Lent 2 March 8, 2020

Lent 2 March 8, 2020 Psalm 121, Genesis 12:1-4,
Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17
For God so loved the world…
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If we’ve ever been confused by something Jesus says… Today we’re in good company… As Nicodemus, a member of the ruling council of the faith community, who has been hearing about the amazing signs Jesus has been doing in Jerusalem, comes to visit one night, hoping to learn more about who Jesus is… and what his teaching is all about.

We don’t know exactly why Nicodemus has chosen to visit by night – an unusual time to visit someone who you don’t know. Perhaps night time is the only time he has open in his busy schedule. Perhaps he figures Jesus is so busy all day teaching that night time might the only right time… to drop by this teacher from out of town… for a visit.
Or perhaps Nicodemus might be a little nervous about being seen in public with Jesus – who has been identified already by the religious establishment that Nick is part of… as a potential threat to the good order of the community – having recently driven merchants and money-changers out of the Jerusalem temple courtyard…
We’re not told the exact mix of his motivations. What we know is just that as the scene today ends, with Jesus still talking… Nicodemus is still… in the dark…

And Jesus doesn’t seem to be trying to make it any easier for Nick to understand what he’s saying… as he speaks deliberately in words that carry multiple meanings. The word Nicodemus hears as “you must be born again” can equally well mean “you must be born from above” or “born anew.” All three ways of hearing the word are correct. But – Jesus means mostly “born from above” and “born anew”… While Nicodemus can only hear “born again” – which makes no sense to him…

Jesus also uses a word several times that means wind – breath – and spirit… But by talking about the wind blowing wherever it blows, and we can hear it but not see it… Jesus has Nicodemus thinking about watching the weather vane to see which way the wind blows… While Jesus is actually talking about the Holy Spirit who makes new life – new creation – without which we can’t enter the kingdom of God.

Poor Nicodemus gets lost in the word play – unable to make sense of what Jesus says… And it can feel like Jesus is playing with him… As Nicodemous asks ‘how can anyone be born (again) when they are old?’ And Jesus says ‘What’s your problem?’ Aren’t you a teacher of Israel?’
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And I can identify with Nicodemus…. I enjoy the peculiar language of John’s gospel, even though it’s difficult…As Jesus keeps using words with double and even triple meanings… which does tend to bend our minds… and make us either think differently… or give up trying to understand… Still, I can enjoy John’s gospel, mostly because I’ve got access to a lot of help with interpreting Jesus…
So I sympathize with Nicodemus, who doesn’t have as much help with knowing who Jesus is. He doesn’t have any commentaries (as we do now) on the gospel to help him figure it out. (The gospel of course hadn’t been written yet, and wouldn’t be for probably five or six more decades.)
And – Jesus doesn’t start off with the verse we know best – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life…” And by the time Jesus speaks this famous “3:16″ verse we see on bumper stickers and tee-shirts, we’re not even quite sure if Nicodemus is still following Jesus at all…. or if he’s just scratching his head, totally perplexed…

And if he’s heard Jesus say this last part of today’s gospel – it’s still not likely to make much sense. The “Son of Man” phrase will be familiar from it’s use in Ezekiel, Daniel, and the psalms – but the phrase “God’s only Son” will probably be a mystery. He will be able to connect the phrase with the Messiah of Israel – but the connection only goes so far, as a lot of different opinions about the Messiah were in circulation. And Jesus, who is still a big unknown to him, is talking now about the Son of Man in the third person – as if about someone else. (A reminder – those who recognized Jesus at this point in the gospel as Messiah or Son of God number in the low single digits – and none of them know what they know about Jesus…with any clarity yet…. )

It’s much less difficult for us to understand what Jesus is saying – as our bible lectionary reading schedule gives us two readings this week that feature Abraham, God-father of Jews, Moslems, and Christians. As we try to relate to Nicodemus’ question “how can someone be born (again) if they are old?’ – it helps to be reminded – Abraham was 75 years old when he heard and obeyed God’s call to pick up and go – wherever God says to go… Giving us a great example of what a biblical born-anew life looks life. A very familiar example of faith every teacher of Israel knows.

Similarly, when Jesus talks about being born not only of water (which all living creatures are partly made of) – but also born of Spirit – surely a teacher of Israel can see the connection with the Spirit of God we first hear of hovering over the waters in the dark of night on the first day of creation… (Genesis 1…)

So perhaps Jesus isn’t expecting too much, after all, of Nicodemus – as he uses word play (a standard technique of the Rabbis)… to provoke Nicodemus into making connections with Israel’s story, especially the new creation theme Isaiah and other scriptures speak of… As he sketches verbally the new birth/new creation theme … (St Paul will later mention in 2nd Corinthians 5 and Galatians 6)…

And surely every teacher in Israel would be familiar with the story Jesus refers to of Moses lifting up a bronze serpent on a pole in the book of Numbers (21)… An odd story that reminds me of the old “hair of the dog that bit you” hangover cure – of having a taste at breakfast of whatever gave you the headache. As God tells Moses – make a bronze image of a snake – put it on a pole – make Israel gaze at the image of the snake to recover from the bite of poisonous snakes – that God sent to bite Israelites in the desert – after God gets tired of Israel whining about the free food God that has been generously providing. (Reminding us ingratitude can lead to snake bite…) And helping to make another connection…
As last week, remember, we were revisiting the primal snake whose poisonous advice got Adam and Eve to bite the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil…This week the snake again is poisonous, but now our antidote is (Thankfully!) provided immediately. As Jesus says look to me, lifted up – giving us a preview of the cross, the resurrection and the ascension. Look to Jesus and be healed of the snake bite of sin and death. Live forever.
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It is a lot to take in… No wonder… We don’t hear anything more from Nicodemus… after his initial greeting and not very-well-thought-through questions…. that lead to Jesus answering questions Nicodemus didn’t ask but should have… With answers that soar high into the heavens… Leaving Nicodemus confused below.
Is he even still listening? As Jesus finally gets to our famous John 3:16 – For God so loved the world…? Or has Nico slipped out the back door, embarrassed to not be understanding… Things he will probably stay awake thinking about…for a very long time…
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We will meet Nicodemus again… In John chapter 7 he will be there asking his fellow faith council members as they discuss trying to arrest Jesus – ‘is it really fair to judge someone without giving them a chance to defend themself?’ Then in chapter 19 we see him one more time, with Joseph of Arimathea, who the gospel describes as a secret disciple, for fear of the religious authorities – together at the tomb of Jesus, where they anoint his body with huge amounts of expensive perfume. Again by night.

Each time we see Nicodemus we feel a little more hope for him…He seems to be getting it a little more each time… Yet, each time we see him we’re also left wishing he would be showing more faith. Each time we see him we’re left wondering… Does he really believe in Jesus yet? As he’s still there in the dark… last we see him.

Does he believe yet in this strange Rabbi Jesus?
Remembering – in John’s gospel believing means following…

Remembering also… the conversation with Jesus… doesn’t need to be over….

As Jesus is still speaking….
And our conversation… will continue over the next several weeks…
And we will have more time to consider…

How even his harder-to-understand sayings… can be all about helping us realize –
How much we need Jesus… And how good it is… to keep getting to know him better…

As we continue in conversation… About….
For God so loved the world…. that…
God did not send the Son to condemn the world…
But to save it…

And the more we stay in the conversation with Jesus, the more we know for sure… we don’t know… all there is to know of Jesus…
But the more we do know… enough to pray –
Our conversation with Jesus will continue… by his grace… forever…

Thanks be to God.
Amen.