a sermon based on John 3: 1-17,
Nicodemus -- a Pharisee -- came to see Jesus one night. It was to this man -- a ruler of the Jews, a respected elder; a Rabbi, highly regarded by the people; a man, who was trying to live an authentic, faithful life according to God's Laws -- that Jesus made some of his most famous statements, including the one our choir just sang for us as this morning’s anthem:
"God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son ... So that everyone who
believes on him will not die, but have life that begins right now and goes on
Nicodemus was an elder among the people, a ruler of the Jews. He was a scholarly man – for he would not have held office as a member of the Sanhedrin Council (the governing body in the Jewish Temple) had he not been considered wise. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been schooled in the finer points of Scripture and its interpretation -- because the Pharisees were the "blue bloods" of ancient Judaism, with their un-bending attention to every detail of the Law.
Beyond that, Nicodemus’ parents had apparently done what a lot of well-meaning parents do: saddled him with some high expectations. You see his name "Nicodemus" literally means (in Hebrew) "conqueror of the people." That’s some high expectation, if you ask me! The boy had a lot to live up to. And from what we know of him, he’s done really well to become somebody.
Because of that, I am all that more proud of Nicodemus that he came to Jesus -- this un-educated, un-credentialed, young contrarian from the North country (from rural Galilee) -- to ask him about the Kingdom of God. The erudite Pharisee would’ve been far more used to answering the questions of others, rather than posing questions of their own.
But when they meet, Nicodemus calls Jesus "Rabbi" (teacher) and goes on to admit that there is something really special about the signs & wonders that Jesus has been performing, all of which lets him know that "God is present" with Jesus. (The Hebrew word was "Immanuel" – God with us.) In other words, this wise & wealthy Pharisee – this worldly "conqueror of the people" Nicodemus -- comes to Jesus in a role that he is not all that familiar with: the role of a humble supplicant. He has come to learn about God from Jesus.
I appreciate Nicodemus! Most folks are too proud to ask for insight from others. In fact, that’s one of the overarching themes of Sophocles’ tragedy "Antigone". This afternoon at 2 o’clock at the Library, I will read the part of Creon, the king of Thebes, who makes a bold decree and won’t back down from it! He refuses to yield his opinion, once it has been spoken. Creon thinks that to do so would undermine his royal authority; that he would be disrespected if he were to have a second thought, let alone change his mind. He dismisses all other opinions but his own. Like many people in authority, Creon thinks he knows best.
Jere Standen reads the part of the king’s son (Haemon), and tries to reason with me, saying: "I don’t know how I could say that you don’t speak correctly, but… sometimes another man’s opinion is also right. The common people, out of fear, to your face won’t say such words; but I can hear them… Don’t be so stubborn, that you say YOU and you ALONE are right! …
"Whoever thinks that he is the only one who can think, or use his tongue or soul, no one else… such men, when you open them up, are seen to be hollow! But, for a man to learn – even a wise man – is nothing shameful. Nor to learn to bend and to give way. You see how, in the winter storms, the trees that yield save even their twigs; but those who oppose [and stand firm] are destroyed root and branch. … Yield your anger [father], and let yourself change. Even though I am young, a good idea might come from me." (Antigone, lines 698-732, trans. J. E. Thomas; Prestwick House, Inc., 2005, pages 38-39)
Thank you, Jere Standen, for those wise insights. As I said, I appreciate Nicodemus, for his willingness to come to Jesus with his questions and concerns. Most folks in authority, like him (or like us), are too proud to ask for insight from others.
But Jesus seems to confuse the honorable old Pharisee.
First, he uses the metaphor of "gennan anothen" -- which, if it sounds Greek to you, is because it is Greek! John’s Gospel -- like the other three -- was written in Greek! Most folks refer to it (in English) by saying "you must be born again."
I'm sure that someone sometime somewhere has told you that! It is so important a theme (and, frankly, so often misunderstood), that I decided to address it straight on this morning.
Nicodemus was confused. He thought Jesus was talking about natural womanly-womb birthing. And let me say: it is to every mother’s credit that they birthed us in the first place! (!) Thank you! (My Mom is gone, but I say in general: Thank you!)
If the birthing is to be done again – done over (whatever Jesus means by that metaphor) – don’t you think that our real-life Moms ought to be considered?
You see, to be "gennan" (which means to be born) in the first place is quite a miracle in itself! A miracle! Yes… we know the mechanics -- male sperm, female egg, ovulation, zygote, embryo, infant in the womb… But the whole God-given process is a miracle (don’t you think?), and nothing about it is ever all that certain until it’s done… and the baby is born. When you think about all that’s involved, we ought to thank our mothers for their effort! (I probably should have saved this text for a Mother’s Day sermon.)
