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J03-01g

John 3:1-18

February 28, 2002

Wesley, Doncaster East

© John M. Connan

Meet Jesus and you'll never be the same again. Jesus will work a revolution within you - a revolution which began 2,000 years ago and is still at work today.

That's what happened with Nicodemus, the man who came to Jesus by night. The meeting looks inconclusive. After it was over Nicodemus was still respectful, but puzzled and uncertain.

But there's more to the Nicodemus story: he defends Jesus in the Council of the Jews: “According to our law we cannot condemn a man before hearing him and finding out what he has done.”[1] The quiet revolution was under way.

Finally we hear of Nicodemus after the crucifixion.[2] With Joseph of Arimathea, he went with 35 kilo of spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. The quiet revolution seems complete!

He'd come secretly. It wasn’t safe for one so high in the Council to come openly. Jesus was a challenge to the establishment. It was dangerous to be seen in his company. Nicodemus came in the dark by night.

John's Gospel is full of symbolism, double meanings, hidden meanings. Nicodemus came in the darkness of this world to Jesus, the Light of the World. If we’d read on beyond verse 18 in John chapter 3, we’d have found this: “Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and delusion, hates the light, wanting to sin in the darkness, not wanting to come near the light, fearing exposure.”[3]

Nicodemus came respectfully and politely.

“We know you’re a teacher from God.” Unwittingly, it seems, he says more than he meant to. Maybe all he meant was that Jesus was sent from God. What John and the early Church knew was that Jesus was indeed from God, the Word of God[4], the one from heaven[5], the one who came down from heaven[6], the one sent by him who is true[7].

All he planned was a pleasant conversation, based on the certainties of what he knew. Maybe, in part, he wanted to satisfy his curiosity, to learn more about this man and why so many followed him. Perhaps he saw himself as an earnest and sincere enquirer after the truth. Jesus was an impressive new teacher. The conversation held promise of unusual interest.

But Jesus wouldn't have it that way. He cut through all the certainties of Nicodemus’ knowing, his dependence on the miraculous signs.

Jesus’ response could only have unsettled Nicodemus. It doesn’t even respond to what Nicodemus had just said.

The gulf between Jesus and Nicodemus was as wide as between heaven and earth. Jesus spoke from the new age of the Spirit, from within the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus, for all his earnestness and goodness, belonged to the old age. He still lived within the world of the flesh, as Jesus expressed it, and couldn't see beyond that world to the dawning world of the Spirit.

So Jesus used shock treatment. He cut through Nicodemus' protective politeness. Nicodemus, whether he knew it or not, was using his religion to keep God at bay, to put off God's ultimate and total claim on him.

He had all the insights of the old religion, and all its limitations. He was earthbound. Something more was needed, something new – an unsettling, quiet but definite revolution of the spirit.

Nicodemus was a leader of the Pharisees, a member of the Council of the Jews. The New Testament gives us the idea that all Pharisees were self-righteous, boastful, hypocritical, little men. In fact, they were the progressive force in Judaism, the back-bone of synagogue worship, the guardians of the moral and religious life of the community. They were students of scripture and taught others. Without them Judaism might not have survived. Because of them many atheists and heathens beyond Palestine came to believe in God and became converts.

Nicodemus was one of the best of them.

Yet to just such a man Jesus said, "Your religion and goodness are not enough." To leave behind the old world and enter the new; to leave behind the world of the flesh and enter the world of the spirit; to enter the Kingdom of God, he had to do the impossible: ‘die’ to the old style of life and be born in the Spirit. “The only way," Jesus said, "to become a child of God is to ‘die’ to the world, as it is, and be born in the world of the Spirit, as it should be."

Just as before there was symbolism in Nicodemus coming from the darkness into the light, double meaning in acknowledging that Jesus was from God, so now there’s double meaning in what Jesus says. “No-one can see the kingdom of God without being born anōthen. Anōthen is Greek and can mean either again or from above.

Nicodemus only understands physical rebirth, a re-entry into the waters of the womb and a re-gasping for breath at birth. He’s not perceptive enough to understand that Jesus is talking about a birth of a different sort, a spiritual rebirth. Jesus instead talks of a rebirth through the waters of baptism and the incoming of the spirit into lives made new.

