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The 4th Sunday in Lent; John 3:(1-13)14-21

I don’t watch a lot of television sports (except the Olympics, and World Cup Soccer finals, and by my marriage vows I am obligated to watch the Grey Cup if the Saskatchewan Roughriders are in it). But whenever I have watched any U.S. sports (and occasionally Canadian) for any length of time, sooner or later the camera will focus on some person in the stands, holding up a sign with “John 3:16” printed on it. The reference is, of course, to one verse in the Gospel reading we have just heard, For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. There is no doubt about the profound meaning of this one verse for Christians, a verse that Martin Luther called the Gospel in miniature. The sign is some sincere soul’s witness to their faith, presumably with the intent of persuading others. I have some doubts about the efficacy of this evangelism (Like any miniature, you have to know something about the full-sized object to understand what the miniature depicts; so in order for “John 3:16” to mean anything those seeing the sign needs to know some facts: that it’s referring to a Bible verse, what that verse says[!], or, at least, how to find it). Even then, as an isolated verse it is only a slogan, and in order for this verse to be more, it has to be heard in context.

Perhaps it doesn’t ever occur to you to wonder how the compilers of the Lectionary decide which parts of a Bible passage to read, and which to omit – you have a life – but preachers often do. Today’s Gospel is an example. It seems the only reason to begin a reading at John3:14 is to make it relate directly to the Old Testament passage from the Book of Numbers, or perhaps vice versa. As a saying of Jesus the Gospel passage we heard can stand on its own, but in reality John 3:1-21 are one story, and, as with just one verse treated as a slogan, we lose something if we interpret these words of Jesus independently of context.

Nicodemus, a Pharisee, called a ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus. He is puzzled by this rabbi, this teacher, who (he claims to know) has come from God. The signs done by this rabbi can only be done by the presence of God. There follows a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, three interchanges on three questions, that reveal as much about Nicodemus as they do about Jesus.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. A Pharisee, he is a member of an elite group. Pharisees have become the Christian preacher’s traditional scapegoats and the inspiration for much of the anti-Semitism that has plagued our faith for many centuries – hate perpetrated in Jesus’ name! But there were never more than 6000 Pharisees; they were what we might call a religious fraternity. Their membership vows in front of witnesses pledged them to give their lives to serving and pleasing God by keeping God’s law and studying God’s word, including tithing their income. There’s not a priest or Churchwarden in the land who wouldn’t like a dozen of them in their church!

But there was more to being a Pharisee. Like a fraternity, there was the expectation of solidarity, finding one’s identity in it, presenting a united front. All this puts Nicodemus in an awkward position. His first words to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know …” make him one of a group within the Pharisees, with an opinion about who Jesus is. But, he comes apart from the group; he’s afraid to say anything publically that might break the solidarity, and so he comes by night. He is his job, his group, his class. Going to Jesus is scandalous because it violates the unwritten rules. No one must know he compromised, or wavered, and so he goes, fearfully, alone, by night!

He seeks confirmation for what he thinks he knows! 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. Behind that seeming blunt statement is an implied question, one that Jesus hears. You are come from God, aren’t you? How can we see and know the truth about you?

Jesus hears the question, but he doesn’t answer it! No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus realizes he is missing something about Jesus, but he tries to fit Jesus into his system, his frame of reference; he wants understanding based on signs, on evidence, on logic! And Jesus tells him in effect that unless he is born anew, begins again, he doesn’t even know how to ask the question, let alone understand the answer.

You must be born from above, you must start over, from the beginning. But Nicodemus, trapped in literalism, doubts the possibility of starting over. He’s too old, and too big to return to his mother’s womb. The physical evidence says it can’t be done!

And so Nicodemus asks his second question. Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born? And again, Jesus goes beyond the obvious, to truth. No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. As a teacher of Israel, Nicodemus might have been expected to recognize the language from the prophets. Ezekiel (Chapter 36), spoke of God sprinkling clean water and making Israel clean, and of putting a new heart and a new spirit within them. Nicodemus needs to be begotten or made new from above, by the Spirit of God that blows where it will, not regressed into an earlier state.

“The end is where we start from.” wrote T.S. Eliot. We begin again from where we are, now is the time of salvation, now is the time from which things will be different, now is the time of rebirth. But Nicodemus can’t see it!

His third question and last words to Jesus are a wistful, How can these things be? He longs to take Jesus at his word, but all his knowledge, his training, his fraternity won’t let him. When Jesus next speaks, although it is not obvious in the English text, he ceases to speak to Nicodemus only but speaks to all his group, his class, his fraternity – all who, like Nicodemus, cannot see beyond themselves. You [plural] do not receive our testimony … if I have told you [plural] about earthly things and you [plural] do not believe, how can you [plural] believe if I tell you [plural] about heavenly things?

These are not words to just one troubled man who came to Jesus one night; the “you” addresses all who walk in darkness, then and now. The words are for us! How to be born anew? Believe in the Son whom God sent in love, that the world might be saved. Not signs, not wonders, but faith in the Son of God is how one is born of Spirit. Jesus is the door into the kingdom of God, and faith in Jesus is the key!

Whatever happened to Nicodemus? What happened when he heard, 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. Was his life changed? Did he remember what Jesus had said about being “lifted up” after the crucifixion, or when his disciples reported his ascension? What became of this ruler of the Jews? He is mentioned a few more times. As a Pharisee involved in a discussion of Jesus’ identity he offers a word of defence, and is quickly put in his place. With Joseph of Arimathea he brings myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial – clearly not expecting a resurrected Christ! How can these things be? are the last words of Nicodemus before he disappears back into the night, and into the darkness of his old life.

But enough of Nicodemus. Let us leave him where we leave ourselves, in the merciful hands of God! What of us? Where do we find ourselves in this story?
Are we, alone, or as a church community, or even as a collection of church communities in our city, our region, our diocese, locked into thinking that we have to live a certain way, only one way, in order to maintain ourselves, to survive? Are “the ways of the elders” the only way for us; are we afraid to risk the new and unknown.

Are we, like the Pharisees, a fraternity, a group that praises solidarity and conformity over the courage to seek and to risk? Do we suppress questions that make us uncomfortable, forcing our own Nicodemuses to go and seek understanding under the cover of darkness?

Are we afraid of being born anew, are we afraid of ending to begin again? Are we so afraid of dying that we cannot be resurrected? Or have we tried it, once, and it seemingly went wrong, and so we fear the constant rebirth, the constant newness of life in the Spirit? Do we prefer to sit alone in the night with our questions, rather than go to Jesus for the answers which might force us to change?

Wherever we are in this story, our Lord’s part remains the same. His Word always invites us out of our bondage, out of our sorrow, out of our night, to be reborn by water and the Spirit. Jesus always comes to us, not to condemn, but to save and reconcile. Jesus is always the Son, through whom the love of God is sent into the world, calling us to believe.

T.S. Eliot again:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Quick now, here, now always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well

Christ is always the light of the world. Christ is always the answer to our questions in the night! Christ is always the way to be reborn, and begin again! Christ is Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end; our beginning, and our end!

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Little Gidding, Stanza V

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.