Scripture: John 3:1-17
How many of you have memorized John 3:16 as a part of your religious upbringing? How many of you could have told us what else the 3rd chapter of John was about BEFORE you heard the scripture for this morning? I would say that John 3:16 is probably one of the most popular Bible verses. Too often, however, we neglect this marvelous story about Nicodemus; a man who comes to Jesus at night to try and get some answers about who he is and what Jesus is doing. In my mind, Nicodemus has probably tossed and turned part of the night away, because there is something bothering him. Now, if Nic is like me—and I think he is—because he takes extraordinary steps to remedy the situation—if Nic is like me, he wants to get to the bottom of this problem NOW, so he can get some sleep. I just hate it, when something interferes with my good night’s sleep—my ability to rest well. So…here comes Nic to Jesus. What do we know about Nic? Well, we know he is at least a little favorably inclined toward Jesus because he seeks Jesus out—which is one of the first acts of a disciple according to John. He also calls Jesus “Rabbi”, thus he acknowledges Jesus as a teacher. Additionally, Nicodemus uses the word “we” in his opening sentence. This implies that Nic is a leader in his community—he’s not just speaking for himself. That also may explain his visit being at night—he wants to cover up his inquiry and not appear uncertain or questioning to those whom he leads in the synagogue community.
There is also a bit of irony in this scene: Nicodemus comes to Jesus, who is the light of the world, in the midst of the darkness. He’s talking with the one who embodies the reality of God’s kingdom, but he can’t see that, because he’s “in the dark.”
In this scripture, Nicodemus seems to STAY in the dark, tossing and turning, even after his conversation with Jesus. The particular sticking point for Nic involves the idea conveyed by the Greek word Jesus uses to describe the attitude of one who does get the idea that Jesus has come to give believers a way into God’s reality, and presence, and love. Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be born “anothen” in order to see God.
The word “anothen” has two meanings; it can mean “again” or it can mean “from above”. Folks from the first century, down through time until now, have been debating which use is the most appropriate.
Does “anothen” mean “again” or “from above”? The answer is YES! This word is used here intentionally because of its double meaning, John’s author intends for both meanings to be heard simultaneously. Thus Nicodemus’ question is “how can one be born both ‘again’—by the water of the human birth process, as well as by ‘the spirit’ which symbolizes a process that is enacted by divine energy. When Nicodemus responds, he is really asking for instructions so that he might begin to go about doing whatever it is that he needs to do in order to work through this mystery. The ensuing comments by Jesus try to get Nicodemus to understand that this process is not one that he can do. It is, in fact, something that is done to him…Just as natural births are events that happen TO each one of us, so is the birth that opens us up to God’s reign. This birth is the activity and work of God’s spirit and God’s son. All Nicodemus has to do; all WE have to do is recognize it and live into it.
Unfortunately that is precisely where we get caught, just like Nicodemus does here.
Nicodemus’ response to this awesome, wonderful, grace-filled work of God, which is so beautifully rendered in verse 16 of the third chapter of John “For God so loved the world that God gave the one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish-shall not be destroyed– but have eternal life.” –Nic’s response is “how can these things be?” What I often hear in conjunction with the use of this verse are similar questions like “Have you been born again” or “how can I get saved”? Putting all of the responsibility and burden for action upon the human who wants to “get right” with God.
When we look at this action of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit summarized here and enacted on the cross, is our response questions like “Why?” Or “How could that be?” If so, then we’re Nic at Night.
A more accurate, more reasoned response should be” WHOA! There is God! There is Love! There is the ultimate divine activity…”
Barbara Taylor Brown shares the following story in her comments on this part of the gospel of John”
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. First she read everything she could get her hands on–history, philosophy, psychology, religion. While she became a very smart person, nothing she read gave her the answer she was looking for. She found other smart people and asked them about the meaning of life, but while their discussions were long and lively, no two of them agreed on the same thing and still she had no answer.
Finally she put all her belongings in storage and set off in search of the meaning of life. She went to South America. She went to India. Everywhere she went, people told her they did not know the meaning of life, but they had heard of a man who did, only they were not sure where he lived. She asked about him in every country on earth until finally, deep in the Himalayas, someone told her how to reach his house–a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain just below the tree line.
She climbed and climbed to reach his front door. When she finally got there, with knuckles so cold they hardly worked, she knocked.
“Yes?” said the kind-looking old man who opened it. She thought she would die of happiness.
“I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question,” she said, gasping for breath. “What is the meaning of life?”
“Please come in and have some tea,” the old man said.
“No,” she said. “I mean, no thank you. I didn’t come all this way for tea. I came for an answer. Won’t you tell me, please, what is the meaning of life?”
“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea.
She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall.
“What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!”
“Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”…
Nicodemus was halfway there. He came by night to interview the new teacher in town. He knew he was good–he had checked his references–but he wanted more information. He wanted to see the accident reports, check out the insurance coverage. He wanted to handle the equipment, maybe try it on for size. He wanted the teacher to say something that would take away his doubts and make it easy for him to say yes, but the teacher would not cooperate.
Believe in me. That was Jesus’ dare to Nicodemus. Turn your cup upside down. Turn your mind inside out. Step into the air. Ride the wind. Be born anew, a live.
“How can this be?” Those are Nicodemus’s last words in this passage, which makes him a sort of patron saint for all of us who get stuck at the foot of the mountain, looking up, without the faintest idea of how to begin. Here is how, Jesus says. Watch me… Don’t think about it too hard. Just do as I do. Believe me. Believe in me, and when we get to the top, we will have some tea.
The Bible gives some hope for the possibility that Nicodemus did finally catch the wind of “anothen”—being born again from above:
In John 7:50-51 Nic is one who defends Jesus at his encounter with the temple police on the festival of Booths, and in John 19 it is he who helps to prepare Jesus’ body for burial after Jesus is crucified…
UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s comments provide an apt conclusion to our exploration of the truth of this passage:
Our lives are not within our hands. We do not always have to live responsibly. In fact, in our sin, we can’t. Our responsibility, our great conscientiousness is not the point. The point is God’s great grace. Our futures are not left up to us. Thanks be to God!
When a wise, spiritually competent, powerful man named Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, seeking what he had to do to earn what Jesus had, Jesus responded, “For God so loved the world that God gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but should have everlasting life.” God gave. It’s a gift. Amen.