Sermon 8 march 2020
Nicodemus was a thinking man. He was a member of the Pharisees, a group of Jews who followed the law as closely as they could, and tried to be righteous. Saul was a Pharisee too, and the letter of the law was so important to these people. But Nicodemus had questions. He wasn’t happy to just blindly follow the law – he knew that this Jesus had something different about him, had something he wanted. But because Nicodemus was a man of status in his community, he couldn’t come openly to listen to Jesus’ teachings. He came by night, so that no one would see, and that no one would question whether he was indeed a good Pharisee.
When he comes to Jesus, he doesn’t ask a question, but states that he knows Jesus comes from God. This opens up an opportunity for Jesus to teach him about God, about the Kingdom of God.
‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
This begins a dialogue about new birth. Being born again – it’s a phrase that has a certain meaning for Pentecostals. With the charismatic movement of the 70s and 80s, being Born Again meant being a happy clapper, a Pentecostal, worshipping God with your hands in the air and your eyes shut. But it also meant a certain smugness on the side of those who were ‘born again’ towards those who were “Establishment Christians”. The Pentecostals, and I was guilty of it at the time, looked pityingly on the traditional Christians, as if they had somehow missed the point and weren’t really experiencing the kingdom of heaven properly.
And indeed my experience of being born again was a bit like that. It was as if a faith that I knew about, that I understood in my head, had moved into my heart, and was now in glorious technicolor, instead of black and white like the TV we had when I was a child.
There are many ways of being born again. Thankfully, one of them does not involve a journey back into your mother’s womb. All the mothers here would be grateful for that! It is about letting something change within you, letting a new thing start.
The reading we have heard from Romans is about Faith, and how Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him for righteousness. This is the sort of faith that lets us be born anew, refreshed and invigorated by the Holy Spirit.
Someone told me during the week, “I can only believe God is real if I see a sign.”
Jesus had the answer for this objection before Nicodemus even spoke it. He used the wind as an example of what the Holy Spirit is like. You can’t see the wind can you? But you can see its effects. You can see that the washing is drying quickly on the line, that the trees are moving, that the flags are flying. You can notice it when you are diving and a cross-wind moves the car on the road. It’s particularly noticeable by the ponds on Dyers Rd isn’t it? Sometimes the wind has a pleasant effect, just moving things a little, stopping it getting too hot. But there are times when the wind is powerful, to be feared, and it moves everything in its path.
When I lived in Wellington gusts of over a hundred k per hour were not unusual. We had to put our name and address on the trampoline! When we heard on the news that Christchurch had experienced gusts of 60ks, we would scoff!
So, if the wind is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, maybe Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the Holy Spirit can be gentle, nudging you along, and it can be powerful, sweeping all in its path.
It takes practice in our Christian life to notice those little nudges of the Holy Spirit. When we are new to it, it can take a great big gust for God to get our attention. But as we tune ourselves more closely to God, and as we exercise our faith, the little nudges start to be more noticeable.
We can bring all our life to God. We can ask God to help us in every aspect of our life. Even doing really ordinary things like going shopping, we can listen to the Holy Spirit nudging us to buy this but not that, to try that Op shop for the curtains we need. This has been a part of my life for a long time, and as I listen to these nudges I feel my faith grow.
Jesus’ teaching for Nicodemus didn’t end there though. He chided Nicodemus that he as a teacher of the faith knew so little, but then he told him of his own future journey. ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.’
This may have sounded really obscure to Nicodemus. He knew about Moses and the serpent – lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness what what God told Moses to do when the people were plagued by snakes, so they would not die from snake bites. What on earth has this got to do with the topic at hand? Nicodemus may have asked himself.
The idea of being lifted up, we know with 2020 hindsight, refers to Jesus being lifted up on the cross. The bronze serpent was lifted up to defeat death at the fangs of a snake, and Jesus was lifted up so that death would be defeated once and for all. Not the death from an earthly serpent, but death from the serpent that had been plaguing people since the garden of Eden.
Jesus doesn’t finish Nicodemus’ lesson there though. He spells out his mission in the clearest possible terms, in the most famous verse of scripture, the one-line summary of the whole Bible.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’
Do you really accept what this means for you? God loves you, yes you, you and you, personally, so very much, that God is prepared to make the sacrifice of his own flesh and blood, his own spirit, so that you would not just end your journey with the end of your physical life, but that you would be able to be with God in eternity! This promise is for everyone who believes in Him. You don’t need to understand him, or know all the Christian words, or all the songs we sing, you don’t even need to be able to explain it. Just believe it. Believe in Him who came to set us free.
‘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.’
This verse reassures us that God is a God of love, not condemnation. It tells Nicodemus that the Pharisee, legalistic way of viewing the world, morality and religion, is not the way of God, which is the way of freedom.
This message is deeply relevant for us now as much as ever. When w are worried about wars escalating, and viruses spreading, and the climate doing weird things, and oceans filling up with plastic so the fish can’ thrive, we can know that God is not condemning us, but bringing us freedom and safety, in this world, which is not the end of the story, and in the world to come.