Date: August 7, 2016
Bible Text: John 3:1–17 | Reverend Dr. Jo Forrest
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. —John 3:16
While Bill is gone, Katie and I will be preaching through the Gospel of John.
John does not record any of Jesus’ parables; those little “yarns” Bill has been preaching. In John’s gospel, Jesus speaks. Those red-letter bibles that print Jesus’ words in red, are nothing but a sea of red ink in John.
Jesus speaks and speaks and speaks. He strings together “I am” statements; “I am the bread of life”, “I am the vine”, “I am the light of the world” and on.
John’s gospel may not have parables, but the figures of speech, with similes and metaphors demand your critical thinking; the word choice carries the weight of Jesus’ message.
This gospel also relies upon what it calls “signs” to reveal Jesus’ divinity. Rather than describe walking on water a “miracle”, the writer uses a word translated as “sign”: a sign points to something.
If you are driving on the highway and you need a Starbucks, when you see a sign at an exit, you don’t stop at the sign. The sign points to where you need to drive. In John’s gospel, the signs Jesus performs continually point to God.
Katie began a week ago with the opening chapter, an ethereal vision of “in the beginning was the word” with divine purpose and co-existence of Jesus and God to let us know Jesus is from God…reminds me of a tee-shirt “Jesus is God’s selfie.” Whoever wrote that must have had John’s gospel in mind.
When Jesus takes center stage, his first sign changes water into an abundance of wine at the wedding of Cana—showing us how God cares of our human existence and when Jesus gets involved it is delicious and overflowing.
Then, he overturns the tables of moneychangers in the temple. When you mess with the money, you will get someone’s attention—the Pharisees. And then Jesus continues to do these signs.
The established, Jewish authority, the Pharisees, are filled with anxiety of what is happening in broad daylight, witnessed by so many. Scripture claims “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.”
Listen for what happens next when a curious, God-fearing man comes to Jesus as I read from the 3rd chapter of John.
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 but may have eternal life.
Dear God, your spirit like the wind, blows where it will. Let it blow into our minds, stir us to listen, and to believe through these words. Let your spirit blow into our hearts that we may feel your abundant love, strong enough to claim us, gentle enough to hold our fears, and persistent enough to keep us. Amen.
Occasionally a commercial captures your attention enough that you watch again and again, not because you want the product, sometimes you don’t even notice the product. You watch it because in 30 or 45 seconds, it just nails real life. Here is one of my current favorites.
A little girl, dressed in bathrobe and pajamas, appears in a darkened kitchen, opening the refrigerator.
Just then her dad walks in, as shocked to see her as she is to see him, and decides to bust her, but does so in a whisper “what are you doing?”
She whispers in return “Mom said I could have a midnight snack.”
Dad, still flustered, “well I say it’s late, go back to bed.
Confused, the little girl asks, “Why?”
You can see Dad scrambling, “Because I’m the boss.”
The Little girl knows what’s true “you’re not the boss, Mom’s the boss.”
Now he’s busted and knows it, “technically we’re co-bosses.”
She knows, what she knows and stands firm, “technically, Mom’s the boss.”
The scene fades as dad and daughter share a midnight snack.
Nighttime encounters are often when the truth shines.
Did you notice it was in the night, under the protection of darkness, when Nicodemus knocks on Jesus’ door? He needs to understand what is going on in broad daylight with all the signs and why people believe in Jesus, but he is too afraid to ask in public.
Nicodemus’ identity as a Pharisee and his position within the community are what define him. Educated, respected, established. He thought he had learned the ways of the world, but now admits he doesn’t understand Jesus’ ways, which are turning it upside down.
All of these encounters in John’s gospel ask us to stand in their shoes. Can we see ourselves as Nicodemus?
Imagine a young professional who navigated teen years without a misstep and academic requirements in college, landed the right internships, and now has a coveted management development role in a big bank …but the “real world” is not what she imagined. She sees through the veneer of company “rah-rah” and questions those in authority. Does anyone care about her as much as they are asking her to care about them?
Or maybe Nicodemus is a mid-level programmer who has worked in a variety of places, been laid off a couple of times, but now has a good job with flexible hours. He often works at home, which is great so he can be present with the kids, and being a good dad is more important than anything. But, he works all the time and work and home bleeds together. He becomes aware of his kids’ ability to hear how people are treated, if meritocracies work—or not. He may be able to suppress his frayed loyalties for his job and faith, but what does this teach his kids?
Perhaps Nicodemus is older and has rung the bell. Nicodemus is a managing partner, or chief surgeon, or a subject matter expert within an industry, or reached the ultimate corner office. Not only has this Nicodemus “drunk the Kool-Aid” throughout life, but is now setting the course for others to follow, and shaping his legacy.
We could go on with other images, more or less like each one of us.
Where we live and work establishes the rule for proper behavior, it sets the goals and establishes what counts as success. Defines circle of friends, cultivates ambitions and expectations. It is the dominant thread we use to weave the story of our lives. Work is also the place where we are to silence our faith so as not to offend anyone but when it becomes so silent, it loses any hold it may have on us.
But, being Nicodemus-like startles us and assures us to know that the educated, accomplished, and thoughtful are still seeking. Being Nicodemus-like gives us permission to question when the daily-grind challenges our sense of purpose and value, or a crisis has rocked the foundation we thought secure, and we find the day-to-day, or the disciplines of economics, or law, or medicine do not have the ultimate answers.
