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.”
y youngest brother and sister-in-law are now only about five weeks out from the due date of my niece, Julia. So, you can imagine the flood of emotions on Thursday night, when I arrived home after our Bonhoeffer class to discover a whole slew of messages on my phone. My brother had started a group chat with my parents and my other siblings, which read, “We are happy to announce the newest addition to the Yates family!”
I’ve never unlocked my phone so quickly. I saw that he had included a picture. I opened it…and I have never felt so disappointed to hear that someone had purchased a new car. There it was, in the dimly lit picture. My brother’s car, and next to it, a shiny, new Prius that now belongs to my sister-in-law. Needless to say, he was roundly rebuked by everyone, including myself. He was informed, in no uncertain terms that the phrase, “new addition to the family,” was forbidden in the third trimester, unless there was an actual baby to back it up.
To say that this child is greatly anticipated is an understatement. She is the first child to be born of my siblings, and thus her birth is transformational. Of course, my brother and his wife are about to find their lives transformed, in ways that they are expecting, and in ways they cannot anticipate. But it is more than that. My parents are being transformed into something more as they become grandparents. And my other siblings and I are becoming aunts and uncles. Which is to say that we are being transformed from the youngest generation to the middle generation of our family. We are being transformed from the ones who depended on others into the one upon whom others now depend. Yes, birth is a truly transformational experience.
It is of this very sort of transformation that Jesus speaks in today’s gospel story. When we hear Jesus talk of being born again, or being born from above, our minds go to a very different place. We tend to think of a particular, very modern, Christian practice of publicly declaring Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. But that association hides something far more fundamental from our view. When Jesus speaks of being born again, he is speaking of being transformed. He is speaking of having the fundamental way we view and understand the world, change.
Nicodemus is often viewed in a negative light, and indeed Jesus’ words with him can be read with a tinge of rebuke in them. However, Nicodemus has several encounters with Jesus throughout the Gospel of John, and the trajectory of those encounters seems to be of one growing deeper into discipleship. Here, in his very first encounter, under the cover of night, Nicodemus approaches Jesus to say, “There is something different about you. You are not like the others. By the signs and miracles you show, I know that God must be with you.”
Poor Nicodemus, he does not yet understand. His words strike close to the truth, but fall short and miss it. He is not yet transformed, his worldview is not yet changed. He cannot see the truth that is before him. But it would be wrong to ascribe Nicodemus with fault. It would be wrong to blame Nicodemus, for his blindness is the condition of all the world.
Our reading this morning contains what is likely the most oft quoted piece of scripture, John 3:16. “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.” It is a beautiful quote. The trouble is that it is so popular that rarely do we hear it in the context of this story, or in the larger context of John’s Gospel, and so we lose some of the truly radical nature of Jesus’ words. For in the Gospel of John, the “world” is used to denote all that is opposed to God. The world is that which rejects God. The world is that which refuses God, time and time again. A reading truer to the larger context of this gospel, according to Dr. David Lose, would be, “For God so loved the God-hating world, that he gave his only Son…” and “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn even this world that despises God but instead so that the world that rejects God might still be saved through him.”
It is no wonder that Nicodemus can’t see what is before him! He is of the world, the world which rejects and refuses to see God. It is no wonder that we can’t see what is before us. We too are of the world which rejects and refuses to see God. And we, like Nicodemus, remain blind until we are born from above and are transformed.
What is that transformation? It is to become children of God. And I don’t mean that in the generic, Kumbaya, sense of the “we are all children of God.” I mean it in the transformational way that birth changes us. We are to be born again so that we are no longer children of the world; so that we no longer place our trust in worldly things—things that turn us away from God and teach us to reject God. We are to be born again as children of God, so that as children, we might at last trust God and place our entire dependence upon God.
To be born again as children of God is to die first as children of this world. It is to die to our possessions. It is to die to the commitments and obligation in our lives that come between us and following our God. It is to die to our status, our privilege, our titles, our honorifics, and to all things that cause us to seek the cover of night when we seek after Christ.
Only then do the scales fall away from our eyes. Only then do we see the truth for the first time, as a newborn taking in the world through newly opened eyes.
Nicodemus was so close to the truth that night, but in his blindness, he could not see it. “I have seen your signs and your miracles, and I know that God must be present with you.” Only with the transformation that would come with his new relationship to God would Nicodemus come to see the truth. Only with the radical change in how we view the world that comes with being a child of God, do we see the truth.
The signs and miracles do not tell us that God is with Jesus. The signs and miracles point to Jesus, and in Jesus, we see that we are not alone. In Christ, we see at last that God is with us.
Preached by Adam Yates