Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021 – Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom
First of all, you need to know that it’s Jesus who’s talking in today’s gospel. The lectionary people omitted some important context when they separated the eight verses that we just heard from the preceding 13.
This passage from John captures only the latter part of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nevertheless, you may be familiar with how the conversation begins. It’s nighttime when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “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.”
Some commentators are critical of Nicodemus’ assertion. By emphasizing the words “we know that you are…” they cast Nicodemus in the role of a self-assured expert who flaunts his status as a “teacher of Israel.” Others suspect that Nicodemus meets Jesus under the cover of darkness in order to avoid being seen with him.
It’s true that we can glean from the text that Nicodemus is an educated man, a “pillar of the community,” we might say. Likewise, themes of darkness and light play a role in this passage and throughout John’s Gospel. But I don’t think that these details are meant to throw shade (pun intended) on the Pharisee.
Furthermore, if we immediately cast Nicodemus in such a negative light, we might be tempted to hear the remainder of his conversation with Jesus as an adversarial one when, actually, I think the opposite is true.
In fact, as Becky Wright noted in Bible Study earlier this week, Nicodemus shows honor to Jesus by coming at night, on his own time, after a full day’s work, which may indicate that he is motivated by a genuine desire to learn more, rather than a selfish need to impress Jesus with what he already knows.
If we understand their encounter this way, then the Nicodemus we encounter in this story is less a self-righteous teacher preparing to go head-to-head with a colleague and more an eager student visiting his teacher during office hours in order to clarify his understanding.
And so, in search of clarity he says, “It seems to me that we know that you come from God because, otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you do.” However, Jesus’ response is anything but clear. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
If I’m honest, I’d prefer Jesus was a bit more affirming of Nicodemus. If you’ve ever been in a class with me, you’re probably familiar with my tendency to quickly affirm participation. “Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right . . . Great point! Very well put!”
Couldn’t Jesus say something like, “Yes, Nicodemus. I think that’s a great way to begin to think about who I am, but there’s more to it than that.”? Alas, that’s not really Jesus’ style. Another example immediately follows.
Nicodemus asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Again, we could read Nicodemus as adversarial or sarcastic, but I hear the question as an example of honest curiosity. Still, Jesus doesn’t exactly simplify things.
“Very truly, I tell you,” he says, “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. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.”
Jesus’ response may sound confusing to Nicodemus, and to us, but maybe that’s the point. Jesus is doing what a lot of good teachers do. Instead of providing a simple explanation or answer, he challenges his student to think more about it for himself.
Perhaps you can remember a teacher in your life who didn’t answer your questions directly or simply so much as they helped you to develop the skills necessary to answer them for yourself.
“Teach a man to fish,” right? That’s exactly what Jesus is doing for Nicodemus here, and the result is a first-class theological discourse.
Yes, like all theological discussions, it’s confusing. Jesus is attempting to reframe Nicodemus’ understanding of his relationship with God, and that’s not something that he can explain to him in simple terms. Jesus needs Nicodemus to be able to make sense of it for himself, and so he uses another tried and true teaching—and preaching—tactic: a real-life example.
You can’t see the wind, but you know it’s there because you can hear it rustling the leaves of the trees and see the branches bend and sway. Where does the wind start? Where does it go? I don’t know. It’s intangible, abstract.
It’s the same with “being born from above.” How does that work exactly? It cannot be explained with a piece of chalk or an overhead projector. (Or a dry erase marker or “smart board,” for that matter.)
You can’t always see God working in your life or the world around you, transforming hearts, changing minds. But, if you begin to pay attention, every once in a while, you will realize that it’s happening.
This is precisely what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to do: start paying attention to the presence of God in his life. This is especially important because Jesus won’t always be with Nicodemus, at least, not in the same sense that he is on this night.
Jesus hints at this very reality in the first verse of today’s passage. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
As 21st Century Christians, we hear Jesus’ words (which are an allusion to this morning’s reading from Numbers) in full knowledge of his death and resurrection. We can easily draw a parallel between the serpent being lifted up in the wilderness and Jesus being lifted up on the cross.
Nicodemus obviously doesn’t know what’s going to happen to Jesus, but he will find out. And when he does, he will learn for the first time the answer to his question, “How can somebody be born from above?” Because Jesus died and rose again.
Jesus himself is the answer to Nicodemus’ question. That’s what Jesus is trying to teach him. But Nicodemus will not–and cannot–completely understand this until he develops a relationship with Jesus. For that matter, neither can we.
Developing a relationship with Jesus doesn’t happen overnight. There is no simple how-to guide for the process, no matter what anyone says. It requires taking time to pay attention to Jesus the Risen Christ’s presence in our lives. That, my friends, is a central task of the Lenten season.
Remember the words (from our prayer book) that we heard on Ash Wednesday. “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
We tend to focus a lot on self-denial, but the rest is important, too. If we use the remaining days of Lent to lean into a period of self-examination, prayer, and scriptural meditation, then we will be walking with Nicodemus into a deeper relationship with the Risen and Living Lord.
If you read through the rest of John’s gospel account, you will get a sense of Nicodemus’s own journey with Jesus. In chapter seven, he speaks in Jesus’ defense, even after several have turned against him. And in chapter 19, he joins Joseph of Arimathea, this time in broad daylight, to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Remember, when he helped lay Jesus in the tomb, Nicodemus didn’t know what would happen in just two days’ time. We do. That’s all the more reason for us to be on the lookout for Jesus’ presence in our lives. If we do that, we will, right alongside Nicodemus, experience the joy of that beautiful Sunday morning all over again, even as if for the very first time.