What Do You Say?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16, is perhaps one of the most often quoted pieces of scripture in the Bible. In fact this passage is perhaps so familiar to us, indeed even its larger context with the visit from Nicodemus, is so familiar that we often read it quickly and we don’t realize everything that is going on in this rich story. Today I want to explore the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. I want to flesh it out and see if we can’t make some sense of it.
The first thing I want to say is that the next time you read this passage, when you read the words of Jesus do so with a smile on your face. I am sure that Jesus was having a little bit of fun at Nicodemus’ expense. In verse 10 we often think that Jesus is condemning Nicodemus for his lack of knowledge and while he might rightly be doing so, I believe Jesus is doing so with a hint of laughter.
The joke starts in verse 3 and regrettably it is completely lost on us because we don’t speak Greek. Jesus says to Nicodemus “Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
What Do You Say? – Audio Sermon
Nicodemus replies, “How am I supposed to be born again? Surely I can’t enter into my mother’s womb a second time!”
The pun comes with Jesus’ words ‘born again’. You see in Greek the word for again is also the word for above. Nicodemus, who does not understanding about being born from above, goes to a literal hearing of that word and asks how am I born again? How is that possible? Jesus continues to teach Nicodemus, but with I am sure was a smile on his face. Which perhaps gives an insight into Jesus that we do not often think about: that Jesus had a fairly sly sense of humour.
I mean think about it, we have Nicodemus: A Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. This man is important within Jewish society. But he has approached Jesus at night, in secret to learn more. Nicodemus’ words confirm that he believes that Jesus is indeed the son of God, but he is unwilling to come out into the light and state it. Instead he questions in the dark. So can you blame Jesus for having a little bit of fun at his expense, as part of the learning?
Now hold onto the whole visiting at night business, we are going to come back to it in a bit. However, let’s for a moment focus on this idea of being Born Again.
Hands up if you have ever heard anyone talk about being Born Again, or have heard the phrase Born Again Christian? Often we might think of a particular type of Christianity when we hear this, for some it is a point of pride to be born again. Now, my point is not to take away from anyone’s religious experience. Rather it is to focus in on how those words are being used in this passage.
First we can argue about whether Jesus said ‘Born Again’ or ‘Born from Above’. My personal interpretation is ‘Born from Above’. I believe Jesus is talking about baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is the life altering experience to which Jesus is referring. Embedded within that section where Jesus talks about the Spirit is a message for the call that Jesus has on our lives. Jesus says, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
In other words after our baptism, after we are born from above by the Holy Spirit we are called by God to be divine agents if you will. God’s call on our lives may take us in remarkable directions, to fantastic places. Jesus asks us to be open to that experience, to be open to the opportunity. I’m reminded of the words of Rev. Glen Davis, my pastor while I was a youth. Glen said “Since I committed my life to Christ I have never ceased to be amazed at the adventures that Jesus has called me on.”
I would encourage you to also be open to the call of Christ in your own life and in the life of this faith community.
Now there is one final thing I want to consider about our scripture lesson. It’s that funny little sentence that Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.” It’s a strange thing for Jesus to say and because it comes right before John 3:16 I think we read over it so quickly. It’s like we want to get on with the good stuff, but let’s take a look at what Jesus is saying here, because I think that this verse is key to the whole reading, certainly key when we consider that this passage is part of our readings in Lent.
What Jesus is referring to is a story in the Book of Numbers 21:9. The Israelites are in the wilderness and they are tired of it. So they spoke against God and Moses. So God sent some snakes into the camp and many people were poisoned. The people repented and God said to Moses, make a snake, put it on a pole. Anyone who looks at it can live, so Moses did so and people were cured.
It’s an interesting story and it lives with us today in a variety of ways. The symbol for the medical profession is twin snakes around a pole. The idea being that the cure for something is often found in its source.
So what is this image doing in our story? Well Jesus says just as Moses lifted the snake up, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to the cross. Here, so early in John’s gospel Jesus points to the cross. He points to the place and manner of his death and says it must be so that people can have eternal life.
For God so loved the world.
Jesus is lifted up on a cross, a symbol of torture and execution by a foreign occupying Empire. A symbol of shame, a place where almost everyone abandoned him in the end. Jesus was lifted up, for all to see. In Greek the word for ‘lifted up’ it’s the same word as ‘exalt’. Jesus was exalted for all to see.
For God so loved the world.
Jesus goes to the cross, so that we don’t have to.
Jesus goes to the cross, and plays the role of scapegoat. The charges against him are a sham, he dies a political death because he was inconvenient, he was a thorn in the side of the establishment. But Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, towards the cross and in our passage he alludes to the manner of his death.
All this he does to take our pain, our brokenness, our sin onto himself. He bears the burden and he breaks the bonds of death.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Jesus knows the manner of his death. And so do we, because we know how the story plays out.
Friends, let’s bring these elements together. Let’s bring Nicodemus’ visit in the night, being born of the Spirit and Jesus’ death together.
Let’s ask ourselves some questions about ourselves, this church and the wider church.
Are we like Nicodemus who needs to ask his questions at night? Do we hide our identities as believers, as followers of Jesus Christ because it’s more convenient to do so? Are we afraid of what people will say when they learn that we are Christians?
Friends, are we like Nicodemus? I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think we want to be like Nicodemus. I think we want to be bold about our faith, but perhaps we lack the understanding or the confidence to be bold.
Remember, we are born of the Spirit from above. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Moses stuttered, Jeremiah said I’m too young, I don’t have the words. David was the youngest and the smallest, so too was Joseph. Ruth was a stranger in a foreign land. Mary was a young girl. Yet, God worked through each of these individual’s to bring about God’s holy plan.
So be bold! Have faith!
Remember the Psalm, from where does our help come? It comes from the Lord!
Jesus came so that he could be exalted, exalted on a cross. So that you, me, the whole of creation would be saved. That’s how much God loves us.
Friends, what do you say about all of this?
Are you with me?
Jesus says, look to me and you will have eternal life. Look to me and be my light in the world.
For the light shines in the darkness and the light will not go out. Amen.
Text: John 3:1-17