Todays readings for: 2nd Sunday in Lent - In Year A; 2017 Genesis 12: 1-4a Psalm 121 Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17 John 3:1-17
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
Today we are thinking about a very familiar story from the gospel of John. John has a couple of big themes that run through the text. The first thing that John does so vitally is link the human Jesus, the word made flesh, with the eternal God and the process of creation and I think that we need to bear that in mind as we approach our passage from John today. The second of John’s big themes is that of a contrast between light and dark, and this passage and the one that follows, that we will look at next week, form a pair, one in the dark and one in the light.
John doesn’t talk about the “kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of heaven” the way that Matthew does, instead he talks about eternal life- life lived in the presence of God, rather than life lived in this temporal field with birth at the beginning and death at the end, eternal life is life in the light. The whole gospel, is testifying to the light, who is Christ.
These two ideas of creation and light are firmly linked in the prologue and again the link becomes clear, here in this story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Jesus, according to John has been in Jerusalem doing some signs- and in John they are not miracles, which anyone might do if they had the power, but signs pointing to Jesus’ divinity. Nicodemus has doubtless witnessed the encounter Jesus has had with “the Jews” in the last chapter- chasing the moneylenders out of the temple and then telling them that the sign of his authority to do this will be the resurrection- at least that is what he means though he doesn’t say it in a way that is particularly easy to understand- in fact again and again through John, Jesus speaks in ambiguous language or downright difficult riddles. If it were Luke he would say, “let those who have ears, hear”.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus, though the reason why is not very clear. My guess, pure speculation, is that he senses Jesus’ power and beauty and is drawn to him. He plainly doesn’t want to be seen because he comes to him under cover of darkness, and there we have the first thematic clue. Nicodemus belongs to the dark. He is a powerful man, a leader of the Jews. He is important and we know his name, but none of this qualifies him to be a part of the Kingdom. This is an important thing being drawn to the attention of the reader then and now- who you are in worldly terms, wealth, status, achievement is not important in the kingdom. The question is, do you belong to the light or the dark?
I actually feel quite sorry for Nicodemus here. He is an important man, one with a lot to lose by being seen to associate with Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus is very hard on him. But of course, Jesus has to be- he wants to move Nicodemus from a place where he thinks he has all the answers to a place where he realises that he needs to change and embrace something new.
Nicodemus comes in and starts off by telling Jesus what he knows, “Rabbi,” and he is doing Jesus honour by acknowledging that he is a rabbi. “We know 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.” I don’t know what Nicodemus’ agenda was here, because I don’t think he ever gets to say what it was he came to say, but he was beginning from what he thought was certainty- this guy, whoever he was, must be coming from God. This explains his willingness to make this dangerous sortie, he has actually realized that Jesus has come from God. It doesn’t mean, however, that he understands who Jesus is, at all. And to shake him from his certitude Jesus replies in a very ambiguous way. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God with out being SOMETHING” Now what Jesus says could be interpreted three ways, he might have said “born again”, or “born anew”, or “born from above”. All those meanings are there in the Greek. I have been wracking my brain to think of a word in English that has that range of meanings and all I can come up with is “funny”. We might say, “he was funny” and mean two very different things, mightn’t we? The NRSV has gone with “born from above”, I think, because Nicodemus chooses the more straightforward, “born again” and plainly misunderstands. And yet having said that, these three meanings are all in relationship, to be born again, so long as you don’t think of it literally, might be to be born anew, and from above all at the same time. Jesus is not making it easy for Nicodemus, or indeed for us. And part of our problem is that we have a very strong association between the words “born again” and a kind of Christianity from which I think most of us here would want to disassociate ourselves.
What we need to hear is what Jesus is calling us to, which is the new creation. Jesus, the Word who spoke in the process of the creation is calling Nicodemus, and us, to be recreated. And how can this happen?- well through water, baptism with its repentance and dying to sin, rising to new life and the Spirit. And here we have another ambiguous word. We translate it “Spirit” because of our knowledge of what is going to happen later in the story- the Holy Spirit is going to be breathed into the disciples and then in Luke’s account, at Pentecost the Holy Spirit will come on all the believers. But the word “pneuma” could mean wind, or breath or Spirit. In the next verse Jesus uses the same word to mean wind- is it any wonder that Nicodemus was confused?
“How can these things be?” he asks Jesus. His problem is that he is too knowledgeable and too certain of what he knows – he is not open to the breath of the Spirit.
Then Jesus again destroys his certitude, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not understand these things?” he asks him, and then he goes on to further confuse matters by talking about himself as the Son of Man who has ascended and descended from heaven and who will be lifted up as was the serpent in the wilderness with Moses. Again there is some ambiguity in the language, but that symbol of the serpent was what gave life to the Israelites. And the being “lifted up” with the benefit of hindsight is clearly Jesus death on the cross- but poor Nicodemus has no hope of understanding.
Then we come to that verse that we can all quote, “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”. With this we come back to the promise of the new creation in the Kingdom of God. It was necessary for the Israelites to look to that serpent on the pole for their salvation, and so it is necessary for us to look to the man on the cross for our salvation. The salvation is available to everyone, God loves the whole world, and in Jesus’ journey in the next chapter we will see that, but salvation comes through Jesus. I myself don’t know exactly what that means in practical terms and I am very thankful that it is God who decides who is in the Kingdom, but here we are called to belief in Jesus. And it is through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that we are able to have that new birth, or be born from above.
And rather than seeing this as a once only conversion experience I think it is very important for us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, lifted up for us, and continue to be renewed by the Holy Spirit every day on our journey towards eternal life in the Kingdom of God.
And what about Nicodemus- does he make the transition from darkness to light? He began this encounter with Jesus with lots of confidence, which is I suspect was knocked out of him but in this little bit of the story there is no resolution. We do know that later Nicodemus spoke up for Jesus, and indeed that he then was, with Joseph of Arimathea, responsible for burying Jesus, which implies that he did come into the light. Also, the fact that he is named suggests that he became an important figure in the early church- I certainly hope that it is so. This encounter with Jesus is a point in his journey, and not his last chance. Jesus speaks to him in terms that cause him to think and struggle with what Jesus says and that is our experience also. Jesus speaks to us in this text but we have to choose to listen, we have to choose to bring what we are hearing and seeing into the light. And then we will part of God’s recreation!