Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Second Sunday in Lent, year A; texts: John 3:1-17; Genesis 12:1-4a
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s a tremendous difference between watching something and thinking about it and actually entering into it and experiencing it. You can’t tell if the water in the lake or pool is lovely and refreshing by looking at it, or even touching a toe. You have to get in and splash around to see for yourself. You can’t tell if a meal is tasty and wonderful just by smelling it, and taking pictures of it. You have to pick up your fork and take a bite, dig in, as we say, and see. This is one of the things parents constantly need to encourage their children to learn: just try it, just see what it’s like. It can’t be explained, only lived.
Nicodemus is taking pictures of food, and dabbing his toe into the water. He’s searching, that’s true. He is looking for God, clearly, and sees something in Jesus that is intriguing. The things Jesus does, he thinks, couldn’t be done by someone who wasn’t somehow connected to God. But Nicodemus also knows that Jesus of Nazareth is treading on dangerous paths. He is saying and doing things that threaten the leadership of the people, threaten Nicodemus and his peers. It’s risky for Nicodemus, in his social and political and religious circles, even to suggest “there might actually be something about this Jesus, this rabbi.”
So he slips out at night, and comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. He’s looking at the food. He’s thinking about the lake. But he’s not ready to commit, at least not in the daylight. Or that’s how Jesus reads it. Because Nicodemus asks an observer’s question, a viewer’s question: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus doesn’t engage him at his level, which he could do by saying, “Who do you mean by ‘we,’ Nicodemus?” Or by answering his question about whether he comes from God. Instead, Jesus invites him deeper. He says Nicodemus can’t see what he wants to see unless he comes in, can’t know what he wants to know unless he is a part of it, is born anew into it. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, can’t be truly known by spectators, but only by those who live in it.
Do we understand this?
Jesus speaks to us: the only way we’re going to know what God is doing in the world is let God bring us into the kingdom, into this new way.
So is the kingdom something we look at or something in which we live and move? Too often we’re Nicodemus, thinking we know where God is working in the world, but not willing or ready to engage. We sit on the outside, talking about God, and not living on the inside experiencing God. Talking about theology, or talking about the Christian life. Talking about doing justice and loving neighbor (or loving an enemy). Talking, as if that’s all we need to do.
But if we’re only considering the message of Jesus, contemplating theology, debating doctrine, we’re never going to know what we want to know, we’re never going to know if this life in Christ is the real thing, is abundant life. We’ll just be sitting on the edge of the pool, just looking at the food.
Is it feasible to love one’s enemies? You can’t know till you start, till we do it. But we’d rather talk about it than actually try it. We’d rather worry about whether it can work or not than actually do it and see if Jesus is right, that this is life.
Is it feasible to live without fear, trusting God’s love? To live every day as if what Jesus says here – that God’s love is for all, that the Son of God came to save not to condemn – to live as if that were true and find ways to face life unafraid, is that possible? You can’t know till you start, till we do it. But we’re more comfortable talking about it than trying to live as if it were true.
Is it feasible to live in such trust of God that we’re not afraid to let go – of possessions, of our need to win, of our need to be in charge, of our control – is it possible to live that way, the way Jesus invites? You can’t know till you start, till we do it. But we tend to find lots of ways to talk about how it doesn’t work in the real world, rather than simply trying it.
Is Jesus the Son of God, risen from the dead, and desiring a relationship with us that gives us life, that changes us? Is he really able to save us in every way that could mean and make a difference in our lives? You can’t really know till you start to trust that he is, till we do it. To stop talking about who he is and start trusting and living in him as he invites.
It’s the difference between Abram and Nicodemus today. Abram is asked by God to uproot his whole life, his family, everything, and go where God was sending him. To trust, and to follow. Without even a specific destination at first. Just “go to the land that I will show you.”
And he does it. He leaves his home and starts to wander, and for the rest of his life he’s pretty much living in tents, on the move.
Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, a son of Abraham, someone who knows that model of faithful trusting. Yet he hesitates. Maybe that’s why Jesus asks him how he, a teacher of Israel, doesn’t know these things.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the story of Israel, the next step in God’s continued plan for the redemption of Israel as the blessing of the whole world. Nicodemus, a teacher, should have seen how this was the plan, Jesus says. Yet he comes in the middle of the night with his questions.
Jesus invites us in today, invites us to open our hearts and minds to the movement of the Spirit. To trust and follow and see what happens, like Abram. He invites us to be born from above, born anew, through water and the Spirit. A new start, that’s what you need, Jesus says, then you’ll see.
Once the Spirit brings us to new life, we begin to see amazing things.
It really is a birth into a new life, with new eyes. Paul tells us that faith itself is a gift of the Spirit, so if we believe at all, there’s our first sign the Spirit is moving in us, making us new. Let me say that again: if you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that means the Holy Spirit is already at work in you.
Now it’s just a matter of looking for the other signs. Like the invisible wind is seen in the swaying branches of the tree, Jesus said. The signs are all around us, and in front of you, in front of me.
So Jesus says, be reborn, and then just listen and look: where do you see the movement of the Spirit? Go there, follow. Be Abram, not Nicodemus.
If we feel that God is leading us as a community to do something, that’s the Spirit leading. The only way we can know it is of God is if we follow and see.
In each of us, the nudge of the Spirit comes every day many times, if only we listen and look: that nudge to love someone and be kind, even though we are used to not liking them; that nudge to reach out to someone even though our tendency is to hold back; that nudge to offer ourselves to be a part of God’s justice in the world, even though there’s part of us that feels too busy, or too afraid. All of this is the work of the Spirit, the blowing in the branches, if only we listen and look.
The really good thing about this new birth of the Spirit is that it’s not something that happens only once; the Spirit constantly works to give us new birth.
We misunderstand Jesus if we read his words today as a statement of a one-time thing. It is true that the Church reads this and understands it to be about baptism, our birth in water and the Spirit. But we Lutherans believe that living into our baptism is a daily renewal, a daily rebirth. Every day we are given a new start in the Spirit, a new beginning. This is very encouraging, especially when we see ourselves falling back into a pattern of holding back.
But if the Spirit is renewing us daily, giving birth to us daily, then we always have this new possibility, this new life. To be forgiven when we fail, when we step back or walk away, and to be strengthened daily to move forward, to get in, to live in the kingdom.
To use the water metaphor: jumping in or sliding in slowly, both are fine so long as you get in. Nicodemus finally gets in himself, if we understand John correctly. At the end of this Gospel we see him openly acting as a disciple, helping bury Jesus’ body.
The point is to know that this is where life is we have to live it, we have to try living as a disciple, living in the kingdom, as often and as well as we can, to get into the water, to eat the food, rather than sitting alongside and watching and talking.
To love, because that’s life in the kingdom, even if it seems hard. And in loving, even in little ways, to discover that loving as Christ loves is something we can learn, and something we can get better at with time, as the Spirit moves in us. And also to find the new life such grace begins, the unending life Jesus promises in John 3:16.
To do justice, to make a difference in this world, because that’s life in the kingdom, even if we think it can’t be much of an impact. And in doing this, even in little ways, to see that we can learn to do this, and get better at it with time, as the Spirit moves in us. And also to find the joy that it does make a difference, it is part of God’s healing of the world, part of that unending life.
To trust God and not fear, because that’s life in the kingdom, even if it seems hard. And so to discover how trusting God is something we can learn, and something that we get better at with time, as the Spirit moves in us. And also to find the joy of life without fear such trust begins, the true unending life with God.
We’re not going to find God’s unending life if we only talk about it.
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Let’s take him at his word, and jump into this new life, trusting that the Spirit will show us the way. It’s a daily new birth so that means we can even just take baby steps into the new life, until we grow and mature. We can start out simply, trusting that we’ll learn what we need as we go, because that’s the way God will help us grow.
It’s a new birth we have before us, every day. It’s time to let that be our reality and joy. And then we’ll really see.
In the name of Jesus. Amen