1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a religious leader of the Jewish people.
2 Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, 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.”
3 Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the dominion of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the dominion of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to Jesus, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of humanity. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of humanity be lifted up, 15 that whoever trusts in the Son may have eternal life.
16 For God loved the world in this way, that God gave the Son, the only begotten one, so that everyone who trusts in God’s son may not perish but may have everlasting life.
17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Please pray with me this morning, church:
God of abundant love,
In the midst of our doubts and fears, worries and hurts,
You come to us and call us beloved.
When we’d prefer to stay hidden,
You lift up our head and shine on our face.
Love us back to life again this morning.
Move your Spirit in our lives and in our world.
When I would get in trouble, the instinctual reaction of my much younger self was to run away from the troubling that was happening and hide in my room until I thought enough time had passed that I was no longer in trouble. Spoiler alert: it was never enough time. As it turns out, there’s not an expiration date on the consequences for one’s own actions.
And then later, at some point in my less younger years, for some reason I thought it a better strategy to stay and try and meet the troubling head on and try and reason or shout my way out of trouble. This, too, turns out, is a fool’s errand.
So whether running away and hiding, or staying and trying to argue my case through yelling, trouble was there to meet me regardless.
And now, in these later years, I know that my default position has become to stubbornly remain in the midst of the frustration and try and wrestle it into submission, but I am trying to relearn how to remove myself from the frustrating situation and to let enough time pass that we all can just take a deep breath, myself included, and address what’s bothering us.
Ollie, for his part, has mastered the art of running away from trouble and hiding until he thinks enough time has passed. His favorite spots are behind the dresser, under the desk, or behind the rocking chair.
There is something perceived as safety with a large, solid object between you and the trouble or frustration you’re hiding from. Sometimes the cover of obscurity makes us feel safe, protected even.
My sister, when she was younger, would go into her closet and sit on the floor behind all the hanging clothes and eat chocolate and candy by the fistful. Neither my sister or I have lived at our parents’ house for going on 20 years now, but our parents swear they’re still finding Hershey Kisses wrappers to this day.
Sometimes the cover of obscurity makes us feel safe, or even protected.
Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader, visits Jesus “under the cover of night” to ask some questions. Nicodemus will make another appearance at the end of John’s gospel, tending the body of the crucified Jesus along with Joseph of Arimithea. It’s fair to call Nicodemus a disciple of Jesus, although, as a Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus would have had to keep this tidbit secret for fear of reprisal. Nicodemus comes to Jesus, seeking something from Jesus, about Jesus. Nicodemus has heard about Jesus, word is starting to get around. People are talking, and the religious establishment is feeling threatened. John, chapter 3 picks up right after John’s account of Jesus cleansing the temple—“Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”—so at this point, very early on in John’s narrative, Jesus is threatening both the religious and the economic establishment. Very early on Jesus is setting himself, and God, overagainst the powers that be. So Nicodemus wants to hear it from Jesus…”Are you who people say you are? Surely someone can’t do the things you’re doing apart from the presence of God…”
It’s a honest questioning, but one that is concealing a whole host of doubts. Because if Jesus is, in fact, the son of God and the dominion of God is about to be inaugurated, things are going to get really dicey for Nicodemus. The advent of the reign of God means an end to the way things are. The way the author of Luke tells it, the powerful are brought low and the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty handed. The breaking-in of the kingdom of God means a great reversal is underfoot.
So Nicodemus brings honest doubts, but kind of shamefully so, using the shadows of nighttime to obscure these fears and doubts.
How do you feel about your doubts, church? Are you honest about them? Do you maybe feel shame about them?
How often do we feel like faith and doubt exist opposite one another?
Lutheran pastor and theologian Paul Tillich dismisses this dichotomy and says that faith and doubt are actually simply two sides of the same coin. That is, you can’t have faith without doubt. They hold hands. Faith can’t exist without doubt. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty.
How do you handle your doubts, church? Do you push them down, suppress them, or try and will them away? Do you embrace them, hold them close, or maybe even befriend them?
