(A sermon preached at Grace Anglican Church in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 5, 2023, the Second Sunday in Lent.Access the original sermon audio, with slight differences, here.)
SCRIPTURE: JOHN 3:1-17 (NRSV)
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 the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.“
“I know my plans concerning you…”
“I can do all things through Christ…”
“For God so loved the world…”
Certain verses, including the last (from today’s gospel), have become established as part of the culture that they’ve become cliché, hackneyed. John 3:16 has made it onto billboards, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, t-shirts, neckties, keychains, socks, watches, the faces of athletes, and—yes, you can find everything on Amazon—cowboy boots. I’m not kidding: for $315.64, you can currently giddyap for Jesus. Still, despite—or probably because of—its prevalence, the deeper themes of this verse and its surrounding story often get lost. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is one of darkness and light, of washing and rebirth, of sacrifice and victory, and of the entire Trinity’s work of love.
As our scene begins, we are in darkness. Night has fallen when the Pharisee Nicodemus seeks out Jesus. Many people have speculated as to why he came by night. Was it to have time alone with Jesus? Was it because he feared others seeing him with Jesus since he was a prominent Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court? Whatever his reason, I think John includes this detail to show that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus in spiritual darkness. He needs to find his way.
I grew up in a very rural area in the mountains of North Georgia. On a moonless night, the darkness was thick and palpable—there was no ambient light from streetlamps there, eight miles from town. When the power went out at my house, the darkness was formidable until one could find a lamp or flashlight. It was frightening, especially as a child. You see, in the dark, you don’t know which direction you’re facing. In the dark, you don’t know what is behind, beside, or right in front of you. Darkness is danger, chaos, and confusion.
The Gospel of John is saturated with this theme of light and darkness from chapter one onward. Darkness is portrayed as the realm of unknowing. It is the opposite of the light, representing knowledge, which, John says, is coming into the world. Darkness, John says, has never mastered—or comprehended—the light. And darkness is where we find Nicodemus. Nicodemus knows Jesus has come from God—somehow, some way. He knows because of Jesus’s works but doesn’t see clearly. Jesus answers with an invitation.
Born from Above
Jesus responds to Nicodemus, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The kingdom of God, which Jesus speaks of extensively in the other three Gospels, is only mentioned here in the Gospel of John. The” kingdom of God” does not mean simply “going to heaven when we die,” an all-too-prevalent view that owes more to Plato than the Bible. The kingdom is a movement of heaven breaking into, conquering, and transforming this world through the work of Christ. “Eternal life” in the famous 16th verse is in the present tense. This new life will be consummated at Christ’s second coming, but it began with his first. We see the kingdom in the curse starting to be worked backward, the very thing Jesus’ miracles exhibit. It is like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia experiencing the spring thaw after a 100-year winter as Aslan approaches. It is the very hope of life together with God.
Nicodemus doesn’t understand. He gets tripped up by Jesus’ words. “You must be born from above,” Jesus says. The word that means from above was used as an idiom at that time to mean again, not unlike how we, especially musicians, might say “take it from the top” to restart a performance. Nicodemus hears Jesus’ words as “You must be born again,” when Jesus means that you really must be born from above—you must be born from God to see his kingdom. Of course, Nicodemus isn’t entirely wrong. This is a second birth, and Jesus’ language affirms this. The second birth, this birth from above, is a spiritual birth.
The way we are naturally, born of flesh, isn’t enough. Since the day we sinned and were kicked out of the garden where God walked with us in the cool of the day, we cannot see the kingdom of God. Our flesh is weak and marked with death; our sinfulness is no match for his righteousness. As we go through the season of Lent, we continually revisit this fact. As the ashes were marked on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday, so we are marked with the curse: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In our fallen state, we are doomed.
We must become new creatures, transformed from the inside out, with our flesh empowered by God’s Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be “born of water and Spirit” to see the kingdom. Nicodemus may have recognized this language of water as that of conversion—Gentile converts to Judaism were required to undergo a ceremonial washing to signify the removal of impurity. He would have no doubt been familiar with the cleansing imagery of Ezekiel 36:25-26, where the Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” The outward cleansing imagery that comes to its fulfillment in Christian baptism is bound tight to the work of the Spirit within us.
The Spirit must move in and change us, and we don’t decide the who, when, or where of it happening. Jesus makes another wordplay here. The word for wind and Spirit are the same in Greek (and Hebrew, for that matter). “The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus says, “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.” After the powerful windstorms Friday, none of us should have trouble with Jesus’ imagery here. The wind is powerful and unpredictable. Many people lost power, some lost trees, roofs, or cars, and a few lost much more. The wind cannot be ordered or tamed.
Untamed unpredictability is the Holy Spirit’s hallmark, as is the power to completely change anything he touches, yet his is a will that is always good. Undoubtedly, you have also heard of the recent outpouring of the Spirit that seemingly happened at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. What started as a very average college chapel service continued in a non-stop, spontaneous movement of prayer, praise, repentance, reconciliation, scripture reading, and even a handful of physical healings for 13 days. There were no guest preachers, flashy worship bands, smoke, or stage lights. It was remarkably unremarkable. When students and faculty entered the chapel that morning a few weeks ago, no one expected anything out of the ordinary, but that’s when God often moves.
How God Loved the World
God doesn’t work in our ways or by our methods. We need not laugh too much at Nicodemus’ confusion during this conversation. We all start out in darkness. But Jesus explains that he is testifying with authority about what he knows. He is not in the dark. He is the very one who has come from heaven.
Jesus tells Nicodemus he is also the one who will be lifted up, just like the bronze serpent on the pole in the wilderness saved the lives of the snake-bitten Israelites who looked upon it. As we know now, Jesus means he will be lifted on a cross and save those who, by faith, fix their eyes upon him. This saving act is the way God loves us. In fact, that’s a better translation of the beginning of John 3:16: instead of “For God so loved the world,” many scholars contend that it should be rendered, “This is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son….” It makes sense. God displays the very act of love by sending his only Son. And, as the season of Lent teaches us time and again, this love for us is not based on our loveliness. “While we were still sinners,” Paul says, “Christ died for us.” Likewise, C.S. Lewis comments, “The value of each human soul considered simply in itself, out of relation to God, is zero… to have died for valuable men would have been not divine but merely heroic; but God died for sinners. He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is love.”
Jesus says that all who believe in him will have eternal life. God has given us who were formerly marked for death the life of his inbreaking kingdom. The life that, in faith, we begin now will come into its fullness at Christ’s return. Yet, as we know, that faith can only come from the Holy Spirit’s initiative, opening our eyes to the world of God’s Kingdom. But once he does, he brings us, in the words of St. Peter, “out of darkness and into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
The next time we see Nicodemus, he is pleading for the Sanhedrin to hear out the arrested Jesus and then helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare the Lord’s body for burial. We don’t know what happened the rest of the night of his conversation with Jesus, but perhaps the one who arrived in darkness left with light. May we, too, who were blind in darkness, be shown the light of God’s kingdom by God’s Spirit and receive salvation through God’s Son, in the love of God the Father.
(Cover image: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Nicodemus Visiting Jesus, 1899. Courtesy of WikiArt.)