Genesis 12:1-4a+Psalm 121+(Romans 4:1-5,13-17)+John 3:1-17
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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
It may come as some surprise to you that I went through a phase as a young teenager, largely influenced by a boy I had a crush on, when I self-identified as a Jesus Freak. Oh, yes, I played the piano at meetings of Young Life and was pretty insufferable about confessing that no one comes to God except through Jesus, period. I had all the fervor and enthusiasm of a new convert but little of the grace of someone who knows they are a sinner and are loved anyway.
The 16th and 17th verses of John’s 3rd chapter have often been called the “gospel in miniature.” That may explain why you see John 3:16 at sporting events and the like. I think, though, that the purveyors of that abbreviated 3:16 message often emphasize the believing part to the detriment of the rest of the message.
God did not condemn.
Now that is some good news.
Nicodemus seemed in need of some good news. It’s hard to tell if he came as a spy for the religious leaders or if his curiosity simply got the better of him. I suspect the former, or why would he have come under cover of darkness?
He and Jesus get into one of those conversations where they are talking right past each other, and to be honest, I would probably have been right there with Nicodemus. What do you mean with this “born from above” business? And what does the Spirit blowing wherever it wants to have to do with anything?
In some ways, Jesus appears to be mocking Nicodemus. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3:10).
And that is the crux of the matter.
Nicodemus did not understand. He only thought he did. He was a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and he was probably pretty sure of what he needed to do in order be right with God.
And that was the problem. Jesus was telling him that he didn’t have to do anything. Just be born again, born from above.
And that is where the conversation goes off the rails.
Even for us, this is a complex conversation. John’s gospel is like that.
I think Jesus might be using this language around birth – whether being born again or from above – very deliberately. When we are born the first time around, we don’t really have a role to play. We can’t birth ourselves, right? No, the person in whose womb we find ourselves does all the laboring to push us out into the world. All we can do is to be born.
To be born again is like that. We can’t do it. It has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God.
God did not condemn.
At the beginning of the Abraham saga in Genesis, God calls to Abram and says “go,” and Abram goes. Paul calls Abraham our “ancestor in the flesh” (Romans 4:1), and as you read the 13 chapters (12-25) that cover Abraham’s life, any trouble he encounters always comes when he is calling the shots, whether it’s in passing off his wife as his sister or casting Hagar into the desert with her son, Ishmael. It’s when God shows him the expanse of the heavens and promises that his descendants will be just as numerous that Abraham is reminded that the covenant is made – he didn’t earn it and he can’t lose it as long as he trusts in the One making the promise.
I think this idea of being born again – of allowing the process of being born to happen – began to grow on old Nicodemus. He appears two more times in John, contending with his colleagues in leadership in defending Jesus, saying that their rules are that someone must be heard before they can be judged (John 7:50-51). And then at the very end, when Jesus’s body is removed from the cross and needs to be buried before sundown, Nicodemus comes – not under cover of darkness but in broad daylight – providing the anointing spices while Joseph of Arimathea provides the tomb (19:29).
If Nicodemus was born again, it did not happen in a flash. It may not even have been a one-time event. I think the truth is that we all grow into it as we continue to encounter Jesus in scripture, in worship, in sacraments, in service, and in community. It isn’t something we talk ourselves into; it’s something we are delivered into. The labor is not ours.
I think a priest friend of mine put it best. He was speaking of some university students who come to his church in Tucson, and he said to them:
…the Church tills the soil for conversion and the Spirit does the rest – which takes the burden off me to save them or them to be saved and lets us walk in love together and see what happens. (Robert Hendrickson, rector St. Philip’s in the Hills)
I think this is how it was with Jesus and Nicodemus, walking in love together, encountering one another from time to time, seeing what might happen, all the way to the cross. In whatever way he was able, Nicodemus showed up enough that he could recognize the saving love that Jesus offered.
It’s that way for us, too. We can’t save ourselves. We can’t force faith to happen. But if we keep showing up, walking in love together and seeing what happens, I imagine that the day will come when we just might show up in broad daylight doing something we never imagined we might do.
This is the invitation for us, then, this Lent. Keep showing up, keep encountering Jesus in bread and wine, in scripture and song. If you’re not careful, you might just discover that you have been born again.