The point is: to be born is a miracle we have all been involved with. If your mother had not carried you to term, you & I would not be talking here this morning!
In today’s text (speaking with Nicodemus), Jesus uses the metaphor of "birth" ("gennan") – real flesh & blood newborn infancy – but he says it’s not enough. Once is not enough. "Gennan anothen"… One must be born from above; born over, born of water and spirit.
Before we get into that, though, I’d like you to notice a second metaphor that Jesus also used: "wind" as a symbol of God’s Spirit. "The wind blows where it wills…"
The Gospel uses the Greek word "pneuma" (nooma -- which means "air" as in "pneumatic"); the later church used the Latin word "spiro" -- from which we derive both "respiration" (breathing) and "inspiration" (spirit). Vene Sancte Spiritus.
Being Jewish, however, Jesus was most likely thinking about "Ru’ah" (the Hebrew word for "wind") which first appears in Genesis Chapter One -- the Creation story -- where God’s Spirit, like a wind, hovered over the formless chaos before there was even that first Big Bang of light!
The Ru’ah of God also appears in Genesis, Chapter Two, as the breath of God which inspires life in the human being: "The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground," we are told, "and breathed into its nostrils the Ru’ah of life (the breath of life), and the human became a living being." (Genesis 2:7)
Inspiration. Respiration. Breathing. Air. These are the connotations of the Bible word Ru’ah: "Wind" or "Spirit."
"The wind blows about at will," says Jesus. "You hear the sound it makes, but you do
not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born
of the Spirit."
Jesus says to Nicodemus (in effect): you cannot pin down how God works in people. The spirit of God is as free as the wind… as lively as breath itself… it’s as invisible as air, and as powerful as a windstorm!
I believe that second metaphor -- the free-flowing wind -- was intended by Jesus to help explain for Nicodemus the kind of "new birth/re-birth/born from above/born of the spirit" he was talking about in his first answer. In other words, the metaphor of wind is what he meant by "gennan anothen."
But we have to admit that there is a certain amount of ambiguity in these words which I will explain in a moment. Still, it should remind us that words may mean any variety of things, depending on one’s context, personal intuitions, and insight.
Like the Spirit of God (you could say), our English language "blows about at will." And even though each of us "hears the sound it makes" … unless you know where the speaker "is coming from" (and where the conversation is headed), you might draw all kinds of inappropriate inferences. I know that I often miss what people mean to say.
That's why books on "communication skills" are so prevalent in English: we're so fluid & flexible & poetic & imprecise in our words!
For some folks, it is irritating (frustrating!) that we don’t always "get" what the person is trying to tell us, because our minds run along a different path. We think they are saying something else than what they are saying!
So, let’s get back to what Jesus actually said on that night: "I solemnly assure you," Jesus said to Nicodemus, "that no one can see the kingdom of God without gennan anothen... being born over." (Unquote) … I'll bet you expected me to say: "born again" (not "born over"). Or, born "from above." Or, you might have expected to hear, as Bonnie Bartz read it from our pew Bible: "unless one is born anew."
Well, I’m here to tell you that, in every case, you are right! For each of those four options are correct translations from the Greek word "anothen." It may mean "again" & it may mean "from above"; it may be "anew" & it may be "born over." In fact, the double meaning is the key to unravel the misunderstanding!
Nicodemus, clearly, thinks that Jesus meant one must be "born again" -- a repeating in time of something that has gone on before. But Jesus – here… and again in Chapter 19, when he uses the word twice more (verses 11 & 23) -- is trying to say: one must be "born from above."
"Flesh begets flesh," Jesus goes on to explain. "Spirit begets spirit... " …?... "If you do not get it when I tell you about earthly things, [Nicodemus], how are you ever going to believe when I tell you about heavenly things?"
( Nicodemus, you say that "no one can perform the signs" you see me do "unless God is with him"? No one can..! ? Well, I’ll tell you what no one can do…:] "No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above... No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born [both] of water and of Spirit." Does that blow your mind, Nick?
I think that Jesus (at least John's version of Jesus' conversation with this ruling Rabbi) is attempting to "free up" Nicodemus's mind by using words that have an inherent "ambiguity" of meanings.
While Jesus is speaking about this new "birth" as from God -- from the Spirit, from heaven... a matter of where ("from above") -- Nicodemus is thinking he is talking of when ("again"). Jesus is speaking about where the source of the new life comes from and Nicodemus thinks it’s when.
For this reason, I like to use the word "over" -- even though you will not hear it in most discussions of "being born again." I like the word "over" because it has the same ambiguity of "space" and "time." We say "over" (meaning above) and we say "over" (meaning again). Right?
