Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Nicodemus is still in the dark, unable to see the kingdom of God right in front of him.
But let’s give Nicodemus full credit. He is trying to learn, seeking to know, tracking down Jesus even if it’s in the middle of the night. Nicodemus has recognized that the signs Jesus has done (the only one so far in John’s Gospel that we are privy to is the turning of water in to wine at the wedding) and been curious enough to want to figure out who this teacher is. Remember, Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a religious leader who knows God’s law, and yet he is humble enough to ask honest questions of this uncredentialed, new-on-the scene preacher. Would any of us be so willing?
Given our often suspiciousness of outsiders who don’t come up through our ranks, jump the hurdles we put in place and submit to the process that makes us official religious leaders, would we be so bold as to seek out Jesus to learn more about him and from him? Would we track down the very person who – just prior to this encounter – went on a rant in the Temple with a whip of cords? Imagine for a moment some stranger throwing down a prophetic indictment in the middle of Sunday worship or just as the Wednesday night dinner got rolling. Would we go and find out more from this person, ask honest questions and consider that he might be speaking the Word of the Lord?
I have a hard time responding to small criticisms with openness and a willingness to hear an unwelcomed truth. I rarely put myself in a position where I am likely to get a rebuke or correction or admonition, but Nicodemus did just that. Yes, Nicodemus deserves some props for his night visit even if he doesn’t yet fully see and hear the kingdom of God in his midst.
I wonder if we need to take on the posture of Nicodemus this Lenten season. I wonder if we, like Abram, need to go from what we know in order to see the new thing that God will show. I wonder if we shouldn’t go looking for those who might not pat us on the back and tell us we’re great, but instead will point out to us where we have missed the mark and failed to see the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s working. Few things are more frightening. Few things are more faithful. But if this leader of the Jews, this learned Pharisee, can do it, maybe we can, too.
I recently had the joy of listening to a lecture given by Willie James Jennings of Yale Divinity School. He talked about creating a spiritual practice of belonging – one so robust that is has the capacity to be stronger than racial belonging. Clearly, in a country with our history, this will have to be a strong practice. The second of the three things that must be included in this practice was having the humility of a learner. (The first being the renunciation of whiteness and the third a desire for life together that must be registered geographically.) He noted that the “pedagogical imperialism buried deep in our Christianity has denied to us the reality of a God who delights in learning.” Jennings reminded us that humility is key to being a learner and a teacher. He said such humility allows us to be “open to the expansions of our identities, opening ourselves to others.” We are to take “intentional journeys of expansion of our lives into their lives.” Was this not what Nicodemus was doing long ago under the cover of darkness? Is this not what we need to do during this season of intense division marked by overt acts of xenophobia?
We need to leave what we know to see the new thing God will show. Keep in mind Abram was 72 when God told him to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.” Keep in mind Nicodemus was a leader, an expert, well established and respected when he sought out Jesus and asked questions that resulted in Jesus chiding him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Are we willing to be humble learners, leaving what we know, going to where God will show, open to a rebuke or a correction, accepting that God gives greatness not for our sake but so that we will be a blessing to others?
These 17 verses from John appointed for the second Sunday of Lent contain enough material to preach or teach a long series. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit could be explored. Digging into the Christian language of being born again would be fruitful. Judgment, salvation, flesh vs. spirit, baptism, earthly things or heavenly things – all of this is packed in along with the famous gospel in miniature John 3:16. We need to approach this text with no less courage and humility than Nicodemus approached Jesus. We might want to ask some questions like Nicodemus did as well.
Where do we hear the sound of the wind of the Spirit and how do we recognize it? What does this “from above” language mean? If we Presbyterians are uncomfortable with the idea of being “born again Christians,” what does this text mean in our tradition? What would happen if we talked to someone who does claim that label and listened to learn, not refute?
It is interesting to note the connection of this Johannine text with texts in 1 John, 1 Peter and Matthew. 1 John 4:7 equates being born of God with those who love. 1 Peter 1:22-23 puts truth, genuine mutual love and being born anew side by side. Matthew 18:3 makes clear that entrance into the kingdom of heaven requires changing to become like children. All of this is impossible without having the humility of a learner and the willingness to leave what (and who) we know in order to see the new thing God will show. What could be more frightening? What could be more faithful?
During this season of Lent we, like Abram, must go from our country and our people in the hope that God will bless us to be a blessing. We must, like Nicodemus, seek out Jesus, knowing we may well be chided for our ignorance, but nonetheless be open to being blown away by the Spirit. We need to go on intentional journeys that will expand our identities and, in the words of Willie Jennings, “embody a desire for life together.”
- If you were Nicodemus, what questions would you ask of Jesus?
- Have you ever left all (or some) of what you know to go where God has called you? What was that like? What did you learn about yourself, God and others?
- How do we cultivate having the humility of a learner? Where in the Bible do you see people exercising this kind of humility? When do you see Jesus doing so?
- Have you ever been asked when you were born again or if you are saved? If so, how have you responded? What can we learn from that language? What does our Reformed tradition have say about these things?
- Do a study of the phrase “from above.” What do you discover?
- Where else in the New Testament do you find the question, “How can this be?” When have you asked that question?
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