Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 20, 2011

2011.03.20 “Questions in the Night” – John 3: 1 – 17, Fearless: The Courage to Question Series – Lent 2011

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Questions in the Night”

John 3: 1 – 17

The 2nd Sunday in Lent

March 20th, 2011

“There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”

Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”

“How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.

“So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”

Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”

Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?

“No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. ” – John 3: 1 – 17, The Message

          I remember the man’s question.  He was, I think, half-joking and half-serious when he asked me, “Where is a pastor when you need one, in the middle of the night?”

        Actually, when he said it, I laughed, because I knew what he was saying. My work in college in an emergency room, on the night shift; my work as a hospital chaplain, often called out of bed in the middle of the night; my work as a firefighter/medic and chaplain, out at horrific scenes, in the middle of the night, when everybody else was home asleep in the beds, including pastors, taught me the truth of what the man was saying.

        For example, I remember with clarity – too much clarity – riding with a police officer in the middle of the night from the hospital morgue to a home, to confirm to a mom and dad that their worst fears were true, that their fourteen year old daughter had been killed earlier that night in an car crash two blocks from their home. 

        Sometimes at 3 in the morning, sleepless, lost in your pain or loneliness or fear or dark questions, somebody to talk to would be nice.

        Perhaps it was such thoughts that drove Nicodemus to seek out Jesus, late one night. John does so little to introduce Nicodemus. We are told only that he is a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the ruling council. In fact his primary identification is that he is the one who came to talk to Jesus, at night.

There were things Nicodemus had seen and heard that had unsettled him. Here was this Jesus, unlearned, a poor’s people rabbi, and yet he was saying things, things that both troubled and intrigued Nicodemus.

For our devotion at Council Board last Tuesday, Jeanne Parker posed this question: “If you had the chance to ask Jesus any question, what would it be?” Nicodemus got that chance.  He begins not with a question, but a statement: “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”

Obviously, Nicodemus liked Jesus, or was at least intrigued by him. Perhaps he came by night, because it was too risky to come in daylight, to be seen with Jesus. Kind of like most people might feel about visiting a psychiatrist, an AA meeting, an AIDS clinic, or even a pastor, for that matter, lest we be seen by someone we know.

In some ways, Nicodemus is representative of many 21st century Christians. He is successful, self-confident, a leader in his community, and spiritually open and curious, so much so that he makes an appointment to talk to Jesus face to face.  However, he is not ready to go public, so he makes his appointment in the middle of the night, where he can keep his faith secret.

And, in some ways, being a “Nicodemus-like” Christian in the 21st century is understandable. As Christians, some of us are in mixed marriages or work in pluralistic work settings, and we’ve learned to prize tolerance and mutual respect over witnessing.  Indeed, judging from the stereotypes believed about Christians, too often founded in fact, as those who took the “When Christians Get It Wrong” study learned, we may at times find ourselves not wanting to “come out” as Christian.

If his conversation with Nicodemus is any quide, Jesus didn’t have a lot of time for small talk. If there was any chit-chat about the weather or the latest match at the coliseum, John doesn’t report it. Jesus cuts to the chase and says, “You’re absolutely right, Nicodemus. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — to God’s kingdom.”

Uh-oh. This wasn’t the answer Nicodemus was anticipating. (With Jesus, it rarely is!) In fact, it only raised more questions. “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”

I love how Jesus answers, especially as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message:

“You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation — the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.” (John 3: 5 – 8)

      If Nicodemus didn’t understand, he wasn’t the only one.  People have misunderstood Jesus’ words ever since. Partly, because they are ambiguous: “From above” (anothen in Greek) can be translated three different ways: “again,” “anew,” or “from above.” Most commonly it means “from above,” literally, “from top to bottom,” and is the same word used in Matthew 27:51, when, at Jesus’ death, “the curtain of the temple split (anothen) “from top to bottom.”  Thus, what Jesus said to Nicodemus was, “Nicodemus, you’ve got to be born from above, from top to bottom.” 

