March 8, 2020 | Pastor Tim Dean
The 40 days of Lent are appropriately described as a journey. We remember and symbolize the 40-year journey of ancient Israelites in the desert. We remember and symbolically recreate Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. These 40 days are a journey of faith.
Over the next 4 Sunday of Lent, we will hear stories from the Gospel of John—all centering around journeys of faith. We will hear 4 different encounters with Jesus. Today, a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Then, a Samaritan woman at the well, a man healed by the pool of Siloam, and finally, Mary and Martha grieving the death of their brother Lazarus.
Today we meet a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Different than the other stories in John, Nicodemus not Jesus is the one who initiates the encounter. He visits Jesus at night.
This immediately signals some kind of ambiguity and complexity on the part of Nicodemus. He visits Jesus secretly, under the shroud of nighttime, hidden. Is he a seeker of truth? Is he a spy from other religious leaders? Is he trying to flatter Jesus to get a favor?
Nicodemus, a curious, intelligent sort, has probably already heard about Jesus of Nazareth from someone. Maybe from John’s preaching. (John 1:19-28). Or maybe Nicodemus was at the wedding reception where Jesus turned water into wine (2:1-11). Or he heard about this zealous man who used a whip to cleanse the temple (2:13-22).
Nicodemus goes on a journey at night toward Jesus, the Light of world
It may be disappointing, then, to hear Jesus suggest that he must be “born anew.” (3:3) The word that John uses here could have three meanings: born again, born anew or born from above.
Nicodemus misses the pun—the play on words—and takes Jesus quite literally as “born a second time.” “Can someone crawl into their mother’s womb and be born again?” (3:4b) Nicodemus misses the joke, and Jesus has to explain it!
Perhaps the problem is that Nicodemus thinks he’s got God all figured out. The “God-in-the-box” syndrome. He thinks that Jesus can offer a couple of practical suggestions for improving the state of his soul.
The problem is much deeper, of course! Nicodemus can’t build a bigger box, because it’s impossible to define or control God. And even more, Nicodemus can’t determine his own journey to God. Jesus doesn’t suggest a few good steps to be a better person or get to heaven.
Jesus talks about new birth – a completely new life
This is something that Nicodemus cannot control. He can’t birth himself! Nicodemus’ journey of faith is not a self-improvement plan, or fulfilling a spiritual check list. It is dying, and being reborn. Surrendering, and living anew. Letting go of trying to understand and control God, and instead letting God be the guide.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus by talking about “being born of water and the Spirit” and also “wind blowing where it chooses.” Jesus continues, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (3:8)
To which, Nicodemus sounds surprised, astonished, amazed. “How can these things be?” (3:9)
This is not what a well-trained religious teacher is expecting when he comes to Jesus. This is not something we expect, either, on our journey of faith.
“How can these things be?” could very well be our question as we encounter Jesus, and the freely-moving wind of God in the wilderness.
Jesus invites us—not to certainty and putting God in a box of our own making. Jesus invites us to a new way of life called the kingdom of God. We receive this new birth, new life, as a gift, not something we achieve.
Dear friends, this new birth comes through the water and the Spirit of baptism. In the waters of the font, we are born into a new reign, a new dimension, a new community. This is God’s promise—and yet, throughout our journey of life, we often forget or neglect this promise of who we are. On our journey, we need to be reminded constantly that God has acted to birth us through the waters of grace and love.
Our journey during Lent, and throughout life, means trust, surrender, letting go of being in charge, and letting God’s Spirit wash over us again
Faith is not having all the answers, but asking questions open us to new directions and insights. Kind of like Nicodemus asking Jesus, “How can these things be?” How is the Spirit moving around us? Where is the Spirit guiding us? Where are we born anew in God’s promises?
Faith is a verb that leads us to trust as we walk; faith is a verb that helps us to ask important questions. Faith is the openness to new insights, new relationships, like what Nicodemus experiences. Faith is the journey to let the Spirit take the lead, and take us where the Spirit chooses.
And near the end of the story, after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus shows up again (19:38-42). This time to help Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
These two appearances do not answer all the questions about Nicodemus. But he is clearly is moving—the verb of believing has drawn him closer toward the Light of the world. His encounter with Jesus at night has initiated a surprising journey.
He probably still is asking, as he wraps Jesus’ body for burial, “How can these things be?”
Yet even as he mourns, even as he is shrouded in fear and uncertainty, he just may hear the whisper of the wind carrying Jesus’ words to him: “I have not come into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved.” (John 3:17)
The wind of God whispers these words to us as well: “I have not come to condemn, but to bring you life. Be born anew in me.”