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A Conversation at Night

A Homily from John 3:1-17

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

June 15, 2003 (Trinity Sunday)

Nicodemus, we are told, was a leader of God’s chosen people during the time of Jesus’ ministry. That alone causes me to feel some sympathy for him.

Imagine how frustrating Jesus’ arrival must have been! Before Jesus, things were pretty simple for a pious and scholarly Jew like Nicodemus. The primary biblical writings had been written, edited, studied, and interpreted over the course of hundreds of years.

Nicodemus’ job couldn’t have been more cut and dry. If he had a question about a legal issue or a matter of faith, he could draw upon the records of centuries of tradition to find the answer. Monarchies and empires had changed, but the basic obligations and lessons of a pious believer had stayed the same for generations.

Until Jesus showed up. Suddenly, everything that had made so much sense to Nicodemus seemed confusing – even irrational. His comfortable, carefully labeled understanding of the way the world worked no longer fit with the way the world actually seemed to work. The Messiah who was supposed to be a great warrior and liberator instead seemed to be something of a pacifist. The teacher from God who should have been following the strictest letter of the Law seemed intent on socializing with the lowliest of unclean sinners.

In a very short time, Nicodemus had gone from knowing all the answers to not even being sure which questions to ask. So he comes to Jesus in person.

“Come to Jesus!” Not a bad phrase for a tent revival. It may sound trite or contrived to those of us on the left end of Christianity; but it’s still not a bad description for what many of us have done when we were in Nicodemus’ shoes.

When we’re clueless and disoriented, we’re willing to look anywhere for help. Particularly here in the Bible Belt, if we ask enough people for guidance, someone is going to mention Jesus. Most people can’t quote a thing he said, after all, but they’ve at least heard of him and heard that – at the very least – he was supposed to be wise.

And that’s how many of us got started on our journey of faith. It takes great need or great weakness, after all, to be willing to try relying on something as preposterous as God in the flesh. Like Nicodemus, we came to Jesus in the dark, not knowing what to expect or even what we’re looking for. All that we really knew was that some people seemed to think that their lives got better when they started believing in Jesus.

Nicodemus might not even have known that much. Perhaps he chose to come at night because it would hide his ignorance. Perhaps he wanted to protect his pride – to keep people from learning that even he had sought out the wisdom of the peasant from Galilee. Perhaps it was simply that Nicodemus was afraid that he might not have been able to handle what he would have seen; so he approached Jesus with a kind of voluntary blindness.

Whatever the reason, Nicodemus stands in the shadows and questions Jesus – hoping to find answers to the things that are puzzling him. Nicodemus starts off on what should be safe ground. He calls Jesus “Rabbi” – a sign that he recognizes that Jesus deserves the formal respect of a wise teacher. Then he says, “we know that you must come from God.”

Also a good start. It’s hardly the proclamation of Jesus’ divinity that a full believer would make; but Nicodemus is on the right track. Then he blows it. What makes Nicodemus think that Jesus’ teachings are trustworthy and divine? It’s the miracles, the amazing feats of Jesus the holy magician. The healings and feedings.

Yet only a few paragraphs earlier Jesus made it clear that he knew better than to trust those who only followed him because they were amazed by his signs. Real faith, after all, is built on something more solid than the amazing. It’s built on a commitment to someone. Faith means the kind of rock-solid commitment that will stay even when there are no flashy miracles or impressive wonders.

If those are the kinds of things Nicodemus is looking for from one from God, then he really doesn’t know much at all. And so, Jesus decides to really mess with poor Nicodemus’ mind. Mind you, Nicodemus hasn’t even really asked a question yet when Jesus replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no once can see the realm of God without being born again.”

Nicodemus, drawing upon all of his wisdom and many years of teaching and study, replies with a deeply theological response: “Huh?” Again, I can sympathize. The poor guy hadn’t even gotten to his question yet. He was just saying “Hello,” and before he could get a polite introduction out Jesus hit him with this bizarre statement.

And, if we hear it with Nicodemus’ ears instead of ones conditioned by Sunday School, it really is an odd statement. Nicodemus’ reply makes perfect sense. “Can a person be born after they’re old? What? Are they going to climb back inside their mother and come out a second time? Birth is a one-time thing. How can someone do it again?”

Now, if we were all speaking Greek – the language in which this gospel was originally written – we’d be laughing at poor Nicodemus right now. In fact, from now on when y’all don’t laugh at my jokes I’m simply going to tell you that you would have laughed if you had read them in Greek.

This time, it really is true. The word that we translate “again” actually has a double meaning. It also means from above. Jesus has made a sort of pun with Nicodemus, and is maybe even picking a little bit at Nicodemus’ pretentiousness and sense of self-importance. Here is Nicodemus– supposedly a wise theologian – yet he can’t even grasp the concept of being transformed “from above” in the spiritual equivalent of our physical births.

Nicodemus misses that meaning entirely, and focuses instead on the literal concept of being “born again.” So, Jesus responds along those lines and repeats his very strong statement. “No one can see the realm of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of Spirit is spirit.”

We are not just physical beings of mortal flesh and blood. We are eternal creatures of an eternal God. Just as our Creator uniquely shaped the bodies we inhabit for such a short time; so does a loving God shape the souls that are ours forever.

