, they are meant to further the conversation. To generate even more questions. To invite one in to a new way of thinking. And, in the process, to lead one to a fuller understanding of who Jesus is.
The challenge for Nicodemus is that he gets hung up in the physical aspects of Jesus’ words. When Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth--being born again from above--Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks Jesus is talking about a physical birth. A physical birth that, especially for a grown man, would be completely impossible.
But, that’s not what Jesus is referring to here. It’s about receiving new life in the Spirit--a new life that comes in a spiritual rebirth. A new birth that takes its form as faith. A new birth that brings with it a relationship with God.
Nicodemus doesn’t get it. Because Nicodemus, with all of his theological knowledge and training, thinks that what he does--how he acts and lives--is what will bring him into relationship with God. Instead, the radical shift in thought that Jesus is offering to Nicodemus is a new understanding for him. That it has nothing to do with what he does. But, that it has everything to do with what God does. Nicodemus is nothing more than a passive recipient of faith from above. A passive receiver of faith from God the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He is not yet prepared to see things differently. Or not yet, anyway. Because he shows up in a couple more scenes. And, although, we are left to fill in some of the details of those scenes, it does appear that the Spirit continues to work on him. And that, by the time of Jesus’ death, he is walking out of the darkness and toward the light.
What does your scene in this play look like? What’s your part in this story? What are your questions? What would you ask Jesus? What, like Nicodemus, keeps you away from fully experiencing the light? Or what is it about the darkness that seems to keep you safe--that keeps you away from a deeper faith? That keeps you from stepping out of your status quo and into a deeper relationship with God?
Come in. Come into the story. Ask your questions. Come into a deeper understanding. Come into a new life--a life that Jesus invites each of us into. A life of abundance. A life of relationship. A life of love. Forever and ever.
Blackout. End of scene.
Preached January 28, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Psalm 139:13-18, John 3:1-21