Nicodemus was good. Really good. He was the kind of person parents hoped their kids would grow up to be like. He was the person people turned to for advice. He was devout, he prayed every day. He was the very best at what he did.
But there's something else important about Nicodemus, something that made him even more amazing. John tells us that Nicodemus was a leader among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were Jews who understood Judaism as rooted in knowing, interpreting, and arguing about the Torah, the Law. So to be the leader of the Pharisees, you have to be exceptionally smart. You not only have to know the law frontwards and backwards, but you need to be creative enough to know how to apply it to different situations, and on top of that you need to be quick enough to debate with other people. It's a way of life that took countless hours of training and intense study. And if you worked really, really hard, you could be like Nicodemus, too.
And yet, John tells us that one night Nicodemus, the leader of the Pharisees, the person everybody looked up to, went out to find Jesus. It's interesting that John tells us that someone as accomplished as Nicodemus went to find Jesus at all, but what's really fascinating is that
he went at night. Why would Nicodemus do that? Maybe it's because he didn't want anyone to see him. If you're the leader of the Pharisees, you don't want people to know that you're seeking out some upstart rabbi. Or maybe it's because it's always at night, always when the busyness of our days is over, that our quiet fears start to emerge. It's always at night, when we there's no more phone calls to make, no more emails to answer, no more errands to run, it's always at night that our doubt turns into worry.
And so Nicodemus finally finds Jesus and says, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Nicodemus has heard about Jesus changing water into wine, throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, and predicting his resurrection. If you're Nicodemus, if you have people looking to you for religious advice and counsel, you need to figure out what this Jesus is all about. And Nicodemus is a smart guy. He's looked at all the evidence and thinks he knows what's going on here. So Nicodemus tells Jesus that he knows that God is with him.
And Jesus gives Nicodemus this strange response: "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see,
no one can know, the kingdom of God without being born from above." Jesus turns Nicodemus's statement back around on him. Which is odd because the thing Nicodemus said sounded pretty good: "We know that God is with you." But Jesus says you actually can't know, you can't see the kingdom of God unless you're born from above. Now there's some ambiguity in the translation here, which is whether Jesus says born "from above" or born "again." And if you want you can find countless articles and book chapters about which one is correct and what the implications of that might be. But that's not the most important thing. The really surprising thing is that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to get born.
Now, if you're Nicodemus, this poses something of a problem. Because you're really good at knowing things and you're really, really good at seeing things other people don't. Your whole life has been built around doing these things well, being perceptive and inquisitive. And then Jesus tells you actually don't know, you don't see, and that to know or see the kingdom of God you need to be born. The funny thing about telling someone that they need to get born is that being born is something you have zero control over. Being born is something that happens to you.
It's not something you can do by practicing or memorizing. You're there but you're not doing anything.
And it's not just something you don't have control over; it's something that you're not even aware of when it happens. You only become aware of it over time. There's one day a couple of years later when you have your earliest memory. And as far as you're concerned, that's when your life begins. You only become aware that you were born when you're around other people who tell you about what happened. When you're with people who get out those old photo albums and tell you your story and how you were loved before you even knew it. It's actually not a bad way to think about what we do as church. A people that assembles together to remind one another of what happened before we were born. Of how our lives began not when we thought they did, but in the life, death, and new life of Christ. A people who assemble not to tell one another what to do but to remind one another who they are.
And here John reminds us that while Nicodemus might be good at following rules, he is not one for metaphor. "Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" And Jesus
comes back with this long explanation. "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. For the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know, you do not see, where it comes from or where it goes."
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he can't know, can't fully see, how the Spirit moves and how God is at work. Now, Jesus doesn't tell Nicodemus that he can't know anything. We know God has assembled us in this place. We know that God calls us to work for justice and equality for all people. We know God shows up in the sacraments. But Jesus tells Nicodemus that he can't know everything. There's a limit. That there are parts of our life with God and our life together that remain beyond us. That no matter how much time you spend studying or memorizing, you won't be able to figure out. That we never have the Spirit under control. We're just following the Spirit into the future. Out beyond what we know and see right now.
See Nicodemus is exceptional. He's the very best at what he does. But even the best of us still look into the future with fear. Because we know how quickly it can all go away. You have the job you've always dreamed of until one day you get
called into a conference room and they ask you to shut the door. You're with the partner you've always hoped for until one day they're not there when you come home. You've always taken good care of yourself until one day the doctor opens your file and tells you that she's not sure how to tell you this. We know and we see but only in the present tense.
And so some night, when the busyness of the day is over and we're only left with our own thoughts, most of us end up like Nicodemus, worrying about what the future holds for us. And so we slip out the back door, trying to find Jesus and get all this straightened out. But when Nicodemus meets Jesus, Jesus doesn't give him any answers. Jesus doesn't say, "Well actually you don't know, or you don't see, so I'm going to break this down for you so you can." Jesus doesn't give him an answer but he gives him something far better: a promise.
Jesus tells him that "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." That's a promise that lets Nicodemus see the world in a new way. See the world not with fear but with hope. Not a new way of knowing, but a promise of being known. Not a new way of
seeking, but a promise of being sought out. Not a better way of leading, but a new way of being led into the future.
A promise that he did not come to condemn the world but to give it new life. A promise that even the Spirit, which goes where it will, never sits idly or passes us by but comes into our lives. That's the kind of promise that transforms "you must be born again" from a command into an invitation. An invitation to realize that there is more to your life than you experience. There is more to your life than you can know or see. That even though there's pain and frustration in the future, there's new life on the other side.
Despite what anyone tells you to the contrary, Lent is not about a journey to the cross. Lent doesn't end on Good Friday. Jesus tells us that the Spirit goes where it will, but it never ends in death. No, Lent is about going together to the empty tomb. It's about being led by the Spirit through the cross together and still finding life on the other side. Which is exactly why Lent isn't really a season of the church. It's the story of our life together.
Jesus promises that even the parts of God we can't know, even the life we can't see yet, end in
grace. That what we see in Jesus being lifted up on the cross and lifted up from the tomb is really all we need to know, all we need to see. That the Spirit goes where it will, but it always comes to the darkest places. Into the darkness of the tomb and into the dark night of our lives. We hear not the sound of it, but it always takes us towards that promised future together. Always leading us to see the new life we've been given.
Always getting us born.
Joseph Schattauer PaillĂ©