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As we journey through Lent, we are going to be looking at the Gospel of John, specifically at people who encountered Jesus. We find the first of these people in John 3.
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus (conqueror of the people) who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
CCI: The good news is God brings us new Life.
Intro: The reality of death – We face it daily, some days death faces us more dramatically than others. On Wednesday, first Anita called and told us that her dear husband Joe had died. Later in the afternoon, Frank called to tell us his friend Eleanor had died, and then when I got home, I learned that our next door neighbor, who had been sick for a long time, had died. Death was very present.
Then yesterday, as I was reading the global headlines from the BBC, I was shocked by to read, “The Bodies of 500 Civilians found in Mass Grave near Mosul.” These civilians were slaughtered by ISIS militant. Right beside that story was the healine: “World facing greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.” Famine in divergent African countries is threatening 20 million people, and the famines are caused by conflict. In Somalia over 140 children died in one region in 48 hours last month. In Nigeria 75,000 children are threatened with starvation. In South Sudan 4.9 million people – or 40% of South Sudan’s population – are “in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance”. And in Yemen, a child dies every 10 minutes of preventable disease. In addition, 19 million people – or two thirds of Yemen’s population – is in need of some sort of humanitarian help following two years of war between Houthi insurgents and the government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition.
Death is very present. At times it feels hopeless. Many of you are grieving even now. And many of us, in our grief have become isolated because we can see no way out.
That is the way the Jews at the time John penned the gospel were feeling as well. Jerusalem had been under siege before it fell to the Romans. The city and the temple had been destroyed. Masada had been captured and the residents had in a show of solidarity all taken their own lives. A death dirge filled the air. Hopelessness, loss and isolation were aging the people before their time.
But John is sounding a new song, a song that offers hope and salvation, a song of birth, a song of life.
This story is about a name Nicodemus his name is significant. The word Nico is the greek word for Victor or conqueror and “demos” is often used of Roman citizens, or the rabble. So his name means Conqueror of the people. N may have been the one who made peace with the Romans, or the one who put the Romans in their place and established a peaceful coexistence between the Priests and the Romans. Whenever we encounter Nicodemus, he is taking a sort of middle position.
John has chosen to place this story immediately after the cleansing of the temple. The other gospels tell us the cleansing of the Temple was the final straw that triggered the plans for Jesus’ execution. John does not include details lightly. The woman at the well has no name, the blind man that Jesus heals in the temple has no name, the paralytic in Bethsaida has no name, the woman caught in adultery has no name and the Roman official at the end of John 4 has no name. But N is named, and his name identifies him as one of the most powerful people in Jerusalem. One who could have easily impacted the course of Jesus’ ministry.
So what do we learn about N?
We see he came at night. Once again this is a detail that John chose to include for a reason. Night is when Jesus was arrested. Night is when Jesus was found in prayer. Night is when Jesus walked on the water and brought them safely to the shore. Night is a time of spiritual activity and conflict. Nicodemus came at night because he was conflicted about Jesus.
We also see that he was a leader among the Pharisees. He declared that they, meaning the Sanhedrin, knew Jesus came from God. This was his way of preparing Jesus for his sales pitch. He was there to invite Jesus to be part of the Jewish leaders’ team. Jesus had just upset the balance between Jew and Roman when he cleansed the temple, perhaps now if N could get Jesus to join with the Pharisees and the ruling council he might be able to restore the all-important balance of power.
But Jesus immediately saw through his offer of power. N said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” And Jesus responded, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Into a world filled with death and isolation, Jesus called Nicodemus and all the rulers, not into positions of power, but into life and intimacy by saying, you must be born again. You must be born from above. Basically, Jesus was telling him and all of the leaders, you have to begin again. You must have the wind of God breathe life into you. The word that is translated “wind” is also translated breath or spirit. And so, we can translate this passage, the wind of God blows wherever it wants and breaths life into whomever it wants.
Jesus is telling N that no matter how important he thinks he is, it is God who gives hope and it is God who brings new life.
And that is what we are longing for today – New Life in the midst of death. God offers that new life through the new birth. When left to our own devices, the continuous appearance of death in our existence, will overwhelm us. But if we open our hearts to the wind of the Spirit, there is life. Just as an open window will enable the wind to refresh our homes, a life open the action of the wind of God will find refreshing, and renewal, hope and relationship.
As John reports Jesus encounter with Nicodemus, he moves from the story to commentary on the story. I believe that commentary begins in verse 13. Jesus closes his conversation with N with the question, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”
And the John invites his readers to understand the heavenly things through a relationship with Jesus. “It is the Son of Man who can explain heavenly things to you.” When we are surrounded by death and fear and suffering and grief, only the One God sent, the Son of Man, or and he is called in vs 16, the only begotten son of God can bring us life – And it life that will not be destroyed by death.
Because of as we see in vs. 17, and I think 17 is the heart of the passage, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
When sin and fear fill our lives, Jesus, the Son which God sent into the world, offers us Life. But we must be willing to surrender, to open the windows of our lives to the wind of the Spirit. This is an act of surrender.
In the novel The Testament, John Grisham paints a portrait of one man’s surrender to God’s will. Nate O’Reilly is a disgraced corporate attorney plagued by alcoholism and drug abuse. After two marriages, four detox programs, and a serious bout with dengue fever, Nate acknowledges his need for God. Grisham describes the transformation:
With both hands, he clenched the back of the pew in front of him. He repeated the list, mumbling softly every weakness and flaw and affliction and evil that plagued him. He confessed them all. In one long glorious acknowledgment of failure, he laid himself bare before God. He held nothing back. He unloaded enough burdens to crush any three men, and when he finally finished Nate had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to God. “Please, help me.”
As quickly as the fever had left his body, he felt the baggage leave his soul. With one gentle brush of the hand, his slate had been wiped clean. He breathed a massive sigh of relief, but his pulse was racing.
Nate O’Reilly had encountered Jesus through a young missionary whose values drew him. He found life in the face of death when he let the Spirit blow into his heart.
If we would know hope in the midst of our grief and if we want to be agents of Life in the face of death, we, too, must permit the Spirit of God to blow into our lives, and to give us a new birth.
We face death daily, but death does not have the final word. Jesus offers us new birth. Have you been born from above? Stop trying to get Jesus on your side and surrender to him today.