John intended us to see more than this meeting between Nicodemus, the Pharisee, coming from the darkness and Jesus, the Messiah, the light of the world. John wanted us to see Nicodemus as the representative of all unperceptive religious and moral goodness. He wanted us to see in this incident all those who trust in their religiousness and goodness and to set them face to face with Jesus. He wanted us to be as puzzled and unsettled as Nicodemus was, and to set our feet on the same path that took him to the cross and maybe the empty tomb.

And because we’re unsettled and puzzled, John wanted us to ask ourselves what more could Jesus and the early Church ask of anyone than we see in the noble character of Nicodemus, when he comes to Jesus by night?

After all, he was a firm believer in God, a student of the Bible, regular at public worship; a teacher of religion; a responsible member of the Council (member of Presbytery, Synod, Standing Committee.)

Moreover he was humble and eager to learn from Jesus.

What more could be expected of anyone?

But Jesus insisted that these things belong to the old age, the world of the flesh. The Kingdom of God, the world of the Spirit, is so different that to enter the new age a man must do the impossible and be born from above, born again.

John intended us to see ourselves there with Nicodemus, good-living Christian people, respectable and polite, confronted by Jesus' insistence that everything that we’ve relied on to protect us from God is worthless, everything we've assumed to be good and true and right about ourselves isn't enough!

John wanted us to hear Jesus calling us to rebirth in the Spirit; from the world as it is to the world of the Spirit as it could be; to a revolution in the Spirit. Only by such a complete turn-around can we hope to stand in the Kingdom of God as children of God.

What did Jesus really expect of Nicodemus? What does he expect of us? What does he mean when he demands we be reborn from above and become children of God?

"Born of the Spirit": a mystical experience? a warmed heart? an outburst of emotionalism? Yes, It can be a new Pentecost, a new Wesleyan heart-warming. But it's more than that, much more important and much more demanding.

Being born of the Spirit is waking up to ourselves and realising how self-centred, how little God-centred we've been. It's the realisation that we've been using religiosity, our goodness, our prayers, our little acts of love, our loyalty, even our membership of the Church to protect ourselves. We've tried to earn God's favour. We’ve tried to take out an eternal life-insurance policy to get right with God. Being born of the Spirit is waking up to the fact that none of that matters one wit. “Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.[8]”

God laid claim on us and our lives before we were born. We can’t keep on living by the desires and interests of our ordinary self. Thinking that “morality” or “decent behaviour” or the “good of society” won’t enter into conflict with this self is sheer stupidity. And in the conflict between self and “being good” either we give up trying to be good, or we become very unhappy.  Our only response in the end the “death” of our self and the “birth” of Christ’s will within us – a freely-given, unfailing obedience, openness and responsiveness to Jesus.

 It's more than a joyous waking up to ourselves and giving of ourselves to God - much more than that and much more dangerous than we dare hope.

To be born of the Spirit, as the prophets knew, means to have God's compassion for the poor and oppressed, God's hatred for cruelty and injustice, God's truth that cannot bear lies, God's determination that all shall be free. To be born of the Spirit is to find oneself in conflict with the world of the flesh, the world of the old order, things as they are – and that can be very dangerous and very costly.

So Jesus puts the question to us, as he did to Nicodemus: "Do you want to stay just as you are, riven by a conflict between your ordinary self and all your aspirations to ‘goodness’? Or are you willing to risk leaving all that behind, and becoming part of the new age of the Kingdom of God, allowing the quiet but definite revolution to begin within you?"

Are you game? Are you willing to gamble your old self on Jesus to become part of the new world of the Spirit? Dare you risk giving everything to Jesus, so his own will can become yours? You won’t know the adventurous joy of heaven, without taking the risk.

Dare taking that risk today!

I guarantee you'll be glad you did!


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[1] John 7: 51.

[2] John 19: 38 – 42.

[3] John 3: 20.

[4] John 1:1.

[5] John 3: 31.

[6] John 6: 38.

[7] John 7: 28 – 29.

[8] Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity.

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