1-2 There was a man of the Pharisee sect, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.”
3 Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.”
4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”
5-6 Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the ‘wind-hovering-over-the-water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
7-8 “So don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—out of this world, so to speak. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by the wind of God, the Spirit of God.”
9 Nicodemus asked, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?”
10-12 Jesus said, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics? Listen carefully. I’m speaking sober truth to you. I speak only of what I know by experience; I give witness only to what I have seen with my own eyes. There is nothing secondhand here, no hearsay. Yet instead of facing the evidence and accepting it, you procrastinate with questions. If I tell you things that are plain as the hand before your face and you don’t believe me, what use is there in telling you of things you can’t see, the things of God?
13-15 “No one has ever gone up into the presence of God except the One who came down from that Presence, the Son of Man. In the same way that Moses lifted the serpent in the desert so people could have something to see and then believe, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—and everyone who looks up to him, trusting and expectant, will gain a real life, eternal life.
16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.
I believe rereading the text through the lens of the Message translation allows to more fully grasp the miscommunication taking place between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a supposedly well-educated Jewish leader and teacher, does not understand the answers Jesus is giving in response to his questions. I think that I can somewhat sympathize with Nicodemus’ confusion when Jesus is talking about being born from above formed by the wind, the spirit, because those are some pretty strange notions. So, what was Jesus actually talking about?
A little more than a week ago, I began a new term with new classes. One of my classes this term is foundations of biblical preaching, finally my first preaching class, yay! But anyway, one of my professors for that class just so happens to be a Johannine scholar. So, in the midst of her sharing her lessons on preaching, she also shared insight into the gospel of John. Two tidbits of insight into John are key to understanding the conversation taking place in these few verses between Nicodemus and Jesus.
The first tidbit that will be important, is that when the book of John refers to sin, the author is not meaning an immoral act that one commits or even a disbelief, lack of belief however you wish to phrase it. When John talks about sin, it is referring to a broken relationship, not right relationship or lack thereof a relationship with God, the Son of Man and the Holy Spirit. To be without sin means that we are in right relationship with God our creator.
The second tidbit of insight is that John is not concerned with baptism in the ways we typically think of Baptism. When John refers to baptism by water and spirit, he again is referring to our relationship with God, Jesus and the Spirit. When we enter into baptism, we invite the Holy Spirit into ourselves to be changed and transformed through a relationship with God and his powerful Spirit living in us.
With these insights about the book of John in mind, we can read this well-known passage in chapter 3 in a new and different light which helps clear up some of the confusion surrounding the conversation Jesus and Nicodemus are partaking in. Nicodemus seemed confused or possibly taken aback by Jesus’ response to be born or born again from above. Nicodemus may have been kind of appalled by Jesus’ suggestion of rebirth or new life 1) because he was thinking much more literally and not enough figuratively, and the literal translation of what Jesus said is just absurd. 2) because starting a new or facing the new or being asked to change is scary all on its on. As humans we are reluctant and often altogether reject change and the new because it is unfamiliar and risky.
But Jesus then says, look here Nicodemus. You know what I mean, I am talking about yours and all peoples’ relationship with my heavenly father. I am sure that you along with everyone else around has seen the ways in which God has been revealed in the things that I do and say, so you know Him. He loves you and he wants to be in relationship with you. He sent me, his only son, into this world full of mess and corruption so that you all may see Him and his great love and know that he wants to be in a right, loving relationship with you for your own salvation and life.
Jesus is not only having this conversation with Nicodemus, he is also speaking to all of us. God knows our world. He knows the kind of death and suffering, the kind of hatred and violence, the kind of oppression and corruption and all other ways evil manifests its ugly self here on earth among us, but he enters in anyway. God had revealed himself to Abraham and Sarah, to the Israelites wandering in the desert, to the Jews and Gentiles through his one and only son, and God continues to reveal himself in all of the light that still shines through all of us in the midst of the darkness of our world and time. God loves us so much that he is actively seeking a relationship with us all. We must reach back to God in return and invite the Spirit into ourselves allowing God to transform us into a new being, a new life in him where we are in right relationship with our God. As you go about your week, I invite you to consider the ways in which you have already, will continue or for the first time invite the transforming Spirit into your life to make you new and renew your relationship with God.
Please pray with me:
Dear heavenly creator, thank you for the blessing of such a beautiful Sunday morning. Thank you for the opportunity and privilege to come together as one community worshiping and experiencing you. Today in scripture, we have been reminded of your great and powerful love for us. We invite your spirit into our hearts so that we may leave this worship space today and be witnesses of the love you have shown us not only through your Son but time and again, day after day in many different ways. Lead us, guide us and always love us. We love you. Amen.