Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | March 12, 2017

2017.03.12 “Hidden No Longer” – John 3: 1 –17

Central United Methodist Church
Hidden No Longer
Pastor David L. Haley
John 3: 1 –17
The 2nd Sunday in Lent
March 12th, 2017


“Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899”

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, by Eugene H. Peterson

Clandestine meetings, they are called; meetings that occur in secret, because something is illicit and those involved want no one to know. Usually such meetings occur in a private place, under cover of darkness, off the record. One thinks of meeting between lovers who shouldn’t be, drug deals, cloak-and-dagger spy exchanges, and conversations that never happened.

As everyone knows, clandestine meetings are a standard feature of politics, especially in the news of late. Leaks by those who prefer to remain anonymous, meetings which should not have taken place but did, either denied or “not remembered” when questioned about. As everyone knows, multiple investigations have been launched regarding clandestine meetings between members of the Trump Administration and the Russians; who knew what and when did they know it? In the light of the fact that the Russians hacked the recent Presidential election, it remains to be seen where such allegations will lead.  Personally, I am thankful for a free press, who – when there is a lot of smoke, searches for the underlying fire. The Washington Post recently adapted as its motto, “Democracy dies in darkness.” As indeed it does, often through clandestine meetings.

However, in this day and time is it even possible to have clandestine meetings? Now, when we are not only tracked but spied upon by our devices (including our phones), when almost everything we do and everywhere we go leaves an electronic trail, when ubiquitous security cameras record everything we do in public and some in private, is there such a thing as a clandestine meeting? It may take digging, but sooner or later the truth comes out. As Jesus once said, “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:3) More than we ever thought possible, we should keep Jesus’ words in mind.

In today’s Gospel, Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to talk with Jesus in what might well be one of the most famous clandestine meetings in history, certainly in the Bible.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, hovering on the margins and in the shadows. He was – after all – a Pharisee, a part of the Jewish establish- ment, for whom Jesus was at first a nuisance, but then a political problem and a threat. No doubt it was difficult, perhaps even dangerous, for Nicodemus to follow Jesus publicly, in the bright light of the day; so he visits Jesus at night, being cautious, exercising discretion. He is not the first nor the last of Jesus’ disciples who followed Jesus from afar, as well as those disciples who must be careful about when, where, and how they practice their discipleship.

There are still many countries of the world where the political or religious climate necessitates this; in fact, so do some work environments in our own country. Say too much about questionable ethical or business practices, stand up as a whistle- blower – even if it is the “right” thing to do – and see what happens. I don’t know if you have read about sexual assault in the military; did you know an estimated 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place in the military in 2012, the most recent year statistics are available? Of those, only 1 in 7 victims reported their attacks, and just 1 in 10 of those cases went to trial. Many – if not most – of the victims were further victimized by going public or pressing charges.

Throughout my ministry I have preached the story of Nicodemus many times, just as I am sure that you have heard it many times. Most often, we hurry to the “good parts,” the parts about being born again and of course John 3:16, where we all stand up and take our hats off, put our hands over our hearts and recite with solemnity: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Too often we have made Nicodemus into a fall guy, who asks the dumb questions we have wondered about but would never ask out loud. The kind of questions we ask only in clandestine meetings, which are – after all – the kinds of meetings we prefer if we ever need to visit a counselor, an AA meeting, an AIDS clinic, or even a pastor. “I don’t want anybody to see me coming or going.”

After preaching and hearing this story all these years, I have not only continued to learn from it but now have a new perspective on it: now whenever I hear it I chuckle, because it is such a funny story. Not only is Nicodemus not the bad guy or the clueless foil, Nicodemus is so like us, struggling to understand, which the trickster Jesus never makes easy.

Part of the problem with a text telling a story is that we do not get the non-verbal communication part of the story, which expresses 93% of communication. Don’t you prefer – when possible – to talk to people in person, especially when it’s about important things? As they talk, was Nicodemus or Jesus solemn and intense, or smiling and winking? Did Jesus tap Nicodemus’ arm with an amused grin, when he said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?” Was Nicodemus nodding in agreement, or constantly throwing up his hands and shrugging his shoulders? Were there long silences – during which Jesus heard the wind blow –  or did they talk over each other? When they parted, did they part with a handshake, an embrace, or by “agreeing to disagree?” John doesn’t say.

