For God so loved the world...
| John 3:1-17
||Sun, February 28, 1999
|At the meeting on Tuesday to talk about hymns for this Sunday, I shared my indecision about how to focus my sermon on the gospel passage. After all it's been called the essence of the gospel. "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." Each word alone could prompt one sermon, if not two or three. I told them my sermon was percolating. I spent much of this week surrounded by a pile of theological books, well over 10 pages of notes (don't worry, I've pared it down some!).
The words from Ed's sermon last week kept coming back to me. Gifts. Like we're used to talking about at Christmas. But right here, in the midst of the wilderness of Lent? - stories of God's generous gifts? What were birth language and promises of the spirit doing here?
Again I delved back into John's gospel...back to Jerusalem. Watching Nicodemus skirt around the light spilling from windows, checking over his shoulder as he wove his way through the nearly empty streets of Jerusalem. Finally finding the right door and tapping lightly but urgently upon its wood. He's welcomed inside.
I imagine Nicodemus filled with anticipation and excitement. He's seizing a moment to meet and talk with Jesus. He begins by complementing Jesus, "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." Rabbi...a term of esteem, like the way we title our ministers Reverend, our politicians Honourable, our scholars Doctor. Jesus doesn't have the credentials behind him of a school of scholars; he doesn't have the degree, or the votes, the training, yet Nicodemus senses that even without those benchmarks Jesus deserves such a title...such honour. Nicodemus has been witness to signs that Jesus has done. We're not told what they were, in fact it's early in the gospel, only chapter 3. So far, except for running money changers out of the temple, all the action written down has been up north, Galilee. Nicodemus, spends his time down south, Jerusalem. Whatever the signs that Nicodemus has witnessed, he believes Jesus must be a faithful person to have performed them. Rabbi! Teacher!
Jesus' reply seems at odds with the affirmation of Nicodemus. Jesus replies, "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Jesus does not affirm the adequacy of Nicodemus' faith formed from beholding signs. John ends his gospel with the same refrain; after Jesus has met with 10 of the disciples, Jesus asks Thomas the one absent, the one who doubted the resurrection, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Nicodemus' approach to Jesus is well-intentioned but inadequate. The life Jesus is offering is not found in miracles of turning water to wine, healing disease, walking on water, feeding the hungry. These signs point beyond themselves? "Jesus asks Nicodemus to let go of what he knows in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer."(1) For the kingdom Jesus reveals lies beyond the wonders and signs.
Nicodemus is befuddled. If the kingdom of God is not wonders and miracles, in what then? Jesus words are, "No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen." For the word Jesus uses in Greek (anothen) is intentionally ambiguous. It means being born from above and born again. Strange words of Rebirth.
Here we must pause from our story for a moment, for the phrase born again "has become a slogan and rallying cry for an entire segment of...Christian experience [today]."(2) They are loaded words. Too often used to question the validity of a person's faith judging whether one has the "right" experience. Yet this narrow use of the word rips it from the context of its origin in this passage. Without paying attention to the complexities of this word the misunderstanding of Nicodemus is repeated.
Nicodemus hears only that he must be born AGAIN. Nicodemus questions, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can anyone enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Nicodemus is looking for the next appropriate step for faith and he's frustrated by these instructions. He can't follow them. He can not get himself reborn.
But rebirth doesn't depend on him. Jesus tells him, "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." Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born of water and Spirit. Water, the sign of John the Baptist, whose message called for us to repent...turn your life around...come to God...seek forgiveness...live a new way. The Spirit...the foreshadow of Pentecost, and the gift from God to console, encourage, disciple, initiate and grow faith. It's not up to Nicodemus. He can't be nice enough, give enough money, learn enough scripture verses, pray enough times, plan well enough for his future in RRSP's, have enough friends, throw enough parties or be moral enough in order to be reborn and see the kingdom of God.
The world Jesus paints has taken Nicodemus by surprise. For to accept this gift of belief through the Spirit would indeed be like a new birth. It might be slow or fast. It might mean giving up all that he has worked hard to become; a leader, respected, powerful, secure, with the right friends. The very nature of birth entails dependence, symbolized by becoming as vulnerable as an infant. Allowing ourselves to be dependent upon God. The concept of being born from above is an adaptation of the Jewish hope of a new creation. It is those whom God makes new who will see and experience the kingdom of God!
At this point in John's story we don't have words from Nicodemus, but maybe he had a puzzled look on his face. Jesus tries other words seeking, willing, beckoning Nicodemus to really see, to understand.
"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 seeks certainty, what are the right steps. Some today offer it: say this prayer and you are saved. Yet when Nicodemus asks how he can be born again, Jesus doesn't answer with such formulas and certainties. He answers metaphorically "One must be born from above...The wind blows where it chooses." His words sound like a request to give up the quest for control over the process. He is called to trust. Rather that it being us who know or possess the truth, we are instead known by the truth - we have been captured by the story, gripped by the news of God's love for us.
On the other hand, Jesus words that the Spirit is like the wind, blowing where it chooses, are an invitation to become a Spirit watcher.(3) For us who are in church, the image reminds us that God's spirit cannot be detained, enclosed, encased. We can look for signs of God working in our world; the Spirit of God might be encountered in our colleague, or neighbour, among friends, or strangers. It is not for us to call who is in or out.
Jesus has one last metaphor to share. "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."
The picture of the serpent is on the front of our bulletin this morning. The story is found in the book of Numbers. The Israelites had asked forgiveness for their stubbornness and complaining in the dessert, and sought relief from the poisonous snakes that were plaguing them. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, set it on a pole so that everyone who is bitten could look at it and live. This was a familiar story for Nicodemus and directly answered his question "How can these things be?" The new birth is experienced, the kingdom of God entered, new and eternal life offered as gift through the saving work of Christ, himself lifted up on the cross. Jesus points us to the end of John's gospel for the new life, the love of God is only understood in the shadow of the cross.
"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."
God gave Jesus, not only in incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas, but gave on the cross. To believe in Jesus is to trust that God loved the world so much that God gave the Son as a gift. The God revealed in Jesus is a God whose love knows no bounds and who asks only that one receive the gift. If one receives the gift, one receives new birth, new vision with which to see the kingdom of God, eternal life. One's life is reshaped and redefined by the love of God in Jesus.(4)
"No longer do we proclaim 'our faith' but God's compassion. No longer do we proclaim those who do live up to expectations get rewarded and those who don't are damned."(5) No longer do we proclaim to whom God's love extends and for whom it does not. The message of the gospel, the gift of new life for us rests in Jesus. In Christ is found new life born through water and the spirit. May God be praised. Amen
1. New Interpreters Bibles Commentary, 554.
2. NIBC, 554.
3. Robert Flaherty, http://www.teleport.com/~fumcrbrg/28feb99.htm
4. NIBC, 555.