Second Sunday in Lent
If we were at a football game and spotted someone holding up a sign in the end zone that had a Bible verse on it, what verse would that probably be? John 3:16, right? Who knows this verse by heart? John 3:16 is perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible, and beloved by many. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood and misused verses in the Bible. While it’s meant to be a proclamation of God’s extravagant grace, it’s often used to suggest that some people are in and some people are out of God’s favor.
That’s why someday I want to stand beside someone with that sign and hold up my own sign: John 3:17. Without peeking at your bulletin, anyone know what this verse says? I think the only way John 3:16 makes any sense is if it is taken together with John 3: 17. Yes, we can and must announce that we are saved by trusting in Jesus (and trust is, by the way, a better translation of that verb than believe), but not because Jesus loves us more than anyone else. God loves the whole world and wants to save it.
Now “God loves the world” might seem like the most mundane thing a preacher could say. It’s so obvious that there’s nothing exciting about it. But even if it should go without saying, it doesn’t. The world does not often hear that it is loved. Too often what people hear is that they are not good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not something enough to be loved. That if they just tried a little harder or believed more deeply, THEN they would be worthy of love. THEN they would matter. And even if it pains me to say so, I know that many people have heard variations on that theme from Christian churches.
But that is not what Jesus said and it’s not how Jesus lived. And all of us—not just preachers, but all of us—need to be actively proclaiming this message (John 3:16-17) loud and clear because it is the Gospel truth that people are aching for. We need to announce far and wide that God loves the world so that it is heard by people who are living in fear of deportation. So that it is heard by our transgender children who are singled out as criminals. So that it is heard by people of races other than white. So that it is heard by women who continue to march. So that it is heard by our Jewish brothers and sisters who are being hated once again for their loyalty to the God of Israel, who is our God too. So that it is heard by our Muslim siblings who are vilified for their devotion and their obedience.
God loves the world, this fragile planet which needs protection and care now more than ever! God loves the cosmos, the dimensions of which we barely grasp. Christians everywhere need to proclaim loud and clear that God loves the world, and wants to save it. We cannot abandon this Gospel message or allow it to be obscured by people who claim to speak for Christ but who deliver a message that he would never recognize.
Because if John 3:16 is really going to be the promise it is intended to be, our hearts and hands and voices, our feet and our minds, must be engaged in sharing it. Lives literally depend on it. I know that you have reasons to trust Jesus. I know that you have seen God at work in your lives, in your families, in your community. In big and little ways, you have come to believe and trust in God for reasons that are specific to your experiences. No one else’s story completely duplicates the story you have to tell about how you know that God loves the world. And you have the ability, and frankly, the responsibility, to tell that story.
It’s ok if you have theological questions. It’s ok if you don’t know Biblical Greek, if you haven’t read the whole Bible, if you’ve skipped a Sunday worship or 40 in the recent past. It’s ok if you have made terrible mistakes and are likely to do so again. None of that negates the fact that you have seen and known God’s love for the world. You are witnesses to God’s love, and your story needs to be told.
Today’s Gospel lesson gives us Nicodemus’ story of coming to know God’s love. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a religious leader. He’s supposed to be an expert in church matters. But he comes to Jesus, completely flustered by what he’s heard Jesus preaching or teaching. Jesus has shaken up all Nicodemus thought he knew about life, rocked his previously solid understanding of who God was and maybe even who he was himself. We aren’t sure of everything he and Jesus discussed during this late night visit—maybe he and Jesus discussed Scripture. Perhaps Nicodemus challenged Jesus’ command that we pray for our enemies instead of getting even, or questioned Jesus calling people to give voice to the voiceless. Maybe he scolded Jesus for welcoming unclean lepers and crooks, or drinking with sinners and Gentiles. In any case, Nicodemus wants to hear more, to understand what Jesus is teaching, even though he finds it all so unfamiliar (and therefore difficult) that he keeps asking, “How can this be? I don’t get it.”