But even not knowing this, what’s funny about this story?

First of all, as I was saying before, about whether it’s possible to have clandestine meetings. Think about it: Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night so as not to be seen or heard, and here we are still talking about it on a Sunday morning two millennia later, on the other side of the planet. So much for clandestine meetings, any time, any place. Sorry, Nicodemus, for your privacy concerns; you might just as well have videotaped and broadcast it on the 10 o’clock news. “Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”

Secondly, what’s funny are the “word plays” Jesus used; no wonder Nicodemus was confused, people have been confused ever since. Partly, because they are ambiguous: The word we usually read as “born again,“ (Greek “anothen”) can actually be translated in 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 “from top to bottom.” So, 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 of being born again is our best-known understanding? With the result that, this passage has been used in some pretty awful ways. All of us have likely been asked by some well-meaning Christian: “Are you born again?”, meaning, “Are you saved, like I am saved?” Which is 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, in the dark of 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, 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 those who want the spiritual life to be like logic, like math. Everything must 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? I’ve known people like that; haven’t you?

There are others — 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. What Jesus is saying to Nicodemus is this: “It’s a gift, Nicodemus, don’t overthink it; just receive it!”

From this point on, who says what gets murky; in John’s Gospel, conversations give way to speeches. From here on, red-letter Bibles, highlighting the words of Jesus, get confused: Is this Jesus talking or John? Does it matter?

Regardless of who is speaking, what comes next is the funniest thing of all – in that it is likely the most loved, but also THE MOST misunderstood verse in the Bible: John 3:16. The German Reformer Martin Luther called it, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” We see it on a sign held up by a guy in a rainbow-colored wig sitting between the uprights at a football game. Maybe it is our favorite Biblical verse: “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 like Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message, which 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 to some, is even more mind-boggling than what Jesus told Nicodemus. Because based upon this verse, what we have been told, and what most people think the Gospel is, is this: “There is a God, but God is angry with us because of our sin. This God has the right, the duty, and the desire to punish us all, such that though we know it not, we are all heading for eternal torment in hell. Instead, God decided to vent his anger on someone else, someone completely innocent, his one and only son. With the result that, God’s wrath is quenched, and if we but believe this story we will no longer go to hell but to heaven someday.

Does that sound like a loving God to you? Most thoughtful people who hear it don’t think so either. According to a proper reading of John 3:16, the real truth of the story – as Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright puts it – is this: “the God of creation is a God of love: utter, self-giving, merciful, reconciling, healing, restorative love.” What John’s Gospel says is this: “God so loved the world that he sent his only son;” Not, “God so hated the world that he killed his Only Son.” God has done all the heavy lifting, all we need to do is trust. It is less about heaven someday, than participating in God’s “full and lasting life” now, as Eugene Peterson more correctly renders it.” Being a Christian is less about going to heaven when we die, than it is participating in the revolution of love unleashed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like Nicodemus, through misunderstanding, we distort the whole picture. (N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Whey the Gospel is Good News and What Makes It Good, 2015, p. 68-69)

How is this remotely funny, you might ask? I once heard a mythical story about two people who disagreed with each other their whole lives. When one of them died, he got to heaven, where he found out he was wrong. He thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Too many people are getting it wrong, which is so outrageous it’s funny.

Thankfully, for Nicodemus and for us, the wind continues to blow. According to John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus was one of those who lovingly cared for Jesus body by anointing it with costly spices before placing it in the tomb, which he did in the bright light of day, not caring who knew or saw.

For us, the wind also continues to blow. Through his not-so-clandestine meeting, Nicodemus reminds us that even the best educated and most authoritative among us are still searching, our faith still seeking understanding, even as we still ponder the questions and answers Jesus gave to Nicodemus so long ago. Even when we fall on our face, better to laugh at our efforts, and get up and try again. We can only hope, no one sees.


“Study for Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899”


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