We’re spending this season of Lent talking about hunger, mostly of the spiritual type. Last week with Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness we talked about our hunger to be close to God.
This morning, Nicodemus is coming to Jesus with a deep hunger. A hunger to be known and to be loved. And Nicodemus’ hunger is any of ours, to be honest. A deep desire to be known and to feel loved.
Have y’all heard or read about the revival at Asbury University in Kentucky? It started a few weeks ago and it quickly gained steam and news as it went on for a few days. I don’t actually know if it’s still going on or not, but it was making headlines both because of how long it was going on, days and then weeks, and because of who was at the center of this revival. College students. Gen-Z. Young people described by many as maybe some of the least spiritual or religious among all the generations.
What was going on at Asbury? Was it truly the movement of the Holy Spirit or was it something else?
I confess to you, my siblings, that my first reaction was more apprehensive than anything else. See, I’ve been to a couple of revivals, I’ve participated in more charismatic worship. There’s a good deal of emotional manipulation that often occurs. And when you couple that tendency for emotional manipulation with a large group of college students—late teens and early-20 year olds—who are in some their more formative years in figuring out who they are and what they’re about…it’s true that you have a situation that is ripe for manipulation.
And maybe you can relate. Maybe we come by our apprehension naturally. Look, I get it, Lutherans are not widely known for being super-in-touch with our Holy Spirit-ness. Being moved by the Spirit in Lutheran worship is more like a “Hmmm…” and a nod when I make a profound point in my sermon, less like weeks-long prayer and healing services.
But when I take a step back…when I try and become more curious and less judgmental, well why can’t the Spirit move mightily among a small religious college in the middle of Kentucky? What if something was started there that extended out to other places, other states, other churches, even those who have never heard of the Holy Spirit?
When I’m more curious than judgmental, I pray that the Spirit does something amazing. I pray that new people become curious about Jesus and want to know more. I pray that these young people who are in such formative years of their lives hear words of acceptance and belonging and grace and love. I pray they hear nothing less than God’s incredible love for them, regardless of who they are, how they identify, how they love, or anything else.
Because if I’m honest, church…I want a revival. I want the Holy Spirit to show up and do a new thing. I want the Spirit’s wind to gust powerfully among us and drive us to do amazing things in our community.
Because God is doing a new thing in our midst. God is actively at work saving and redeeming the world. And not by anything we have or have not done, but through God’s action alone.
Nicodemus asks Jesus about being born a second time, “How can one be born again after having grown old?” Jesus’ words are about being born from above, being born of water and the spirit. It’s not about being born again, it’s about being born differently.
If the wind blows where it chooses and you can’t see where it comes from or goes, and so it is with those who wish to see the dominion of God, then being born from above isn’t something we do for ourselves. This isn’t about us making a choice for God, it’s an awareness of the movement of the Spirit and an openness and willingness to being moved by that Spirit.
This isn’t decision theology, it’s incarnational theology. It’s not about choosing God, it’s about God choosing you, dear child. “For God so loved the whole cosmos, the entire world, even and especially you, that God sent God’s son…God came to earth, walked and lived among us…so that…everyone who trusts in the saving work of God’s son would have life everlasting…life in all it’s fullness, abundant life, life that overflows with an embarrassment of riches, an embarrassment of loving and supportive relationships, life everlasting… Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world…but in order that the whole cosmos, the whole world, would be saved through him.”
This is not about you choosing God, this is about God coming to earth, descending into our mess, coming among our hurt and pain and worry and fear and doubt—“God moving into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson so wonderfully said—God living, breathing, walking, working, healing among us…God living and breathing within humanity…in order to redeem humanity, in order that all of humanity would be saved.
And nothing…no barrier we try and put between us…no obstacle we try and put between us and God will stop that from happening.
Your doubts are not shameful, dear one.
Your fears, your worries, your hurts and pains…they are holy, and they are held by God.
Your hunger to be known and to be loved by God…God sees it, God sees you, and God delights in you.
You are known and you are loved by God.
God so loved the whole world—even and especially you—that God sent God’s son…not to condemn to world, but to save it.