Poor Nicodemus. I understand his wanting to get things right but hesitating to embrace change; probably some of you do too. Don’t we all have some things we believe simply because that’s what we were taught when we were growing up? And don’t some of us struggle with wanting a faith is logical, based on systems, rules, and consequences? But Jesus tells him that he can’t grasp God by such a path. Trust in God is not a theoretical concept, it is a relationship that is born anew by water and the Spirit. And he’s like, “Huh? You want me to be born again? What does that even mean? How is that biologically possible?”
Jesus keeps trying to tell Nicodemus he’s never going to get into the Kingdom of God intellectually. Trusting in God is not reasonable. It is not rational. It cannot be proved. It is not practical or sensible. You cannot master it. Connection to the heart of God can only be received as a gift. God’s reproductive procedures are not like any we’ve come to know. God can birth something new out of nothing at all, and all Nicodemus (or any of us) can do is hold out our arms to embrace it.
Being born the first time is messy, bloody, filled with sweat, tears, groans, and sometimes screaming. I’ve heard there are long periods of pain, followed by brief respites, with no predictable schedule. Sometimes a birth involves needles and forceps and doctors and nurses and midwives and bright lights, and always it includes a mother’s body contorted out of its normal shape, straining to release new life. There’s no reason in the world to believe being born again isn’t equally as full of struggle.
But the Good News is that, just as the Spirit of God hovered over the chaotic waters at Creation and called forth life, and just as the Holy Spirit is present at the birth of each new child on this earth, that same Spirit hovers over us always. God’s Spirit pursues us as we grow, continually calling us on journey to unfamiliar places and events so that something new can happen in this world that God so loves. Jesus reminds us that resurrection can only happen after there’s been a death. He echoes the promise once given to Sarah and Abraham: that we are blessed to be a blessing, but only when we leave behind what is familiar can we arrive in the new place of blessing.
As we go through this passage from old to new, from birth to rebirth, as we endure that terrifying experience of letting go of the old and moving toward the new and unfamiliar, we can trust that the Holy Spirit is in charge. Just as was the case when we were born the first time, we don’t do all the work. We float in the amniotic fluid of God’s womb until the time is right. And then God eases us through the birth canal into the new place of blessing, where our first and most critical task is just to breathe. Breathe deeply. Suck up the Holy Spirit and let it go in one big yowl of new life. And then keep breathing.
Each rebirth we experience is traumatic. And each time it happens, we, like most babies, do not enter the new stage of life knowing what to do and how to be. Each time we have to learn to see, to walk, to articulate what we learning. But the Holy Spirit who calls us will continue to nurture and provide for us, to guide and sustain us. The Holy Spirit gifts us with companions on the journey, and spiritual gifts that nurture our faith. We are fed with God’s own body and blood, and given into one another’s care and companionship. When we are ready to explore our new world, God accompanies us all the way, guiding and teaching us, cradling us when we fall, and applauding us when we succeed. This experience doesn’t happen just once. We Christians are frequently born again and again and again as we grow in faith and trust in God.
Nicodemus learned this. He too, after confessing he didn’t understand how he could begin again, did just that. He was blessed to be a blessing. You may not remember this, but after his crucifixion, when Jesus’ dead body was taken off the cross, it was Nicodemus—risking his reputation among his Pharisee buddies (and perhaps even his life!)—who helped to anoint and prepare the body for burial.
Though today’s story demonstrates his struggle with the ways Jesus is challenging his religious understanding and identity, in the end, he must have come to trust in this unconventional rabbi. In today’s text, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, but apparently God brings him to the light. In the end, Nicodemus aligns himself with Jesus, no matter how hopeless and irrational and unlikely to produce blessing the relationship seems.
So that’s Nicodemus story of being born again, a story of coming to Jesus, trusting him enough to tell him all his hopes and fears about God, and finding that he was loved beyond all telling of it. He found that in following Jesus, he came to know that God so loved him and the world. What is your story?
~Pastor Susan Schneider