Preaching on the passage we had read out today feels like handling a much valued family heirloom… It contains one of the most well known and loved verses in the New Testament… John 3:16. Even Non-Christians may no longer know what it says or that it’s a bible verse but they know John 3:16… it’s made its way into popular culture….even onto the Simpsons.
It also contains that troublesome phrase ‘born again’ which has become a bit of a clique and a very loaded term in Christianity and culture today: so much so that we can lose the amazing truth of God’s love and grace that it encapsulates. And I want to do it justice today because it is as enigmatic and challenging and life giving for us as it was for Nicodemus. .
This year leading into Easter we are working our way through a series called Sitting under the Fig Tree… looking at encounters with Jesus in John’s Gospel and today. The passage we are looking at from John chapter 3 lends itself very well to this. In verse 1-15 we have the narrative of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at Night and then in verse 16-21 we have the reflection on that encounter by John, applying it to the wider context, to the world and so to us.
Ok having said that let’s have a look at Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a group within Judaism. Their relationship with God was based on their birth right as the people of Israel, and they believed that identity needed to be lived out in meticulous obedience to the Law of Moses in all facets of life. The only chance they saw of getting rid of the Romans, becoming an independent nation and being blessed by God was by that observation of the Jewish law. Nicodemus was also a member of the ruling Jewish council the Sanhedrin, he is a political and religious leader, and Jesus is right to call him Israel’s teacher.
Nicodemus comes at night. It could have been he was anxious as an official rabbi coming and seeking out this unofficial Rabbi, this rabble rabbi from the sticks. Or as he has seen enough of what Jesus had been doing to see the hand of God in it, like with the disciples of John the Baptist, that we looked at last week, he comes to see and the only quality time he can get with Jesus is at night, away from the demands of the day.
One of the things that John emphasises in his gospel is how Jesus knows what is on people’s hearts and Jesus here cuts straight to the quick. ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again’. Paul Metzger says that Jesus saw that Nicodemus had been playing the religious game for so long and that he had a flawed faith based on the traditions and testimonies of the old boys club rather than true faith based in God’s word and spirit’ and Jesus moves to stripe this away
What Jesus says can be translated both born again and born from above. And the focus here is that the Kingdom of God is not about the effort of humans but the divine action of God. Nicodemus does not understand this he can only think in terms of physical things. How can an old man be born again, it’s impossible. In that Nicodemus has captured half of what Jesus is saying that yes it is humanly impossible. But we need to remember from Mary’s encounter with the Angel, with God all things are possible. Jesus coming is God’s answer, is God’s grace, is God making a way.
Jesus goes on to elaborate for Nicodemus. He says ‘you cannot enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of the water and the spirit.’ Now that has been interpreted in different ways. Some see it as a reference to Christian water baptism, with its emphasis on purification and repentance, and the Spirit, receiving God’s Spirit. That fits but in the context I wonder if it does not push the emphasis here a little bit back towards what we do not what God does, not focusing on God’s grace. The other way people understand it that Jesus may simply here be saying you need to have a natural birth, water, and commentators point to a lot of water metaphors in Jewish writing to do with birth, and also a spiritual birth. That our lives are regenerated, made new by the spirit through Christ.
Remember John’s gospel starts ‘in the beginning’ it starts with creation, the emphasis in the gospel can be seen as ‘new creation’ the resurrection narrative starts in the garden on the first day and Jesus is talking of that new creation, that new life coming into our lives from above. In the prologue to John’s gospel it is phrased in terms of being born into the family of God. Not by natural means or a father’s will, but by God’s grace, given as a gift to those who received Jesus, the word made flesh.
Jesus says that Nicodemus should not be surprised by what Jesus had said. In the passage we used as a call to worship today in Ezekiel 36 (24-27) there is that promise that God would renew the hearts of his people, that God would bring transformation, regeneration. That it would be a divine action that would enable them to keep the law, not simply by human effort, but out of a new life.
But Jesus then goes on to use an Old Testament illustration to help Nicodemus understand that, the story of the bronze snake in Numbers 21. In response to the people of Israel rebelling against God a plague broke out, that threatened to wipe out everyone. In response to Moses prayers for mercy, God saws grace and tell Moses to fashion a snake of bronze and everyone who looked to it would be saved and healed. It was by divine action and grace, not that they were suffering from a lack of seeing bronze snakes. So it is says Jesus with the son of man, when he is lifted up, which refers to Jesus crucifixion, which in John’s gospel is associated with Jesus being glorified he will bring all people to know life in himself.
We don’t know how Nicodemus responded to this encounter with Jesus. He is only mentioned twice more in the New Testament. Both times being positive about Jesus… In John 7 as the Sanhedrin discuss what to do about Jesus he suggests they should go and see for themselves. In John 19 he is with Joseph of Arimathea as they seek permission from Pilate to bury Jesus and helps prepare Jesus body for death. Maybe he became a follower of Jesus at the least he is prepared to be identified publicly with Jesus.
How does this encounter with Nicodemus relate to us today?
The good thing is that John does not leave us wondering about that. He moves from a narrative of Jesus and Nicodemus, to tell us what it means for the world and us. He tells us that salvation and life are gifts from God in Christ. God loved the world, the word world gets repeated four times in the space of two verses to emphasise that, and gave his only begotten Son so that all who would believe in him, should not perish but have everlasting life. The truth for all of us is that Christ came so that you and I may know the new life the new birth that Jesus is talking about to Nicodemus. It’s for us. We must be born again, and we can be because of God’s love shown in Jesus Christ. God aim is not that people perish and are condemned but that we may find new beginnings and new life in him.
In fact says John, the sad truth is that despite in Christ the light coming into the world, people prefer the darkness. Because once you step into the light all that we do is exposed and we are aware of our need for transformation and change.
If we were to bring it even more down to us today, I think the call is the same as it was to Nicodemus. Oh and if you’ve been wondering what that is a picture of.. It’s Auckland city at night from space. I've seen so many images of the earth from space associated with John 3:16 and haven't really related to them, they are usually northern hemisphere orientated, but this one is not, in fact I can point out where the church is and probably where I live. For me it symbolises that this passage connects here and now with us.
You see we We must be born again. Some of things that have stopped this being life giving to people in the past have been that it is connected to an experience in life. It is tied into responding to an altar call or making a commitment or praying a particular prayer. It can start at those particular times. But as we look at peoples encounters with Jesus in John’s gospel it manifests itself in people’s lives in different ways. But the truth is that Christian life is from divine activity, divine grace rather than from what Christ has done for us, from the love of God rather than human effort.
WE must be born again, the fact that it is based on God’s love and God’s grace and god’s reaction does not mean that we do not have a part to play. It’s not automatic, it’s not universal, John’s reflection is that many will prefer to remain in the dark, we do need to respond, to believe to put our trust in Jesus and his grace.
We must be born again. One of the things that has put people off this is the idea is that for some it is seen as a destination, that people equate being born again as having made it. Having an insurance for an afterlife with Christ, ‘pie in the sky when you die,’ but in John’s gospel the idea of life is about quality not just quantity. Westcott expresses it like this “it is not an endless duration of being in time, but being of which time does not measure.” It is eternal because it is life lives in relationship with Christ, the eternal one, life in Christ.
We must be born again. The idea of being born again also does not indicate a destination but a beginning, a new start, a new life where we grow into maturity in Christ; it’s a journey through this world in the light and love of the one who gave his life for it.
We must be born again. It is God’s gracious gift to find new life in Christ.