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“Conversation with Nicodemus” on John 3:1-17 - by Michelle Ellis - Feb. 25, 2024

We’re journeying through the season of Lent right now which is a time when followers of Jesus prepare to remember Jesus death and celebrate his resurrection. As part of our preparation, we’re going to be exploring two stories of encounters that Jesus had with very different people. He describes to them pieces of who he is and what he’s about.

This week, we’re looking at Jesus’ conversation with a religious insider, a man who grew up in the Jewish tradition and had become a respected teacher and leader. Next week, we’ll look at Jesus encounter with someone almost the opposite of Nicodemus, a woman who was a religious outsider, on the margins, and likely disrespected in her community.

I’d like to notice together a few things about this encounter that Jesus had with Nicodemus in John 3. First, I’d like to notice that though Jesus and the religious leaders of the time often seem pitted against each other, there is genuine curiosity and respect on Nicodemus’ part towards Jesus. And though Jesus has often quite harsh words for Pharisees and religious leaders, I wonder if his heart for them is wanting them to come to him, to encounter their own hypocrisy through his words, to lay down their structures of power and protection, and to just come to him.

I want to notice together that Jesus makes time for those of us who grew up in the religious world, those who are incredibly comfortable in it, those who have maybe become hardened by it, blinded by it or confused by it. He challenges them and invites them to himself, while at the same time relentlessly pursuing and making space for those on the opposite end, those for whom religion seems like a foreign country, for those who don’t fit, for those who are perceived as sinners and outcasts.

The first part of what Jesus says to Nicodemus seems particularly directed to a person who is a big-time religious insider, who has been born into the Jewish faith, who thinks he can count on his good standing before God because of his upbringing, his education, his self-discipline, and the faithfulness of his parents and grandparents all the way back to Abraham. For a Jew at this time, it was thought that being born from the line of Abraham is basically a guarantee that you are ‘in’ with God. But Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” It’s as though he’s saying your birth from Abraham’s line doesn’t really mean anything, even though this is the very thing that so much of Nicodemus’ identity and security would have been built on.

Jesus is pointing to the uncontrollable nature of the gift of faith, the gift of the indwelling of the Spirit that cannot be taught or bought or acquired in any way. It can only be received. When I was pregnant with our little ones, the biggest takeaway for me was how little a role I played and how little control I had in bringing forth life. I wasn’t working to craft the bodies of my children, I wasn’t weaving their hair, building their bones, crafting their lungs. And neither were they. All this was being done in the secret places. It was only to be received. I was just as powerless to give these little people life, breath, form as they were. We were once all small, helpless recipients of this miraculous gift of life.

Jesus is saying the life of the Spirit is given like that. It is a pure gift. It can’t be achieved, or made or acquired. It can only be received. Like the wind can’t be controlled, no one can control the Spirit. But we can tell where it is, we know it is moving, just like the unmistakable movement of a baby in your tummy, or of a child bursting into the room, or the strength of the wind taking your breath away, it’s there.

For someone like Nicodemus for whom his faith seemed like something he inherited, something he acquired, something that he crafted, curated, made or achieved. But Jesus says no. “All this is nothing. You must be born again and receive the life that comes from water and the Spirit that you cannot create or control. You must take on the very vulnerable posture of dependence and receiving. You must be born again.”

This conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus is actually pretty disorienting. Because many of us have heard it so often, we’re not as in touch with how weird what Jesus is saying sounds. As strange as Jesus words are, he does give Nicodemus some clues and helps him, to understand the things he is saying. To help us hear Jesus words maybe as Nicodemus would have, it would be helpful to notice together one of the Old Testament stories that we hear echoes of in this conversation. Because Nicodemus would have known his Old Testament inside and out, he would have noticed right away in Jesus’ words echoes of this story.

The old Testament echo is from the book of Numbers, chapter 21:6-9. The story is about the Israelites, while they were wandering in the desert, who got to complaining bitterly. They complained so bitterly that God sent poisonous snakes among them, almost as a living image of the poisonous and destructive nature of their complaining. When the Israelites cried out to God to save them from the bites of these snakes that could kill them, God instructed Moses to raise a bronze snake on a pole and that all who wanted to be healed simply needed to look to this bronze snake, this image of what had caused them this pain and they would be healed. This image of a snake raised on a pole is an image that we now have as a symbol of healing, and you can see it often in medical settings. It’s a very strange story and it’s a strange image. What’s odd is that the very thing that caused them pain is what God commands them to look to for their healing. There is an upside down, inside out nature to this story.