To fully appreciate the wonder of that gift – to even see the potential of the realm of God – we must be born again. Jesus said it clearly and twice: no one gets to participate in the miracle and wonder of God’s plan for humanity without that second birth; without the transformation of our own spirits which only the Spirit of God can bring about.

That kind of absolute language can be a little uncomfortable, especially for those of us who try to distance ourselves from the religious right. In fact, Christians have even started to use the phrase “born again” to refer – not to all believers – but to those zealous evangelical ones who have the audacity to act – publicly – like their faith has changed them.

Come to think of it, I can’t think of many times that I have heard the phrase “born-again Christian” without something of a snide tone accompanying it. The implication is that those “born-again Christians” aren’t like other well-mannered Christians who don’t let their faith interfere with their everyday lives. Those “born-again” folks are different somehow. Perhaps they’re so simplistic in their faith that they think that believing in Jesus actually changed them – made them different from “normal” everyday Christians.

There’s only one problem with feeling smugly superior to those born-again simpletons. Jesus said that anyone who wants to be a Christian must be born again. And he ought to know.

He even makes a second pun in his explanation to Nicodemus. The Greek word for spirit is the same as the word for wind. “The wind,” Jesus says, “can blow anywhere it wants to. You hear it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going. So it is with those born of the Spirit.”

The Spirit of God is unpredictable, and when it touches us – transforms us – we become unpredictable too. “Incomprehensible” might even become a better word. Someone whose born again might go from being a wealthy attorney to a missionary in Africa. They might stop spending their money on baseball tickets and instead start giving it to a homeless shelter. The Spirit of God is an awesome and ever-changing force. A person transformed by the Spirit could do all sorts of bizarre and wonderful things; all of which might seem at best a little silly to folks who haven’t known the touch of God on their hearts.

Nicodemus, obviously one of the more eloquent Pharisees, responds with another profound “Huh?” “How can these things be?” he asks.

Jesus says, “And you’re supposed to be a teacher?” No matter how smart and accomplished Nicodemus may be, it’s not enough for him to get even a tiny inkling of who Jesus is or what Jesus expects of him. There is a not-so-subtle lesson to be learned here for those of us who spend much of our time thinking about religion and faith. As important as learning and scholarship obviously are, they are meaningless unless they are built upon the simple, transforming faith in the person of Jesus. We must be born again.

Jesus goes to give Nicodemus an example of true knowledge. Echoing the Pharisee’s own words, Jesus says “We know what we have seen…yet you do not believe. No one has gone into heaven except the Son of Man who also descended from Heaven. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

If Nicodemus didn’t get the other stuff, rest assured that he didn’t get this; because Jesus is making yet another pun. The word for “lift up” is the same as “exalt” in Greek.

So, how is the Son of Man – the only one to ever descend from Heaven – exalted? How do we honor him? We string him up and raise him over our heads, exactly like Moses tied a bronze image of a snake to a pole and marched him around in front of God’s chosen people [Numbers 21:4-9].

Why had Moses done such an odd thing? Because it was the only way to save the people who were dying from the poisonous snakes that had come because of their own rebellion. Why must the Holy Son from heaven be “exalted” in such a way? Because it is the only way for all of humanity to find eternal life.

How does that work? I have no more idea than I understand how waving around a bronze serpent could cure someone’s snake bite. The children of Israel certainly didn’t understand why a snake cured them. All that mattered was that it worked, and that was good enough for them.

I don’t understand why Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension were part of God’s plan to save the world – but if it was a good enough plan for Jesus than it was good enough for me. Moses shaped bronze into the very thing that was killing his followers; and seeing the image of their enemy killed them. God likewise became a mortal human being – putting on flesh, the very thing that means our own destruction. And, whether or not we understand it, if we turn to the cross by faith – it transforms us. As Jesus promised Nicodemus, it grants us eternal life.

We go from being people governed by our desires to being people lead by the priorities of our Creator. We cease to think in terms of what we can control for now. Instead, we concentrate on the things that will really matter for eternity: friendship and family, love and community, kindness and service. We become, as Paul reminded us in our Epistle lesson for today – children of God rather than slaves to our desires [Romans 8:12-17].

Why would God bother? Jesus tells us that too. No puns or clever linguistic tricks. The answer is simple. God loves us. Not just you and me, but the entire world and everyone in it. Jesus goes on to say that, “God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day that we honor a mystery that leaves us as befuddled as poor old Nicodemus – the concept of a God who is both one and three. Yet Jesus’ brief lesson to a confused teacher perfectly encapsulates the practical truth of our triune God. We worship a God who is beyond our comprehension, but who loves us enough to come in a mortal body as our suffering Savior so that, through the Spirit, we might be freed from the limitations of our own mortality.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if we understand how God works any more than we need to understand how a faucet works to get a drink from it. All we really need, after all, is the water that keeps us alive. Understanding is optional, drinking is not.

To carry the metaphor just a bit further, if I’m thirsty enough I’ll drink from a garden hose if that’s the only water around. It may look silly and even be embarrassing; but it’s better than being thirsty. Maybe those Christians of the “born-again” variety understand that principle. After all, it doesn’t really matter how silly we look to the rest of the world if we’re getting what we really need; and Jesus told us we only need one thing. We must be born again.