Text: John 3:1-17
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
May 31, 2015
Have you ever read a passage of scripture and suddenly find yourself in the center of the story and it caught you totally by surprise? That is what happened to me as I prepared for today’s sermon based on the gospel lesson.
During the past couple of weeks I found myself identifying with Nicodemus. Maybe it was because I just had another one of those birthdays last week that I found myself standing in old Nick’s shoe’s. It’s hard enough to get out of bed in the morning How do you start over again with something called “new birth” when you are rushing past 70.
But I identify with Nick not just because of his age. He comes to Jesus as a theologian and a teacher, something that I have been all my life. Jesus now calls his whole life, his theological reputation, his standing in the community, into question. If being “born again” is so important” why didn’t Jesus say so to the thief on the cross, or to the woman at the well or to the woman caught in adultery or to the rich young ruler? No, he singled out the theologian who had all the right credentials, who knew all the rules. It is Nick who is on the hot seat and so is Bill.
When he encountered Jesus for that very first time, I think he was sincere when he said: “We know you are a teacher who has come from God for no one can do these signs you do apart from the presence of God.” but Jesus responded like I felt like responding on one Sunday after service when a man met me at the back of the church with a handshake and said “what a wonderful sermon you gave today, Father!” I thought: “how can you possibly say that when you snored through the whole thing!” Jesus was equally unimpressed, he replied: “no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born again.
What is Jesus saying to Nicodemus and what does it mean for us. I suggest our Lord’s words came both as a warning and as a gracious invitation. Frist let’s look at the warning.
God is about do a new thing in Jesus. Everything he has said and done has had an air of authenticity about it. Nicodemus’s opening greeting acknowledges this. But our Lord’s response makes it clear that if he is to enter the kingdom, he is going to have to let some things go. His credentials, his place in society, have no standing. He must come as an outsider. It is our Lord’s response to this affirmation that is the threating part. “You must be born again by water and the spirit.” This bath in water recalls John’s baptism where to enter the new age, you had to come as an outsider. Nicodemus could not claim special privilege, to follow Jesus meant risking his position in the religious community.
Undoubtedly, he had questions, legitimate questions. Were not the Jews God’s chosen people to be a light to the nations? Were not the Pharisees the ablest interpreters of the law? Was all his life up to that point a big mistake? Just what was Jesus asking of him? What is the warning that Jesus is giving?
And how does it apply to those of us who have been born again by water in the spirit? Do his words still speak? If so, what do they say?
If this story sounds a warning, it also offers a gracious invitation. Jesus goes on to say: “The wind blows where it chooses, you hear the sound of it but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” To listen to the wind is to be open to the mystery of God, and the strange yet wonderful surprises of the Spirit.
This means, for one thing, attending to the odd moments in our lives. Ministers have been quick to point out that Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night interpreting this to mean that he was sneaking around scared half to death, trying to cover his tracks and avoid smearing his reputation. This may all be true, and that is why the warning. But isn’t it also true that it is the “odd moments,” the unscheduled encounters not written into our calendars or date books, that often become peak moments, birthing times, starting in new directions.
By attending to such moments whether by day or by night, we learn to be not congealers, but receivers. Flesh is the world we control where everything is neat and tidy. Spirit is the world where the leaves are scattered, where nothing stays put, where we are the ones controlled and where everything is a gift from God – though we are never quite ready for it or ever worthy of it. But still the gift comes.
Listening to the wind also means that we learn to accept and respect differences in the Spirit’s birthing. Whether like the ruach of creation, hovering dovelike over the waters of the great deep bring order out of chaos, or like the wind of Pentecost, smashing through and filling the whole house, who can control the wind and where it blows? You cannot know its source, but you can feel it blowing on your face, hear it pass. You do not know its destination, but you can let it refresh you and hoist yours sails.
Finally, the promise of listening to the wind is not a private experience. We are born from above for the sake the whole creation St. Paul tells us has been groaning in labor pains until now, waiting for the revealing of the children of God, for a truly open community which sets the gospel feast for all and rejoices in the rich diversity of all even as we enter into God’s struggles for the liberation of all.
Old Nick asks one final question. “How then is this birth from above possible?” One senses the stirring in the wind in the question. Our Lord’s response is not a doctrine, or a formula or four spiritual laws or a twelve step program. Rather he points to an odd event in Israel’s history, a bronze serpent. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Like the cross, the image is offensive, it is sign more of death than of birth.
Or is it? The Children of Israel were in the wilderness and going through a region that was infest with poisonous snakes. One bite was deadly. The Israelites were dying like flies. They demanded that Moses do something about it. Moses could have responded, “I am just a man. What can I do in the midst of all these snakes?” But did he? No. Rather, he responded by going to God and saying. “I’m just a man. What can I do in the midst of all these snakes? But it doesn’t matter, because, God, it’s not my problem, it’s your problem. What are you going to do about it? And God said to Moses. You’re wrong. It’s our problem. To solve it I need your help. You build a large brass serpent and hang it on a tall shepherd’s staff and pitch it in the center of camp. Then tell the people that if they get bitten to look at the brass snake and they will live. Moses cooperated with God. The people cooperated with Moses and they got through the crisis!
Our Lord saw this as a fore-shadowing of the cross – his death a symbol of life that we now share. That is why he ends today’s gospel with the most famous verse in the Bible – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but has everlasting life!
Yes, our Lord left old Nick with hope. Whosoever includes even theologians and religious leaders who have much to lose and come seeking Jesus at night. It takes Nicodemus a while but eventually he comes through. In the middle of his gospel, John tells us the Pharisees are still trying to figure out who Jesus is. They complain to the temple guards for not bringing him in for questioning. The guards protest “but no one ever spoke the way this man does.” The Pharisees are furious and accuse them of being naïve and deceived. Nicodemus is there and speaks up. “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” It is not bold defense of Jesus, but at least we get a sense that he is tipping his hand where he will stand if push comes to shove. That moment comes after our Lord’s crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for permission to bury Jesus in his own tomb. His friend Nicodemus publically provided the burial spices to prepare our Lord’s body for burial. Like so many of us, the journey has been long, often under the cover of darkness. But we have listened to the wind. We have heard the voice of God – and when the moment for decisive action came – we stood up and were counted.
Thanks be to God, Amen.