Jesus is trying to talk about the powerful, surprising, freeing source of new life (the Spirit of God, born from above)…which is no more able to be pinned down in formulae, ritual, or edict of Law, than is the wind! The Creative, generative Ruah of God -- the power of God from the first moment of Creation -- God’s living, life-giving Spirit, ever-present and unable to be controlled!
Nicodemus, however, was too concrete & literal in his theology. To him, it sounded like Jesus wanted him to return into his mother’s womb and come out again.
"How can a man return to his mother’s womb when he is old?", Nicodemus says in scorn. "How can a man be born again!?" (That’s stupid, right?)
"The wind blows about at will," (says Jesus)."You hear the sound it makes, but you
do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is
born of the Spirit."
Like the free-flowing, blowing wind, Jesus frees us -- if we can renew our thinking, from scratch! Loosen up…! Follow the energy as it forms and reforms everything around us, and in us.
But… as we saw with old King Creon… to think a new thought isn’t always all that easy. And it’s especially hard if you are kind’a proud about where you’ve gotten to in life. Remember who Nicodemus represents: he is "conqueror of the people", a ruling elder. His opinion "trumps" everyone else’s! He is on the Council! He is a judge of lesser mortals.
For all his openness and deference, Nicodemus finds Jesus’ talk about God -- namely, being born from above, being born over, being born from the Spirit, blowing like the wind -- incomprehensible… because he fails to hear it as a metaphor. He thinks he has to climb back into his mother’s womb!
Even after Jesus breaks it down for him, explaining that it is not a literal birth, but a birth "of water and Spirit" – born, as it were, from the womb of God, not a re-entry into the womb of his mother – we aren’t told whether or not Nicodemus ever fully understood what Jesus was getting at. And that’s unfortunate.
I don’t know if the honorable old man was simply obtuse, and "did not get it"; or if his failure to understand was because he was resisting what Jesus was implying…
… because it might mean that Nicodemus would have to change his mind -- change his direction in life … that is, to "repent"… start over -- and he wouldn’t be "in control" anymore.
I would have put it this way: "Nick, before you were given your name, before any rank or status was given to you by your family ties, before any accolades or criticisms came your way, you are inherently and inalienably a child of God. To be born again, or born over, or born from above, or born of the Spirit, is simply to reclaim your very essence, stripped of all the accoutrements that have attached themselves to you over time. You are a child of God, Nicodemus – beloved to the core of your being, and able to do great things for God.
You are a child of God, Nicodemus; and as such, you are a new creation… free to be who God made you to be, as un-encumbered as the wind that blows past you every day!
To me, to be "reborn" means… to put aside all the old categories that we have accumulated like merit badges, that sum up our lives thus far. To be born again (born anew, from the Spirit) is to reconnect with our "core" being… which is deeper than what we do for a living, or our political affiliations, or where we worship, or what kind of car we drive. It’s deeper than our status as a parent, or a spouse, or a resident of this or that neighborhood. It’s not a matter of what clubs we are members of, or what university we attended… or which sports-team we root for.
All those markers which give us social standing are accurate … but they are also inadequate, because they don’t go deep enough. They don’t answer what Nicodemus was looking for, nor do they meet our own inherent need for meaning in our lives: which, I believe is to perceive the trans-cendent…
… and to find ourselves engaged in a purpose that is itself part of a larger purpose for living. It’s been said that a person who is "all wrapped up in himself" makes a very small package.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born over, I think he is saying that the man is not first and foremost a Pharisee, or a ruler, or a scholar, or a good Jew, or even a good man, an elder, a civic leader… He may be all that (and it is quite an accomplishment!), but he is, above all and before all else, a child of God, beloved by God, in whose love he is eternally grounded and from whose love all other thoughts and feelings & words and deeds must originate.
In other words, the "re-birth" Jesus is talking about is not so much a moment of decision as a taking on a new "mind-set." It’s the recognition of who we are by virtue of whose we are. We are children of God -- a God who loves us; who cares for us, believes in us, and sustains us. A god who has a plan for us & for our world, and it will be accomplished, in Jesus’ name, through the power of the Holy Ruah!
And so it is to this old man (late one night) that Jesus says what has come to be (perhaps) his most quoted sentence: "For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish but have ever-lasting life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world -- Nicodemus -- but that the world through him might be saved."
Jesus invited Nicodemus (invites all people, I believe) into a second chance, a new start, a re-birth into a world that is loved by God... not judged by God, not condemned by God … a world LOVED by God enough to send Jesus to show us the way… the way that the world might be saved! Hallelujah.