Lent 2, (Year A), March 16, 2014
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-15, 13-17, John 3:1-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In some ways, Nicodemus is a very 21st Century guy. We in the 21st Century tend to take things literally—being literal, fact-based, provable with objective scientific accuracy, is a big thing for us. Have you noticed how often people say “literally”? Any time you want to say something is absolutely true, you say “literally.” Even when something isn’t literally true, we try and claim that it is. We look for rational answers. We want everything cut and dried and easily explainable. All laid out in black and white.
That’s kind of how Nicodemus thinks, too. He knows Jesus comes from God because of the miracles that Jesus does. And he wants to know more. He wants to learn about God. He wants to know more. All very admirable! Except, if you notice, he goes away with less certainty than he came with. He wants to figure things out, and Jesus doesn’t exactly help him out.
The first thing Jesus says to him is “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus time to ask his question; Jesus wades right in. Now, Nicodemus is a very logical fellow. He takes people at their word. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically or spiritually or anything; he takes Jesus literally. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” I ask you. Was Jesus speaking literally? No, he was not. Does Nicodemus even seem to consider that Jesus might not mean literally re-entering one’s mother’s womb and being squeezed out a second time? No. Nicodemus thinks in nice, neat categories: babies are babies and adults are adults and once you’re born, that’s it. He’s come to seek God, but he wants answers that he can easily understand. Answers that make sense. Answers that fit Nicodemus’ own ideas of the way the world works.
Jesus tries to expand on what he meant a little bit. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” He’s still speaking metaphorically, which isn’t much help to poor old Nicodemus. Jesus doesn’t give up on the metaphors and start giving a polished spiel that neatly explains what he’s talking about. He doesn’t give a step-by-step answer with bullet points and examples and detailed explanation. He continues to speak in symbols, which is something Jesus did a lot of. Jesus almost never spoke on a literal level; he spoke in parables and stories and imagery and metaphor. I think it’s because the reality of God is too big for our mortal, finite brains to handle. I think that the Kingdom of God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine. How would you explain the color purple to someone born blind? How would you explain a symphony to someone born deaf? Human beings like things to be neat and tidy and easily understandable. But God isn’t neat and tidy, and God certainly isn’t small enough to fit into our mental boxes.
So there’s poor Nicodemus, listening to Jesus talk about being born again and wondering what the heck he means. What does it mean to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’? Well, one thing about the Word of God is that it’s all connected. What that means is that all the stories resonate with one another. So when we hear Jesus talking about water, we should start thinking of all the places where the Bible talks about water: the Holy Spirit moving over the waters of creation. Noah and his family being saved through the waters of the Flood. The Israelites being led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and later being given water in the desert, and finally being led through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Psalm 51, where the psalmist prays for God to wash him and make him clean. Isaiah, calling everyone to come to the water. John in the Jordan, calling all to repent. Jesus, coming to the Jordan to be baptized. All of these images and words should be going through our minds when we hear Jesus talking about ‘being born of water and Spirit.’ And the connections don’t stop there: think of our baptisms, where God’s promises come to us through the water, and we are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
All of those stories talk about change, about something new, something different. The old is gone, wiped away. Slavery becomes freedom, becomes a new life in a new community. Sin is washed away and we become clean. We are tied through the waters of baptism to all of those stories; we are tied to Jesus Christ through his baptism. Something happens in us. Something new. Something that doesn’t fit into nice, neat categories. When we come out of our mothers’ wombs, we are born children of a fallen humanity. When we come out of the water, we are re-born children of God. We are re-born as children of a God who loves us so much that he was willing to send his only son to die for our sake, to break the powers of sin and death that enslave the entire world.
In the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to us and inspires us and sends us out into the world. And the Holy Spirit absolutely, positively, can’t be shoved into our nice neat categories. It’s like the wind. We all know about wind, right? It can be powerful. It can change directions quickly, or it can blow strongly and consistently. Nothing can control it; nothing can stop it. “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.” The spirit blows us about, turns us around. Whenever I think I have everything figured out, whenever I think I have God’s plans for me pinned down and explained, the Holy Spirit blows through my life. And I think that’s true for a lot of people. Have you ever had the Holy Spirit blow through your life and turn things upside down?
How do you boil all this down to nice, neat, logical, literal categories? Nicodemus couldn’t, and—at least at that point—he couldn’t take that leap of faith to let go of his literal-mindedness and live in the ambiguity of God’s Word. He leaves, without saying another word. He came under cover of darkness, not really knowing what he was looking for, and he leaves Jesus more confused than he was when he showed up. But this isn’t the only time Nicodemus appears in the Gospel of John, and for those of you reading through the New Testament this Lent I encourage you to look for him when he shows up. Because this encounter with Jesus will not be Nicodemus’ last. At this point in the story, Nicodemus can’t open his heart and his mind to Jesus. But that will change. Nicodemus might not understand the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still working in him.
So what about us? Today, in the twenty-first century, we tend to take things more literally than they did in Jesus’ day. Like Nicodemus, we tend to want to put things in nice neat categories, and we want easy, logical answers to our questions. But God defies our expectations, giving us a Word that is messier and more complicated and bigger than we can understand. We’re not left alone to muddle through it, though. We have been born anew in the waters of baptism. We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; it blows through us and through our world just as it did in Jesus’ day. The Holy Spirit breathes new life into us, breaks up our mistaken certainties, opens us up to the greatness of God’s work in the world. But are we paying attention? Are we watching for the wind that blows where it will, or do we focus on the things we can understand and pin down? Are we going to go away like Nicodemus, with more questions than answers, or are we going to follow God’s Word?