[The sermon begins with a skit based on two tech support transcripts. One is about a . The other is about a person who just needed some .]
Somehow, I get the feeling that the second caller could have been our favorite Pharisee, Nicodemus. I think that on some level Nicodemus knew what Jesus was about, and he just needed a little confidence builder with his Virtual Private Network. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First I want to clarify why he’s our favorite Pharisee. I say “favorite” because he is about the only one mentioned in a positive light, even though he came under the cover of darkness!
We don’t know why he came at night, but most scholars assume that it was to cover his tracks. Maybe he was sent by his brothers in the religious council – the Sanhedrin – but he came alone, and there seems to be no deceit in his questions. Other stories describe the Pharisees as throwing unanswerable questions at Jesus in order to trap him. And Jesus usually answers them indirectly, by asking them a question that they can only answer one way. But not so with Nicodemus.
No, Nicodemus has come to Jesus in humility and faith. He’s heard about the water and the wine in Cana. He knows Jesus has a following of disciples. He’s heard about John the Baptizer’s claim that Jesus was God’s Anointed One. He probably saw Jesus clear the temple of the money changers, using a band of cords like a whip!
So, Nicodemus goes to find Jesus, and he calls him Rabbi (Teacher) and says, “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.” Immediately Jesus breaks it down for him. Yes, God was present in what Jesus was doing. Jesus was demonstrating God’s kingdom, even though not everyone could see it. Then it gets weird.
You have to be born from above. Nicodemus said, “Wait. What?” Jesus said, “It’s true. You have to be born of the water and of the Spirit in order to get into the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said, “Wha-a-a-a-a-t?”
So, let’s unpack that a bit. Water flows through John’s gospel from Jesus’ baptism to the wedding in Canna to Nicodemus to the washing of the disciple’s feet and even to the cross when his side is pierced by the spear. Water is always symbolic and practical at the same time. Water was subdued in creation and let loose in the flood, and John reminds us that Jesus – not the man but the divine logos, the word of God – was present in all of this.
To be born of the water is to be wrapped up in the fabric of creation. It is to be aware of and living as a part of the kingdom of God. Of course, in our tradition, we naturally associate these things with baptism. We baptize babies because we believe that before we can even choose to love God, God has chosen to love us. We still have a lot of work to do, but all of it is in response to God’s love for us!
And that’s what I believe Jesus meant by being born of the Spirit. According to Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary, we have to take Jesus’ words as a description of our relationship with God. From the first chapter, we are told that we who believe are called God’s children, because we are born of the Spirit.
We who are born of the Spirit are moved by what moves God. Our decisions are not based on logical conclusions or self-satisfaction or even self-preservation. Our hearts are broken – as it has been said – by the things that break the heart of God.
And that’s the kicker with this passage, the one that we see at almost every major sporting event our country has ever televised. The one that says that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” If we aren’t careful with it, we might forget that God’s heart breaks for everyone – not just those that believe.
Again, Karoline Lewis says, “Rather than signal God’s desire to be in relationship with all people, this verse has become a weapon in the arsenal used to fight the battle for [a belief about salvation that is] foreign to John. Yes, God will save you if you believe in Jesus. But if you don’t? Not so much. We forget that statements like this portray a kind of God I suspect, if pushed, we’d rather not have. We forget that our certainties about salvation lead to or come from claims about God that might not even reflect the God we know.”
Another way I’ve heard this said is, “Did God’s heart not break for the chariot riders and horses sent into the sea after Moses?” Certainly, it did. For God is the Lord of all creation. And this God is the one who said to Abram, “I’m going to take you and make from you a family that will bless all nations. You just have to get up and go where I send you.”
Abram, who became Abraham, became the root of faith for Jews and Muslims and Christians for this one reason – he trusted God to be God. Even when he was told to uproot from every resource that promised to keep him and those he loved alive, he trusted God. Not only that, but he took Lot with him. He took with him another family that would compete for resources, and he went on the promise that they would all be blessed by God at the hands of strangers in foreign lands.
It is this blessing that comes to us today, as though we were plugged into some Virtual Private Network of faith. You see, while we do believe that God’s heart breakers for the saint and the sinner; for the gay and the straight; for the transgender and the immigrant; for the refugee and even for the one driven to the madness of terror, we have this belief that God is still God. We have this belief that God came in the person and work of Jesus, and that our faith in him always leads us toward the cross – even though it doesn’t stop there.
And while we respond to God’s call for our own journey toward the cross of Jesus in this Season of Lent, let us hold fast to the expectation that we will be blessed. Let us hold fast to the expectation that we have an obligation to bless others. In fact, it is through the likes of you and me, forgiven sinners that we are, that glimpses of the Kingdom of God will shine through.
Already I see it happening! As we work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Teams and Rebuilding Together Acadiana; as we rebuild our relationships in the community with the campus of ULL; as we work together with other congregations; as we put ourselves at risk for the benefit of those in need we become a living, sacramental network of God’s children.
Yes, beloved congregation, we are a part of what God is doing. And yet we, too, must be born again and again of the water and the Spirit in order to live with broken hearts and full lives. We must be born again and again of the water and the Spirit so that we can come out of the darkness in which we hide, so that our deeds may be seen in the light. And while we squirm and holler like a new born at the possibilities of life unknown, let us remember that God’s love is never a possession, but always a gift.
And it is the gift of God’s love that we will cradle and nurture in our own hearts as we move toward the cross. It is this gift that must flow through us when we consider our political stances and arguments. It is this gift that calls us out of our comfort zones and safe places so that we can become a blessing for others. For the gift of God’s love comes from the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
When we see that happening we can be assured of one thing – that we have seen the Kingdom of God. For the world is not toppling on the brink of condemnation, no matter how much commercial air time that idea may sell. According to scripture, Jesus did not come to condemn the world but to save it.
Let us keep that as our hope as we invite others to join – even as we move toward the cross and the salvation it brings. Amen.