Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Second Sunday of Lent.
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
A few weeks ago I was heading home from the church and a song that I swear I haven’t heard in ten years came on the radio. I didn’t have a clue who the singer was or what the song was called but it was the kind of catchy tune that ten years later I could still sing along with it.
I won’t sing today, but I wonder if you’d recognize the lyrics:
In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
From the mountains of faith
To a river so deep
I must be looking for something
Something sacred I lost
But the river is wide
And it’s too hard to cross
And even though I know the river is wide
I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore
And try to cross to the opposite side
So I can finally find out what I’ve been looking for
I googled it to find out that it’s a Billy Joel tune from 1993, which probably explains why its such a catchy tune, bouncy even, and the words go by fast—so fast that I’m sure I sing a bunch of them wrong when it comes on the radio. But listening to the words without the tune, it’s a much more wistful song. It’s a song about spiritual longing, about seeking something we can’t even name.
I think if Nicodemus had a theme song, this would be it.
Nicodemus goes walking at night, searching. John makes a point of telling us he comes to Jesus at night, and preachers have made much of this detail. Why night? Was he ashamed to be seen with Jesus, or was he so eager he couldn’t wait till the next day? Is the darkness meant to symbolize his ignorance, or his curiosity?
I don’t know, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night because that’s when our defenses are down. Night seems to be when we’re willing to admit to ourselves—and others—things that we won’t say during the day. Some of the most amazing conversations of my life have taken place deep into the night—at youth-lockins and sleepovers and all-nighters in college. My last year in seminary a few of us used to gather about 10 o’clock at night to do laps around the quad and talk through the changes our lives were about to undergo. Something about the dark made it easier to be honest.
I think that’s why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night—because that’s when he got brave enough to go. Jesus had been making a name for himself around Jerusalem, performing signs, throwing the money lenders out of the temple, getting in arguments with the Pharisees. He hasn’t necessarily established himself as a safe person to talk to. But still Nicodemus comes.
And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know why himself, because when he gets over to where Jesus is staying he doesn’t even have a question. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says, and you can almost hear the sentence trailing off. He doesn’t know why he’s come. He can’t even put what he’s looking for into words.
Jesus responds as though Nicodemus did ask a question, though. “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
It’s a baffling back and forth. There’s nothing more off-putting in a conversation than someone answering a question you didn’t ask. But Jesus, as John made a point to tell us just a few verses before this, knows what it is inside people—knows what is in their hearts, even when they can’t put it into words. And so I have to think that Jesus was answering Nicodemus’ question in some way, even if it’s hard to see on paper.
Nicodemus says “we know the presence of God is with you” and Jesus says “if you want to see God’s kingdom, you must be born anew.” And as I’ve pondered that this week, I’ve found myself wondering if what Nicodemus when Jesus said, we know the presence of God is with you, what he was really asking was “how can I feel that same presence?”
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious leader. Pharisees get a bad rap in our gospels but their worst flaw tends to be a failure of imagination. Nicodemus the Pharisee was steady, stable, the churchgoing type. The kind of guy who knew his Bible and served on committees and could debate the finer points of theology. A solid, standup guy.
But for all that, I hear in Nicodemus’ question a longing for something more. He knows about God, and about God’s will for him, and about God’s plan for Israel—he could give you all the right answers. But I wonder if Nicodemus ever felt God’s presence; ever felt that God was really with him, ever felt a sense of strength or peace or purpose that seemed bigger than himself. And more than that, I wonder if he even knew he was missing anything until Jesus came to town, and suddenly the presence of God was staring everyone right in the face.
Jesus hears him, hears under his words, hears that what he’s really longing for is a chance to be with God, to be in God’s presence, part of God’s kingdom, not just a scholar of God but part of God’s family.
This is Jesus’ answer: “you must be born anew.”
Born anew, born again, born from above—it’s not the easiest phrase to translate, and it’s picked up a lot of extra connotations over the years. Sometimes I think we Christians have tried to wring too much technical meaning out of what was originally a powerful image from Jesus’ lips. Born anew—to enter into life again, in a new way.
If you want to be part of God’s kingdom, Jesus says, if you want to know what it is to live in God’s presence, than you’ve got to be willing to give up what was sure and solid and familiar. Being born again means being born vulnerable, but it also means being open to God’s presence and spirit. Babies are open to love in a way adults rarely are.
Because here’s the thing about the Spirit, Jesus says: it’s like the wind. It blows where it wishes, and there’s every chance that it’ll pick you up and sweep you along with it. To be born of the Spirit means to give up certainty and a narrow devotion to what God has done, and be open to what God is doing.
John never tells us what Nicodemus said to Jesus’ response. I imagine he left that night with more questions than answers—I know that’s how I feel after reading this passage. And I wonder if that’s not part of the point too.
Meeting Jesus turned Nicodemus’ faith upside down. It took away all his certainties and easy answers and safe comfortable religion and cast him into the wind. It opened him up to a new kind of faith, a faith that was every bit as alive and real as the rabbi sitting across from him.
I don’t know what keeps you up at night. I don’t know if there are questions in your life that you haven’t yet found the words for. I don’t know if you feel God’s daily presence or if your faith has started to fossilize. But I hope that if you ever do wake up in the middle of the night, looking for something you’ve lost, that you will summon Nicodemus’ courage, and go talk to Jesus about it.
He might just turn your life upside down.
And it might be just what you need.