Sunday, March 16th, 2014 – Second Sunday of Lent
Scripture: John 3:1-17
Hymns: “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “Blessed Assurance”, “Be Thou My Vision”
Special Music: “My Hope Is You”, by Third Day
“For God so Loved the World”
“By night, we travel, in darkness, seeking the fount, the only one which can quench our thirst.”
These words are the English translation of the song “De Noche”, a Spanish chorus from the Taizé monastic community in southern France. They speak of a group of travelers, seeking in the night for the “fount of every blessing”, as the old hymn goes. Much like Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading, they set out under the cover of night to undertake their search.
But why night?
Think about movies that you’ve seen, especially movies with fantasy or sci-fi elements. Star Wars, for example. In “The Empire Strikes Back”, Luke Skywalker goes to the planet Dagobah, a remote, dark planet, seeking instruction and training from the Jedi Master Yoda. Yoda has hidden himself away on Dagobah, a place where neither Darth Vader nor the Emperor will find him.
In the Harry Potter books and movies, Harry and his friends undertake many of their adventures either under cover of darkness or under Harry’s invisibility cloak, hiding from the dark forces of evil that are trying to take over the world. And throughout the majority of the first Lord of the Rings movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, Frodo Baggins and his companions travel under cover of darkness so as to not alert the spies of Sauron, keeping watch on them from the distant land of Mordor.
But perhaps my favorite example of cinematic darkness comes from the summer of 2000 car heist blockbuster, Gone in Sixty Seconds. Starring Hollywood’s biggest ham with a generous side of cheese, Nicolas Cage, as anti-hero Randall “Memphis” Raines, the movie has a very simple premise: in order to save the life of his brother, threatened by an evil British crime boss, Memphis must steal fifty cars. He decides to assemble a “crew” of like-minded hooligans, and steal all fifty cars in one night, so as to complete the task before the assembled law enforcement organizations of southern California realize that the game is afoot.
All goes well for the first forty-nine thefts. However, by the time Memphis attempts to abscond with the fiftieth and final car – the iconic 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 – the sun has risen over Los Angeles, and the LAPD are hot on his tail. Thirty minutes – fully one quarter of the film’s run-time – of chaos ensue, with Memphis leading the LAPD, the California Highway Patrol, and various other law enforcement organizations willy-nilly throughout southern Los Angeles, though it is all for naught, as the car eventually ends up scrapped in the British crime boss’s junkyard – a scene which made me and almost every other young man born in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cringe and nearly cry upon witnessing it for the first time.
You see, in all of these movies, and especially in the case of Gone in Sixty Seconds, the protagonist embarks on a quest of some sort that must be undertaken in cover of darkness, so as to not be discovered by the authorities. Each knows that the light will expose them to serious trouble, as does eventually happen in each case – Luke Skywalker when he confronts Darth Vader on Bespin, Harry Potter when he attempts to take on the corrupted Ministry of Magic, Frodo Baggins when he loses the protection of the wizard Gandalf, and Memphis Raines when he attempts to steal the Mustang after the sun has risen.
So too in today’s Scripture was Nicodemus faced with a dilemma. You see, he was a very powerful member of Israel’s Jewish culture. A Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was very much part of the ruling class in Israel. However, he – and several like him – were intrigued by this new rabbi who had come on the scene, Jesus of Nazareth. They had been very much convinced that he had been sent to them by God, although it was not by faith, but by Jesus’ miracles that they were convinced (more on that later). They knew he was special, and they wanted to know more.
The problem was, at this point in the gospel of John, Jesus had JUST finished cleansing the temple. You know that story – he walks in, sees the merchants and moneychangers desecrating the house of God, gets pretty irritated by that, fashions a whip out of some rope, and forcibly evicts them? Yeah, that story. Needless to say, that had made him less than popular with both the Sanhedrin – you can be assured they were getting a cut of the profits – and with the Roman authorities – the last thing they needed was some hot-headed revolutionary stirring up trouble in Jerusalem.
And so, given the climate at just that moment, for Nicodemus and his buddies to be seen talking to Jesus would have, at best, amounted to political suicide and, at worst, ACTUAL suicide. Thus, Nicodemus waited until night had fallen, and slipped away under cover of darkness to go speak with Jesus.
Well, Nicodemus meets up with Jesus, and starts things off by telling Jesus that he and his friends KNOW Jesus must be from God – after all, he reasons, no mere human can do the things that Jesus has been doing. Now that’s all well and good, but we’ve all heard the saying – we walk by faith, not by sight. And Jesus decides that Nicodemus needs to be taught that lesson.
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. And immediately, Nicodemus is confused. “How is that possible?” he asks. “No one can re-enter their mother’s womb and be born a second time!”
The problem here is that Nicodemus just doesn’t understand. In fact, Nicodemus makes a mistake that people are STILL MAKING TODAY – a mistake that has been made over and over again by no less a group of authorities than the folks who translate the Greek Scriptures into English. You see, the Greek word that Jesus used – anothen – actually has TWO meanings, “again” and “from above”.
Nicodemus, like so many Biblical translators, only takes the one meaning – again – but really, Jesus is trying to tell him BOTH. “You must be born again, FROM ABOVE,” Jesus is telling him. In other words, the rebirth Nicodemus must experience is not a literal rebirth, but a spiritual rebirth – he will be born again, but this time his birth will be the result of the Holy Spirit moving in him. It’s what we symbolize in baptism – we are being born anew, of the waters of the Spirit, out of the “womb” of our life before faith in Christ, and into the new life that we experience in Christ.
