John 3:16 is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible. It may be THE most well-known verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him nay not perish but may have eternal life.” It was one of the first ones my mom had us memorize and we memorized the KJV so I’m remembering some “whosoever believeth.” We see this verse all over the place – bumper stickers, t-shirts, written on the facepaint of Tim Tebow when he played for Florida. It’s a popular verse and one that focuses on the gift of grace given to each of us.
I totally get that and appreciate it. What I think we get less of is the passage proceeding it. This chapter comes after the wedding of Cana and the cleansing of the Temple - after the beginning of John where he has introduced Jesus and then proceeds in the coming chapters to show that the words he wrote in the beginning are backed up by signs, actions, and other bits of evidence. He’s doing these things and already there is grumbling by those in power. There’s always some grumbling when something new and not the norm.
Then here comes Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is a leader of the Jews, meeting with Jesus in the night. Many have said that this looks like Nicodemus is afraid of what other people will think or that he might be in “cahoots” with Jesus. Don’t you love the word “cahoots”? He even seems to be speaking the party line, using the word “we.” “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.”
Maybe he didn’t want to be linked to Jesus. Maybe he was afraid that his fellow Pharisees will think less of him, be suspicious of him, or will ostracize him. There was probably at least a little of that. But it also could be that he wanted to talk to him and it was private, personal, something on his heart. Have you ever been to a conference or workshop or concert or sometime when you’ve heard or seen something really powerful and you really, really want to talk to the person that moved you but you don’t want to line up with all the other well wishers or those asking questions? It’s not that you couldn’t wait in line or that you don’t want to talk to the person or you too good to do it, but it’s something you want to ask and digest and unpack away from other listening ears and prying eyes? It may even be a little embarassing for some reason. Sometimes the things that we believe and hold dear in our hearts or the things that we question and are trying to make sense of are not something we want to broadcast to a room full of people. So I don’t think the darkness necessarily makes Nicodemus a sketchy person.
When I preached this text a couple weeks ago, I was preaching in Cannon Chapel at Emory University. Love Cannon Chapel. Love Emory. Loved catching with old friends and seeing people I love and respect and meeting new friends as well. I’m telling you though there’s not much that scares me more than preaching in Cannon or at Glenn Memorial where all the smart people that actually know the commentaries and all the angles are. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit. Could be. But I know for sure and certain that my hands were shaking before I started preaching. When you come to someone and ask questions and you really respect that person and are a little star struck, it’s hard to say what you want to say. It’s hard to get it out. Especially in front of folks.
Jesus answers to him are not sugar coated, pulling punches or making easy leaps for him. He’s not watering down his language or making it an easy transition, but says that “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” Now that is not something that Nicodemus automatically understands. He’s not like us who has seen billboards or tracts or heard over and over that you must be “born again.” This wasn’t in his common lexicon. He didn’t have a giant billboard outside the local bowling alley saying that May 21, 2011 is judgement day and you better be born again. He also didn’t have any handy dandy tracts. Sad times. But you know what – the text itself doesn’t say “born again.” Many translations don’t talk about it happening again, but that it is something “born from above” or “born anew.”
My sister in law is due to have her baby today. She is. The baby still hasn’t come and we’re all on baby watch. Every phone call, facebook post, and everyone I see – all of us want to know when this baby is going to be born. As we have watched Karen grow more and more “with child” we have witnessed the growing and changing of her body as the baby has expanded and expanded, and the grand finale isn’t even here yet. None of us in any shape or form want to try to crawl back up into the womb and be born again. I’m not getting all scientologist on you with the silent birth thing, but the image of being born again doesn’t much seem like a quiet or peaceful process. Being born from above or born anew speaks to something different. This isn’t quite like your first birth but is something that is different in its nature.
Nicodemus asks these same questions about birth and Jesus answers him saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is borth of the flesh is flesh, an what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” This isn’t a fleshly birth. This isn’t just raw humanity at its finest. There is something more here. This is about Spirit, not just flesh.
The week before I preached on this text we were in Washington, DC for a seminar on human trafficking and immigration and it was a rich experience with students from all over the country. Northern Illinois Wesley, Arizona State Wesley and Winthrop Wesley all came together for the experience and the dialogue back and forth was fantastic. The only thing that seemed to bother me was that on several occasions there were times I felt like we were talking past each other, or that as soon as someone threw out a statistic than the debate or argument was supposed to be over. This to me is flesh. When we’re just trying to win or have our point heard, but we don’t care about the other person or want to have a back and forth dialogue and not just a championship – it’s hard for me to see the Spirit there. But when opposing viewpoints come together and some semblance of truth comes out and reigns forth, it’s easier to see the Spirit moving.