When we need to know who we are and how we relate to others, we search for the signs that point to God. Theology, for all its mysteries and ambiguities, shines the light of truth.
So in the dark, Nicodemus goes to Jesus, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God…no one can do these signs…apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus responds “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Bear with me while I salvage our insufficient English. Jesus speaks a word that means, “to see the world of God asks for you to be both ‘born again’ and ‘born from above.’” Correctly translated it is not either “born again” or “born from above”…it is both at the same time.
But Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He is a man seeking certainty, who has always relied upon knowledge and the law and his reason, which are failing him. Now, his anxiety is so great, he does not have the capacity to grasp the depth of meaning or that this is a metaphor. Life needs to make sense. What is he to believe?
We usually don’t get it either. Too often, when we read this passage of being born again/born from above it sends our antennae up. I’ll be the first to admit that if I encounter a street corner preacher who may ask if I have been born again, I will head the other direction. In my corporate, traveling days, I feared being seated next to someone on a flight who would want to talk about being “born again.”
“Are you one of those or are you one of us?” This simple phrase continues to confound today, labeling those who are saved as fanatics, divided from and often against, those who must be condemned. How we hurt each other.
In today’s political climate we are receiving a daily lesson on the divisions between us. Too many labels define and exclude the other, presuming our divisions are all or nothing. Are you born again? Born from above? Blue? Red? With her? Against her?
It has been reassuring this week to witness others who are able to cross the chasms of labels and preconceived notions of identity as Christians claimed solidarity with a Muslim Gold Star family.
Jesus asks Nicodemus and us to participate in the reality made known through his signs. When one is “born from above”, we receive the heavenly experience of God choosing us despite our merits or labels. To just know we are born from above blesses our lives in ways this earthly realm never can. To be born from above specifies our origin and points to our salvation.
To be “born again” is a temporal dimension of being able to see the world with fresh clarity. No longer divided or confined, being born again gives us the innocence of a child, not jaded by what is supposed to be. This allows us to cross chasms and join with those others would exclude. It also allows us to accept ourselves when we wonder if we are worthy.
When combined, these two aspects are life-giving ways of being present to one another and God. They open up possibilities we could never create on our own.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus to be born again/born from above, he is asking Nicodemus to let God work in his life.
But, what is the catch? We’ve all been offered something, but Nicodemus and we know; there is always a catch.
Jesus offers what some ancient theologians have said is the gospel in one verse—for God so loved the world, he gave his only son that whosoever believes in him has eternal life.
The only catch is, we need to say, “yes,” to receive this baptism. “Yes,” I want the spirit to blow through my life, disrupting the stagnant with fresh air so I can breathe. I want to say “yes” to a power beyond my ability to comprehend, but which can animate my veins and flesh with new life. “Yes,” I want to feel alive and unbounded by who and how deeply I can love. “Yes,” I want the courage to stand up for others and myself when bullied by life. When I fail, “yes” to the gift of grace.
This baptism imparts a new identity. It becomes our sign to point us into a deeper journey towards the life God intends.
A fellow pastor of a church similar to Kenilworth Union recently presided at a funeral for a congregant who had been quite successful—financially and professionally. Active in politics, the church, his alma mater…this man lived large, with a sense of purpose, and commanded authority. He also managed each detail. This pastor was anxious when told by his widow that her husband’s final wishes specified exactly what was to be said at the memorial service. The minister was to say these words, slowly:
“After living a life with means, he had come to the conclusion only two things matter the most and only two things can you take with you into death: the love you have given and received from people in your life and your relationship with God.”
We don’t know if this man had a Nicodemus-moment, questioning how to live out his vocation and faith. Don’t you think so?
Living into your baptismal covenant, does not make you meek or deny you from being competitive. If anything, being marked as a child of God, compels you to stand for excellence. Go ahead and drive a hard bargain in negotiating, and stand by your commitment. Hold people accountable to their consequences of their actions.
Being animated by God’s spirit throughout all areas of our lives calls and equips us to do our best. Exercising our talents and demanding we treat others with respect as an accountant or nurse or teacher glorifies. We are the only ones who can name a toxic workplace as such and do something to change it—or leave it for a place that will not sap all the life from us.
Nicodemus sticks around with Jesus, making two smaller, cameo appearances in John’s gospel. When the Pharisees confront Jesus, as if to imprison him without trial, Nicodemus speaks to us, demanding the rules and Jesus are respected.
Then, on the last day of Jesus’ life, Nicodemus witnesses Jesus being lifted on the cross. By this time, he is more than just a witness. He has carried 100 pounds of ointment and joins two other men to take Jesus’ body off the cross, care for it, and lay it in a tomb, giving it all the honor and dignity his Jewish faith demands. Nicodemus does all of this in the bright light of day and testifies to his faith.
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us “I have come to give you life and life abundantly.” Nicodemus came to understand this was the only good shepherd to guide his life.
 In the joint Bible-Read-Along and this series, we are both referring to Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) for overall framework. Gench’s commentary inspired many of the ideas shared in the Bible Read-Along and this sermon.
 Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John: Sacra Pagina Series, ed Daniel J Harrington (Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book by The Liturgical Press, 1998) P91.
 Matthew Ruffner, “Another Barn” Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, July 24, 2016, accessed August 2, 2016, https://www.phpc.org/index.cfm/PageID/1678/index.html