Sermon for Lent 2A – 5th March 2023

Fritz von Uhde, Christus_und_Nikodemus via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

I guess that we heard quite a lot about the immune system (the body’s defence mechanism against disease) over the last few years of Covid. When it starts in a developing baby, it’s more or less a blank sheet, with littlecapacity to defend the body. The new immune system you see hasn’t seen any of the diseases that we’ve all been exposed to in the past and it has to learn from scratch.  The result can be that babies and small children get every cough and snuffle that’s going while their immune system learns by being exposed to them – that’s certainly the case with our grandchildren.

John the Evangelist is a master of dramatic setting, of symbolism and of imagery. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and Jewish leader, arrives to see Jesus at night. Night, traditionally a time of ignorance, temptation, fear and unbelief. He comes in secret. Night’s also the time of day when faithful Jews studied and debated the Torah. 

Perhaps he comes to do precisely that and to learn more about this young radical who’s causing such a stir. He probably doesn’t want his colleagues to know about this curiosity. He calls Jesus Rabbi or teacher. Is he calling him that because he wants to become a disciple or is he saying it with heavy irony – a member of the Jewish elite addressing an uneducated Galilean peasant?

The discussion doesn’t go very well for Nicodemus. He gets off on the wrong foot because he talks about the outward and visible signs, the observable miracles that Jesus has performed. Jesus’ response perhaps seems to be a bit of a non sequitur:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

John 3:3

What a strange response. It’s difficult to understand Nicodemus’s reaction to this response without a brief examination of the word that is translated ‘from above’. The Greek word anothen can mean ‘from above’, but it can also mean ‘again or anew’. The NRSV translation that we heard this morning uses the former and puts the latter in a small footnote. Other translations do it the other way round, but in order to understand what’s going on, we really need to hear both.

So perhaps John’s playing on a deliberate pun in Greek to make a point. Nicodemus’s arrival at night is perhaps a hint not at unbelief, but at the wrong sort of belief, of a spiritual misunderstanding, which is played out in his misinterpretation of Jesus’s response to his mention of signs. He comes with a set of convictions about what is real and what is possible and they’re his stumbling block. 

John Calvin wrote that the mind of Nicodemus was

filled with many thorns, choked by many noxious herbs…

John Calvin “Commentary on the Gospel According to John”

How could he possibly see clearly through the thicket? Jesus is rebuking him for concentrating on the wrong thing, what he sees, not what’s in the heart. If you like, the inward and invisible grace, behind the signs.

Things don’t improve as the conversation goes on. What is it that Jesus is saying to Nicodemus in these exchanges and how does his understanding change from exchange to exchange?

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 

John 3:3

To see the Kingdom of God requires enlightenment, a changing of mind, not being impressed by mere signs and miracles, but seeing in a spiritual way.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” 

John 3:5

To enter the Kingdom of God requires the world to be experienced in a new way, to encounter God through Jesus, a spiritual encounter.

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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

John 3:11

What he’s telling Nicodemus is that entering into the spiritual life requires a re-evaluation of everything he’s previously taken for granted.

Jesus is speaking about a spiritual rebirth, about dying to the old worldly self and entering into a spiritual life, about turning away from status in society, from possessions, from heritage and all those things that tie us to an constructed identity, based on what we have, what we do, what we know and what people say about us. It’s not about visible signs or miracles or any of the worldly stuff, but seeing things as they really are, no rose-tinted specs.

This is the Jesus who says

I have comes not to bring peace, but a sword”.

Matthew 10:34

At first it seems deeply shocking to hear Jesus, the Prince of Peace, appearing to promote violence and conflict. Yet when we read the Gospels, we have to admit that wherever he goes, he brings to the surface people’s deepest fears and insecurities. Jesus threatens cosy illusions and attachments. This spiritual rebirth is about taking a path which isn’t easy or comforting, the narrow way that’s discordant with what’s gone before. It involves death to the old self and the worldly life, quite literally a turning or renewing of ones mind, which is what repentance means. It involves spiritual renewal or rebirth.

During the conversation, Nicodemus moves from a total failure to understand what Jesus means, to the beginning of understanding but then finding the implications of spiritual rebirth rather uncomfortable to contemplate. Other Gospel figures hear similar messages about giving up status and certainty and trusting in a relationship with God. We see a variety of reactions. Take Zacchaeus the tax collector, he seems ready to give up his old life and follow the way that Jesus suggests. Or at the other extreme, the rich young man who is told to give everything to the poor and walks away disappointed, as he just can’t bring himself to do it. Nicodemus finds it difficult, but as we see from his later appearances in the Gospel narrative, he gets there in the end.

We’re now in the season of Lent, the period of the year when we focus on amendment of life, on spiritual rebirth, perhaps even on pressing the reset button on the value we place on status, possessions, how we see ourselves and what we think is important in our lives and relationships. It’s a time when we could take the opportunity to learn again from scratch, discarding old values and habits, and being born again with a new immune system like that of a baby: 

Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 18:3

The Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that can be seen only when we let go of our certainties and open ourselves to something new. It can’t be detected with the naked eye, or experienced through abstract notions of heavenly bliss. The Kingdom of God is now, not confined to tomorrow or the world beyond. Being born again (or from above), means that inherited or acquired status or knowledge aren’t what’s important, in fact they can get in the way. Seeing God at work requires a spiritual awareness, spiritual imagination and a large dose of humility.


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