Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that 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.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.”
We’re at the 2nd Sunday in Lent, already, can you believe it?? And the readings for this Sunday include this wonderful narrative from the 3rd chapter of John’s gospel, one of my very favorite encounters in all of the gospel stories.
I preached on this passage once and called it, “Nick at Night,” just to be ‘cute,’ but also apt. This guy comes out to see Jesus only under the cover of darkness. He is cautious, careful, but intrigued. And I’ve always kind of admired his willingness to engage with Jesus one-on-one. He surely didn’t need to do this, he didn’t have to do it. He was already a mucky-muck, right? “A leader of the Jews?”
But he comes. And Jesus meets him right where he is, cutting to the quick in an instant — and royally confusing the man with one swift blow. Like we so often do, Nicodemus wants to take every word that comes out of the mouth of Jesus literally. Yet Jesus very seldom speaks literally! Jesus chooses word pictures, parables, metaphors, mystery when he is teaching. How else can he possibly find words for the incredible truth he brings, the truth he is? Nick can’t hear it, he can’t comprehend the spiritual nature of re-birth at all.
I wonder, do we? The evangelical wing of the church has used this very language to the point of exhaustion . . . and confusion. What do we really mean by, ‘being born again?’ What did Jesus mean? I think he is talking about newness, about starting fresh, about moving into the mystery.
There is more to this life than dust, he seems to be saying. There is incarnation, indwelling, there is a lifting up that leads to life. There is once again, as we noted in that Romans passage a few days back, inclusion. EVERYONE who believes is granted a new start, a new life, a safe or saved life.
We have spent so much time writing, speaking, saying, believing John 3:16 (which is a good, good thing to do, don’t get me wrong), but what about John 3:17? What about that promise, that promise of no condemnation? Jaw-dropping, don’t you think?
Jesus did not come to condemn this world, but to save it, to make it safe. And that is the best news ever, ever, EVER.
Lord, grant that I might cling to the truth of this story with all that is in me. Help me to delve into the mystery with you, no hesitation, no fear, no regrets.