I often feel like people are missing the point in the midst of the fray. As I watched the US launch missles against Libya that evening on the news and as I tried to gather information on what was happening and why it was happening, at the bottom of the screen in the ticker tape CNN was reporting that Kevin Costner had signed on to play superman’s dad in the new Superman franchise coming out. Now, I love my celebrity news as much as the next person and I’m not hating on Superman, but the beyond irony of seeing us bomb Libya at the same time seeing the casting news of Kevin Costner was a little much. Flesh versus Spirit. “What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” When we look around us in the day to day what do we see of the Spirit? What do see that’s born of flesh? Verse 8 says, “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. ” One of the things that we say as part of our “What We Believe” on Sundays says “We believe in the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter, who blows peace, strength and perseverance over our lives.” The Holy Spirit really is in some ways, this uncontrollable force that we invite to shake up and invigorate our lives.
The thing that I really like about this text is a part of it that we usually gloss over. Or maybe pastors where you’re from don’t usually gloss over things, could just be my own inclination. Verse 14 talking about the serpent in the wilderness that Moses lifted up is usually something that I would keep on trucking past and not necessarily dig into. But I love this part that I had never discovered. Here’s Moses in the book of Numbers with the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years and even though everything is being provided for them - land, food, everything, they still start complaining because the food being provided isn’t good enough. How often do we complain about not being able to get that next new thing or the best food, when God is providing abundantly for us? So here’s God in Numbers 21 sending some poisonous snakes amongst the people and suddenly the Israelites really do have something to complain about. Suddenly, it’s legit and even more griping ensues. So God asks Moses to make this bronze serpent and if they look to it, they will be healed.
So you’re like okay. We get the reference but what does that have to do with this? This whole serpent thing became a crutch. It wasn’t some cure all for all that ails humanity. But they kept on worshipping it, generation after generation. It talks about the same serpent in 2 Kings 18 when Hezekiah is cleaning out the temple. In verse 4 it talks about him breaking it into pieces and how the people of Israel had continued to give offerings to it and had named it Nehushtan. They had named the thing. No longer had there been poisonous snakes. No longer was it necessary, but they kept on doing it.
There’s a part of us that love the formulaic or the ritual. It’s easy. If it worked before, let’s keep using it as much as we can. (To talk about how we do this in the church, is just too easy.) If healing came the first time, than maybe if we rub this magic rock or if we do ______ than it will protect us again.
But the thing is, God can’t be reduced to a formula when it comes to special stones or idols. For that matter, the Christian life, can’t be reduced to a formula or simple ritual. We can’t just pay homage to relics, even if they once meant something in one time or place. Not that I’m saying we throw everything out, but the One who is lifted up in the Gospel is greater than any simple thing we could create. Jesus as the Son of Man is lifted up and that’s more powerful than any snake or any idol of our own – whether wealth or security or power or sense of safety or self.
This is what leads into that familar John 3:16 passage. It’s not just for a select few that bow down to the snake, but for everyone that believes in him who is lifted up for all of us. I love the next verses too, “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.”
John 3:16 is important, true. It is. Mom wouldn’t have made us memorize it otherwise. Christian merchandising definitely indicates this is so. But we shouldn’t make the words the magic formula, but the Savior that they’re pointing to. We shouldn’t break everything down to a 3 step process, but should let the Spirit of God speak through the words of scripture and our words as we greet the world with light. We shouldn’t just grasp hold of these verses without also looking at the rest of the teachings of our scripture talking about justice and loving our neighbor and our God. If we don’t just go back and depend on the old relics, but we see what the Spirit has in store and if we choose not to limit how far God’s redemptive love can reach, what a world we could be looking at.
Yes, there’s a battle of darkness and light. Yes, there are choices to be made. And I think often some of us are right there in the middle right where Nicodemus is. You see these verses don’t end Nicodemus’ story. We see him again in John 7:50 sort of trying to ask some questions to help Jesus but not really committing to actually step up and put a stop to anything. Then we see Nicodemus again with Joseph of Arimathea in John 19:39 and it’s done. Jesus is gone and he brings some myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body. John specifically says that this is the same Nicodemus as the one who visited Jesus in the night. He doesn’t tell us if Nicodemus regrets not doing something or if there’s sadness as he prepares the body of Jesus or if he struggles with his part played. John doesn’t tell us any of those feelings, but he tells us actions. Nicodemus came and asked questions, Nicodemus attempted to speak up, and Nicodemus helped prepare the body. We don’t know if Nicodemus regretted just going with the status quo or old relics, or if he eventually caught on to this new vision in Jesus.
How have we reduced our Christian walks to a formula? When something challenging or difficult happens to we begin the same ritual that has worked before or we start promising God all sorts of things that we’ll change if God would only…? How are we like Nicodemus, curious, questioning, sort of trying to step up, and yet…? How have we reduced God’s power and vision into tidy boxes? Can we discern what is “flesh” in our lives and what is Spirit? Are we ready for the Spirit to burst into our lives…into the lives of our churches…into our workplaces…into the day to day? Or are we so awesome at compartmentalizing our faith that we’re letting a lot in this world just pass us by because we don’t feel that sense of urgency?
For God so loved the world…