Monday, March 21, 2011

Night Studies with Nicodemus

(A sermon preached on John 3:1-7 at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 3/20/2011)

Alyce McKenzie, a Perkins School of Theology Professor of Homiletics (which is seminary talk for preaching), tells a story about sitting in the waiting area at her local Discount Tire store just last week, as her new tires were being put on her car. She picked up a women's magazine and was intently reading an article called, "How to supercharge your metabolism." She writes:

I became vaguely aware that someone had sat down in the chair next to mine. This seemed odd because I was in the middle of a row of empty chairs. I like my personal space while I'm waiting for my tires. Then a leaflet was put in front of my face with the heading: "How to be born again" and I heard a man's voice ask, "Wouldn't you like to read something of more eternal significance than this magazine? Have you been born again?"

I looked up into the face of an earnest man in his mid 40s who now sat next to me, looking at me expectantly. When I didn't reply immediately, he asked, "Well, have you?" I said, "I'm glad you asked that question. I've been reflecting on Jesus' words to Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and I don't think Jesus means 'born again' as if it were some emotional lightning strike that once it's over, we speak of our salvation in the past tense, like, that's done, now I have that checked off my to-do list. I think being born again calls for our participation, and I think it's a lifelong process."

At that the man shook his head as if to say "Geez, lady, it's a yes or no question. How hard is that?" He took his tract back and moved on.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee: a rabbi, and a leader of the people. He had come into some power under a mindset that to be born a Jew was to be born into the kingdom of God. Being of that kingdom, there were strict rules of conduct for acting and interacting with other people: and this new rabbi...this Jesus...seemed to be breaking the rules.

Alone in his study at night, Nicodemus was supposed to be deep in study: after all, the rabbis had taught that the Torah was best studied at night when it was quiet and the distractions of the day had subsided. ("Late-Night Seminar," Patricia Farris, The Christian Century, 2002.) The distraction of Jesus, however, became to big to ignore.

Nicodemus went out into the night to find Jesus. Perhaps he had waited until night so that others would not see him. Perhaps he hoped for uninterrupted time with him, or perhaps it was because he simply found himself unable to wait any longer. All I can tell for sure is that this fits very nicely into John’s Gospel, for light and darkness is a repeated theme throughout his text. Hall Harris writes: “Out of the darkness of his life and religiosity Nicodemus came to the Light of the World.”

Upon arriving, Nicodemus says to Jesus: “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.” I choose to believe these to be sincere words more than flattery. Regardless of which they are, Jesus basically ignores them.

Jesus answers “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus hears this and quickly responds in a literal sense. "Born again? How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"

John’s mystic Jesus shakes his head and goes deeper, to which Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?”

Anna Carter Florence remarks that the learned Nicodemus asks some rather stupid questions. First he mistakes Jesus’ words to believe one must literally be born again: “reentering the womb.” Then, after Jesus unleashes this incredible metaphor to illuminate mystery: “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 sputters “How can these things be?” (In Feasting On the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, Eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 2010, p. 73)

Jesus responds “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet do not understand these things?!” We often hear this as a put down, but could this be something else as well? Perhaps Jesus is hinting at some irony towards his fellow rabbi: suggesting that Nicodemus is missing that the words are to be pondered and explored for meaning, rather than immediately answered. After all, the practice of rabbinical studies involves thoughtful consideration of words: taking them deep into one’s mind and heart in order to discern their rich meaning. Nicodemus is not answering in a way that reflects his legitimate role as a teacher devoted to God.

So, imagine that Nicodemus goes home after this exchange: back to his study to ponder Jesus’ words. What did he discover there?

Nicodemus would have believed, by the virtue of his ancestry to Abraham, that he was favored by God so long as he followed the rules. These rules made it clear to him who was righteous and who was a sinner. It was clear who was in and who was out. In his position of power as a Pharisee, Nicodemus was in control.

Jesus’ words challenged this. Jerry Goebel writes: "Imagine studying all your life to be among the elite and powerful only to be told that all of your theories are based upon a completely false premise.” Nicodemus is confronted with the reality that life is really not “all about me”, and that God could care less about what I know and what rules I’ve followed or broken, but instead wants to know who I’ve loved and what I’ve done for others and on behalf of God’s vision for the world.

Alice McKenzie, whose story opened this sermon, writes that Jesus' comparison of being born from above with the action of the wind was probably a frightening one to Nicodemus because the wind is unpredictable, wafting away items to which we have become attached and blowing in others we would not have chosen. It can be frightening to us as well:

If we start letting the wind of the Spirit blow through our souls, our church, our families, who knows what might be blown out and what might blow in? Resentments and prejudices we have cherished for decades might blow out the window. One of us may sit in church next week and sense some of our usual sorrow, wafting out the back of the sanctuary, in its place a fragrant breeze bearing hope. Next week when we come to church, some people we don't recognize may be sitting on the back pew or standing behind the pillar looking in, waiting for an invitation to come into the arena of light and warmth. And we may feel our feet moving in their direction.

Anything can happen when it comes to wind. The fog might lift from a whole church that thinks their best days are behind them. A whole church could feel the brisk, energizing breeze of hope, and purpose stronger than their pain. If we say yes to the question, "Do you want to be born again or born from above?" the belief in Christ we now recite with our lips could become the blood running through our veins.

The logic of the Gospel John is NOT: If you believe, then God will love you and save you. God's salvation is not a reward for belief. Nor does God withhold God's love, forgiveness and salvation until we believe. (David Ewart,

Instead, belief is the invitation into a life-long journey of exploration: a willingness to say yes to where God will take you, an openness to discover new truth, and a gentleness in our encounters with others...wherever the wind may blow.


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