Nicodemus is confused – he is very confused.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin. This means he was one of the leaders of the people, an influential teacher, fully knowledgeable in the law of Moses. He was one of those people others went to for explanations about the law. Nicodemus would have been a regular guest on Rachel Maddow, able to explain the religious context of all that was happening in Jerusalem.
You might remember last week when Jesus entered the temple? Making a whip from some ropes, He drove out the sheep and oxen; He turned over the money changer’s tables and scattered the coins all over the floor. As He did so He cried out: “Take all this out of here! Stop turning God’s house into a market!” [John 2:16] The Gospel of John tells us of a God who has come to live with us, to be present with us. A God who quietly can transform water into wine, quietly take our scarcity and transform it into abundance; and One who can publicly overturn tables, upset the order of things, and disturb our status quo. Well, Nicodemus was part of that status quo. And He comes to visit Jesus at night – when no one else would be around, would see him with Jesus.
Jesus, Nicodemus says, “we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can perform the signs and wonders you do, unless by the power of God.” This is the only time in this conversation that Nicodemus knows what is what. Immediately John tells us that Jesus answers… “The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.” [note: The word ‘kindom’ is used here to designate a relationship or community with God rather than ‘kingdom’ which refers to a political entity] From this point on Nicodemus is lost and confused – and so are we, if we are honest. Ignoring the glaring fact that Nicodemus never actually asked a question, Jesus’ response is puzzling.
“The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.” Is Jesus saying that unless one is born from above, one cannot be part of the Realm of God, the community of God? Or is Jesus saying that unless we leave the status quo behind we just can’t see the Realm of God in our midst?
When you join a Twelve-Step program, you begin by admitting that you need help – there is work to be done that you can’t do alone. “I am an alcoholic; I am an abuser; I am an addict and by myself I’m incapable, I’m powerless, to change”. Just trying harder to change ourselves by ourselves is not enough. So, we join a group. If we follow the directives and guidance of the group, if we feel the challenge of the group, if we continue to challenge ourselves, we will not be cured, but we will gain the strength to change our lives and begin again. We can, in a sense, be born again, born from outside of ourselves, given a second chance. We can fail and fall away, but we can always come back and try again.
“I am a sinner. I am broken and know that I have separated myself from God and neighbor. I need help and can’t do it alone, I’m powerless to do it alone. I’ve tried to change, but its too hard.” So we join a group, a Church. We begin to learn the way of Jesus. We hear His commands to forgive, to walk with the poor, the outcast, the marginalized. But my old habits, the cultural norms I grew up with, my old fears, all continue. Week after week I come, week after week I don’t feel much of a difference. The status quo sets in, habits are formed which become hard to break. Unfortunately, Church isn’t set up like a Twelve-step program. We don’t feel accountable to each other. We don’t challenge each other to do better, we don’t challenge ourselves to do better. The kin-dom of God, the Realm of God remains a vision, not a reality.
“The truth of the matter is, no one can enter God’s kindom without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is Spirit. So don’t be surprised when I tell you that you must be born from above. The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” “How can this be possible?” asked Nicodemus.” [John 3:5-9] Nicodemus – you know already! You know it is possible.
Nicodemus, don’t you remember Abraham and Sarah? Don’t you remember how they thought they were facing a barren future, but God kept God’s promise and Isaac was born, giving them a new future? Don’t you remember how the children of Israel lived in Egypt under harsh and burdensome oppression, but God kept God’s promise, God heard their cries, and led them to freedom and a new land? When the people faced the Reed Sea ahead of them with the Egyptian army fast coming up behind them, were not the waters parted allowing them to pass through the waters safely? Don’t you remember the Valley of Hinnon, the Valley of the Dry Bones? Don’t you remember how God had Ezekiel call to them and how “all the bones came together, bone to matching bone….” how “sinews appeared on them, flesh clothed them, and skin covered them.” how God then breathed into their lifeless bodies the breath of life? [Ezekiel 37:7-8] Nicodemus, you are a teacher of Israel – you know these things. You know that God is a God of second chances, that God is a God of the past, the present, and the future. You know these things.
Aren’t we supposed to know these things as well? As part of the Church, this is part of our history, these are our stories, the basis of our faith, our trust in God. Don’t we remember how the disciples were crossing the Galilee when a violent storm rose up threatening their lives? John tells us that Jesus walked across the water to their sinking boat and calmly faced the storm – “It is me, do not be afraid” [John 6:16-21] And the waves calmed down and the winds became still. Don’t we remember how Paul spoke of baptism? In baptism, he said, “we drown to our old way of life and rise to walk with Christ in newness of life.” [Romans 6:4]
Remember with me the opening words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep—yet the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Light: Be” and light was.” [Genesis 1:1-3] Again: “But the earth became chaos and emptiness, and darkness came over the face of the Deep…. Then God said, ‘Light: Be’ and light was.” From the beginning we are told that God has the power to transform, to change, to renew life. Trusting that all these stories might actually mean something to us is part of our trust, our faith, in God, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit’s ability to bring about change, to transform us into people who can learn from our past and embrace a new future, new possibilities.
“The truth of the matter is, unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kindom of God.” Unless this transformation becomes an ongoing part of us – for this is not a once for all event in our lives – it is ongoing, we cannot appreciate the Realm of God in our midst, we cannot appreciate all that God has done for us. Rebirth is a breaking from the past, an embrace of the promise of a new future. This rebirth is beyond us, beyond our own power and abilities – it comes from above, from God– and it is ours by grace.
The Church is meant to help us remember and understand these stories; the Church is meant to help us keep these stories in perspective within our lives. Transformation, rebirth, comes to us as we place these stories in the context of our lives. Nicodemus forgot his context, Nicodemus had become comfortable with the ways things had always been, with the status quo. Jesus challenged Nicodemus, and the truth of the matter is that Jesus challenges us. Jesus challenges us as individuals, but more so as a community claiming trust, of faith, in God. Jesus challenges us because God loves us and we can do better.
“Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved.” [John 3:16-17]
God has decided to love the whole world, all of creation. God does not love just those who gather on Sunday, not just the religiously inclined, not just those who have heard the name of Jesus, but the whole of creation; so God comes in Christ to show the way of light in the midst of darkness, the way of life in the midst of death.