Don’t you find it ironic that Nicodemus’ misunderstanding is our best-known understanding? Let’s face it, this passage has been used in some pretty awful ways. You may have been asked by some well-meaning Christian: “Are you born again?”, meaning, “Are you saved, like I am saved?” Which is of course perceived by many as, “Are you crazy, like I am crazy?”

As Jesus used it, it was less a command than an invitation.  Nicodemus is gestating, like a child in the womb, with his journey to Jesus in the night.  He must be born again, anew, from above, from top-to-bottom, and let God work in his life, until God shines in his life, even in the light of day.

      How can this be? How does one do this? One doesn’t, God does. Don’t you find it interesting that Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ question of “How can this be?” by citing two of the most mysterious, uncontrollable forces in life: birth and wind? If it were a matter of technique or method — Jesus couldn’t have brought up worse examples.

      There are some of us who want the spiritual life to be like logic, like math. Everything has to be right and wrong, black and white, with no shades in between. Give me a formula, a method, four spiritual laws, ten steps, help me understand: how can this be?

          There are others of us — as Jesus seems here — for whom the spiritual life is less like math and more like music. It flows, there are melodies and harmonies, crescendos and pauses. It’s like birth, or wind, both powerful and uncontrollable, and we are swept away.  You’ve got to let go, and let it flow. 

Jesus is replacing Nicodemus’ small questions with larger questions, questions Nicodemus never asked before, necessitating different ways of thinking, different ways of being, different ways of experiencing God that he ever had before. Just as God still does in us.  Even then, the biggest question was yet to come.  How much does God love the world?

In John’s characteristic way, the dialogue becomes a monologue as the lights lower and Nicodemus fades away, and Jesus keeps talking, but to us. From here on, red-letter Bibles, highlighting the words of Jesus, get confused: Is this Jesus talking or John?  Does it matter?

Then comes one of the best-known verses in the Bible, John 3:16, still seen on road signs and bumper stickers. Maybe you think of John 3:16 when you think of the guy in the rainbow-colored wig sitting between the uprights at the football game, holding the sign painted with the world’s most famous verse. Maybe you think of it as the German Reformer Martin Luther once called it, the Gospel in a nutshell.  Maybe you think of it as your favorite Biblical verse (say it with me):

“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.” (New Revised Standard Version)

I actually like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message better, for it puts the emphasis in the right place: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Which is even more mind-boggling than what Jesus told Nicodemus.  This is how much God loves the world, that God is willing to give his Son, his one and only Son?  Everywhere else in the Gospel of John the “world” (kosmos in Greek) is God-hating.  Which gives John 3:16 even more punch: “This is how much God loves the God-hating world, that he sent his one and only Son…”

If this is how much God loves the God-hating world, and how far God has gone, to give his Son, his only Son, one big question comes to mind:  “How far will God go?”

Rob Bell is the 40-year-old pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. Founded in 1999, it’s now a church of 10,000 worshippers. Rob Bell has a new book out, just this past week, entitled, Love Wins. Among Evangelical Christians (which Rob Bell is), the book has brought about a furor and charges of heresy, due to a Promotional Video Bell prepared in advance of the book in which he seems to advocate “universalism,” the belief that God will ultimately redeem all people, sending none to hell. [Click on the highlighted link, embedded in the text, to be taken to YouTube to hear what Rob Bell had to say.]

This is the good news, given to us in response to Nicodemus’ night questions, and a two-word summary of John 3:16: Love wins! The God revealed in Jesus will not stop until all God’s creation is redeemed and recreated.  Including Nicodemus.  Including us. 

Thank you, Nicodemus, for your questions, which gave us this answer.  Love wins!

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Responses

  1. I see you used the Fearless: The Courage to Question Series in Lent 2011. I would like to use it this year but the DVD is not available. If you have it may I purchase it from you? Rev. Theresa McConnell

    • Theresa: Let me see if I can find it. If I can find it, you are welcome to it. I’ll let you know ASAP. – David Haley


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