This is the sermon I preached for the second Sunday in Lent on John 3:1-17. The images below are taken from the PowerPoint slides I used.
John’s gospel is, I think, my favourite of the four and it is a shame we don’t get a whole year of it, like we do with the other 3. However, bits do pop up every now and then. And we have 4 weeks of them in Lent this year. Each week we will have an encounter between Jesus and an individual. This week it is Nicodemus; next week the Samaritan woman at the well; then the man born blind; with the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus as the final one.
This sequence of passages was part of the framework in the early church for preparing people for baptism at Easter. John’s gospel is different to the other 3 in that it was written later, and the church had had time to reflect on Jesus’ teaching, retelling those 3 years of Jesus’ life on earth, his miracles and teaching, in a way that brought out its significance for a growing church encouraging new believers in their faith. This is the origins of Lent and our disciplines to help us grow as disciples of Jesus. So, what do they say to us, today? I’ll be taking a different aspect of what it means to be a disciple each week.
This week I want to think about two aspects of being a Christian.
- Why do some people just not get it? Some people don’t ‘see’ Jesus, don’t believe when we tell them about Jesus.
- Being born again.
So, why is it that some of us clearly have seen the light and have taken that step of faith and thrown in our lot with Jesus and his church, and others just don’t get it? It is a mystery. We are all different. We all have different ways of seeing the world, different experiences and different baggage that can cloud our vision.
When we read or listen to this encounter of Jesus with Nicodemus, who do you identify with? Do you see something of yourself in Nicodemus or do you identify with Jesus?
After all, we are his representatives on earth. We are his hands, feet, eyes and ears plus mouthpiece.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. The cool of the evening is a good time to sit and chat. But it might be that Nicodemus doesn’t want anyone to see. There were no streetlights back then. He might be a secret follower.
Interestingly we don’t get a conclusion to this conversation. The focus switches to Jesus and looking towards the cross. We don’t get how Nicodemus reacted to hearing that God’s love will be demonstrated through Jesus. We don’t know how he reacted to being told that God doesn’t condemn the world but wants to save it through Jesus. He just fades away back into the background.
We read of him later on, however, when Jesus is taken down from the cross and Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body. The bible tells us Joseph was a secret disciple because he feared the Jewish leaders. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.
So perhaps by then Nicodemus had come to faith. Sometimes we meet people, and we are a small step in their journey of faith. We may never know the outcome. Nevertheless, we all do our little bit, whatever that may be.
But back to chapter 3. Nicodemus is enquiring and interested. He has come at night. Light and Dark are themes that run through John’s gospel. Jesus is the Light of the World, the one that shines into the darkness, and yet Nicodemus cannot see it. He continues to dwell (spiritually speaking) in the darkness.
This contrasts with the woman at the well who is an outsider meeting Jesus in broad daylight. Jesus instigates their dialogue, and she comes to faith and tells everyone about Jesus. More of that next week.
We know that as Christians we are to share this faith with others. We also know that it isn’t always easy. It is difficult. We can learn from this encounter with Nicodemus. It is he who instigated the conversation with Jesus. Sometimes we need to wait for the opening to talk to someone about Jesus. We need to wait for them to say something that leads us into naturally talking, in an appropriate way, about Jesus, or being a Christian.
It has never been easy. The early church suffered persecution from those around who didn’t get it, who couldn’t see who Jesus was. Peter wrote to the church who were suffering all sorts of problems because of their faith. He said:
13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats[b]; do not be frightened.”[c] 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
We need to pray for the Holy Spirit to inspire us, and for Jesus to direct our conversations, to help us keep a gentle and respectful attitude even if people say daft things that wind us up.
When Nicodemus comments about Jesus’ signs being an indication that he is from God, Jesus ignores it. He doesn’t say, Yes…. The water into wine was particularly good, wasn’t it?
Jesus often answered a question with another question. Here, he discerns what is needed. Just like he discerned that the rich young man wasn’t willing to put God before his wealth. With Nicodemus, Jesus picks up on the need for spiritual re-birth.
As I said, we need to ask Jesus to guide our conversations.
Being born again. Now there’s a phrase that’s been misunderstood and misused. What comes to mind for you? Extreme happy clappy? Bible bashing, in your face extrovert Christian? Someone who would wear a T-shirt like this?
The original Greek is ambiguous. It can be translated either ‘born from a higher place’ or ‘born from the beginning’. In the ancient world, that what is higher is seen as the origin or source. So to be born again or from above means to be born from the original source – God.
The coming of the Kingdom of God signals the beginning of the end of this old age, and offers a new beginning. We start this in baptism where our old life dies, and we begin to live the new resurrection life as we emerge from the water. That’s why total immersion baptism is more powerful a symbol compared to pouring of water. But both are equally sacramental. It is an outward sign of an inner spiritual reality.
Water baptism is a sign of our turning away from sin and turning towards God. It is a sign of our forgiveness. Baptism in the Spirit is a work of the spirit within us.
Poor old Nicodemus takes Jesus’ words literally and imagines the impossibility of being born again.
The merely human can only give life to the merely human. To receive spiritual life, in the kingdom of God, requires a work of the spirit.
As it says at the beginning of John’s gospel:
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Born of God means Spiritual rebirth. And the spirit – which is the same word as wind – blows where it will. We can’t control the Spirit of God. We have another of John’s careful choice of words here. The Greek word phone means sound or voice. The wind/spirit (the same word, remember) makes a sound (phone).
And The Shepherd’s voice (phone) is recognised by the sheep. We are the sheep of his pasture, and I hope that means we hear Jesus’ voice guiding us day by day.
We submit to God and ask the Holy Spirit to come and dwell within us, to take up residency in our hearts and lives, so we can know God’s presence with us day by day and Jesus’ guidance in life.
Some people focus a lot on the spiritual rebirth – born again – born from above – that necessary step of becoming a Christian. For some it was a wonderful experience. They can tell you exactly when and where it happened. For others of us it was so un-dramatic and gradual that it went almost unrecognised until the new life was obvious.
Some Christians though focus so much on the experience of being born again – of that wonderful glow or moment of surrender into God’s loving arms – that they are tempted to think that that is all it means to be a Christian.
It’s a bit like framing your birth certificate and showing visitors every time they come to the house – now if your birth was extremely unusual, you may have died, etc, then that is understandable, but for most of us it is not the topic of conversation. What is more important to our visitors is that we are alive now, and how we are now.
So too with being a Christian. Our new spiritual rebirth will result in lives displaying God’s love – with all the fruit of the spirit growing in abundance.