It’s just like being born again, which is a posture of receiving the life that one can’t get or make for themselves. In this Old Testament story, too, the Israelites needed just to raise their eyes to this image to receive the healing and the life that they can’t achieve by themselves. Jesus highlights the ‘gift’ nature of the relationship between God and His people. This is not the kind of relationship where I do something for you and then you will do something for me. It’s not transactional. It is all gift. This is the way that God loves.

This story also points to another reality about who Jesus is, what he’s about, and what he will do. Jesus says in John 3:14, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”  And this is the clue that Jesus gives to Nicodemus to seeing and understanding what is coming. Again, because of our familiarity with the image of the cross, we aren’t often struck by the violence of that image. But it is an incredibly violent symbol. Being crucified was the cruellest, most painful and shameful form of execution in the ancient world. And yet, here it is in our church, around our necks, this image of violence and cruelty. You might experience the jarring emotional impact of how wrong and twisted that feels, if you think of the image of a syringe used for lethal injection, a gun, or a guillotine propped at the front of the church, as a sign on a building or as jewellery around someone’s neck. That is the feeling of this image of the cross. The cross itself isn’t a beautiful thing. Just like the snake isn’t a beautiful thing, especially when you are suffering from a poisonous snake bite. It’s what God chose to do through it. It’s how God in His strange and beautiful wisdom takes the very thing that was intended for evil and turns it upside down and inside out so that it becomes the opposite of what it was intended for. Just like the snake becomes an image of healing, the cross, because of what God does through it, becomes an image of hope and life. Jesus breaks the power and intention of evil, emptying it, transforming it.

The story of the snake in the desert being lifted up is a clue Jesus gives to understanding his own crucifixion. When Jesus says, the Son of Man must be lifted up, the Greek word for “being lifted up” in v 14, is a word that has a double meaning in Greek, and it’s carefully chosen. It means physically being lifted up, but also being exalted in glory. In a very backwards, upside down, inside out way, through taking on the sin and brokenness of the entire world on himself, through a violent and unjust death by being lifted up on a cross, Jesus reveals the glory of God, reveals the way of His love, reveals His power over death and darkness, His heart for renewing and redeeming all things. This is the way that God loves. Through self-sacrifice, not skirting around or avoiding darkness, but facing it, going through it, transforming it, transforming the cross, an image that would have conjured up remembrances of the worst of what this world can be into a symbol of beauty and hope. This is the way that God loves.

We often understand John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life” to mean “Because God loved the world so much he gave his son.”  And though it is true that God loved the world so much, that is not a faithful translation here of the word ‘so’. ‘So’ also has a meaning in English of ‘in this way’, like when you say you do it ‘like so’. That’s the meaning that reflects the Greek word in “For God loved the world like so, in this way, that he gave his only Son.” 

Jesus says to Nicodemus, a religious insider who has all the security of being born into the right family and having the right education, being respected by those around him, and yet is still searching, still reaching out for something, to Nicodemus Jesus says this is the way that God loves. His love is pure gift. It is not a transaction. It’s not something you get if you were born into the right family or grew up in the faith, or you have a lot of self-discipline or you try really hard. You can’t control it or acquire it. Just like your physical life was not your choice but a gift given to you, so the life of faith in the Spirit is given. It is given purely as a gift. It is given in joy and it is offered to all. Jesus invites Nicodemus to a posture of being nothing, being vulnerable and simply receiving the life that he cannot in any way achieve. Jesus says to Nicodemus, this is the way that God loves. He gives what is dearest to him for the life of the world, the entire world, all of creation. He takes the pain and brokenness of everyone who believes on himself, he takes on the sin and brokenness of the whole world that cries out for healing and journeys through death as the pathway to transforming death into life, transforming the very thing that was meant for harm, death and destruction to become something lovely, something good, something healing. This is the way that God loves. Amen.


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