The Second Sunday in Lent
March 20, 2011
In the winter of 93-94 I worked as a ski-lift operator at a ski resort in Norway. At that time, my Norwegian language skills weren’t terribly strong, but I could usually get by. However, there was a difficult situation that arose one day. Something was wrong. They had to shut down the lift. A little while later, I got a call on the old phone that was in my little hut. It was the head mechanic. He was on top of the lift and he needed me to do something for him so that he could repair the lift and get it going again.
Problem was, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. First, he spoke a dialect of Norwegian that was very different from what I knew. Second, he was using technical terms for parts of machinery that were unfamiliar to me. Third, the sound quality of the phone was terrible. Fourth, there was lots of wind noise in the background.
After a long, painful ordeal, we did finally work it out and I was able to perform the operation he needed. But the breakdown of communication was a very frustrating and humiliating experience for me… and very irritating for the mechanic. So I can have sympathy for Nicodemus who seems to have that same sort of experience in today’s Gospel lesson.
The fact that Nicodemus was a prominent pharisee really sets him apart. The Gospels contain many stories of people who were drawn to Jesus. But the vast majority of these were from the lowest tiers of society — the poor, the outcast, and so on. From that fact, we can understand that it was easier for these people to come to Jesus than people like Nicodemus.
But Nicodemus comes to Christ from the upper crust of society. That makes him a unique figure in the Gospels. He is mentioned 3 times in the Gospel of John. Today’s Gospel lesson is the 1st time he appears.
Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He comes to him in secret. We see right away that it is difficult for a person of wealth and privilege to come to Jesus. Jesus’ teaching and his way of life were widely seen as a threat to the belief and value system of the powerful and privileged
But Nicodemus is drawn to him. He is not overly couragous in the beginning; but he desires to open himself to Jesus and find out more about him. Most of the poor come to Jesus out of a sense of desperate need, which they believe Jesus can fill. It is intellectual curiosity that draws Nicodemus. He seems to come to Jesus for stimulating discussion.
It is fascinating to analyze the dialogue that ensues. Nicodemus speaks three times in today’s Gospel lesson. He begins by saying: “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.” This is a bold and confident statement from Nicodemus, full of expectation and excitement.
Jesus responds with: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
This is not a response Nicodemus expects or understands. Nonetheless, he’s able to formulate a specific question in response: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus can’t make sense out of Jesus’ statement, so he prods Jesus to clarify.
Jesus elaborates: “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.”
This time, Nicodemus is so confused by Jesus’ words that he can’t even articulate a meaningful question. He just sputters: “How can these things be?” In other words, “Jesus, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
And that’s all we hear from Nicomedus at this time. It would seem that this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus didn’t go well at all.
The next time we hear about Nicodemus is in chapter 7 when he speaks up against the pharisaic leadership, saying that it is wrong to condemn a man (Jesus) without hearing first hand what he teaches. The final time he appears, it is shortly after Jesus’ death. He takes Jesus’ body and sees that it is properly buried.
These 3 brief stories about Nicodemus suggest that, over time, Nicodemus became a follower of Christ. They suggest that the name of Nicodemus, at the time when the Gospel of John was written, was known to the Christian community. Perhaps he was remembered as an important early leader of the church. That would explain why his experiences would be so significant to John’s readers. Perhaps the information in the Gospels about Nicodemus came directly from his testimony.
So let’s go back to our Gospel lesson to see what can we learn from this man. What is going on in this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus, who isn’t brave enough to allow himself to be seen with Jesus during the day, is bold enough to declare that he is able to “think” his way to the truth of God.
He starts out by grandly proclaiming that he knows Jesus comes from God because logic dictates that no one could do what Jesus does without the power of God being at their disposal.
Nicodemus is full of confidence the he can unravel the truth about Jesus and the Spirit of God through the exercise of his superior intellect.
That is a common human trait. We are often very quick to claim that we have God figured out, and that we are somehow in control of our relationship with him.
Jesus rejects that claim. That’s not how the Kingdom of God (or the Spirit of God) works. Truth, Jesus explains, is a gift of God. Seeing the Kingdom of God is possible as new life is worked in us by the Spirit of God… as we are born from above… as Jesus puts it.
This is very difficult for Nicodemus to grasp. Like any other confident, self-assured person, Nicodemus struggles to understand what Jesus has to offer because it goes against what he believes he already has, who he is and what he can do.
Birth… the wind… these are things over which we have no control. Jesus calls on Nicodemus (and us) to recognize that the power of God alone can make us become who we are meant to be and lead us where we were meant to go.
The sinful nature of the human creature believes that it has the power to create itself — to make itself into whatever great glory it can imagine. Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ first statement reveals this kind of thinking. He is utterly confused when Jesus says that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” In his attempt to understand Jesus, he assumes that this new birth is something we do. He wants to know how we do it. He asks: “Can I enter a second time the mother’s womb and be born?”
Nicodemus is a pharisee and a religious leader among his people. Such people of power and status tend to believe their good standing is the result of their achievements. They are self-made men. They believe in their power to elevate themselves by their noble accomplishments. They believe in their power to make themselves righteous before God.
But Jesus’ message to Nicodemus is that this is not the way of the kingdom of God. The way of the kingdom of God calls on us to let go of our fixation on standing and worth and achievement and let the love of God possess us, teach us, shape us and guide us in our daily lives. This new creation of which Jesus speaks to Nicodemus is something that happens by the power of the Spirit and Nicodemus can’t control it or make it happen. He can only open himself to it.
Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus; but he wants to know from Jesus what he should do. He’s ready to hear about a new set of rules and requirements — a new path — he can follow to become great in the kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus talks about things over which Nicodemus has no control — birth, the spirit of God, wind. Nicodemus simply can’t relate to this.
We are most definitely called to “do” things in our lives as Christians. Don’t misunderstand me. We are called to show compassion to our neighbor. We are called to aide and defend the weak. We are called to resist evil and to stand up against wrong-doing. We are called to be st
rong in the face of temptation and to hang on to hope in the face of terrible despair. We are, in fact, called to do a whole lot of exceedingly difficult things in our daily lives.
But before we are called to do any of these things, we are called to be still and understand that it is God, and God alone, who makes us into a new creation, who gives us 2nd birth. And it is this new creature that is able — through the power of God — to do the things God calls us to do. This is the foundation of Christian life.
It wasn’t easy for Nicodemus to become a follower of Christ, but he did. The example of Nicodemus can teach and inspire us all. He came to Christ, overconfident, arrogant and completely wrong; but he also came with an open and hungry heart. And into this open heart, Jesus planted the seed of the kingdom of God, and it grew.
It took time for God’s new creation to grow in Nicodemus. It will take time to grow in us as well. But grow it will. As long as we can offer an open and hungry heart in which it can make a home. When we provide God such a place in us; then by God’s spirit, we too, like Nicodemus, will come to know the wonder of new creation.