Theme: Accepting God’s Gifts
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, remove the darkness from among us so that we may live in the light; infuse us with your Holy Spirit, that reborn, we may enter your eternal kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“A temporary office-help agency in Washington DC recently began offering a $100 bonus to the employee who makes the biggest mistake of the month. He doesn't get a reprimand. He doesn't get demoted. He gets a $100 bonus. I read about an executive for a company called Sara Lee Direct who thought he was getting a great deal on a shipment of belts, so he acted quickly and bought a whole warehouse full. Only later did he discover that what he bought was not manufacturing belts for the conveyor system at the factory, but a bunch of those three-inch-wide paisley belts from the 1960s. Instead of getting fired, he was awarded a bronze plaque that proudly commemorated the “Worst Buy of the Year.”
“When I read these stories, I had two reactions. My first was: Are these businesses nuts? Have they gone crazy, or what? And then my second thought was that maybe I could talk the (vestry) into adopting a similar policy. Maybe there could be a bonus for the worst sermon of the month.
“There’s a strategy behind rewarding mistakes. The president of that temporary help company explained it this way: ‘The object is to get people to take risks.’ An official at Sara Lee Direct where the employee got promoted instead of fired for making that terrible purchase put it this way, ‘If you don’t go up to the plate and swing hard, you’re never going to hit a home run. If you’re not willing to make a mistake, you’re not really trying.”
The bottom-line is that risk-taking is the only road to success. And companies are finding that it’s worth rewarding a few mistakes along the way if it encourages their people to take the kind of risks that can bring huge rewards. And the same is true for people of faith.
How much faith does it take to follow? How much risk are we willing to take? That’s the crux of the discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. That’s what Jesus meant when he said you must be reborn.”
In Year A of our lectionary, we have the great stories of Jesus that were traditionally taught to those preparing for baptism during Lent. These stories are from John’s gospel. This Sunday and the rest of the main Sunday’s in Lent are these stories from John. Today is Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus.
In John’s gospel, Jesus makes three trips to Jerusalem. On this his first trip, Jesus throws out the money changers from the temple. Jesus was there for the Passover. Jesus produced what John calls “signs” there and many people believed in him. Most commentators include the cleansing of the temple as one of Jesus’ signs. Certainly, Jesus drew an incredible amount of attention to himself.
One particular person who noticed Jesus was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. That makes him a significant religious leader in Jesus’ time. It is night when Nicodemus chooses to pay Jesus a visit. Nicodemus obviously did not want people to see him visit Jesus. This is a stealth operation. Nicodemus is curious and he is fearful.
Nicodemus has heard of Jesus and based on what he has heard he is curious about the itinerant rabbi who teaches and performs miracles. To Nicodemus, Jesus must look like one of the prophets from a time long past. Based on what he has heard, Nicodemus wants to find out more. And more importantly, Nicodemus is not coming with a hostile attitude. He wants to engage Jesus in a spiritual discussion. Nicodemus understands that Jesus’ power must come only from God.
So, this is what we have here: Nicodemus is a religious expert, but he wants to learn more from this Galilean rabbi and we have Jesus who wants to teach Nicodemus and make him a disciple. As we read on in John’s gospel, Nicodemus is a hard sell, but he eventually signs on.
Jesus is involved with mission. Jesus is out to find as many followers as he can, but Jesus never makes that easy. Jesus says things that are wonderful and then he turns around and says things that are shocking if not downright offensive.
Jesus responds to Nicodemus’ gracious words with a discussion about where birth happens. Our translation has Jesus say that one needs to be born from above to see God’s kingdom. The Greek word translated as born from above may also be translated as born anew. Either way, our physical birth does not guarantee our entry into God’s kingdom.
Nicodemus hears Jesus’ words literally, only Jesus is not talking literally. It’s going to take a while to explain what Jesus means to Nicodemus. John may be sharing this painstaking dialogue for us – to let us understand what Jesus is trying say.
To get into God’s kingdom being born of water is not enough. Again, Nicodemus hears this literally as referring to natal water. Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth. Jesus may be referring to the prophet Ezekiel, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, 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. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
This may be why this part of Ezekiel is read during the Easter Vigil, which will be observed on April 23rd. We are beings, because we were born. But we can only be a child of God if we are reborn in the Holy Spirit. As children of God, we are heirs with Christ. (St. Paul) Only God’s Spirit gives new life. Flesh and spirit go together.
Jesus says something important that we cannot readily pick up reading an English Bible. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Do not be astonished that I said to you.” This “you” is singular. Jesus continues, “You (plural) must be born from above.” Jesus is talking to us, who read this gospel.
The next part of this gospel talks about wind and spirit. To Jesus and Nicodemus who are speaking in Aramaic and John and his readers who write and read in Greek, these two English words have no meaning for them. In Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, there is no difference between wind, spirit, and breath. They are all the same thing. And what we have separate words for, they have only one word. The spirit is the wind. The wind is the spirit. We have as much control of the spirit as much as we have control of the wind.
For what Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, he might just as well be speaking in English, a not yet invented language. Jesus then insults Nicodemus’ teaching credentials. Jesus already knows that Nicodemus and his Sanhedrin cronies won’t accept Jesus’ teachings. Jesus says this is because Jesus talks about heavenly things. Nicodemus and his friends are from Missouri.
Only the Son of Man has gone to heaven and he is the one who has descended from heaven. When the Son of Man is lifted up just as Moses lifted up a metal snake then those who believe will have eternal life. Moses lifted up a metal snake on a pole to heal all the Israelites who looked at the pole. Jesus will be also be lifted up on a pole. We who look will be spiritually healed.
Jesus told Nicodemus that Jesus was not there to condemn the world, which means us. Jesus came to save the world. The way we do that is to be born from above or anew. We are physically born from our mothers. Jesus is saying that we also to be born from above. We are to be spiritually transformed. This is how we are linked to heaven.
The Son of Man is to be lifted up on the cross. This is because God so loves us that he gave his beloved son to us who believe in him that we may have eternal life. This great gift is for everybody. It is not to be kept to ourselves. We are to bring in those who are not here by speaking their language, by talking the way they talk. We are to bring people into the light of Christ. We are in a mission field and we are the missionaries.
Text: John 3:1–17 (NRSV)
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesusa 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”b 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.c 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘Youd must be born from above.’e 8 The windf 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet youg do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.h 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.i
16 “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.
17 “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.