Sunday, March 5, 2023
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Second Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 23:40; sermon starts around 30:18)
For all his good intentions, Nicodemus just really doesn’t get it. In our gospel reading for this morning, he shows up on Jesus’ doorstep in the middle of the night, wanting to have a conversation. I’m not sure why he came by night – it might be that he didn’t want the other leaders to see him there; or it could be that there was something weighing on Nicodemus’ heart, keeping him up at night. Light and dark are motifs that feature prominently in John’s gospel, and one thing that seems pretty clear here that Nicodemus is in the dark about Jesus.
Whatever the case, he comes to Jesus, eager to talk. Nicodemus starts off by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, saying that “we” – not just “I,” but “we” – “know that you are a Rabbi, a teacher like us, one who has come from God.” He acknowledges that even the other Pharisees have to admit the evidence in front of their eyes, because “no one could do the signs you do apart from God.”
And before Nicodemus can continue, Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus is (understandably) taken aback by this abrupt turn in the conversation. He tries to wrap his brain around what Jesus says in the most hilariously literal way possible – you can almost see the wheels frantically spinning in his mind as he wonders, “But like… how can it be possible for someone who has already grown old to somehow… I mean… and their mother… What???” But instead of helpfully explaining or clarifying his statement, Jesus doubles down and says again that one must be born again or be born of water and Spirit, in order to enter the kingdom, and he continues on in that vein from there. It quickly becomes clear to Nicodemus that he’s in way over his head. He, Jesus, and the other Pharisees are not on the same level about this at all.
This passage is one of those texts in the gospel of John that leave me with a headache. Like Nicodemus, I struggle to fully wrap my head around it. The answers that Jesus gives Nicodemus don’t really even seem to correspond to the questions that he asks. And language like “born again” is so closely tied to certain modern evangelical movements that it’s kind of hard to parse out what Jesus actually means. This language of being born of water and Spirit at least sounds familiar and baptismal, but it’s hard to be sure that that’s what Jesus is talking about. As a professional theologian who is (at least in theory) supposed to understand these things, it definitely stings me to read Jesus’ words in verse 10, where he says to Nicodemus, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Ouch.
This is kind of characteristic of how Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel – of all the four gospels, in John we most see Jesus blowing people’s minds by saying these wise and lofty things that no one around him understands. So it comes as no surprise that, by the end of his conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus doesn’t really seem to have gained much in terms of understanding. He doesn’t have his head any more wrapped around Jesus’ teachings than he did before.
But Nicodemus does distinguish himself from his other colleagues in one very important way: he showed up. The other Pharisees acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher from God – but the only one who actually showed up wanting to learn from him was Nicodemus.
In a way, his story kind of echoes the story of Abraham in our first and second readings. Paul emphasizes that Abraham wasn’t justified in God’s eyes because of any works he did – and in the same vein, it wasn’t because he had any kind of profound theological wisdom or understanding either. We know nothing of Abram’s relationship with God until this passage we read today, when God abruptly shows up to tell Abram, “Hey, I’m going to make you a big deal. I’m going to make you the ancestor of a great nation and bless the whole world through you, k?” And Abram’s like, “Alright, cool.” Then God tells him, “Hey, go over here,” and Abram goes. In doing all this, Abraham shows us his heart. “Abraham believed God,” as Paul writes; he trusted in God. And God liked that – God “credited to him as righteousness.”
With Nicodemus, it may not be clear what he actually learned from his conversation with Jesus, if anything. But he did show up. And by showing up, he opened his heart as well as his mind to being changed by Jesus. And we see that something about this encounter with Jesus stayed with him; something about it took root in his heart and began to grow. Because this actually isn’t the last time we see Nicodemus in John’s gospel.
Later on, in chapter 7, the other Pharisees get their togas in a twist because they hear people starting to say that Jesus might be the Messiah – so they send for the temple police to go and arrest him. But Nicodemus stands up to his colleagues and defends Jesus, and tells them that he at least deserves a fair hearing before they judge him. And much later on, in chapter 19, Nicodemus shows up again, and in the most unlikely place. After Jesus has been arrested and executed, Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks permission to take Jesus’ body and give it a proper burial – and Nicodemus goes with him. Nicodemus not only shows up to perform such an intimate act of care as helping prepare Jesus’ body for burial; he shows up with 100 pounds of spices to make sure that it’s done right.
Nicodemus’ life is transformed by his relationship with Jesus. We’ll never know if he fully understood any more about Jesus’ teachings than he did on that night he came to talk to Jesus. But I think that his story – and, indeed, the story of Abraham and Sarah – teaches us a central lesson about the life of faith: what matters most isn’t that we are able to wrap our heads around the ways and teachings of God. What matters is that we are willing to wrap our hearts around them.
At the end of the day, what God wants most is to be in relationship with us. And relationship isn’t about intellectually understanding or agreeing with a set of ideas or teachings. Relationship is about a willingness to trust, to show up. Relationship is something that we come to with our hearts, and not just with our heads.
It’s interesting – and a little ironic – that this gospel story contains probably the single most well-known verse in the entire bible: John 3:16. “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.” It’s a verse about the astonishing grace of God in Christ. But it’s a little ironic to read it here – because over the years, the popular understanding of this verse has really shifted to focus on that phrase “everyone who believes.” It gets treated as kind of a litmus test for salvation: only those who understand and accept Jesus and his teachings will be saved! So you’d better figure out that “born from above” business right quick!
But if you keep reading, the very next verse – verse 17 – completely contradicts this interpretation. John 3:17 reads: “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.” Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world or anyone in it – and especially not because they couldn’t wrap their heads around a theology lesson. Jesus came to save the world, out of love. We have salvation and eternal life, not because we believe the right things or believe them perfectly, but because Christ loves us perfectly.
There is a persistent human temptation to want to know and quantify and be able to explain God. We Lutherans especially have kind of a reputation for being “theologians from the neck up” – we want to know what the “right” thing is to believe. And there is nothing at all wrong with wanting to engage in faith through learning and study and curiosity and reason – far from it!
But the story of Nicodemus reminds us that the core of faith isn’t what you wrap your head around – it’s what you choose to wrap your heart around. God wants to be more in our lives than an abstract idea. Like anyone who loves us, God wants to be in our hearts. We are held firmly and forever in the heart of God. And at the end of the day, we don’t really need to fully understand it to know that we are so loved.