But Nicodemus doesn’t get that, because he doesn’t understand the necessity of having faith in God. Again, he came to Jesus because of the SIGNS that he saw performed. That’s why he also didn’t get the next thing that Jesus said in an attempt to teach him – the Spirit is everywhere, Jesus says. You don’t know where it begins or where it ends, and that’s how it is with those who have been born again, from above. Their faith neither begins nor ends, it exists because of the movement of God among the people.
Still Nicodemus doesn’t get what Jesus is saying, and Jesus is getting frustrated – with good reason. He probably feels that he’s being very clear about what he’s saying, and realistically, Jesus is FAR more plain-spoken in the Gospel of John than in the other three, something for which we can thank the author. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is focused on as Messiah, whereas he is focused on as more of a pastor in the Gospel of John. However, his attempts to be pastoral to this Pharisee are being lost on Nicodemus, which would only have added to Jesus’ frustration – Nicodemus was an intelligent man. He had to be to be on the Sanhedrin. In modern terms, he likely would’ve had to have something along the lines of a doctorate in ministry as well as a law degree in order to reach the position he held.
Jesus knows that, and he says as much. “Are you a teacher of Israel, yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus asks. Surely he must have been incredulous. Here was this brilliant man, placed in a position of respect and authority over Israel, but he can’t understand the simple concept of new life in God’s spirit.
So Jesus decides it’s time for a mini-sermon. Speaking on behalf of himself and his disciples, he tells Nicodemus, “We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen, yet you do not receive our testimony.” He likens Nicodemus here almost to the sort of person who goes to church not for spiritual enrichment but just because it’s what they think they’re supposed to do. Like that individual, Nicodemus has heard the testimony of Jesus and the disciples because he thinks that’s what he should be doing, not because he thinks he’ll actually get anything out of it.
And that’s why he doesn’t believe or understand the things of heaven, Jesus tells him. “You don’t understand the things we’re doing here on earth,” Jesus says. “You think they’re just signs. You don’t realize they’re a demonstration of the powerful grace and mercy of God, to teach people to have faith. If you don’t get the meaning of those, how are you supposed to understand the things of heaven?”
The reason Jesus said that to Nicodemus is simple – nobody has ever gone to heaven and returned to testify directly of things of heaven. Only through the things of this earth can the people of earth be made to understand the things of heaven. Jesus, on the other hand, being of God and one with God, came to earth after FIRST having been in heaven. He can testify directly to the nature of heavenly things, but as has become clear to him in this conversation with Nicodemus, the people aren’t going to be able to understand the heavenly things – at least, not until they understand the things that God does on this earth.
Jesus decides to lay it all out for Nicodemus, however, and at this point in his little sermon, presents to Nicodemus perhaps two of the most famous verses in all of Scripture:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Over the centuries since these words were spoken, they have been used to tell the world that Jesus came not out of vengeance and anger, but out of God’s love for the people of the earth. He has come to us so that whoever believes can live eternally with God. But in that moment, Jesus’ words were meant not for a larger audience, but for the ears of this one particularly confused Pharisee. To Nicodemus, the coming of the Messiah meant the coming of a revolution, the casting off of the oppression of Rome, the liberation of Israel. But Jesus did not come to condemn the world – and that meant he didn’t come to condemn Rome, either. He came that WHOEVER believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
After this conversation, we see Nicodemus only twice more – once, defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and then not again until after the crucifixion of Jesus. With Joseph of Arimathea, he prepared Jesus’ body for burial and buried him in the tomb. And why would he do that? Being a member of the very ruling council that had condemned Jesus to the cruel wiles of the Roman government, why would he publicly show such mercy for him?
Well, you may have noticed that I skipped over talking about one part of Jesus’ brief homily.
“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.”
Centuries before, when the Israelite people were sick and dying in the desert from snake bites, Moses had, at God’s command, fashioned a bronze serpent and lifted it up before the people. So too, now, Jesus would have to be lifted up before the spiritually sick people of Israel. Before they could be saved, he would himself have to be born anew in the resurrection. He would be dead to the world, but be reborn from above through the power of God’s spirit.
And maybe Nicodemus realized what was going on. Maybe, three years after his meeting with Jesus, he had finally come to understand what Jesus had tried to tell him that night, under cover of darkness. Maybe he recognized that Jesus was the embodiment of the new life through which God’s people could be born again.
In all the movies I mentioned at the beginning, in the end, our heroes escaped the chaos that came with the daylight. Luke Skywalker defeated the evil Empire, Harry Potter escaped the clutches of Lord Voldemort, Frodo Baggins threw the ring into the fires, and Memphis Raines – with the help of an LAPD detective – overcame the British crime boss.
Perhaps when Nicodemus stopped thinking he could only see Jesus in the darkness, the light of day gave him new eyes to see what Jesus was saying. He stopped thinking in terms of the earth, and began thinking in terms of heaven. He set aside the signs, and accepted Jesus on faith.
Maybe, just maybe, Nicodemus finally got it.
Major thanks to Dr. Gail O’Day, Dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, for her clarification of some of the stickier parts of this passage in the Luke/John volume of the New Interpreter’s Bible.