Loving God: Bless us as we listen to your word. May we, through your Spirit in us, see and hear your words to us today. Amen.
At first glance, the reading from Genesis and the reading from John don’t appear to have much in common. However, if we take a closer look, we may find they are more similar than they first appear.
In Genesis, we find the first reference to Abram (later known as Abraham) who is living comfortably where he was born in Haran, in north eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. God tells him, “Leave your country, your family and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)
Abram obeyed God “and left with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot and all the possessions and slaves they had collected” (v. 5)
They travelled about 900 kilometers southwest and “When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram went as far as a place called Shechem,” (v. 5-6) just a little north of modern-day Jerusalem.
This was quite a move … and we are given no indication that Abram was daunted by this huge step into the unknown.
In John, we are told: “There was a man named Nicodemus who was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader. One night he went to Jesus and said, ‘Sir, we know that God has sent you to teach us. You couldn’t work these miracles, unless God was with you’.”
Nicodemus is a very important man.
Imagine if the Archbishop of Melbourne came to talk to one of us. We would probably be in awe of him. Notice how Jesus responds.
“I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom!”
It seems that Nicodemus was floored by this! “What do you mean?”
“How can a grown man ever be born a second time?”
Just as Abram had been challenged by God to step into the unknown, Jesus presented a challenge to Nicodemus.
Jesus continues, “… you must be born … by the Spirit. Only God’s Spirit can change you into a child of God. … Only God’s Spirit gives new life.”
With these words, Nicodemus catches a glimpse of a huge chasm for him to cross before he can be born into a different world.
So, he asks again: “How can this be?”
Jesus response is: “How can you be a teacher of Israel and not know these things?”
Nicodemus is an expert in the Jewish law. He’s a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling religious council. He knows how to live as a Pharisee, as a leader of the Jews. He knows Jewish history, Jewish religious practices, and is a respected teacher. He was sure he knew all there was to know about God’s kingdom. He was a Jew … weren’t all Jews already born into God’s kingdom?
Why did Nicodemus come to see Jesus at night? It seems that he, along with other Jewish leaders, had been watching and listening to him. Nicodemus was puzzled by Jesus, but he’s reluctant to come to him openly.
Notice how Nicodemus begins the conversation: “Sir, we know that God has sent you to teach us. You couldn’t work these miracles, unless God was with you.”
Is Nicodemus buttering Jesus up when he says “we know that God has sent you … you couldn’t work these miracles unless God was with you”?
Does he mean “We KNOW”?
Or is he saying, “Has God sent you? How can you work these miracles? What is your secret? Is God with you?”
Jesus doesn’t address any of the implied questions. Instead, he says, “I tell you that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom.”
He tells Nicodemus in no uncertain terms that, despite all his knowledge, that being born of the flesh as a Jew is not enough. He needs to be born of the Spirit if he is to SEE God’s kingdom. In other words, he tells Nicodemus, “You’re totally in the dark, Nicodemus”!
All of a sudden this spiritual and religious leader of the Jews finds himself listening to a man who is speaking of things that Nicodemus doesn’t understand. It’s as if he has wandered off into a strange, dark land, and he can’t see the way ahead.
Jesus ends by saying, “The light has come into the world … People who do evil hate the light, and won’t come to the light, because it clearly shows what they have done.
“But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what they do.”
We are not told anything more about this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. But he obviously went away to do some serious thinking about what Jesus said.
Jesus words, “How can you be a teacher of Israel and not know these things?” would have stung. When we think we know all there is to know about something, we find it very difficult to accept new information.
Nicodemus had begun the conversation with Jesus with the words, “We know …”, so it had to be very hard for him when Jesus turned his words around and asked him, “How come, teacher, that you don’t KNOW … ?”
Sometimes what we know gets in the way of what we need to learn. Setting aside what we know so that we can consider new information gets harder as we get older, especially if that new information requires that we change.
Little children are excited to learn something new. And Jesus tells us that in order to welcome the kingdom of God we need to become as little children. It was the kingdom of God that Jesus was speaking about with Nicodemus.
Years ago, when I lived in the hills west of Perth, I was sitting in a terraced garden with a trellis just behind me. A huge spider web sat quivering in the sun, in the middle of which sat an enormous spider. Suddenly, at the outer edge of the web, a bee laden with pollen became entangled. I watched as the spider picked her way across the web towards the bee, who had gone completely still. Then I noticed that, in swift strokes, the bee was rapidly removing the pollen from her body with her legs. Just as the spider reached her, the bee jettisoned the last load of pollen, rapidly buzzed her wings, dropped down out of the web, and flew away. Letting go of her morning’s work made her light enough to drop out of her entanglements and save her life.
Perhaps, like the bee, there are times when we need to let go of everything we have so painstakingly gathered and consider something completely new.
Both Abram and Nicodemus faced this choice. They had to begin their lives again. It’s not an easy thing to do. We get to be so comfortable with the way things are that we are afraid of change.
When we are “born from above” we need a change of heart. We have to let the Holy Spirit bring the light of Christ into our hearts and into our lives. And as we continue to live as children of the light, rather than of the darkness, we have to keep letting the Holy Spirit in, so that it is Christ’s light that shines out of us.
As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light, because they want others to know that God is really the one doing what we do.”
Something quite profound and life-changing happened to Nicodemus after his conversation with Jesus. He apparently took to heart what Jesus said, and allowed the light of Christ to change him from the inside out. We see evidence of this change in John chapter 7. Nicodemus was the voice on the Jewish council who spoke out in defence of Jesus before he was arrested, saying, “Our law doesn’t let us condemn people before we hear what they have to say.” (John 7:50) And after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus publically joins Joseph of Arimathea to prepare the body of Jesus for burial, bringing enough embalming spices (about 30 kilos), as one commentator says, for a “royal burial.”
So, we see in these readings, two people who heard God’s voice calling them to change, and who obeyed.
John’s gospel is different to the other three. It is the only one that tells us the story of Nicodemus. And in chapter 20 John tells us that he “writes these things so that you will put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God; and if you have faith in him, you will have true life.” (v. 31)
May we be willing to do the same when we realize that, in order to obey God, we have to let go and move forward into the light.